Friday, December 30, 2011

So, hey:

I'm getting married today.

My thanks to those who offered their congratulations (thank you Fr. Thomas and Chris!)

I love you, Laura, my bride. I will serve you and protect you the rest of my days.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Response to a liberal Catholic

In the comments of

 Tim MacGeorge writes,
With all due respect, I think that your posts, to varying degrees, represent what so many Catholics suffer from, and that is what one seminary professor of mine referred to as a "4th grade education" when it comes to things religious and theological. To take selected scripture passages out of context in order to "prove" a point is an illegitimate use of scripture. Practically every scripture scholar agrees that neither the Hebrew nor Christian scriptures address what we today call "same-sex attraction." Old testament passages often cited against homosexuality use the same word to describe such acts as they do to describe the eating of shellfish and the wearing of clothes of mixed fibers -- yet for some reason the bishops don't condemn wearing cotton-blend clothes with the same ferocity. I wonder why? As to the claim that no Catholic in good conscience can support gay marriage, well this is simply false. There are thousands and thousands of good Catholics - including many theologians and clergy -- with very well-formed consciences, who firmly believe that the "official" position of the current bishops is simply incorrect. Just as the "teaching" of the church as "developed" over time as it relates to other moral issues (e.g. slavery, usury to name but two), so too will this teaching. Best wishes to both of you and I pray that the Lord of Light whose birth we celebrate might continue to enlighten us all on our journey from darkness into the Light of His Love and Truth.
I have an education in things religious and theological that surpasses the 4th grade somewhat, so allow me to (helpfully) point to some rhetorical wrinkles in your post. First, your statement about Scripture appears to ignore the Letter to the Romans, which if it isn't about same sex attraction, must have been written metaphorically. Perhaps you can reveal the true meaning. Moreover, I'm curious about which scripture scholars are so persuaded that the Bible is a great friend of same sex attraction.

Second, I believe there is a intellectual dishonesty in likening Deuteronomy's proscription against sodomy to its dietary laws. You know as well as I do that the Catholic Church's own position on gay sex is founded less on minutiae of Hebrew religious law than it is on sober theological reflection on the human body as a beloved creation. Sexual matters have earned special attention in Catholic teaching through the centuries because they are, after all, at the heart of human origins, and thus also our identity and dignity.

Third, as to what "good Catholics" can or cannot believe, let's be precise in our language, please. Most American Catholics dissent from Catholic teaching in this or that issue. Dissent is materially wrong, sometimes seriously so, but normally it is borne out of misunderstanding rather than malice. I think it's unfortunate that Catholics are not trained better in desiring and seeking a deeper understanding of the truths behind Catholic teaching.

Only God can know hearts, and thus who the "good Catholics" really are. To be a Catholic in good standing with the Church (a more objective descriptor), one ought not publicly teach against Catholic doctrine in any matter of faith and morals, by word or example. Anybody can mark "Catholic" on the census forms, but at no time has the Church given a smile and wink to the idea that the contents of the Catechism are mostly fair-game for dissent. So there are likely many millions of Catholics who are not objectively in good standing with the Church. They may be good people. So might I. God only knows.

Also, no need to use scare quotes for the phrase "'official' position". It really is the official position. And it is not likely to change. This is because impossibility of gay marriage actually has the same ideological root as one of the other positions you mentioned: the prohibition of slavery. Both of these positions are founded on the inviolable dignity of the human individual in body, mind, and spirit. Gay sex and slavery both represent a misappropriation and distortion of the meaning of the human body.

Any development of doctrine (and I agree that doctrine does develop) is going to more powerfully honor that principle--not contradict it. So while liberals are expecting Catholic thought to move inevitably leftward (as you seem to be), those thinking with the Church see it moving, in fits and starts, ever Christward. Leftward and Christward are not opposites but they are emphatically not the same. Liberals are doomed to be disappointed with doctrinal development.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Political thoughts - inequality

Running a country is hard.

Every day I am increasingly convinced that the Republican Party views the bottom 50% of earners in the US as "the problem" rather than as Americans with dreams, stories, and challenges.

The GOP probably feels that the US would be a much nicer place if that 50% simply went away. And they seem to be turning the US economy into a "hunger game", a sieve that dispatches the losers (many, many losers) into a trash heap of invisibility.

But the problem of economic inequality is not an easy one to solve. I wish it was as easy as the Democrats propose. End the Bush tax cuts, get that revenue, reignite essential government services, put more money into the hands of the middle class, and get the country back on track.

And that scenario might work, somewhat, for a little bit. But its benefits would be neither as long-lived nor as powerful as hoped.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is globalization. The second is government pillaging. Each of these represents the excesses of self-seeking both on the right and the left, which have crippled the sustainability of the state.

Money abhors a vacuum, and so a populace as fiscally top-heavy as the United States will never be able to keep its money here. The rationales for big money-makers to make their money in the US and keep it here (or transfer it here) is dwindling, while their opportunities and ease of access to foreign money is only increasing.

See, here's the basic economic/political dilemma of the age: when government is more powerful (the Democrat ideal), corporate abuse can be fought, human rights defended, and the middle and lower classes better served. But as a corollary, businesses flee and take their jobs and tax revenue with them, resulting in increased public debt and unemployment.

When the government is less powerful (the Republican ideal), businesses come back and there may well be more jobs. But they will be lower-paying jobs, with fewer if any benefits, and private debt will soar as people become indentured servants, making never-ending payments on medical and student loans.

So, I am not exactly describing a balanced picture here. But why should I? The Republicans are wrong, even if the Democrats need to work on a more global understanding of the problem.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A terrific video, and the questions it doesn't ask.

There's plenty in this video I can get behind. The super-rich need less influence on the government and higher taxes, so that government services can be restored. 

But he doesn't ask the question, here, of how the gap-growth between the rich and poor got started in the first place. Incidentally, I can't think of any reason why the incomes of the middle class should be proportionate to the growth of the economy at all.

If that were the case; i.e., if "a rising tide lifts all boats" (which it doesn't), average working Americans would be making much more money than they currently do--and notably, terrifically more money than average working-class people around the world.

That's the rub. The economy growth of a single country has no relationship at all to the world labor market. In fact, the more power that globalization wields against wages (which will only increase), the less will the middle class have any means, or even justification, for seeing any benefit from economic growth. As long as incomes keep pace with inflation (it's in corporations' interest to keep their prices within the purchasing means of most people), the market will never share the country's wealth with the middle class.

Oh Newt Gingrich

How dare you advocate being "humane in the enforcement" of immigration law.

Haven't you learned that the Republican party platform is against being humane?

If you want to rise to the top of that party, be hateful, vindictive, provincial, misanthropic and harsh.

Goodbye, Gingrich. Kind words will win you no friends here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The grades of my gradeschool

Grade 1: Video games.

Grade 2: Science fiction novels and video games.

Grade 3: Writing about science fiction novels and video games.

Grade 4: Reading non-fiction philosophy books (and writing in the margins about science fiction and video games).

Grade 5: Reading philosophy (and writing in the margins about philosophy).

