Reading Week Part 3: On Hunting by Roger Scruton

This evening I finished reading Roger Scruton’s book On Hunting. It was a delight to read this short memoir indoors on a Saturday snuggled with a blanket and beside a fire. It reminded me of reading books about gruesome trench warfare in cafés while sipping cappuccinos. The circumstances in which I read books on topics like war and hunting are so radically removed from the contents of the books, which makes non-fiction books and autobiographical memoirs seem more like fantasy.

When I was a child, I didn’t like pretending very much. I was very much obsessed with accuracy and with reality. Tea was obviously an indispensable condition for a tea party; juice could not possibly be a substitute. So books that are based very much on reality, but on a reality which is utterly or significantly foreign to me make for very enjoyable reads. Being transported to the world of fox-hunting in Scruton’s book is a bit like being transported to a world of elves or wizards, except the foreign reality is not an imaginary one, but rather an existent one in our world.

When this book was lent to me, my first comment was that it is short. Scruton prefaces his especially autobiographical anecdotes saying, “The length of a biography ought to be dictated by the greatness of the deeds recorded in it. Thousand-page accounts of minor politicians are the greatest offence against literature – especially when written by politicians themselves.” Scruton weaves together an engaging narrative emphasizing the centrality of hunting to his experiences. He says he “resolved to take up hunting during this, the best part of my life. The next ten years were given to fulfilling that ambition, along with two others: to be employed by no-one, and to live by my wits. The three ambitions were really one and the same: I was taking a step back from the modern world into a realm of ancestral freedoms. I was also discovering England.”

The three-fold resolution and the lofty, yet compelling description of what became of his goals lend a larger-than-life quality to his storytelling. Perhaps this is the case with all storytelling though. I think that one of the most insightful lines in C.S. Lewis is this:
“Doesn’t the mere fact of putting something into words of itself  involve an exaggeration?”

Recently, a man I know, a hunter, was explaining to me that he is an atheist but that hunting is the closest he has come to believing in God. The reflection that hunting inspires on nature, on life, and on mortality orient the soul to contemplation of these things. Here is what Roger Scruton says on the matter:

“Of course, I was familiar with hunting prints, with lampshades, table mats and tea trays celebrating ‘the sport of our ancestors’. And being a mere intellectual, I had dismissed them as mass-produced kitsch. But what I observed was neither kitsch nor cliché. There by the willow-cumbered banks I saw the moving image of eternity. Here was an unselfconscious union between species, which was also a rejoicing in the land. It was neither Nature nor Heritage nor any other marketed thing. It was, like God, too shy and true for marketing, as inward and secret and comforting as soul is, and as durable. I know this more clearly now, in retrospect. But I sensed it then, and a strange apprehension came over me, like falling in love – the apprehension of the self taken hostage by an outside force.”

Occasionally throughout the book, I wondered how the book is received by other fox-hunters. After all, Scruton is an intellectual and his book centres around such themes as human nature and the human condition, all while referencing classical texts in politics, history, and literature. It reminded me of J. Glenn Gray’s book The Warriors, which was the most academic book that I read in my War and Interpretation class. Gray’s book is philosophical. It is fundamentally about human nature (of which war is an essential feature) and other eternal things. This is precisely what made Scruton’s book enjoyable for me too though. Because his book is about many more fundamental things than hunting (which is but one example of the deeper truths that are illustrated), the book resonated meaningfully.

Scruton’s book helps in discerning a proper understanding of human persons. Two important passages on this point include: one on looking at people as subjects and one on making distinctions between animals and humans based on what it means to be a moral being:

“God intended that we live in such a way, that we see into the subjectivity of the world – which is God himself. That we can do this is self-evident. How we do it is an unfathomable mystery. And if, in order to bring this mystery about, a process of evolution was required, so that the soul became incarnate at last in a creature which rose only by degrees to such an eminence, then so be it. God moves in a mysterious way. When you look on people as objects, then you see that Darwin was right. When you look on them as subjects, you see that the most important thing about them has no place in Darwin’s theory.”

[…]

“Animals are not moral beings: they have neither rights nor duties, they are not sovereign over their lives, and they can commit no crimes. If they were moral beings, then Kant’s categorical would apply to them: it would be wrong to kill them, capture them, confine them, harm them, or curtail their freedom. But it would also be wrong for them to do these things. Lions would be murderers, cuckoos usurpers, mice burglars, and magpies thieves. The fox would be the worst of living criminals, fully deserving the death penalty which we from time to time administer. For foxes kill not only for food, but with a wanton appetite for death and destruction. In short, to treat animals as moral beings is to mistreat them – is to make demands which they could not satisfy, since they cannot understand them as demands.”

Like the books that I have studied on war last semester, Scruton’s book on hunting surprised me. It was engaging, witty, and persuasive. The book is not abstract, but personal. And from the particulars in Scruton’s experience, he points beyond the specifics to what is universal in human nature. He points to what any reasonable person should consider and that is the question: what is man’s place in nature?

Here are a few of my other favourite quotations from the book:

“Being unpopular is never easy; but being unpopular in a good cause is a shield against despair.”

“For hunting lifts me out of my modernist solitude and throws me down in a pre-modern herd – a composite herd, made up of horse and hound and human, each sharing its gift of excitement and giving its all to the chase.”

“It is a law of human nature that those with least to say spend the most time in saying it.”

“For this is how the suicide of nations begins, when sentimentality prevails over sense.”

