Monday, October 29, 2007

Life and truth

The newest post over at First Things is a compelling reflection on the human tendency to call evil good and good, evil. Applying it the "culture of death," Joseph Naumann takes example from everyone from Mother Teresa to The Twilight Zone. Here's an excerpt.

"In some of the inner-city neighborhoods where I served as a priest, there was a great problem with gun violence. Could you imagine anyone saying that they were personally against drive-by shootings, but if someone else wanted to do it they should have that right? Yet it is precisely that illogic that has been used now for several decades to defend the legalization of abortion—the destruction of an innocent human life.

Without the acceptance of objective truth, everything becomes negotiable. The moral conscience of society and the individual are impaired. There is confusion in the recognition of good and evil. We become uncertain about such fundamental institutions for family and society as marriage. From the denial of natural truth, a nihilism emerges that we find expressing itself today in art, literature, and films. We become confused about what is good and noble. We question what is worth devoting our life to. This confusion results in a great interior emptiness. We try to distract ourselves with more and more things, divert our attention with more and more entertainment, and numb ourselves with drugs and other addictions.

I remember watching, as a child, an episode of The Twilight Zone. It began with doctors and nurses with surgical masks gathered around a hospital bed of a female patient whose face was completely bandaged except for her eyes and nose. From their conversation, it became apparent that this woman suffered from a hideous disfigurement which a series of plastic surgeries had failed to correct. They had attempted one final surgery that the doctors were optimistic would solve the problem, but they would not know for certain until they unbandaged her face several days later.

They finally come to the moment of truth—the unwrapping of the bandages—and we see that the woman’s face is stunningly beautiful. The doctors and nurses shake their heads with disappointment and apologize for their failure. For the first time they remove their surgical masks revealing grotesquely hideous features. That is how it is in The Twilight Zone: The beautiful is ugly, and the ugly is beautiful.

This is a helpful image for the consequence of relativism that impairs a culture from recognizing what is objectively good, beautiful, and true. In The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul had this to say about objective truth: “The Gospel of Life is not for believers alone: It is for everyone. The issue of life and its defense and promotion is not a concern of the Christian alone. Although faith provides special light and strength, this question arises in every human conscience which seeks the truth and which cares about the future of humanity. Life certainly has a sacred and religious value, but in no way is that value a concern only of believers. The value at stake is one which every human being can grasp by the light of reason; thus it necessarily concerns everyone.” "

You can read the whole thing here. It's an especially good way to end the month of October, set aside in the Catholic Church in America to promote respect for human life. This year, it's also nearing the end of the 40 Days for Life initiative--a nation-wide program of prayer and fasting, peaceful vigil outside abortion clinics, and community outreach to women in need.

The widespread acceptance or, at best, indifference toward the abortion industry is the grossest symptom of a deep confusion: What is good? What is worth living for? Why am I here? What value is any human life? The loss of millions of human lives is a holocaust that cries out but is not heard. It is felt, deeply, I believe, by those who have ears to hear and by those who find themselves the survivors of abortion: mothers, fathers, doctors, nurses, and those who pray and work for their healing. As a whole, however, we're still too muddled about ourselves, life, and meaning to listen or find their deaths worthy of notice.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On having opinions

If one more personage tells me that church architecture doesn't matter, I will... well, probably smile and nod and then vent my disagreement quietly to friends and blog-readers.

One particular homilist instructed the gathered faithful (of which I was one) that they should stop criticizing "where the Blessed Sacrament is," "the stain-glass or no stain-glass," how the seats are placed, and other structural peculiarities. What the gathered faithful should do is "be glad" that there is a "place where God is worshiped." They should simply give thanks that they are in a gathering-place/worship-space.

Point taken: Instead of allowing our physical surroundings to dictate our participation in the Mass, we Catholics should be able to recognize the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, primarily, and in the Church body. In a sense, no, the building doesn't matter. Charity is all.