Grade 6: Reading anything I need to read, no matter how boring, and enjoying it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Inserting a photo into a blog example.

Stardate september 19th, 2011.

Photo by Richard Elzy

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Delivery guide

Don't mind this post, it's just a means to get some documents to guys at work.

Zoning map

Zip codes by zone

Zip codes by code

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dear Laura,

G.K. Chesterton was happier in love than Martin Heidegger.



Actually, they're NOTHING alike.

Laura and I had a fun conversation last night. We were on the subject of counseling and therapy. I was remarking that I've always enjoyed seeing a therapist/counselor/spiritual director, since I was a kid. What better experience for a self-doubting guy than to have the attention of another human being for a solid hour, whose entire purpose is to be understanding?

Laura asked, well, isn't that one of the perks of having a relationship or a marriage? Aren't we like one-another's counselor?

And for some reason, that I couldn't put my finger on at the time, I had to reject that comparison. "No. NO. Those two relationships are nothing alike."

That statement was impulsive, but the conviction with which I said it was real. I'm taking this chance to examine why I not only said it but stressed it. Something about the comparison between a counselor-client relationship, and a marriage, was repugnant to me. Why was that?

A clue actually came to me on the drive home, while I was listening to an interview on public radio with a psychiatrist. He gave up a comfortable practice in Manchester to serve the devastated victims of mental illness in Libya.

One of the things that he mentioned is that a powerful obstacle to practicing in Libya was maintaining emotional distance while listening to people's heartwrenching stories--the women whose shrapnel-wrecked husband died in her arms, the woman who, together with children, was used as a human shield by the Gaddafi forces.

I believe that a good counselor walks a thin line between, one the one hand, empathy and advocacy, and on the other, losing perspective. Counselors are mediators between a client's intimate experience and unveiling the blind-spots (whether that take the form of advice, treatment, consolation, etc). When a counselor loses perspective, he loses the capacity to be a mediator.

Professional distance is not only for the protection of the counselor but for securing the his ability to perform and succeed in enabling the client to reach psychological/emotional/mental/spiritual/social checkpoints. In fact, it is not so much a "distance" in the sense of being "far away," as much as a "vista"--an elevated view, that serves in the same capacity as a lighthouse in a storm.

That same professional or emotional distance, while not completely absent from a romance or a marriage, takes a radically different shape. In any case there is no expectation for lovers to maintain what anyone would call professional or emotional "distance".

Where the comparison is spot-on is that both a lover and a counselor provide an oasis of intimate understanding in a desert of empathy.

But where a romance is so much more profound is exactly where it is less useful.

When a couple become lovers, they enter the room of intimate mutual understanding; and when they become husband and wife, they close and lock the door behind them, and throw away the key.

They enter the labyrinth without string.

They walk one-another's forest without anything so much as breadcrumbs.

They dream each other's dreams, sans totems or kicks.

No ruby slippers.

The mutual self-gift of married lovers is total. That does not mean that said lovers lose their individuality--I've written on this point before. But they freely relinquish an eject button. They prioritize love over perspective--love, through faith, becomes the only perspective.

From this we might infer that married lovers do indeed serve one-another's need to be understood, but yet they do not substitute one-another's need for that mediator, that lighthouse, that is the occasional visit to a counselor.

Monday, August 01, 2011

I've written a lot.

I have no idea how I am going to collect and organize all of this.

Disclaimer: The above links are absolutely indiscriminate in their content and subject matter. They span ten years of writing and maturing.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Saying goodbye to Phi? Goodbye to natural beauty?

I have a history in this blog of waxing mystical about the golden ratio.

However, there is a fair amount of literature debunking the prevalence of the golden ratio. Very notable is an essay linked on Reddit, Fibonacci Flim-Flam by Donald Simanek. It's enough to make one abandon the idea altogether. (And, it reinforces my primary reason not to get tattoos: in a single lifetime, no concept or image is so enduring that it retains its meaningfulness forever--not even my best attempt).

 This speaks to the danger of having too much mystical admiration for any one thing in nature, whether that be the mysterious origins of living tissue, the Big Bang, or the self-organizing properties of matter. Attach too much meaning to something, and then when it is swept out from underneath you, what do you have left to stand on?

This is part of the pathos of the debate between modern atheism and belief. The atheists correctly tear down the idols, and the believers, whose belief was founded so thoroughly on those idols (their allegedly bulletproof arguments), then lose their faith. Neither the believer nor the atheist had ever considered an appropriately transcendent understanding of God.

Now to be sure, my enthusiasm for nautilus shells was a careful enthusiasm. I was less rapt by the exact numbers than I was by the more abstract loveliness of nature--nature is not an equilibrium of halves, but an asymmetrical dynamo. Equality and balance are not synonyms; they are actually opposed. True balance involves complementarity and difference; equality causes inertia and stagnation. The nautilus expresses some of my earlier conviction in a symbolic form.

But Simanek's article nevertheless creates a vacuum of meaning. Maybe it is all just random after all.

But Simanek himself explains that this is not the case.
The reason f shows up in nature has to do with constraints of geometry upon the way organisms grow in size. Irrational numbers (those that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers) are often revealed in this process. The well-known irrationals are Ö2, f, e, p and any multiples or products of them. To make matters more interesting, these are related. For example, phi is f = (Ö5 - 1)/2. And the Euler relation, eip = -1 relates e, i and p where i = Ö(-1). The natural processes that display irrationals are not governed or caused by f in order to achieve some desired purpose or result, but rather they are constrained by the geometry of the universe and the limitations imposed by that geometry on growth processes.
His point is not that nature is chaotic; quite the contrary, his point is that nature is supremely simple. The processes that develop into beautiful spirals--which follow logarithmic patterns if not Fibonacci patterns--are based on the internally consistent properties of the bodies in question. Their matter is self-organizing, and this process undergoes countless influences with varying degrees of impact, producing different results. From this point of view, natural objects are not "reaching towards" an ideal; their apparent patterns and self-replicating structure can be explained by purely material, immediate causes.

The human mind likes parsimony. We are satisfied when diverse phenomena can be explained by the least number of possible rules. Fibonacci mysticism and mundane scientific observation both offer parsimony, but only the latter offers an explanation for it. True, if all logarithmic spirals had golden proportions, our hearts would be all aflutter. But the diversity of observed ratios is neither disheartening nor a point for atheists. Christianity must be comfortable with the messiness of nature.
The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. (GK Chesterton)
Thus, we should should not be discouraged because nautilus shells, vines,  don't often reflect the golden ratio.

This issue then becomes a platform to begin the conversation about the validity of teleogical thought. Teleology is thinking about nature in terms of its proper "ends", e.g., "This egg is a chicken egg because, left to its own devices, it will become a chicken."

Teleology has been rejected as true knowledge ever since Descartes. For science, things are explained by what immediately precedes them--not what they will become. But this discussion is for another time.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Budget problem solving

I have a confession to make: I'm a spender.

Looking at my spending for the last ten days--since the last time I've budgeted--I have overspent by 60%. That is, I hoped to spend $10/day on average, and I spent $16/day instead.