“And here is the true reason why women ought not to fight in armies – that, in the moment of supreme danger, they might turn their hostility as much on their comrades as on their foes.”

“Young people need nothing so much as wit, allusion and style. They should be studying advocacy and argument; they should be reading poetry, criticism and the authors who have said things clearly and well. Instead, between bouts of pop music and television, they are handed jargon-ridden drivel by out-dated Parisian gurus, impenetrable texts of sociology, the half-articulate leavings of the grievance trade – yes, and Heidegger, who appeals to the post-modern tutor largely because he makes so little sense.”

Reading Week Part 2: The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset

This evening I finished reading José Ortega y Gasset’s book The Revolt of the Masses.
Soon, I intend to write more reflectively on what I have read, but for now, here are my favorite quotations from this exceptional book:

“The masses, suddenly, have made themselves visible, and have installed themselves in the preferred places of society. In the past, the mass, where it existed, went unnoticed. It was a background to the social scene, to the stage of society. Now it has advanced to the footlights, and plays the part of the leading character. There are no longer protagonists as such: there is only the chorus.”

“The characteristic note of our time is the dire truth that the mediocre soul, the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be mediocre, has the gall to assert its right to mediocrity, and goes to impose itself wherever it can. […] The mass crushes everything different, everything outstanding, excellent, individual, select, and choice.”

“The very name is alarming: that a century should call itself “modern,” that is, ultimate, definitive, compared to which all others are merely preterite, humble preparations aspiring to the present!”

“We live at a time which feels itself magnificently capable of any realization, but does not know what to realize. Lord of all things, man is not master of himself. He feels lost in his own abundance. Equipped with more means, more knowledge, more technique than ever, the world today proceeds as did the worst and most unfortunate of all former worlds: it simply drifts.”

“It is false to say, therefore, that in life ‘circumstances decide.’ On the contrary, circumstances are the dilemma, always new, constantly renewed, in the face of which we must make decisions. And it is our character which decides.”

“I do not believe in the absolute determinism of history. On the contrary, I believe that all life, including historical life, is composed of purely momentary instances, each relatively undetermined as far as the previous moment is concerned, so that in each of them reality hesitates, vacilates, marks time, runs in place, paws the ground, and is uncertain of which possibility to choose. This metaphysical wavering, this humming uncertainty, makes everything alive seem to vibrate tremulously.”

“The primary, radical meaning of the word life is made clear when it is used in the sense of biography and not of biology. And this is true for the very good reason that any biology, in the end, is only a chapter in certain biographies, whatever biologists do in the course of their biography. Any other notion is abstraction, fantasy, myth.”

“The world is civilized, but the inhabitant is not: he does not even see its civilization, but uses it as if it were a part of nature. The new man wants his automobile, and enjoys using it, but he thinks it is the spontaneous fruit of some Eden-like tree. His mind does not encompass the artificial, almost unreal nature of civilization, and the enthusiasm he feels for its instruments does not include the principles which make them possible.”

“Philosophy needs no protection, nor attention, nor sympathy, nor interest on the part of the masses. Its perfect uselessness protects it.”

“But the specialist cannot be subsumed under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for his is formally ignorant of all that does not fit into his speciality; but neither is he ignorant, for his is ‘a man of science,’ a scientist, and he knows his own sliver of the universe quite well. We shall have to call him a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, for it means that he will act in all areas in which he is ignorant, not like an ignorant man, but with all the airs of one who is learned in his own special line.”

“For philosophy to rule, it is not necessary that philosophers be rulers (as Plato first wanted) nor even that rulers philosophize (as he more modestly wished later). Both courses would prove fatal. For philosophy to rule it suffices that it exist, that is, that philosophers be philosophers. For over a century now, philosophers have been everything but philosophers: they have been politicians, pedagogues, professors, men of letters, and men of science.”

“Moreover, the mass-man sees in the state an anonymous power, and since he feels himself to be anonymous too, he believes that the state is something of his own. When conflict or crisis occurs in public life, the mass-man will tend to look to the state to assume the burden, take on the problem, take charge directly of solving the matter with its unusurpable means.”

“And this is the greatest danger threatening civilization today: the statification of life, state intervention, the taking over by the state of all social spontaneity. […] The mass tells itself: ‘The state is me,’ it’s own version of L’État, c’est moi. […] The contemporary state and the mass are only the same in being anonymous.”

“Without commandments obliging us to live in certain fashions, our lives become purely arbitrary, they become ‘expendable.'”

“Surely, the best that can humanely be said of any institution is that it should be reformed, for that implies that it is indispensable and that it  is capable of new life.”

“Such is the state. It is not a thing, but a movement.”

“If the state be a project for common action, its reality it purely dynamic: it is a doing, something to be done, the community in action.”

“But the same thing happens if the mass-soul decides to act the revolutionary: the apparent enthusiasm for the manual worker, for the afflicted, for social justice, serves as a mask to disguise the rejection of all obligations – such as courtesy, truth-telling, and, above all, respect for and just estimation of the superior individual.”

“This evasion of all obligation explains in part the phenomenon, half ridiculous and half disgraceful, of the promulgation of the platform of “Youth,” of youth per se. Perhaps our times offer no spectacle more grotesque. Almost comically, people call themselves “young,” because they have been told that youth has more rights than obligations, since the fulfillment of obligations can be postponed until the Greek calends of maturity. Youth has always considered itself exempt from doing or already having done great deeds or feats. It has always lived on credit. This has always been understood as being in the nature of humanity, a kind of feigned right, half ironic and half affectionate, conceded to their juniors by the no-longer young.”