But as true as this is... it needs a little nuance and attention. We are spiritually fed no matter what building we are in when we receive Christ. Human beings, however, are not just spiritual beings. Exhortations to stop criticizing (or, I assume, praising as well) church buildings flirt with gnosticism, that old belief that we can exist on a purely "spirit" diet. The worst offense against charity is a lie, and to say physical surroundings "don't matter" is indeed false.

Because we have bodies, because we learn with our senses, our physical surroundings matter. They are not everything, but they matter. In other words, to be fully human is to exercise our judgment about what is true, good, and... beautiful!

Now, I'm not saying that there is an absolute standard of beauty in churches. But physical aspects of buildings serve to teach or guide the spirits/souls of the worshipers in the church. They can capture our imagination, for better or for worse; they can confuse or clarify, free or bind. For example, I once entered a Catholic church outside Chicago in which the Eucharist was housed at the entrance (in the "gathering space"), instead of behind the altar. But almost every parishioner knelt to the altar before entering his pew. Were they being taught by the architecture to kneel to Christ alone? No. They were confused. And so was my family as we stood around the pew entrance and finally turned around to genuflect toward the door marked "EXIT."

Other types of architecture--particularly modernism and its child, brutalism--come from philosophical schools that deliberately seek a divorce from all tradition. Images, arches, floorplans that evoke memory are bad; blank spaces, door frames, lawn chairs are good. The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, in Ronchamps, France, is a premier example of intentionally anti-memory, gnostic architecture. It screams: "The building doesn't matter!" And yet, it sends a message that very much does matter.

Beautiful churches, unlike ugly churches which tend to all look the same, are startlingly diverse in their make and manner. In the USA, we enjoy the gothic beauty of a building like St. Vincent Ferrer, the Dominican church in New York City. It teaches through statues and stained glass; it also evokes a sense of the transcendent in its high vaulted arches. The simpler but still-stunning beauty of the Franciscan tradition is in eidence at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery and Shrine, Hanceville, AL, as well as the new monastery of the Poor Clares of Virginia.

There are also churches that are nearly bare but still reflect something true and good about man, who is nothing, and God, who is all. See the Trappists' Monastery of the Holy Spirit's chapel on the top of this post.

The building matters. It's not everything, but neither is it nothing. Physical beauty and truth in architecture (e.g., making the Eucharist the center of a building's focus) can enrich our "worship experience." At the very least, the building should not be a stumbling block to the "beauty of the infinite One."

Amen. Rant concluded.

Jacques rocks.

Jacques, aka Neulieb, over at Random Musings of a Philosophy Student, has made all of us brainiacs a little more perky today. I'll have to quote in full, since she puts it best. Philosophers can be real people, too! Discussing Descartes and Pascal at dinner parties can be fun!

Here's Jacques:

"To be an academic and a real person at the same time...doesn't happen as often as it should. It's all too easy for academics, I think, to take refuge in the life of the mind and let their hearts (and everything else) atrophy. Those are the professors who take refuge in the library to escape the world and real interaction with other people. They may be brilliant at their specialty, but they're stunted as complete human beings.

But of course it's not fair to condemn all academia just because some professors are like that. I guess I might have a jaded view of nuns if I had known more of the sort who went into the convent to escape life and now go around dour-faced, beating small children with rulers. But I haven't. I've known so many joyful, young, life-embracing religious that it's kind of foreign to me that anyone would think nuns go into the convent to escape the world. And I'm glad that now I'm also getting to know some wonderful young intellectuals who are interested in real life too, who are fun and well-adjusted and loving and not just wrapped up in their footnotes. Shoutout to Gina and Jeff, Monica and Dave, Erika and Todd (hmm, they seem to come in pairs... fascinating...) and all the other grad students who are academics and real people too!