What is the primary culprit? Food. I eat out a lot, because I can't be arsed to prepare lunch before going to work. I think I'm eating cheaply, because I usually get a couple "chicken snack wraps" and a large iced tea from McD's for less than $5. But blowing half of my discretionary daily budget on lunch isn't actually economical. If I did that every day, I would be over budget because of other necessary expenses that come out of my discretionary pool--kitty litter, actual healthy groceries, and entertainment.

Now, my situation isn't dire--the $10/day allowance plan was meant to allow for extra spending when necessary. But I am determined to reign in that spending with some smart planning. By my reckoning, I have 22 days left in my July plan to recoup the $60 I've lost so far.

Simple division says that, to accomplish this, my daily allowance is now reduced to $7 and a quarter. My discretionary fund is now roughly $50/week. Keep in mind that this does not include gas--that's a separate pool. But it includes food, entertainment, and other expenses.

Here are the steps I'm going to take to stay within the budget:

  1. Think in terms of weeks instead of days. Thinking in days gets me into trouble psychologically, because I get an inflated sense of spending power that makes fast food seem like a good deal, when it's not.
  2. Plan meals. In the short term, I'm not going to change *when* I eat (that's a project I'll need your help with, Laura), but I'll change *what* I eat.
  3. Carry cash, leave the cards at home.
Now, let's talk about food.

I don't eat crappy food because I enjoy it more than healthy food; I eat it because it's easy and it seems cheap at the time that I buy it.

The key to successful change is to make it as easy and as possible. I don't want this to be a major project. I want real progress, and if that means microscopic steps, then so be it.

I found a great place to start: a blog post, Eating Healthy for $3 a Day.

I have no intentions of slavishly obeying this post, but it gives me a place to start and allows me to make substitutions as I wish. If I wind up spending $5 day it will be a success.

Here is what he considers a list of daily staples:

  1. 3 cups cooked brown rice ($0.53)
  2. 2 cups cooked pinto beans ($0.23)
  3. 2 stalks cooked broccoli (360g) ($1.06)
  4. 1 baked sweet potato (180g) ($0.40)
  5. 1 tablespoon olive oil ($0.18)
  6. 1/2 cup sunflower seeds, shelled ($0.22)
  7. 2 cups nonfat milk ($0.37)
Let's forget number crunching and make some basic substitutions and additions:
  • I don't like rice. But I'll eat pasta.
  • I don't like sweet potatoes (sorry Laura) but I love regular baked potatoes.
  • The shelled sunflower seeds is a really interesting possibility that I hadn't considered. Nuts are expensive--they hover around $5 for 8oz, and I don't normally think of them as a cooking ingredient, but for the added protein (or as a snack) I could see sunflower seeds as being pretty amazing. Otherwise I may just go with some unsalted mix nuts or peanuts.
  • I'll take black beans over pinto beans any day.
  • I'm cooking chicken cacciatore tonight, so I will need ingredients for that.
So my plan today is to grab $50 in cash, and try to get a week's worth of groceries (including tonight's dinner) for $30. Wish me luck, I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Desperation and evil

Sometimes, while listening to the news about various horrible events, I reflect on the traditional "seven deadly sins" (the wikipedia article here is fantastic). I am especially keen on the groupings of all of the sins into three: concupiscent (lust, gluttony, greed, envy), irascible (wrath), and "intellectual" (pride, vanity, despair, sloth).

Notice there are nine items here. The modern version combined pride and vanity into one, and despair and sloth into one. I think it's helpful to keep them distinguished. One can be vain without necessarily being narcissistic. Vanity or vainglory carries the connotation of futility, which I might loosely interpret as superficiality. A preoccupation with the meaningless.

Similarly, despair and sloth are related but not the same. Sloth or acedia (pronounced by one of my professors "aksedia") is more like what we would call clinical depression. And it is a mental illness. But calling something a mental illness does not completely empty it of moral significance. If one feels himself slipping into acedia, and he cannot overcome it by sheer force of will, then there is a moral obligation to find help and to persevere.

Despair, however, is less about activity (or the lack of it), but about ideas. Absolute despair is despair of God; but there can also be despair of friends, of love, of one's own prospects.

Anyway, as I listen to the news, I think about the collective sins that are sweeping the world, including my own, and I wonder how the traditional classifications apply.

In the first place, I think of poverty-stricken communities that coalesce into gangs, and here I believe desperation reigns. In terms of sheer numbers, I imagine that most crimes are desperate crimes. Desperation has the ability to turn any decent, good natured person into a criminal; even a murderer. On Paul Kennedy's "Ideas," I learned about Thucydides, who understood this well. Depravity is not a condition of some people, but a latent character of each of us when pushed to our physical and emotional limit. "War takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes."

How does desperation fit into the classical schema of sins? I am not sure that it does. Desperation is not born out of an over-reaching desire for what is not God. Rather, it is born out of an unreflecting impulse to the sudden loss of the entitlements due the human creation of God. It is the self-defensive reaction to violations of human rights and dignity. When food, water, shelter, and companionship are all robbed (whether by human agency or nature), the victim may enter into a mindset determined to reacquire these these things. The desperate mindset will place this re-acquisition at a higher priority than the lessons of civilization of which the comfortable human mind is more capable.

And there you have it: gangs. Collectives of fear within an atmosphere of hostility (cyclically reinforced), for whom the solitary rule increasingly becomes: whatever it takes, whatever works, to protect us and ours. Desperation is at once the greatest threat to civilization and the primordial foundation of it.

But desperation plays a much larger role in human behavior than this. Gangs are perhaps the most basic level of organized desperation. But feelings of desperation can obtain at every level of material wealth and comfort. Perhaps because of this, we can assign a spectrum of culpability to the phenomena of desperation.

The crimes of a truly desperate person might be forgiven on the grounds that, at the limits of human survival, few would act otherwise.

But the crimes of one who merely feels desperate, because of delusions or an exaggerated sense of entitlement, are less excusable. The wealthy who sacrifice thousands of jobs out of fear that their stock might be worth less the next morning. The husband who philanders out of fear that he will never have another chance to feel the thrill of fresh affection.

This exploration reveals that desperation is, in reality, a synonym for the irascible passions--the passions "against" something--in particular, the passions against loss. So desperation is really the opposite side of the coin of wrath, of extreme anger. But whereas wrath is directed at an "enemy", desperation is directed at a "need".

Desperation and anger are of course very close siblings. The whole phenomenon of scapegoating (thank you René Girard) is based on this partnership.

To that extent, aren't all sins, in some respect, desperate? No. The excesses of comfort and security invite a host of evils that have nothing to do with the fear of loss...

[sigh, the necessities of life].

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The child in all of us

One may have noticed that my interest of late has not only been romantic but youthful. As I come closer to age 30 I learn to appreciate how the child in us never really dies. Without undue cult of childhood, I think its safe to say that the truest part of each human being is their childhood self.

This is important. It gets to the heart of successful relationships, good business, and a right relationship with God. When we understand that we are children in adults' clothes, not only will it transform he way we relate to each other, but it could be the salve to relieve "my" pain at life's endless disappointments.

