Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bones and sinews.

I'm slogging through, er, writing a brief talk for a neuroscience class under the dubious title assigned to me): "What philosophy can do for neuroscience." Sigh. I'm off my game here, but Plato (being dead) never is. I came across a wonderful bit from the Phaedo that certainly helped me withstand materialist reductions.

When Socrates asked why he was sitting in the jail awaiting trial, he noted that Anaxagoras would have told him that he sat there because his limbs bent at the joints, his sinews stretched, and his rear touched the seat which was in the jail. In other words, Anaxagoras would have explained it all in terms of his body parts.

Socrates’s answer speaks to us today as we hear things like, "Well, the neurons explain away free will."

"By the dog, I think these sinews and bones could long ago have been in Megara or among the Boetians, taken there by my belief as to the best course, if I had not thought it more right and honorable to endure whatever penalty the city ordered rather than escape and run away. To call those things—sinews, bones, joints, sockets—causes is too absurd. If someone said that without bones and sinews and all such things, I should be able to do what I decided, he would be right, but surely to say that they are the cause of what I do, and not that I have chosen the best course, even though I act with my mind, is to speak very lazily and carelessly. Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause from that without which the cause would not be able to act as a cause!” (Phaedo, 98e-99b)

He then goes on to a brilliant philosophical discourse on the immortality of the soul, asking all the deepest questions of our longings and attempting to grasp at answers that take account of all he knows—his body, his thoughts, his country, his upbringing, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

And it is a bumbling brilliancy—as all such grapplings are. And Socrates would laugh at neurophilosophy's confidence that soon, at last, knowing the whole of the brain, we will understand ourselves. For we will understand only a little something of a much greater whole. And, without the reference to the whole, the material part will lose its certainty, for it will lose its context.

As Socrates knew, it is only in appeal to all things—seen and unseen—that the satisfaction of our deepest, and philosophical, questions even begin to emerge into the light.

Monday, August 24, 2009


This greeted me in the inbox this morning. Pope Paul VI seems to follow my dear friend Tracy around. He haunted her with a quote from "Evangelization of the Modern World" this weekend. I love how his definition of witness does two things: (1) it binds Christians to the reality of the Church while at the same time (2) embracing all vocations, states of life, and daily actions in its scope.

"Above all, the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians, who in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond current values, and their hope in something not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live. Here we have the initial act of evangelization." ~Paul VI

Friday, August 21, 2009

People of the word.

Here's a great little reflection piece of advice from I Take Joy:

"Do not fill your schedules with unnecessary activities and lists of textbooks and unnecessary busy work--it will wear you out and demotivate your children. Instead, delight in great stories, teach the word passionately. Greatly value and treasure words and ideas and history in front of your children so that they will fall in love with language and knowledge."

Children are already so motivated to greatness... this is easy for them and harder for us. My discipline and self-control--with regards to media, book choices, and time management--will bear exponential amounts of fruit in the girls. Motivation to keep going.

What Cinderella does for me.

Miriam is intensely inhabiting her imagination these days, her favorite personas being Cinderella, the Queen of Heaven, Mrs. Tittlemouse, and Snow White. Note that of the four favorites, three are notorious for their cleaning skills. Hence my joy.

Miriam: "Mummy. I cannot go to the ball until the windows are washed and the laundry folded."

Me: "That's right." (I'm the "mean mother.")

Miriam: "Please, please, let me wash your windows."

And she did. For 30 minutes. Not spotless, but I can live with a four-year-old princess who does her chores.

Thank you, Cinderella.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I'm still having a lot of half-thoughts. But an older post at Holy Experience, together with the possibility of losing the homeschool, moved me to wonder. (It's funny how losing something makes us treasure that something.)

Now, a caveat: I do not believe that homeschooling is the answer for every family. It is not a one-way ticket to holiness or happiness. I have met mothers who homeschool for the wrong reasons--usually out of guilt or fear--and they burn out fast. It requires a certain noble sacrifice, but so too does sending the children to public or private school.

That being said, however, I have for many years been deeply committed to teaching our children at home. Here are a few reasons.

1. Togetherness. There is simply nothing that can substitute in a child's life for quantities of time with his mother and father (assuming that mother and father are basically functional as such). The school system as it currently is simply cannot respect this basic need: Children go off for 30 or even 40 hours a week--the equivalent of a full-time job for an adult. They have after-school activities. Weekends get busy fast. Car time with Miriam is fun, but it is always "going time." We're in a rush to be somewhere else. I want a family in which "together time" is maximized, even if it means some days I will pull out my hair (and possibly the children's hair as well). Quality time isn't planned, it happens unexpectedly within quantities of together time.