“For morality is always and essentially a feeling of subordination and submission to something, a consciousness to obligation and service. […] Morality cannot be simply ignored. Amorality – a word which lacks even a proper construction – does not exist. If one wants to avoid submitting to any norm , one must, nolens volens, submit to the norm of denying all morality. And that is not amorality, but immorality. It constitutes a negative morality which conserves the empty form of the other morality.”

Reading Week Part 1: The Malaise of Modernity by Charles Taylor

In honour of this week which has been sanctified by the University as “Reading Week”, I will blog about books.

I just finished reading The Malaise of Modernity by Charles Taylor. The book resulted from the Massey Lectures, “The Malaise of Modernity,” which were broadcasted on CBC Radio in 1991.

First, Taylor begins by enumerating the three malaises including: individualism, instrumental reason, and the institutions and structures of industrial-technological society. Individualism is problematic because, “people are no longer sacrificed to the demands of supposedly sacred orders that transcend them” and this contributes to a “loss of meaning.” Instrumental reason is used to refer to “the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end” and this means that efficiency is the measurement of success over virtue, for example. Industrial-technological society, Taylor argues, paves the way for “individuals to give a weight to instrumental reason that in serious moral deliberation we would never do” and this he says “is about a loss of freedom.”

Taylor aims to strike a balance in his assessment of modernity between the extreme positions of “the boosters and the knockers.” He thinks that “a systematic cultural pessimism is as misguided as a global cultural optimism.”

And so, he begins to describe authenticity. This is a word I will likely avoid using in the future given how ambiguous and confusing I have found it to be in Taylor’s thought.

Essentially, Taylor wants to resist extreme contempt for modernity because there is a “powerful moral ideal at work” in modern culture. This moral ideal (often distorted by the three malaises of modernity) has to do with a kind of self-fulfilment centred on “being true to oneself, in a specifically modern understanding of that term.” This he calls authenticity and he says it “should be taken as a serious moral ideal.”

Here are some quotations on authenticity to demonstrate why I am confused:

The ethic of authenticity is something relatively new and peculiar to modern culture.

Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality that is properly my own. This is the background understanding to the modern ideal of authenticity, and to the goals of self-fulfilment or self-realization in which it is usually couched. This is the background that gives moral force to the culture of authenticity, including its most degraded, absurd, or trivialized forms. It is what gives sense to the idea of ‘doing your own thin’ or ‘finding your own fulfilment.’

Can one say anything in reason to people who are immersed in the contemporary culture of authenticity? Can you talk in reason to people who are deeply into soft relativism, or who seem to accept no allegiance higher than their own development – say, those who seem ready to throw away love, children, democratic solidarity, for the sake of some career advancement?

Authenticity is not the ememy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands.

Authenticity is a facet of modern individualism.

Authenticity involves originality, it demands a revolt against convention.

Authenticity involves creation and construction as well as discovery, originality and frequently opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what we recognize as morality. But it is also true, as we saw, that it requires openness to horizons of significance (for otherwise the creation loses the background that can save it from insignificance) and a self-definition in dialogue.

The struggle ought not to be over authenticity, for or against it, but about it, defining its proper meaning.

This is pretty confusing stuff. Authenticity is a word that Taylor uses to describe the tension between bad individualism (atomization) and good individualism (“responsibilization”).

Interspersing numerous pleas to environmentalism, communitarianism, and anti-abortion efforts, his policy prescriptions are generally fairly big leaps from his analytic and socialistic system of thought.

There are many interesting references throughout this book to such wide-ranging thinkers as Tocqueville, Bloom, Arendt, Rawls, MacIntyre, Hutcheson, Rousseau, Hegel, Montesquieu, Foucault, Bacon, Wordsworth, and Rilke.

Ultimately though, I was not very impressed by this book. Perhaps I should try another one. In the meantime, for good reading on modernity, individualism, democracy and so on, it makes sense to return to reading Democracy in America and The Quest for Community from which I have still only read excerpts.

Sacred Trust Abuse Scandals

My child, sit here with me. Tell me what troubles you. Only if you want to. I am Father Gregory. […]
I can’t tell you, Father.
Would you like to go to Confession?
I can’t, Father. I did terrible things.
God forgives all who repent. He sent his only Beloved Son to die for us.
I can’t, Father. I can’t.
But you could tell St. Francis, couldn’t you? […] We’ll sit here and you’ll tell him the things that trouble you. If I sit and listen it will only be a pair of ears for St. Francis and Our Lord. Won’t that help?
– from Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

The sacrament of Confession can be, all at once, mysterious, perplexing, terrifying, humbling, and liberating. The Catchecism says that “even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby
opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a
new future possible.”

The Catechism also says:

Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.