Why is such a simple, basic truth obscured? Well, it's misunderstood. A lot of "inner child" talk is caricatured as patronizing. But patronization assumes that "I" myself don't accept my own status as a tall child. Only someone who imagines himself an adult among children can be patronizing.

But the reality is so elemental. We're helpless when we're born. We're helpless when we die. And in-between, the only difference is ultimately a facade. An important facade, but a facade nevertheless. Culture runs on facade. But culture serves the individual, who is and remains a child.

Friday, April 15, 2011

"I love you so much."

I'm currently reading a book, "A Happy Marriage" by Rafael Yglesias. It's a bitter sweet story, a mostly autobiographical novel about a 30-year marriage, told alternately from the vantage points of its beginning, and its end in Margaret's death.

I'm not quite half way through the book yet, so whatever I say at this point will be modest. However, there is a line in one of the sad chapters that touched me: Margaret tells Enrique, "I love you so much. I love you so much."

What an amazing modification.

In my present early years with Laura, my "I love yous" come abundantly, and each one searches for some way to top the one that came before it, sometimes failing. It's a tough exercise in creativity, actually. I expect the torrent to continue indefinitely for the foreseeable future. At the very least, their scarcity would be conspicuous.

But with the neverending "I love yous" comes a worry that the words threaten to become habitual, and perhaps eventually even hollow. This possibility terrifies me. And so each one is spoken self-consciously. If the words ever escape my mouth unthinkingly, I scramble to find a way to rescue them from banality. If the words are ever a mere echo of the past, they must be filled with novel, present-moment sentiment. That sometimes takes effort, but it is a pleasure, especially when it brings Laura a smile.

Margaret's words, "I love you so much," affected me in three ways.

First, she is topping her husband's preceding "I love yous," not competitively, but appreciatively and complementarily. With her words she acknowledges and reveals her awareness that her husband's "I love yous" are sincere without embellishment, and that she is absorbing them.

Second, Margaret's words reveal to Enrique a fresh sincerity in her love. In the novel, he is insecure, and he has not been adequately attentive to, or trusting of the fact of Margaret's adoration. With the tiny modification, "so", Margaret in her dying dispels decades of insecurity. In its simplicity and innocence, "I love you so much" is a child's verbal squeeze of affection.

Third, the word "so" always indicates something new and fresh. Maybe the word "so" is excused from ever being over-used. It's a constant renewal. "The grass is so green". "The mountains are so beautiful." "The day is so nice." The tiny word does a lot of heavy lifting, carrying so much weight as a banner of immediate, present-moment character.

And so, if I sometimes neglect to adequately embellish my "I love yous", I have, for the time being, a fallback

I love you so much.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fulfilling human desire.

"My heart is restless until it rests in thee." Saith St. Augustine. And I do believe this is true. It belies some of the more austere and stoic expressions of Christian faith--the rigid systems that today's disaffected former Catholics say was their lot as children.

Contrary to all of that, there is a basic understanding that the Christian heart should not be restless. But what does it mean for the heart to rest in God?

For Augustine, it did not mean that the heart must disdain everything besides God. Rather, whatever the heart loves, it must love it in God. God becomes the cipher through which our love of everything in the world is purified and made good.

This doesn't mean that all of that Christian tradition of "contempt of the world" is invalid. To love something in God, it is necessary to be willing to give it away. This is the paradox of our existence. It is fine to love something so much that you would die for it. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13).

But Jesus' teaching presupposes that the love is already rooted in God. That very same act, of dying for what one loves, can be twisted. Think of Gollum pitching headlong into the lava of Mount Doom, clutching his filthy bauble. The difference is that Gollum's love was not rooted in anything. It was a closed love--a closed system. Therefore it became subject to entropy, self-enervating without the ability to replenish itself from any source beyond.

That kind of twisted, closed love can be had for human beings just as much as inanimate objects. Just because we are God's most sublime creation doesn't excuse us from entropy; and latching ourselves to one-another will not save us from the passing away of the world. And so, yes, we love one-another, but we do so "in God", always opening up our personal interconnections to an infinite source.


But the above text is not the reason I sat down to write. I wanted to reflect on an emotion I felt one night, while I was driving down AZ79 with Laura, from Florence AZ to Tucson, during our vacation there last March.

The emotion was a flood of pleasant childhood feelings and memories. Listening to the gurgling of a humidifier when I was sick. Mom on Christmas Eve telling me that a red light in the sky was Rudolph. Sleeping in the recliner in my parents' room when I was afraid of a nightmare.

I can't help but think that the most intense longings we have--the longings that drive our thousands of adult efforts--are shaped by our first experiences of tenderness. It sounds like common sense. Pop psychology. But I wonder if it might not be deeply true. How far can we go with this idea? Is our quest for happiness always a reclaiming of happinesses lost? Is the Biblical hope for the New Creation not also in some respect the individual hope for a personal new Eden?

I confess that a part of my excitement and joy at the prospect of being a family man is that Laura and I will have an opportunity to create the same wonders and joys and heavenly comforts for our children that we ourselves experienced. We get to bring back the long-past mysteries of our first life discoveries, and we get to live them again, only this time, as the parents.

Is it wrong to hope to live vicariously through one's children? Only if that means that one's children are nothing more than a vehicle of one's own self-project. We can't ultimately control our children, who they become, or even what they think of us. We can't impose our immature dreams on our children, as if their purpose is to leave a mark on the world in the way I failed to do.

But I don't think it's wrong to take great pleasure in our children's childhoods--to permit them to stoke the old glowing embers of our own childhoods, to relive old moments of tenderness with the same serenity of my eight-year-old self sleeping by the humidifier.

When we become adults, we never cease to be the children our parents loved--and the children that God loves. Everything we once have been subsists inside of a skilled social professional. But the social professional, the solemn choice-maker, the adult, is after all the expression and the servant of a soul that yearns to be held. The mother holding her baby is, at one and the same time, holding and being held; creating a new experience of love and reliving it.

If the elderly sometimes seem more child-like to us, perhaps this is not so much of a regression as an unveiling of what was always there. With age, and with relief from the pressures of professional life, perhaps the adult is allowed to recede a bit and permit the deeper and more persistent self to show.

"...for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (Matt 19:14). Jesus may not have been speaking loosely. I have heard priests explain that Jesus meant to emphasize a child's openness and faith. That may be true, but I think more can be said. To be child-like is to be vulnerable and passive in a way that we always are before God, but which we hide as adults to protect ourselves from a world broken by sin. Maturity is a defense mechanism--and a good and necessary one. But when the world has finally passed away in full, what need do we have for maturity in Heaven?

I need to make a distinction. The absence of maturity, i.e. adult defenses, professional social graces, etc. is not the same thing as immaturity as we conceive of it negatively. There is a difference between the one who is child-like and childish. To be child-like is to be innocent, naive, unafraid, open, awed, wondering. What we call childishness--brattiness, selfishness, etc.--is in fact the unrefined very beginnings of adult defenses.