2. Respect for individuality and our contemplative vocation. The structure of the school day was something on which I thrived in high school. I loved having deadlines and being accountable. But I was 16. A 4-yr-old child does not need to be told, as soon as she's absorbed herself in some interesting play or project, that it's time to move on. This is not exercising or forming her ability to concentrate. Since we are all destined to contemplate the face of God and become absorbed in the "one thing necessary," our children should be allowed to exercise this capacity at a young age. For different children, this capacity shows up in different places. Miriam today spent one hour tracing all the numbers from one to one-hundred. Not my idea. Certainly not something she could have done at Glenwood. Certainly not something the little boys she plays with would ever find absorbing (not this year, anyway). But homeschooling allows me to allow her to contemplate (within reason, of course) as her little soul moves.

3. Personal attention. Again, Miriam is an independent child. She will trace hundreds of numbers on her own for hours. I wash the floor. But when the time comes, I'm able to read to her one-on-one, stop at a page or picture she likes, ask her a question, or hear her questions. Not infinitely, mind you: She is not the center of our familial universe (Isabella makes sure of that). I love, however, that we can make math into a music lesson, or bring her preoccupation with heaven into her reading time. She is more excited about the work, and so am I.

4. Integrity of life. There is little barrier to cross between home-time, leaisure-time, and schoolwork. Institutional learning necessarily fragments our children's lives. Again, this has its own advantages, especially as children grow older, but I do not think in the end it is best for learning. Popular representations of children depict school as "jail" and summer as "I'm free!!!!!!!!" Ugh. Learning and reading, education and intellectual curiosity, are an integral part of our makeup. We need to be curious and want to find answers at every moment. Wonder should spill into all activities, and no child should look upon the "place of learning" as something to check off the list so he or she can "get to the weekend" or "make it to summertime." Eventually, we hope that our children will spend their leisure and free time learning about the world, themselves, and the divine. Having lessons at home just means one less barrier to total integrity of life.

5. Raising children who care. As Holy Experience says:

"Scholastically, our aim for our children asks the same question that esteemed educator Charlotte Mason asked: "The question is not, 'how much does the youth know?' when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set?"

We believe that whatever we do, we need to do it wholeheartedly as unto the Lord. Right now, learning about God and His world is our children's full-time work. That means: education is a priority and it will be engaging work that requires real effort.

But that doesn't necessarily translate into them aiming towards traditional careers. It means we simply pursue the beginning of knowledge which is the fear of the Lord.

Do they care about God?
Do they love people?
Are their feet set in the large, large world as salt and light?

It means that we pursue not a cultural definition of success but of true greatness for our kids."

'Nuff said.

6. Letting children be children, parents be parents. Again, these children are with me for a very short time (althought 11am-1pm seems endless on most days). I have very few hours within which to know them, to love them without condition, to try to show them the way and grow with them on the way to eternity. The hours are short, eternity is forever. If I am to be a parent, let me be a parent. Their childhood is so short, let them finish kindergarten at 9am and then run. Free and happy.

Well, this has turned into quite the manifesto. I guarantee you that I will need to re-read this (and probably revise my lofty lingo) around mid-November. But I've tried to express some eternal truths. Living according to those truths will come out in the wash.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Oh, and...

...if you missed Jen's post on obedience, give it a gander. Thank heavens her blogging has not been too light lately!

Light on the blogging, please.

With school starting up this week, I've had precious little time for writing. I love the start of school--the books, the students, and the anxious parents (this year, I got to be an anxious parent, too). The adrenaline keeps me going for about three days, but by the fourth I am exhausted.

That's when I realize what a creature of habit I am. And that's when I revel in habit, routine, and little things. Suddenly, a quiet afternoon at home doing laundry, dishes, prayer, and watching Miriam "get married" sixty-five times is bliss.

Because, oddly enough, it is when life has its rhythm and ordinariness that my soul can soar to thoughts of eternity and dwell more with God.

My routine at home--as in a monastery--is like my school uniform. The culture will tell you it's deadening, a "phase you'll get through," self-effacing, on and on. But I will tell you that in the rhythm of daily life I have found the freedom to live with God in my heart. The challenges and surprises of work and exotic travel (as the Scientist Dad confirms) are stimulating and also provide their special graces, but we all need a place where the essentials of life are cared for, our basic needs are met, and our holiest duties performed in peace. Then our interior is truly free to "lift my eyes to the hills."

Now, we cannot and must not become a slave to this rhythm (I have a tendency to panic when I can't get my "quiet time!). The routine itself is certainly not my salvation. It comes and goes, changes drastically or gradually with new loves and new joys and new responsibilities. But it is not to be feared. Contentment with one's vocation is to be honored and sought after.

So ends my panacea to habit. It is now my habit to fold laundry until the end of naps. Enjoy your next step, and keep your eyes lifted to the things that last.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Miriam, the Philosopher.

If philosophy is "preparing to die" (and I really mean that in the happiest sense), then Miriam is a philosopher extraordinaire.

