Here are some recommendations from everyone attending the Witherspoon Institute Natural Law and Public Affairs Seminar this week:
Category Archives: Uncategorized
Lord, make me an instrument of Your environmentalism.
Lord, make me an instrument of Your environmentalism. Where there is climate change, let me sow carbon offsets; where there is deforestation, trees; where there is skepticism, alarmism; where there is despair, more despair; where there is darkness, solar power; where there is sadness, activism.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to have children as to combat overpopulation; to understand facts as to disseminate propaganda; to love the cross as to love trees; For it is in recycling that we renewed; it is in bicycling that we erase our footprints; and it is in dying that we save the planet.
PCs = Political Censors – Amanda’s Twitter Account Suspended
CALGARY, ALBERTA (APRIL 12, 2013, 10:06)
We know the Progressive Conservatives don’t handle dissent very well. Yesterday, the last tweet I read before going to sleep said: “@AmandaAchtman stop spamming people.” The next morning, my twitter account had been suspended.
Please continue to share the video “Some Party That I Used To Know” on Facebook and Twitter. Tweet it to your friends, the media, and most especially, the PCs.
Will you send the PCs a message?
Euthanasia Advocate: “Well, I think my family would like my money”
Earlier this year I attended Dying with Dignity seminar. After the day-long seminar on how to be a “choice in dying” apologist, I had some conversations with the elderly folks in attendence. The elderly are not a burden and the following clip demonstrates the urgent need for us all to help create a culture of life.
Listen: Euthanasia Talk Clip
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)
“The Anonymous Passive”
One month later, after reporting on latest packages sent home, he [the Bremen reservist] noted explicitly: “Here all Jews are being shot. Everywhere such actions are underway. Yesterday night 150 Jews from this place were shot, men, women, children, all killed. The Jews are being totally exterminated.” He advised his wife not to think about it—”it must be”—and for the moment to “say nothing about it” to their eldest daughter. Significantly, he wrote in the “anonymous passive” voice—omitting any identification of the actors–so pervasive in postwar accounts but here employed even during the war.
The phrase “the anonymous passive” and Browning’s explanation of it using this example struck me as quite relevant to my recent reflection on the tendency of international relations theorists and international political economists especially to personify non-persons and to dehumanize actual persons so that action is carelessly assigned to non-actors and moral responsibility cannot be properly designated. “Theorists’ use of abstractions, often involving calling non-persons ‘actors’, leads to a deflection of responsibility. The problem is that you and I are not sure where to direct our moral judgment… either praise or blame.”
Browning’s student Patrick Tobin elaborates on this point in his Master’s Thesis on the second largest Nazi crimes trials after the Nuremberg Trials. He says:
Those interviewed by and large played a difficult balancing game, trying to come across as helpful and open, while reluctant to provide any self-incriminating statements. When confronted with the information about the massacre in Garsden, most acknowledged that this occurred, but made self-exculpatory statements along the lines of “I did not see these things with my own eyes.” Similarly, they tended to speak of the shooting in what Christopher Browning has termed the “anonymous passive,” noting the crimes but omitting the criminals: “After the first group had been shot, the next ten people were led to the grave… In the end, they themselves were shot just as their predecessors.”
Dehumanization is often cited as one of the key tactics of genocidaires. (By the way, this French word for ‘those who commit genocide’ was coined after the genocide in Rwanda and I think we ought to have an English equivalent that is more precise than ‘perpetrator.’) Dehumanization is defined by Browning as the “ability to construct a world in which those whom the perpetrators had killed were not within community of human obligation, but rather totally devalued.”
Using theories, models, paradigms, abstractions, and other “constructs” distract from “the community of human obligation.” Valuing human persons requires a personalist and human action approach to politics. Also, international politics is about more than necessity. Constructing a system of the world according to what is possible rather than according to what is responsible leads to immoral consequences.
What are the Foundations of International Political Economy?
Here are some initial thoughts I have for a paper I am writing in a class called Politics of the International and Economic Order.
I would like to argue that among political scientists, there is a tendency to personify non-persons, while, at the same time, dehumanizing actual persons. This is an especially common temptation for international relations theorists. Though they are often called “actors”, states, governments, international organizations, agencies, departments, programs, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, non-governmental organizations, corporations, etc. do not act. Only human persons act. Action is important because it denotes intellect and will. Only upon recognizing that actions are what human persons (and only human persons) do, can we assign moral responsibility to the persons acting within these larger organizations. Otherwise, individual persons are shielded from responsibility within a bureaucracy and among the masses within a system.
Possible titles include:
Toward a Praxeological Approach to International Political Economy OR,
A Return to International Relations Rooted in Natural Law OR,
A Deconstruction of International Relations
My professor warned me to make sure that it is an International Political Economy paper. The below post is an attempt to understand a bit about the nature and foundations of the sub-discipline.
Dr. James Keeley also advises his students to remember the adage: before you study something, understand it thoroughly. This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Francis Bacon: “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” Sir James Steuart references this quotation in his 1767 work An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy in which he says:
I have read many authors on the subject of political oeconomy; and I have endeavoured to draw from them all the instruction I could. I have travelled, for many years, through different countries, and have examined them, constantly, with an eye to my own subject. I have attempted to draw information from every one with whom I have been acquainted: this, however, I found to be very difficult until I had attained to some previous knowledge of my subject. Such difficulties confirmed to me the justness of Lord Bacon’s remark, that he who can draw information by forming proper questions, must be already possessed of half the science.