The word ‘sacrament’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘sacred sign.’ The sacraments are intended to point beyond themselves to the fullness of God’s mercy and loving justice. It is the responsibility of the priest to be a servant of God’s forgiveness and to mediate between God and the penitent. The sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation is rooted in both Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

When [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on [the disciples] and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” – John 20:22-23 (NRSV)

Father William Saunders tells this story about the inviolability of the sacramental seal:

A beautiful story (perhaps  embellished with time) which captures the reality of this topic is the life of  St. John Nepomucene (1340-93), the vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague.  King Wenceslaus IV, described as a vicious, young man who easily succumbed to  rage and caprice, was highly suspicious of his wife, the Queen. St. John happened  to be the Queen’s confessor. Although the king himself was unfaithful, he became  incrasingly jealous and suspicious of his wife, who was irreproachable in her  conduct. Wencelaus, as king, demanded that St. John break the sacramental seal.  Although Wencelaus tortured St. John to force him to reveal the Queen’s confessions,  he would not. In the end, St. John was thrown into the River Moldau and drowned  on March 20, 1393. Similar stories abound, especially in the past century during  the awful persecution of the Church under Communism and Naziism, where priests  were tortured, imprisoned, and executed because they would not break the sacramental  seal.

Though “it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (Code of Canon Law, no. 2490), there are instances where priests have betrayed the authority and responsibility of their positions. Though the sexual abuse scandals that have occurred have been the main focus of attention by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the sacred trust abuse scandals deserve, I think, our serious attention, especially in light of dozens of efforts by governments that threaten the inviolability of the sacrament.

Though the known cases of abuses of the sacramental seal are very few relative to the longstanding tradition of secrecy, it is wrong to underestimate these known cases and to omit from our consideration the possibility of many possible unreported cases.

The most startling example of a breach of the sacramental seal that I have learned about occured in the life of a young boy. I will excerpt his whole account of the experience from his autobiography:

An Early Traumatic Experience

You should know that I took my religion very seriously. The first serious crack in my religious belief happened when I was thirteen years old. On a Saturday morning, during the usual pushing and shoving to be the first one into the gym, I accidentally pushed a classmate down the stairs. Throughout the years, hundreds of students must have sailed down these stairs without any serious injuries. This time he was unlucky; he broke his ankle. I was punished with two hours of detention. I went to confession in the afternoon as I did every week, confessed what I did like a good boy, but I didn’t say anything about this incident at home because I didn’t want to spoil Sunday for my parents. They would learn about it soon enough in the coming week.

That evening my confessor, who was a good friend of my father, was visiting at our house. The next morning my father scolded me about the pushing incident, and I was punished because I did not report it to him right away. I was devestated, not because of the punishment, but because of this unheard of breach of confidence by my confessor. Wasn’t it always taught that the secrecy of the confessional could not be broken? Even the most serious crimes that a person tells the priest in the holy confessional cannot be reported to the police. And now this priest, whom I trusted so deeply, who was my steady confessor and knew my whole little world of sins by heart, had broken the secrecy of the confessional for such a minor incident. Only he could have told my father.

Neither my father, mother, nor anyone else from our house had been in town that day. Our telephone was out of order, and none of my classmates lived in our neighbourhood. No one had visited us except my confessor. For a long, long time, I checked all the details of this over and over because this was such a horrible thing to me. Then and even now I am firmly convinced that the priest had violated the secrecy of the confessional. My faith in the holy profession of the priesthood was smashed and doubts began to stir within me. I never went back to him for confession because I could no longer trust him. I told the priest that I was going to our religious instruction teacher in the church near my school because my father lectured me when he discovered I was no longer going to the priest. My father believed it, but I am convinced that the priest knew the real reason. He tried everything to win me back, but I just couldn’t go back to him. In fact, I went even further. I didn’t go to confession at all anymore if I could get away with it. After this incident, I could no longer trust any priest.

In religious instruction we were told that if a person went to communion without confession, he would be severely punished by God. We were told that someone had done that and had dropped dead at the communion rail. With childish simplicity I begged God to be lenient because I could no longer confess faithfully and to forgive my sins, which I now recited directly to him. So I believed I was free of my sins. Full of doubt, I went trembling to the communion rail in strange church. And nothing happened! So I, poor earthworm, believed that God would hear my prayers and agree with what I was doing. The deep, true, childlike faith which so calmly and surely guided my soul until this time was smashed.

How sincere and contrite! Who could refuse pity and sympathy to this boy whose trust and childlike faith were so terribly betrayed? What became of this boy? The next year his father died. The boy was supposed to become a priest. With the loss of faith and the loss of his father, he became zealous to join the military, though he was just fifteen. He doubted his vocation to be a priest and explained that both the traumatic incident of betrayal and having witnessed the trade in holy relics that he had seen in the Holy Land had destroyed his faith in priests. His mother then died and the young man became more and more convinced of his desire to be a soldier.

The one of whom I speak is Rudolph Höss and I have been quoting from his autobiography Death Dealer: Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz. According to the back cover, “Höss (1900-1947) was history’s greatest mass murderer, personally supervising the extermination of approximately two million people, mostly Jews at Auschwitz.”

Two months before he was hanged at Auschwitz Höss ended his memoirs saying:

May the general public simply go on seeing me as the bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist, the murderer of millions, because the broad masses cannot conceive the Kommandant of Auschwitz in any other way. They will never be able to understand that he also had a heart and that he was not evil.

Though his memoirs are filled with alternations between truthtelling and lying, the challenges in deciphering the truth render the work all the more fascinating. And so, from this Nazi we have an extraordinary testimony on the absolutely paramount secrecy of the Seal of Confession. Though the terrible betrayal of trust (whether sexually or with respect to sacred trust) does not exonerate penitents from future sins, it does rouse heartbreaking sympathy for those who, in their vulnerability and trust, have expected to
place themselves before the mercy of God, but have instead encountered extreme human weakness, and perhaps even Satan.