There's a quote I've carried around in my wallet since the day I started grad school. The bottom is torn off so I can't remember what random scholar said it, but here it is:
I never wanted to be an academic. I still don't. I wanted to be -- I know
this sounds pretentious -- I wanted to be an intellectual. I wanted to be
involved in the arts. I wanted to be in a place where people cared passionately
about ideas, about teaching, about discourse and about reflecting critically.
What I found was a world of small-minded, partisan professionals, many of whom
were there because they couldn't figure out what else to do. So I created a life
inside the academy that reflected the life I wanted to lead.

I don't think I'll ever be an academic myself -- I want to be a writer, and that's a somewhat different vocation. But I'm glad I've seen that being an academic doesn't have to mean renouncing the real world and the chance to be a whole person. Just like I'm grateful I know how good and joyful religious life can be -- I've seen it at its best, and even so, I know it's not for me. I think that's the most freeing way to find a vocation: to choose one good thing without needing to deny the real beauty and value of the alternative..."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Quid est veritas?

One of my favorite scenes in the The Passion of the Christ is the conversation (in Latin! sigh) between Pontius Pilato and Jesus. "What is truth?"

A friend mentioned her conversation with a priest over ways we know truth. This friend happens to be a PhD in Chemistry, so she lives and works in the Scientific Academy where what is true is usually what can be measured. Portrait of a happy materialism.

In other words, we can only say "that's true" when we're talking about how many kilometers it is to Canton, how many electrons the Carbon atom has, or how many milligrams of Tylenol I can safely take with x milligrams of Advil. It's true if you can measure it, experiment on it, prove it.

But this friend and her priest weren't so sure. There must be other ways of knowing something is true. For example, in a Jane Austen novel, I find something true about human nature. In TS Eliot's poetry I find truth about the world. I know it is true that my husband loves me and that brings me joy. This is a sort of poetic knowledge of truths that can't be measured.

(But somehow they are more real to me than atoms, distances, or even time.)

I think it has something to do with the fact that, in the end, truth is personal. In fact, it is a person. Jesus gives no answer to Pilate's question, because truth is not just beakers, scales, poetry, philosophy, or theology. It is all these things, but it is finally him. Strange waters.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Today the Church celebrates St. Teresa of Avila, reformer of the Carmelite Order and Doctor of the Church. A true thinker and lover.

St. Teresa's Bookmark

Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing; God never changes.

Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.

Understanding Islam and the West

"Do you know anything about Islam?" someone asked me yesterday.

That's a hard question to answer. I know something about Islam: the five pillars, the Koran, the basic history of its conquests and losses, some sources of tensions between the East and the West. But when asked to explain it, I feel distinctly uncomfortable.

Perhaps I have been studying in the intolerant academy for too long; I have imbibed that reluctance--expected of Christians--to comment on a religion not my own.

Nevertheless, Islam (or, rather, the problem of Islam-Christian-Jewish relations) fascinates me. I've tried to pick up some resources for y'all to browse over should you, too, harbor such a fascination. These books/articles/websites have helped me formulate some responses to questions folks raise about Islam and the West. I'll profligate some of those opinions later, but thought the experts should do the talking first:

Islam's Teachings and History

"The Pillars of Islamic Faith," by David B. Burrell--a great article on the 5 pillars that also points out some key differences between Christian and Islamic theology.

Knowing the Enemy, by Mary Habeck--This book is a not-difficult explanation of the various interpretations of jihad in Islamic history; a great way to understand the rise of what the media calls "Islamic fundamentalism."

For a fascinating discussion--between several Muslim and Christian women--of the wearing of the veil (hijab) see the Feminine Genius.

Islam and the West
Pope Benedict XVI's address to the faculty at Regensburg, Germany, on September 12, 2006; the address sparked worldwide attentions and riots in Islamic countries, but its central theme is actually on the role of faith and reason in Islam.

"Islam and Us," by George Cardinal Pell--this article is the best short explanation I've read on the possibilities for Muslims and Christians to dialogue and come to some sort of peaceful co-existence; also some good points on secularism.