An analogy. The child-like person might be like a figure skater. Figure skating is innocent of goals, pucks, and sticks. The childish, immature person is the beginner hockey-player. Consider the scene from "The Mighty Ducks" where the kids start by clumsily whacking the puck around. Michael J Fox illustrates their immaturity by replacing the puck with a raw egg, which predictably breaks. By learning how to play hockey with an egg, learning how to gently coax it instead of annihilating it, the Ducks learn maturity.

For Jesus, maturity is necessary and good. "Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves" (Matt 10:16). But it becomes obsolete in heaven. The saints in heaven are figure skaters. The saints on earth are professional hockey players. But while on earth, we taste heaven when we put the stick, the puck, and the padding away.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Recent lessons learned

The dichotomy between feelings and reason is too simplistic. I've paid lip service to this before but I've found concrete evidence of it. That evidence is in love.

In Catholic culture much is made of the fact that true love is not so much an emotion but a choice. I believe this is true. Emotions, as I am fond of saying, are brain chemistry. My intention isn't to belittle emotions but only to point out that, like everything in nature, they are always changing, and are subject to forces beyond our control.

Now here comes the new lesson I've learned: Love is more than emotion, but it can't be less than emotion.

I do not say that occasional dryness bespeaks love's dissipation. Love is no reed blowing in a wind. Love is constant and trustworthy, in a way that feelings, good though they may be, are not.

But neither does true love exist in any kind of vacuum of feeling. In fact, contrary to my previous way of thinking, love doesn't thrive independently of feelings. Absent of emotion, love can subsist meagerly, for a time--perhaps even indefinitely, dormantly, like an animal in hibernation. But such a hibernation is not typical, nor should it be celebrated. In some pairs of lovers, the emotional aspect never flags.

Love without emotion (or very little of it) is a soul without a body. It is an incomplete being; a ghost seeking closure.

Catholic ambivalence about love is that emotional love is a passion. "Passions" is basically another word for emotions, but the formal term "passions" reveals something about them, namely, that they affect us. We are "passive" to them. By calling them passions, we illustrate that they are not so much something we do as they are something that happens to us.

Catholic theology has much to say about the passions. We regard them with a wary celebration--a little like the Red Ryder BB Gun of A Christmas Story: "You'll shoot your eyes out!" They are both wonderful and dangerous. Every passion can be directed toward good or evil. The "seven deadly sins" are corrupted passions; for each of them, we can point out a corresponding virtue. Anger becomes courage for justice; sloth becomes temperance; envy becomes a desire to match others' virtue.

The sanctioned approach is to ensure that our passions are rooted in God. Which, for the scholastics, meant rooting them in Truth, made most explicit in reason.

It sounds a little Vulcan (BTW, just saw the new Star Trek movie... best part of it is Leonard Nimoy).

But it's different than the Vulcans in two important ways. First, unlike the Vulcans, we don't say that our passions are in conflict with reason and truth--only that emotions are best when they are molded by reason and truth.

And second, our natural passions are meant to be understood as faint shadows of something which is supernatural--the ineffable, wordless, mystical aspect of God. Passions and emotions shame the logic's pretensions to know the whole universe. This simple animal function of our organism, this brain chemistry, breaks open our logical deductions into awe, wonder, and speechless gratitude.

Reason and the passions both image God in their own proper way.

Now here's another piece of the puzzle.

We say that God loves, and that God desires (i.e., he desires us). Now, technically, God can't desire because desire is a form of passion. God can't have passions, since God is not passive. This is just jargon for saying that God isn't affected by anything; he's always the one doing the affecting. Since God isn't affected (by nature, by forces, by sad movies), God doesn't have affections.

But if that's true, how can God love? Even more difficult, how can God desire? Desire is not just a passion, but a whole category of passions: the concupiscible passions. So it seems impossible to say that God desires.

A few points in response:

First, to say that God desires is a little bit of an equivocation. God's desire is not a passive desire; it is not a passion; i.e., it is not an appetite. God is not "hungry". Just as we can observe that human love is sometimes "hungry"--self-centered, consumptive, needy--God's love conspicuously lacks this dimension. God's desire is always a desire to give himself away. "My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work" (John 4:34).*

Second, in spite of this, we can still say that God's love is attended by yearning. God is not passive (to emotions); and yet, in his very being, he is eager to give himself away.

What I'm finding here is a passion which is not a passion. In love, there is an experience which is "passionate," but unlike the other passions, it does not become corrupted by its extremes. True love is the only emotion that does not become destructive when it is experienced in its absolute form. Yet it is truly an emotion. Or at least, it is attended by an emotion. An eagerness; a yearning.

Perhaps, in psychology, we have here something like evidence of the uniqueness of a certain emotional phenomenon.

And in theology, we may have here evidence for the presence of grace.

As for me, I have learned: love's emotion is as holy as love's solemn choice.


* - To be sure, in natural love there is nothing inherently wrong with concupiscence, i.e., being needy. We believe that God himself experienced neediness in Jesus. "I thirst" (John 19:28). Appetites, needs, passions--these are all the curious byproduct of our creation as finite, limited beings. We are a "new" kind of existence, somewhere between the infinite and nothing. Passions are our unique expression.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

On sales.

The skills of the salesman are unabashedly manipulative. In a week's training with The Simple Group in door-to-door office supply sales, I learned that the four most powerful tools in the seller's pocket are greed, urgency, fear of loss, and indifference. Unlocking your customer's anxiety is the key to success.

I am a conscientious objector to the predator-prey model of sales. I stake my job and my good name on my ability to subvert and transform that model and also exceed sales expectations. This is possible because all things are possible, and I am a darn good seller.

Sales are the absolute bread and butter of the department. Our technicians' livings don't come from their talent in disassembling laptops but in customer purchases. While, in the long run, our skill and our reputation is important for sales, we must have short-term action on the sales front. We are a business. This is legitimate and good.

So, in this post, I will outline the fundamental principles that run through all of my interactions with customers and that make me an effective salesman.

1. Truth comes first. This is expressed in two parts: fairness, and the good of the customer. This is a priority that I can proudly hold and make explicit to the customer. The foundation of our business relationship is one of transparency and trust. The customer already knows that we are a business. The customer knows that I expect reciprocal fairness for the fairness I provide. The customer can also know that I owe my organization due compliance in exchange for their empowering me to serve the customer. But most importantly, the customer can know that what I want most is to solve their real problems and do it well.

Demolish pretenses, "techniques", and manipulations right off the bat. This is especially true when the customer brings emotions or unfulfillable demands to the table. But it applies to all cases.

1b. Tranquility. Don't underestimate the importance of emotions to our industry. When customers purchase our services they are not purchasing a repaired computer; they are not even purchasing our labor. They are purchasing assurance and relief from anxiety. Customers will pay more for a service they can get elsewhere when assurance and confidence is projected by a department. Comfort is the real product. Your ability to be a comforting presence at the point of sale and throughout the business relationship is paramount.

1c. Realism. Every transaction must be grounded in realistic expectations and fulfillable terms. Never lose sight of limitations on our time and resources when conversing with the customer. We need not advertise our limitations, but assure the customer that the promises we make are good. Do not write a bad check to the customer.