But “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NRSV), there is a need for the sacrament of Confession. It is a real, transformative event through which God imparts His loving mercy even though priests fall short of mediating (as Christ does) the perfection of the love of God the Father.

In her Letter to a Priest, Simone Weil writes: “The Church is only perfectly pure under one aspect; when considered as guardian of the sacraments. What is perfect is not the Church; it is the body and blood of Christ upon the altars.” Similarly, it could be added: What is perfect is not the confessors; it is the mercy of God poured out through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Confession is a powerful experience. The priests through whom I have confessed my sins have been extraordinary examples of Christ’s love. They have always listened lovingly and patiently. They have often given helpful advice, encouragement, and spiritual direction. I am thankful for their ministry. It is truly amazing that there are priests all around the world listening to hours of confessions every week. They are doctors of the soul and deserve our gratitude for their selfless service. Still, we must encourage and pray for them, that each would “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [they] have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1)

Reflecting on Huizinga and Guardini on Playfulness

This semester I am taking a class called “War and Interpretation”. According to the syllabus, “[…We] begin with the assumption that war is a natural human activity and, as with all such activities, has a variegated historical, political, and cultural significance. […] The objective is to provide an opportunity to engage the intellect with several distinct perspectives on a major expression of one of the constant attributes of human nature.”

While my political science degree requirements include: International Relations; Comparative Politics; and Research Methods, Henry Adams said, “Knowledge of human nature is the beginning and end of political education.” My friend Thomas Cliplef says, “Generally, I find [the quantitative] side of political science very boring as it tells me nothing about the human condition in relation to politics. It doesn’t attempt to grasp the internal perspectives of the leadership or the citizens within a political community. The qualitative or philosophical side of political science does just this.”

And so, when I am annoyed with the efforts to beat out any normativity in students in a statistics class, I find it refreshing to retreat to my class on war.

For this class, I recently read a book called Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga.

Here are some of the important things that Huizinga says about play:

– First and foremost, then, all play is voluntary activity.” (7)
– As regards its formal characteristics, all students lay stress on the disinterestedness of play. (9)
– Play is distinct from ‘ordinary’ life both as to locality and duration. (9)
– [Play] creates order, is order. (10)
– Play has a tendency to be beautiful. (10)
– All play has its rules. (11)
– The function of play in the higer forms which concern us here can largely be derived from the two basic aspects under which we meet it: as a contest for something or as a representation of something. (13)
– Let us enumerate once more the characteristics we deemed proper to play. It is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules, freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exhalation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow. (132)
– More often than not [the task of a hero] will be tackled as the result of a challenge, or a vow, a promise or whim of the beloved. All these motifs carry us straight back to agnostic play. (133)

Huizinga analyzes play in language, law, war, knowing, poetry, mythopoiesis [myth-making], philosophy, art, and contemporary civilization. What I found most interesting is the relationship between Huizinga’s thoughts on play and those of Romano Guardini in the his chapter “The Playfulness of the Liturgy” within his larger work The Spirit of the Liturgy. Huizinga makes very brief mention of Guardini’s work, but it was enough of a mention to spark my interest in considering the relationship between the play-element in its essence, at which Huizinga aims to strike, and the play-element in the liturgy and in the sacraments, that is Guardini’s focus.

What Huizinga seems to emphasize that Guardini does not is the voluntary nature of play. There is a strong emphasis on the freedom and spontaneity in play, combined with a lack of necessity. What Guardini seems to emphasize that Huizinga does not about the essence of play is that is it, at once, meaningful and purposeless. He says that “to be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God’s sight–not to create, but to exist–such is the essence of the liturgy.”

Early on, Huizinga discusses the nature and significance of play, from children’s games to sacred performances:

The sacred performance is more than an actualization in appearance only, a sham reality; it is also more than a symbolical actualization – it is a mystical one. In it, something invisible and inactual takes beautiful, actual, holy form. The participants in the rite are convinced that the action actualizes and effects a definite beatification, brings about an order of things higher than that in which they customarily live. All the same this ‘actualization by representation’ still retains the formal characteristics of play in every respect. It is played out or performed within a ground that is literally ‘staked out’, and played moreover as a feast, i.e. in mirth and freedom.

For such a general description, the above passage certainly coincides with the theology of the Eucharist. In the Blessed Sacrament, the invisible God takes “beautiful, actual, holy form”. According to the catechism, “the power of the words and the action of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, make sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine Christ’s body and blood, his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all.”

Huizinga continues:
“The rite produces the effect which is then not so much shown figuratively as actually reproduced in the action. The function of the rite, therefore, is far from being merely imitative; it causes the worshippers to participate in the sacred happening itself.”

This makes sense with the re-incarnation of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Christ becomes present again, not represented, but re-present “in the flesh” in the mystery of the Eucharist.

The congregation participates fully in the sacred happening. Consider the words of the priest: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” After the institution narrative, the congregation says the Memorial Acclamation: “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” The priest acting In persona Christi constitutes what Huizinga references Marett as calling “‘a helping-out of the action.'”

Staying focused on why this matters at all, let’s entertain Huizinga’s conviction about the centrality of play in civilization. He says, “For many years the conviction has grown upon me that civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” He argues this forcefully saying, “Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.”