"Mummy, when I die, I think I'll have tears in my eyes."

"Oh, really? Why is that?"

"Well, I'll just be so happy!"

Huh. Let it be, amen, let it be.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Darkling thoughts.

The Scientist Dad continues his overseas research with a stint on the Chilean coast. The Philosopher Mom has been reduced to a few, moribund attempts to prepare for the start of school next week. Fortunately, I'm teaching ancient history this year, which allows me to both (a) get something practical done and (b) ponder the long and darkling plain of human existence without Christ. With all the uncertainties and drama of the nightly news (which I gave up watching with Todd's absence), it does the heart good to remember how very, very tiny we are in the vast (but brief) course of history.

For example, I was just studying some of the independent sources available to us on Egypt at the approximate time of Joseph's apex. You know what? This was the mightiest civilization on earth and so few of its records remain that we can't determine much at all about them. In fact, most of the sources qualify every sentence with "it appears that" or "this may be" or "speculation confirms."

Yesterday, I had to look up Jericho. This was the first known "city," a center of commerce and worship. And 8,000 years later ... gone. Just a pile of rocks under sand. See picture above.

Goodness! This is getting dark.

But the reality is: Human existence is dark, unless illuminated by something greater. By the light.

So, I must leave you with that master of levity in the dark, GK Chesterton. Here are a few stanzas from his Ballad of the White Horse, "The Vision of the King":

But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

"I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

"Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?"
~GK Chesterton

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Summer Reading Re-cap.

As summer winds down (although here in the Deepest South we can expect another month of triple digits), I cast my mind back over the reading riches it offered. I missed out on the reading binge last year, since Isabella was still nursing three times per night. This year was different. Here is a quick list of this year's favorites.

1. The Cypresses Believe in God (Jose Maria Gironella) Definitely the top read this summer. I reviewed it back in July, and it certainly merits another mention.

2. Seeking Spiritual Direction (Fr. Thomas Dubay) This one also gets a double (I think at this point it is a triple) shout-out. I'm waltzing slowly to the end and will say more when I'm done, but for now it continues to be one of the best spiritual guide books I've read (right up there with Fire Within, He Leadeth Me, I Believe in Love, and Teresa's Castles).

3. Nuns and Soldiers (Iris Murdoch) I started this because I studied Murdoch in a virtue ethics course once. I enjoyed her Sovereignty of the Good, a philosophical work, and thought to foray into her fiction a little. I enjoyed the first half and then started to feel pretty dragged down. The characters were interesting and well-crafted (they certainly seemed to take on a life of their own, even to the point of getting away from Murdoch's control). I think a huge problem for her characters is their slavery to Murdoch's own metaphysics, which basically says that you can get rid of God but not the Good. As Alan Jacobs wrote in First Things:

"Murdoch is a Platonist, to a degree and with a purity almost unknown in modern thought: it is the Good that she seeks, the Idea or Form of the Good. (Platonist thought requires the frequent use of capital letters.) All else, including God, is an image or a substitute for this utter Good, and may be useful to us as we move toward perfection; but because our human tendency is to substitute the image for the reality, the guidepost for the destination, even the worship of God may distract us from our proper pursuit."

Her characters are busy for most of the novel moving through various images of the Good in order to get at the true and pure Good. The problem is, of course, death. Because... if there ain't anything after, there ain't anything now. Bleak. But a good illustration of how a philosophy can influence fiction.

4. Shadows on the Rock (Willa Cather) On the other hand, here is fiction that does not drag down everything we know. If Murdoch is a Platonist, Cather is an Aristotelian. She receives the world as it is--in all its awe-striking particularities. I loved this book in particular because it moves from her usual venue (the prairies) to Colonial Quebec. Her descriptions of the world's natural beauty are without peer.

5. Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters (Peter Kreeft) This is excellent vacation or bed-time reading. Kreeft's various little snippets address the big questions in language even I can understand. If you're looking for some good brain and soul food--for you or your (older) children, this is it.

6. St. Edith Stein: Essential Writings (ed. John Sullivan) The title really says it all. I quoted Stein, and the excerpt was an excerpt from this volume. I love the way Sullivan brings together her myriad virtues--philosophical depth, spiritual vision, educational prowess, and of course her personal love of every human person. It is a beautiful portrait of a remarkable saint.

Monday, August 3, 2009


This little snippet documents the process of candle-making used by one particular (and probably many other) Orthodox monastery--many thanks to Evlogia. The more inane our Sunday Mass music becomes, the more I wish I had been born in the East. But, in God's own wisdom, I am a Novus Ordo woman: I can only gaze on my sister's beauty and anticipate our one-ness in eternity.

I have beautiful memories of using almost the same technique as a child: One homeschooling project was to make candles "like a Colonial girl." The smell is still with me.