1d. Clarity. Mutual understanding between the technician and the customer must be double-confirmed. Every incorrect belief is a time bomb.

2. Know, love, and trust your product, your company, and yourself. It's easy to be a seller in Fry's Electronics. Our services are cheap and we're *&^% good at them. We do more for our customers than the competition. We will take care of the customer. And if there's any way this has not been true in the past, we will make it true now. I will make it true. For you.

Genuine, sincere pride is a double-virtue in the service industry. It projects a good image and it purifies the operation internally. So long as they are rooted in truth, realism, and clarity, bold statements reassure the customer and create a motivational investment on the part of the technician. But boldness must be rooted in sincerity.

(I am an advocate of units being assigned to the technician who checks them in, with exceptions made when necessary.)

2b. Everybody can afford and will benefit from our services. Failing to offer services is not a failure to sell; it's a failure to serve. Under no circumstances should we be giving customers back filthy, disgusting computers; slow, unoptimized computers with not enough RAM, computers with lost data, or laptops whose wireless function they're not using, or that they're using dangerously on unsecured, poorly configured networks. Why would we allow customers to spend $1000 on a prefab gaming desktop when we can build a better one for $700?

Offering services is not up-selling. It's not, "Would you like fries with that?"

It's consultation and problem solving.

Companies pay technicians a lot of money for expert consultation. We provide that service to individuals for free. Don't be embarrassed to offer services. Be proud of yourself and your team mates. That's team knowledge. There is no IT problem we can't solve together.

Monday, February 28, 2011

On women's clothing.

This isn't something I've given much thought to. To the extent that it relates to feminism, I suppose it doesn't break the mold of this blog much. But here it is: I want to sort through the complexity of women's apparel.

I've never been very opinionated about whether women should dress modestly or not. Being a man, I've never having seen women arguing about how men out to dress, so I figured I'd return the favor. In seminary, of course, I heard talk about women's apparel routinely--how scandalously some women appear when they go to church, etc. I once received instruction (from a close friend) on how women's jeans are tailored to be deliberately seductive, with seam lines directing attention to the crotch.

I haven't missed the irony, that the men most concerned about how women ought to appear seem to spend an inordinate amount of time staring at, analyzing, memorizing the sundry ways they ought not. The objectification of women is a pathology to which both playboy and puritan are susceptible. Perhaps those two are not opposite ends of a spectrum. Perhaps they are, rather, two expressions of a single characteristic: being hot-blooded, and working out ways to deal with it.

Neither caricatures of the puritan or the playboy seem especially concerned with women's subjectivity. The playboy might pay superficial lip-service to the idea that "women can do what they want," but it's only for show. Throwing women's fashion to the lions of the free market can only have one result: a playboy-friendly skimp-fest. Both stances are male-centric; only the puritan is more transparent about it.

But I don't seek to argue that male perception is, or should be, irrelevant to the question. Neither, I think, would most female shoppers. Rather, male perception is one of many factors women think about. How does this make me feel? What aspect of me does this appearance express? What impression will I make on women? On my coworkers? On my family? How comfortable is it?

The issue of male perception remains a part of the whole, but perhaps it should be a lesser part than it presently is.

So given that, there is one word I want to explore and understand: modesty.

The initial impression I get (and I think I'm not alone) is that the word 'modesty' originates with the puritans and will never really shake a puritanical connotation in common speech.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thou Shalt Chill Out: Gentleness and Catholic faith

A Basic Distinction

"For modern American culture, everything is tolerated but nothing is forgiven, while for Christianity it’s exactly the reverse – many things aren’t tolerated, but everything can be forgiven." --Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago

This pithy teaching stuck in my mind from Francis George's homily given at the ordination of a new bishop in late 2005-early 2006. It's also a point from his book, The Difference God Makes. As a sound byte, it might be criticized for generalizing (especially in regards to his description of American culture).

However, as a description of Catholicism, it is spot on.

Here is a basic distinction that I wish had been taught to me when I was learning about my faith as a teenager. On the one hand, you have what the Church teaches. And on the other hand, you have how the Church loves (i.e., how the Church administers care).

We might call these moral theology and pastoral theology.

Or better: what the Church hopes you will do, and how the Church responds when you (of course) didn't do it.

Now, the distilled results of moral theology are available to anybody with a Catechism. That is not the focus of this post. It's the second half, how the Church loves, which feels a little bit neglected in popular discourse.

Here is the basic problem: it is too easy to associate a strict morality with harshness. This is understandable, but it is a mistake. A strict morality is no more necessarily harsh than a lax morality is gentle or kind. Harshness and gentleness are not products of a certain teaching or moral truth; they're products of one's attitude, one's fundamental worldview, one's anthropology.

If someone is harsh, the defect does not lie in the content of his moral opinions, but in his understanding of the human drama.

Let me illustrate, graphically, the difference between living Catholicism knowing What the Church Teaches without knowing How the Church Loves.

The first level represents a catechumen's first lesson in Catholic morality. It's terrifying.

The second level represents a slightly deeper understanding based on some of the complexities of moral theology. Its highs and lows may vary from person to person, as we all try to speculate about how serious our sins really are, erring on the side of mercy or condemnation, as our personalities are inclined.

This is still lacking any sense of pastoral theology. It is only accurate on the most superficial level--a little bit like the pictures of atoms we saw in our 5th grade science textbooks. If followed rigorously and exclusively, it can become misleading and spiritually dangerous. This is, ultimately, only the dark side of the moon. It is time to start looking at the other side.

Breaking Apart the Charts: Sin and Judgment

The Doctrine of Original Sin: (Of Ourselves) We Can't Not Sin.

One of my most inspirational professors was C. Colt Anderson, Ph.D. He is a specialist of medieval church history, and has written about the theology of St. Bonaventure and St. Gregory the Great. He is now a professor at Washington Theological Union.

Dr. Anderson made a point often in his lectures that some of the gloomier aspects of Catholic theology--Original Sin, the Fall, the corruption of the world and humanity--serve to generate an atmosphere of gentleness, not judgement.*

Anderson stressed that the doctrine of Original Sin yields not misanthropy, but humility. To be an understanding Catholic is to be wretched among the wretched. Per Augustine, it is to know that, of ourselves, we do not have the "power not to sin" (posse non peccare). The worldwide Church is groaning in pain. It is true that sanctifying grace gives us the posse non peccare. Nevertheless, the question of future sins for any newborn on this planet is not a possibility; it is a certainty (Romans 3:23).

The misery of the human condition is a fact that Catholicism will not allow attentive listeners to forget. In the high middle ages, it took shape as a celebrated genre of literature, contemptu mundi, "Contempt of the world," the most famous example being Pope Innocent III's "De Miseria Humanae Conditionis".** In it, the Pope describes the suffering and depravity of men with such detail and grit that human accomplishments appears only as so much scum. "Therefore, worm, why art thou proud?"