If Huizinga is right about this, then he is offering an important insight into human nature. We humans are not only knowers, makers, producers, consumers, etc. We are players. This sort of thinking inspires me to remember what my friends and family often remind me: “You are a human being, not a human doing!” This is where Guardini’s analysis is helpful because he strikes at the nature of man as being ordered to live in relationship with God. The meaningfulness lies in the soul’s nature “not to create, but to exist” This has meaning for understanding human dignity apart from achievement.

Guardini says:

It is in this very aspect of the liturgy that its didactic aim is to be found, that of teaching the soul not to see purposes everywhere, not to be too conscious of the end it wishes to attain, not to be desirous of being over-clever and grown-up, but to understand simplicity in life. The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with sayings and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking ‘why?’ and ‘wherefore?’ It must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.

It is natural, when discussing play, to consider what can be learned from children. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3) In discussing child’s play, Guardini explains what he means by saying that play is purposeless, yet meaningful:

The child, when it plays, does not aim at anything. It has no purpose. It does not want to do anything but to exercise its youthful powers, pour forth its life in an aimless series of movements, words and actions, and by this to develop and to realize itself more fully; all of which is purposeless, but full of meaning nevertheless, the significance lying in the unchecked revelation of this youthful life in thoughts and words and movements and actions, in the capture and expression of its nature, and in the fact of its existence. And because it does not aim at anything in particular, because it streams unbroken and spontaneously forth, its utterance will be harmonious, its form clear and fine; its expression will of itself become picture and dance, rhyme, melody and song. That is what play means; it is life, pouring itself forth without an aim, seizing upon riches from its own abundant store, significant through the fact of its existence. It will be beautiful, too, if it is left to itself, and if no futile advice and pedagogic attempts at enlightenment foist upon it a host of aims and purposes, thus denaturizing it.

These two authors may be discussing play a bit differently. I am still not sure about the essence of play, though I agree with the various characteristics that are enumerated.

With the emphasis on existence, we can return to Huizinga’s reference of Aristotle with regard to play. Aristotle, discussing music (which Huizinga places in the category of play), says that “music conduces to virtue in so far as, like gymnastics, it makes the body fit, breeds a certain ethos and enables us to enjoy things in the proper way[.]”

On this note, a friend of mine recently asked, referring to our mutual friend, why this friend would feel obligated to go to Mass every single day. “As the body needs food, so the soul needs food,” I said. Specifically, I meant the Bread of Heaven.

Recently I read a quotation from Cardinal Basil Hume in the Mystery of the Incarnation. He writes:

The meaning of things, and their purpose,
Is in part now hidden
But shall in the end become clear.
The choice is between
The Mystery and the absurd.

Participating in the Holy Mass is an opportunity to enter into the Mystery. The daily grind is what has my heart echoing St. Teresa of Avila’s words: “Lord, what can I do here? What has the servant to do with her Lord? What has earth to do with heaven?” But then, at the Mass we pray. The priest says, “And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise…” The congregation joins saying:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,
God of hosts.
Heaven and
earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who
comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

There is a distinct presence in the moment, combined with participation in eternity. The universal Church is praying and there seems to be a timelessness. Before receiving the Blessed Sacrament we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Here we are echoing the words of the Roman centurion in the Gospel of Matthew. And so, from a return to biblical accounts, to “heaven kissing earth” in the Eucharist, to the foretaste of heaven through joining the choirs of angels, we participate in this “great processional order of existence in a sacred play, in and through which [each participant] actualizes anew, or ‘recreates’, the events represented and thus helps to maintain the cosmic order.”

One of my favorite parts of the Mass goes as follows:

Priest:
The Lord be with you.
People: And with your spirit.
Priest: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right and just.

What I like so much about this part is that it inspires me to contemplate the meaning of justice. Also, thinking of justice in terms of the thanks due to God according to the dignity of His Nature and Goodness inspires a good notion of justice to imitate in community with others. Pope Benedict has written some interesting things about justice and resurrection.

According to this article summarizing the arguments, Fr. James Schall writes:

As the pope cites him, [Theodore] Adorno maintains that, even though he does not believe it, the only ‘logical’ way that there ever could be true justice in this actual world would be for there to be something like the resurrection of the body. Clearly he is right. There is, no doubt, something amusingly ironic about a Marxist
philosopher appearing prominently in a papal encyclical as an upholder of the basic Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

At the end of Huizinga’s book, he says:

So that by a devious route we have reached the following conclusion: real civilization cannot exist in the absence of a certain play-element, for civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self, the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal, but to understand that it is enclosed within certain bounds freely accepted. Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. Hence, the cheat or the spoil-sport shatters civilization itself. To be a sound culture-creating force this play-element must be pure. It must not consist in the darkening or debasing of standards set up by reason, faith or humanity. It must not be a false seeming, a masking of political purposes behind the illusion or genuine play-forms. True play knows no propaganda; its aim is in itself, and its familiar spirit is happy inspiration.

Do we play purely? Is it true that “the liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God”? Could being “spiritual but not religious” be akin to being a “spoil-sport”? Is constituting an end-in-itself the very essence of play? If play is marked by its set apartness from ordinary life and play is a good-in-itself, then is play the aim of life? Is leisure the “basis of culture” as Joseph Pieper called it? (In the same vein as Aristotle, as Huizinga shows.) Can the play-element help us to focus on the goodness and beauty of existence? For human persons, does the goodness of our existence lie (or live?) within rather than outside of us?