"The Regensburg Moment," by Richard John Neuhaus--a great summary and analysis of Pope Benedict's address at Regensburg in 2006.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


I've never been to Assisi, but this poem speaks to any heart that has lost its fear.
Fragment from Assisi
Because I heard the cockerel’s golden cry
Ring from the bottom of the silver olive glade,
Because he called the chapter of the noonday sun,
I shed the shackles my own hands had made.
Because the towers up and down the hill
Fired like beacons answering when they tolled the time,
Driving the white wrack of the winter orchard smoke,
I lost my fear between that chill and chime.

—Meredith Wise

There's more to enjoy at this month's issue of Dappled Things.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I'm sitting up!

I heard the baby's heartbeat this morning at the OB office and I think it chased away some of the nausea. Philosopher Baby2 says, "whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh..."

So now I'm sitting at the computer, eating Cup Noodles, and basking in the beauty of life. The sheer facticity of creation. And my melancholic-philosopher mind muses,

"All the philosophies and rational proofs for truth are pale compared to a heart on fire with gratitude. The proofs tell me that my existence is a participation in God, the Act of Existence, and I have acknowledged that it is so. But only the heart on fire with love will cling to God. The heart sees it is beloved by God and responds. Set my heart on fire."

Raptures of a woman ascending from bed rest.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Neat conversion story.

This is the story of the conversion of an Islamic woman to the Catholic faith. I was struck especially by the concrete differences between the Islamic and Catholic understandings of marriage. Anyone who tells you that your faith is a private matter of the heart that has little or no bearing on everyday life hasn't experienced the joy of Christian love in marriage.

Gratias ago to the Feminine Genius.

October ploddeth on...

and the Philosopher Baby2 continues his/her temperamental reign of my stomach. But little does he/she know that

1. Someday I will say what he/she may/may not eat.
2. Someday he/she will have only one thing to eat for months.
3. Someday we will all ogle and coo and have completely forgotten the Dark Months of the first trimester.

The woman cries aloud in pain as she labors to give birth, but when the child is born she forgets all pain. It is so. Blessed be God.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A New Delight

The Feminine Genius has put me on to this blog, Second Terrace, a venerable source of critical Christian thought.

The latest quips are from Hilaire Belloc, whose Cautionary Tales for Children is a must-read for every pater, mater, puer and puella. For the elder classes (including your high school students!), The Path to Rome provides a beautiful glimpse into pre-war Europe and its debt to Christendom. It's also a great poetic argument for Pope John Paul II's claim that the European Union must acknowledge that debt or lose its identity.

Belloc was a brilliant writer, though these quotes at Second Terrace remind me why his words are difficult for the pregnancy-brained. A little thick, but so witty and worth the crawl. he minced no words of praise for philosophers:

On philosophy and religion

"There you go, Grizzlebeard, verbalising and confumbling, and chopping logic like the Fiend! exegetic and neo-scholastic, hypograstic, defibulating stuff! An end to true religion!

So it is with philosophers, who will snarl and yowl and worry the clean world to no purpose, not even intending a solution of any sort or a discovery, but only the exercise of their vain clapper and clang ... Now this kind of man can be cured only by baptism ..."

A stumbling block to the Gentiles. Thank you, Mr. Belloc. And thank God for baptism.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Little Doctor

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux--probably the most famous "modern saint" and known most popularly as the "little flower." I've had a tumultuous relationship with Therese. In fact, I so disliked what I perceived to be simpering cuteness that for a while she was to me the "little weed." I think she chuckled.

But towards the end of high school, I read Therese of Lisieuxby Those Who Knew Her, a collection of the testimonies from witnesses at her beatification process. Hot dang. This girl was no cutie. She was real and muscular and full of the passion of Christ. She was simply a life totally surrendered to the incarnate God.

Her "little way" and all the "littles" that accompany her--well, she was a woman of littleness. With her clear vision, she could see how tiny the human being and the whole human race is. On the other end of the spectrum, she perceived the enormity of God and the vastness of a Love that would bridge eternity to be with his creatures. Her very littleness was the source of her joy in God's mercy and love.

So let us be little and joyful.