But the cumulative psychological effect of all of this negativity may be unexpectedly positive. If "there is no one just; not one" (Romans 3:10), then we are all co-conspirators in the world's crime. That fact ought to rob us of the passion to condemn. But how much more strikingly do we feel it, when again and again we run to the confessionals (or the lesser consolations we provide ourselves). There is a camaraderie of the wretched. It is as though a bride and groom, both dressed in white, stood in the middle of a demolition derby on a rainy day. And the drivers all have paint guns. Who will point the finger at who?

Judgment Belongs to God Alone

The Bible is unequivocal about judgement. There is no excuse to judge, not ever. However, some points bear mentioning.

First, we must make a distinction. Judging is not the same thing as discerning moral truths, nor is it the same thing as observing moral realities. If this were the case, the New Testament would invalidate itself, and life would be incoherent. If judgment includes defining moral laws, and there is a moral law against judgment, then the law is illegal (therefore, to judge against judging is also wrong, and we can judge with abandon!)

On the contrary, the sin of judgment involves chiefly two errors. The first is a self-deception: that I know your heart. The second is a blasphemy: that I know your sentence. We can observe actions, but not hearts. And we can provide solutions, but not eternal sentences.

Now, here is the second (and most critical) point: there is no reason why the commandment ought not apply to judging oneself any less than it applies to judging others. At first this might not be clear. After all, I know my own heart in a way nobody else does. I know my intentions, and I know how good/wretched I actually am.

But do I?

As Augustine wrote, addressing God, "You are closer to me than I am to myself."

One does not need to be religious to understand that the human capacity for self-deception is enormous. Ordinarily, we might imagine that self-deception most errs on the side of self- forgiveness and laxity. However, for perhaps just as many people, it errs on the side of self-loathing and spite.

When I sin, the last person I want to be in charge of deciding a just punishment for my crimes is myself. I know. I've imagined the things I thought I deserved. They haven't invented the machines required to carry them out.

And so, the commandment not to judge represents a doorway, not only out of condemning others, but self-loathing as well. Understanding and absorbing this great teaching of Jesus immediately changes the Catholic's understanding of the moral life. Let's chart it.

If we concluded at this point, It might feel a little like we are playing a game in which God is hiding the scoreboard. Our ignorance of the mind of God is little consolation to our guilty consciences. In the end, the temptation remains to operate by to a dangerously incomplete model, even if we acknowledge its being hypothetical.

That is because, up to now, we have operated only on the level of What the Church Teaches. Nothing of what we have said so far has integrated How the Church Loves, or pastoral theology.

Thus, in the immortal words of Leonardo DiCaprio, we have to go deeper.

Replacing the Charts: Pastoral theology, Jesus and the Church

Jesus: The Model of Pastoral Theology

When I was in the seminary, "pastoral theology" was largely synonymous with "breaking rules in order to be nice." It wasn't until after I left, sadly, that the nature and importance of pastoral theology made itself known to me.

Part of the problem was that some of my instructors had developed faulty models of pastoral theology. Either they had grossly sentimentalized Jesus into a milquetoast, feel-good, self-help author; or else they had no model at all save for a mushy, inoffensive, cynical filter for decision-making.

Part of the problem was that my perception was colored by my own, myopic, ahistorical, mechanical, "What the Church Teaches" approach, which was as harsh to me as it was against the people I judged.

Now, Christians are always using Jesus as the model for something. "Jesus this" and "Jesus that". But that is not only because we confess Him as "my Lord, and my God." There is real content here. While our Lord was on earth, he did not only teach--he lived. And so his bullet-points of Dos and Don'ts, while serious business, are not the whole content of the Gospel.

Some highlights from the Life and Times of the Almighty:
  • Jesus taught a hard law. His sexual morality was conservative, condemning divorce, and even advocating celibate chastity for those who could. He demanded severing ties to personal property, families, and even sacred duties such as burying the dead. He rewrote the thinking on fairness, setting the principle of sacrifice above the principle of proportionality. And he expected urgent, concrete results and had little respect for his disciples' wishes for personal safety or security.

  • Jesus spent time with sinners, doing things that sinners enjoy. He drank and ate. Sometimes he even supplied the booze. His enemies accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton (Luke 7:34). For Jesus, the presence of sin (even not-yet-repentant sin) was not an obstacle to delight, whether his own or that of his company.

  • Jesus was sparing in his use of harshness. The wrath of Jesus can be seen as having primarily three targets: first, the lazy, cowardly, or fruitless; second, the malicious exploiters of religious authority; and third, communities that definitively rejected his signs and teachings.

    The first group includes Peter when he begged Jesus not to go to Jerusalem; the disciples who wanted to bury their dead before following Jesus; and disciples represented in parables (the fig tree; the man who buried his talent; the foolish virgins; the improperly dressed wedding guest, etc.) With regard to the first group, Jesus had a practical license to use harsh words, because their intended audience was already loyal to him. It makes no sense to rib someone for laziness unless they are already oriented in the right direction. In De Doctrina Cristiana, St. Augustine describes the "grand style" of preaching, which can be usefully employed only when one's audience is already loyal (and thus thick skinned).

    Concerning the second group, the corrupt authorities, here Jesus reveals a divine intolerance for malice. Showing gentleness toward the malicious would ultimately cause more spiritual harm than confrontation. Malice--especially premeditated, calculating malice--does not call for gentleness.*** Forgiveness, yes, but not a cheap forgiveness.

    The third group are the communities that rejected the Gospel. At no point in Jesus's earthly mission did he entertain hopes of universal acceptance. He was pragmatic in his approach. He encouraged his disciples to economize their efforts--do not waste time where it will do no good. Modeling this principle, Jesus did not lay attractive words at their feet. Where his message (and signs) were definitively rejected, he foretold wrath (Matthew 11:21-24) and implied that their obstinateness had fewer excuses than that of previous smitten cities. Yet it is worth noting that even here, Jesus is measured in his language. He does not call them names. He is not indulging in a personal vendetta.

  • At no time did Jesus employ harshness or shame as a response to people bound by sins of weakness. Even his reproaches against the lazy/fruitless can be interpreted as signalling a passionate and frightful urgency--something like this--rather than a "how dare you". This is where the great medical analogy comes into play: "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do" (Matthew 9:12). Sins are crimes, yes, but they are also wounds.

    This connection was deeply understood by the populace of Jesus' day, who, after all, correlated congenital defects with inherited guilt. But in Jesus it represents a genius innovation. If sins are crimes, crimes call for punishment, and criminals will flee. If sins, however, are wounds; wounds call for treatment, and the wounded will gather. Christ the physician transforms the response of his followers to the phenomenon of sin.

  • For Jesus and his followers, the foundation of every interaction was peace and comfort--not anxiety. The words, "Do not be afraid," occur 15 times in the Gospels. The Resurrected Christ introduces himself with the words "Peace be with you." Jesus reasons, "Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?" Paul writes to the Philippians, "Have no anxiety at all." Throughout the New Testament, there is a veritable commandment to relax.

    How do we reconcile Jesus' repeated calls to "chill out" with his equally repeated calls to drop everything, take risks, and get results?