“Now what is the meaning of that which exists? That it should exist and should be the image of God the Everlasting. And what is the meaning of that which is alive? That it should live, bring forth its essence, and bloom as a natural
manifestation of the living God.” – Romano Guardini

Break the Conventions. Keep the Commandments – Highlights of the Chesterton Conference

Before arriving to Reno, my only impression of it had been what I had gleaned from a couple of scenes in the film Sister Act. I landed in the Reno-Tahoe airport after arriving from Birmingham. A local in the airport advised me against my plan to take a cab and find a hostel for the night.  She said, “Reno’s hurtin’ bad. Take a free shuttle downtown and you can stay at a hotel for $35.” Praise God for putting locals in every single city I visit.

I took the shuttle to Circus Circus hotel and was told that the room would be $47, plus tax and plus some additional fee. For a hotel room it wasn’t bad, but I thought that I could do better. When I said I might go down the street and compare prices, they dropped the price $10 and I checked into the hotel.

I had arrived to Reno two days early for the 31st Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference taking place at the Silver Legacy Hotel and Casino. After settling into my hotel, I strolled the streets of downtown Reno observing the hotels, restaurants, movie theatre, and street names.

On August 1, I woke up and soon after phoned Joan and Michael who agreed to host me during the conference. I arrived to their home on Wednesday afternoon. Asked if I’d like a drink, I said yes and Mr. Cassity offered to make me a martini! As we drank our martinis we discussed liberal arts education, great books, tradition, conversion, conservatism, travel, and more. Mrs. Cassity made a delicious dinner and served wine. I was well taken care of by my Chestertonian host parents.

The next day, they offered to take me to Lake Tahoe. I am so glad that they did. It was a beautifully scenic drive. They told me that their children can ask themselves in the same day whether they’d like to go skiing or golfing. The Cassitys told me about Mark Twain’s visit to the region in 1861. Of Lake Tahoe Twain wrote:

“At last the lake burst upon us–a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft three thousand feet higher still! As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface, I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole world affords.”

We had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the lake. I had a beef dip with mushrooms and cheese and au jus, a favorite food of mine lately. As we took in the gorgeous view, we discussed current affairs.

“Now betting and such sports are only the stunted and twisted shapes of the original instinct in man for adventure and romance…” – G.K. Chesterton

After returning home, Joan and I prepared for the conference. Then, we drove to the venue. Walking through the Silver Legacy Casino en route to the conference room was an interesting experience. Chesterton would probably get such a kick out of conferences being held in his honour in Reno, of all places! Joan and I arrived to the conference with plenty of time to register and browse the various tables that were set up to feature various organizations, initiatives, and books for sale.

I approached one very eye-catching display for Titanic Heroes. “Tell me about your display,” I said to the young woman waiting to greet passers by arriving early to the conference. An impressive young woman named Cady explained that she and her brother Benjamin had taken an interest in studying the Titanic. “Here is my new book,” said fifteen year old Cady holding up a copy of her just-published book A Titanic Hero: Thomas Byles. It’s the story of “One man…one ship…one night that was to be remembered forever. Thomas Byles, a Roman Catholic priest on board the R.M.S. Titanic, had the saying, ‘Give what you have,’ instilled into him from a very young age. His training, commitment, and love for others culminated into one shining example of fortitude in the face of danger. This book, historical fiction, narrates the life of Thomas Byles.”

Cady and Benjamin and the other three Crosby siblings are a shining example of homeschooled children. Since they are homeschooled, they have plenty of time to participate in speech and debate, publish books, and to “cultivate titanic virtue” by sharing the stories of Titanic heroes through their presentations across America.

The conference kicked off with an introductory lecture by Dale Ahlquist, the president of the American Chesterton Society. He encouraged attendees at the Reno conference to “put their money on the Chesterton table” and to support the Society by buying Chesterton books and even the “CHE-STERTON” t-shirt. The Chesterton Society has plenty of quirky rituals and this is exactly what a good society requires. From allowing whoever experiences the greatest series of unfortunate events throughout the conference to drink from the “cup of inconvenience” and then be awarded the “mug of consolation” to having an annual clerihew contest where the prize-winning four-line biographical poems are recited and celebrated at the final banquet.

There are bracelets that say WWJD? which stands for What Would Jesus Do?
Perhaps we ought to have bracelets that say WHJD? for What Has Jesus Done? – Pearce

Next, Joseph Pearce delivered a lecture titled, “The Humor and Humility of Chesterton.” Pearce’s message celebrated tradition and repudiated what he terms “DWEM-ism”, which represents the contempt held by progressives for “Dead, White, European, Males.” Joseph Pearce asks, “Can a person help that they are dead? Can a person help that they are white? Can a person help that they are European? Can a person help that they are male?” Of course not. Hating tradition is like racism. This is Pearce’s message and it is a very sincere one. It comes from a man who was formerly aligned with a white nationalist party in England before his conversion. Pearce’s conversion from racism to Catholicism was greatly motivated by his reading of Chesterton. Pearce is now a tremendous apologist for the faith, an excellent biographer, and active in promoting homeschool education, the great books, and liberal education.

The following day, there were many excellent lectures given by: Cameron Moore, PhD at Baylor University; Ralph Wood, Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University; Jason Jones, President and Founder of Whole Life America and Producer of the film Bella; Mark Shea, Author and Master of Blogosphere; and Kevin O’Brien, President and Artistic Director of Theater of the Word Inc. Needless to say, the conference far exceeded any expectations that I had. The lectures were top-notch and paid good tribute to Chesterton. Key themes of the lectures included: transcendence and mystery, wisdom and humility, the goodness of existence, paradoxical truth and conversion, and wonder and awe.

My favorite speaker was Jason Jones who delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches I have ever heard. He began by joking that he is a Chesterton fan “more like a twelve-year-old girl feels about Justin Beiber.” For Jones, reading Chesterton also played a significant role in his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Jason was raised a scientologist, but rejected scientology in eighth grade and became “a hardcore Randian objectivist” until his early thirties. Jason grew up in south-side Chicago, surrounded by anti-Catholic bias.

I knew that Jason Jones had helped to produce Bella, a pro-life film released in 2006. Jones said to us, “As of today, 581 women who were going to have abortions saw Bella, changed their minds, and let us know.”

He said that receiving text messages informing him that another woman has chosen life for her child is the very best part of his job. All of these details become even more beautiful in light of Jason’s conversion story.

Jason was sixteen. It was two days before his seventeenth birthday and a Saturday morning after a Friday night high school football game. His girlfriend came into his bedroom, “the room of a boy” and informed him that she was pregnant. “There I was with my girlfriend and we needed a strategy,” recalls Jason. The plan we came up with was this: On my seventeenth birthday, I could drop out of school and join the army. She would wait for me to come back.”  His parents were supportive and the principal was happy to sign the papers. And so that’s what Jason did. He piled his belongings into a pillow case, along with a razor that he didn’t yet need and went to join the army so that he could support his family upon his return.

One day, a call came in and Jason took the phone, though he knew he wasn’t meant to leave his station. His girlfriend was on the phone and she was crying, “like I’ve never heard a woman cry before. And the only way that I can describe it is that her soul was crying. She kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Then, her father picked up the phone and said, “Jason, I know your secret and your secret is gone. I took Katie to get an abortion.”

Just then, someone came and hung up the phone and told Jason to get back to task. Jason, angry and shaken, said, “Sir, call the police. My girlfriend’s father just killed my child.” In reply the man said to Jason, “Why would I call the police? Don’t you know that abortion is legal?”

Jason did not know.

Jason was a poor student, but he says that he knew then that life began at fertilization. He was heart-broken. When he had the opportunity to phone his girlfriend back, he said to her, “Katie, I promise you that, even if no one cares about abortion and if it takes me the rest of my life, I will end abortion for you and our daughter Jessica.”

Jason and Katie know that the abortion ended the life of their daughter because when the abortion was done, the abortionist then said to Katie, “By the way, your baby was a baby girl.”

With Dale Ahlquist and Jason Jones, holding an autographed copy of Chesterton’s book on Rome.

Since this experience, Jason truly has dedicated his life to striving to end abortion and to help create a culture of life and build a civilization of love. He converted to the Catholic faith and now has six children. He is producing more life-affirming films, directing the organization I Am Whole Life, and travelling the world advancing respect for the sanctity of all human life from the moment of fertilization until the moment of natural death.

Conversion stories are awesome. They make the most beautiful stories because they bear witness so wonderfully to the path of salvation history consisting in passion (suffering), death (dying to self), and resurrection (new life in Christ).

On Friday evening at the Chesterton conference, there was the world premiere of the film Manalive, based on Chesterton’s novel by the same title. Manalive is the story of Innocent Smith, a character who is tried for such crimes as burglary, desertion of a spouse, polygamy, and attempted murder. If I may excerpt from Wikipedia, here is a summary of the wonderous Chestertonian paradoxes in the film:

“[Innocent Smith] fires bullets near people to make them value life; the house he breaks into is his own; he travels around the world only to return with renewed appreciation for his house and family; and the women he absconded with are actually his wife Mary, posing as a spinster under different aliases so they may repeatedly re-enact their courtship.”

After watching the film, I thought: I am a “cradle Catholic” yet I think I ought to convert to Roman Catholicism. I imagined myself taking Rite of Christian Initiation for Adult (RCIA) classes. Of course, life is a continuous experience of conversion, of return to God. Chesterton’s wit and wisdom adds wonder to the experience and reminds each reader that he is also “the man who with the upmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.”

On Saturday the conference sessions included a lecture by Nancy Brown on The Plays and Poetry of Frances Chesterton, a session by Julian Ahlquist on Chesterton and Aliens, a small group discussion on the economic ideas of distributism, and finally a closing lecture by Dr. Andrew Tadie contrasting Chesterton and H.G. Wells.

There was 5:00pm mass on Saturday evening celebrated at St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral with the Most Reverend Randolph Calvo, Bishop of Reno.

Then, everyone returned to the casino to a ballroom where the closing banquet was held. There were jokes, toasts, songs, drama and musical performances, clerihew readings, a live auction (a signed Chesterton book was the top prize), plenty of wine, and lots of other fun.

The conversations that evening at my table centred around the presidential election, Austrian economics versus distributism, summer travels, music, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and our favorite Chestertonian aphorisms. It was an absolute delight to dine with young people who light up while discussing Chesterton because of how instrumental he has been in helping them to see more colourfully. Chesterton helps souls become poetic optimists. Chesterton writes:

“The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in light of the supernatural.”

I look forward to reading more works by Chesterton.
To everyone, I recommend his book Orthodoxy.

G.K. Chesterton, pray for us.

This blog post is dedicated to Joan and Michael Cassity in gratitude to them for having hosted me in their home and for having shared many wonderful conversations during the 31st Annual G.K. Chesterton Conference in Reno, Nevada. God bless you!