    A dancing analogy. Laura and I are teaching ourselves how to dance. We watched several instruction videos, and tried a few things, but it was all a jumbled (and hilarious) mess. Then, one video she brought home from the library changed things. It was The Wedding Dance with Paul Overton and Sharon Ashe. This video gave more instructions on standing still than any of the others we looked at. Don't lock knees. Loosen the shoulders. Lean slightly into each other. Feel, don't think. Listen to the movements of your partner.

    Relax. Relax. Relax.

    Now go.

    There is no greater enemy in the spiritual life than anxiety and discouragement. Jesus and the apostles understood this. Peace is the foundation. Journey, effort, and even struggle must all have a bedrock of peace. Urgency is built on peace.

    For Christians, peace is both the prerequisite for holiness and its final reward. And it must constantly be renewed.
These are the foundations of pastoral theology, which is ultimately the imitation of Christ the Good Shepherd. At no point does Jesus provide any excuse for doctrinal or moral laxity, nor for brutality.

In spite of his doctrinal rigor, Jesus' approach to ministry appears oblivious to the realities presented in my introduction to Catholic morality. Where are the emergency confessions? Where is the "Confession" iPhone app? I speak, a little bit, in jest (although I hear the iPad 2 has a time machine app).

But I gesture in earnest to the example of Christ the Physician, whose message was serious even while his ministry to his patients was joyful, celebratory, and anxiety free. Jesus does not want you to be anxious.

The Catholic Church: For the Saints, a Gymnasium; For the Sinners, a Hospital

The Catholic Church is the spiritual equivalent of Gesundheit! Institute and the U.S. Olympic Training Center combined and writ large. It is a hospital for sinners and a gymnasium for saints.**** It is critical to remember that the patients and the athletes are one and the same. They are also, always, the nurses and doctors, spotters and trainers. Every single one has a debilitating handicap; most have several. And the paraplegic's first toe wiggle is absolutely as momentous as the first nine-second hundred meter dash.

In this model of the Church, it makes no more sense to rally against a moral doctrine than it does to rally against the desire of the paralyzed to walk. It makes no more sense to berate a sinner than for a smoking lung cancer patient to mock their room-mate recovering from a triple bypass.

But pastoral theology is not just an extended analogy of a hospital. It is a realistic and faith-filled encounter of moral theology with life. Some points:

First: All sin, even venial sin, is serious. Nothing in this article is intended to persuade anybody otherwise. A single drop of ink blackens a whole cup of water. Our whole being comes from God, and a tiny peccadillo contradicts the whole God. Be this as it may, Jesus assured us, God's love and forgiveness extends far beyond our imagining. Our meager hearts can forgive great wrongs (with a little effort). Would we dare insinuate that God is stingier than ourselves? So the perspective of faith works both ways: God perceives sin's horror infinitely more than we; and he forgives infinitely more generously.

Second: Sin, even mortal sin, is not a reason to be anxious, for three reasons:

(1) Jesus does not want you to be anxious. We have covered this, but it bears repeating. It's a commandment from God himself. Thou Shalt Chill Out. This is not just a command; it's an invitation to trust. Do not be afraid. Peace be with you. Jesus even appeals to your sense of efficiency! What good does worrying do? What has your furrowed brow accomplished? If God tells you to relax, please, rest assured, it's ok.

(2) God does not desire your condemnation (Ezekiel 33:11). There, see? God is on your side. He is your judge, yes, but he is also your defense attorney. Yes, you sinned... nobody needs to present any evidence. And you really couldn't survive a genuinely proportional punishment. So let's work something out instead.

Consider this small fact: when you sin, even if you rape and murder, you don't vanish and go straight to Hell. Have you ever considered that God would be entirely in his rights and ability to do make it happen? However he does not. Even if you utterly sever your connection to I AM WHO AM, even if you reject the origin of being itself: nothing happens. You can curse God for hours, burn churches, do unspeakable things to the Consecrated Host, and still, air repeatedly fills your lungs, nourishing your silly hairless chimp body for another few minutes of life.

Even when we cut ourselves from the source of life, we live. Our bodies are that amazing. They are not just our interface with the world. They are not just a Temple of the Spirit. They double as the life-raft on the wrecked Titanic of our failed self-projects. As long as my heart beats there is hope. It carries me from Eucharist to Penance and back. As long as the sacraments are there, there is hope. That is how I know that God does not desire my condemnation.

(3) God knows your heart. To illustrate, here is a last bit of doctrine for you. Maybe you've lost the state of grace. And maybe you can't make it to Sacramental Penance. All right. If you're truly sorry, then say yourself an Act of Contrition and make a mental, concrete, sincere plan to go. Don't feel sorry enough? Just let God know, and ask him for the necessary sorrow. Got it? Good. You're covered. Stay sincere, and no Hell for you, even if you died right now. Even if you died halfway through saying the Act. Seriously. It's the truth. Ask any bishop.

This is not magic. It's just the built-in mercy of Catholic faith. Yes, repentance must happen in community because sin is a break with community. But just because Catholicism is not individualistic does not mean that our salvation hangs on an unpredictable thread.

The external observances keep us honest and sincere--they prevent us from paying half-hearted lip service and going our merry (corrupt) way. The externals are necessary and good. God became physical, so why shouldn't our salvation also be physical? But although we depend on the externals, God in himself does not. Therefore, at no point--not during a single minute--of a sincere Catholic's life does he need to expect Hellfire. Pray for salvation from it, yes. Expect it, no.

Last point. Sanctification is gradual. Pastoral theology, in a way, is the practical art of serving God's process of sanctification, both in oneself and in others. And that is the word of the day: process. Time, which is God's creation, is also his instrument of salvation. Sanctification is gradual. This may be frustrating to the moral theologian, for whom "error has no rights." And to be sure, one must never cite the gradual nature of sanctification as an excuse for past (or present) sins.

But I think we should frequently remind ourselves that genius should not be rushed--especially Divine Genius. God is the agent of sanctification, not us. No, we won't be lax in calling for goodness and justice; but also, no, we won't fret or worry. There's no use in it.

After all. God isn't worried. So why should we be?

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." --St. Julian of Norwich


End Notes!

* - Dr. Anderson recounted that his own spiritual journey was enhanced, not by coming to accept an easy doctrine, but a hard one: the existence of Hell. When he was a young universalist ("everybody goes to Heaven,") he was filled with intense anger at the injustices of the world. There was no equilibrium. He had absorbed a sense that it falls to us humans to exact the vengeance that the universalist God did not. By learning a new trust in God's justice, Anderson literally disabused himself of the burden.

** - Innocent always intended to write a corresponding, cheerful tract, but he never got around to it.

*** - A note on malice. In Catholic moral theology, I believe not enough emphasis is placed on the distinction between sins of malice and sins of weakness. The line dividing them is blurry, of course, but there is something tangibly present in the Gospel that is vital for Catholic understanding. It is not that sins of malice are necessarily more grave (although I presume they usually are). It is that their remedies are so different.

**** - I first heard this phrase from another professor, Fr. Robert Barron of Mundelein Seminary. Research shows that it seems adapted from a quote from Abigail Van Buren, “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” David True uses similar verbiage in his article, Rethinking Church.