In his preface to the Inquiry, Steuart discusses the “complicated interests of society”, the habit of running into “systems [that] are mere conceits”, and the imperfection of language insofar as “the signs of our ideas take the place of the images which they were intended to represent.” It is with these prefatory comments that Steuart anticipates, at the outset, the underlying problems that continue to exist for any person endeavoring to give an account of political economy, whether of the domestic or international variety.
Before analyzing the meaning of “international”, it is worthwhile to first consider the meanings of the terms “politics” and “economics.” The etymologies of these words reveal the oxymoronic quality of such phrases as “International Political Economy” and “International Relations”. Politics is derived from the Greek word politika which Aristotle used to denote “the affairs of the polis“. Economics is derived from the Greek word oikonomia which refers to that which is “practised in the management of a household or family.” Xenophon wrote a treatise titled “Oeconomicus”, or “The Economist” in which Socrates and Critobulus dialogue on the science of the household. And so, the origins of the terms politics and economics seem to involve accounts from the perspective of the soul [or the individual] as the city writ small rather than from the perspective of the city as the soul [or individual] writ large.
The preposition ‘inter’ meaning ‘between’ or ‘among’, is derived from Latin and appears in such Latin phrases as: “inter alios, amongst others, other persons”; “inter nos, between ourselves”; “inter partes (Law), of an action: relevant only to the two parties in a particular case”; inter se, between or among themselves”; and “inter vivos, between living persons”. The noun ‘nation’ shares a root with nāscī, meaning to be born and “nation” came into origin in order to describe ‘a people united by common language and culture’, and ‘family, lineage’. Both ‘inter’ and ‘nation’ are etymologically rooted in defining the nature of local phenomena, that is, persons, families, and communities.
From appeals to justice in Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, to arguments for legitimacy in Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth, to the rules outlined in the Geneva Conventions, international relations in its current expression should be understood within the order of history. Providing context serves elucidate that, though a relatively new sub-discipline within political science, international relations is not actually new. Persons perpetually debate about power, authority, legitimacy, duty, stewardship, human dignity, law, nature, and morality.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Iberian scholastics now referred to as ‘the School of Salamanca’ were foundational in laying the intellectual groundwork for contemporary international law and international relations. According to Alves and Moreira:
The origins of (what we now call) international law go back to the Roman law concept of ius gentium [law of nations], a set of principles and rules that are derived from natural reason (and not from national legislators), and are common to all peoples, and apply equally to all mankind. […] Vitoria, Soto, Molina, and Suarez all agreed that the ius gentium was common to all mankind and that it could be recognized by reason even though it was not created through the will of an assembly or human legislator.
In order to rescue international relations from its capture by Machiavellians and men of system, political scientists should rekindle the relationship of international relations to international law and the relationship of international law to natural law. A return to understanding international relations as one aspect that is but an extension of natural law would lead to a restoration of moral judgment in this domain of politics. Where moral judgment is the primary aim, individual persons, their acts, and their motives will be returned to the centre of the study of politics. A personalist approach is preferable to a systematic, institutional, statist, or any other approach based upon abstractions. Theorists’ use of abstractions, often involving calling non-persons “actors”, leads to a deflection of responsibility. The problem is that you and I are not sure where to direct our moral judgment… either praise or blame.
As Steuart says: “Man we find acting uniformly in all age, in all countries, and in all climates, from the principles of self-interest, expediency, duty, or passion. In this he is alike, in nothing else.” It is through studying the human person and by offering a humble effort at striking at some truth of human nature and the human condition that international political economy can be helpful to understanding what is local. Claiming to account for the mystery of what is macro is most often a conceit of knowledge and the impetuous for planners to lead communities into “the highest degree of disorder.”
Please leave comments and recommended reading for me in the comments section below.
 Polis. Greek “city state” with a certain population and connected to the concept of citizenship based on birthplace.
 Oxford English Dictionary.
 With reference to Plato’s discussion in The Republic.
 Inter, preposition, OED. “inter, prep.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press.
 “nation, n.1”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press.
 Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers. The Salamanca School. Andre Alves and Jose Moreira, 59.
 Steuart discusses the Machiavellian tendency to “approv[e] the sacrifice of private concerns in favour of a general plan”.
 Smith discusses ‘men of system’ who are “so enamoured with the supposed beauty of their own ideal plan of government that they cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”
 An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy by Steuart.
 Smith’s warning about the ‘men of system’.
Little deaths and little resurrections
“We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
These words we spoke as we genuflected at each Station of the Cross. After bundling up to shield ourselves from the cold with our toques, gloves, and boots, we retreatants transitioned from the indoors of the Mount Saint Francis Retreat Centre into the frosty air of the cool outdoors on the outskirts of Cochrane, Alberta.
Passing a white statue of Saint Francis camouflaged in the snow, we then stood at the base of the mount at the First Station. According to this source: “The Stations of the Cross are an ancient form of Christian devotion. They were originally observed by pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, and were popularized by the Franciscans when they were given custody of the holy sites in Jerusalem in the 14th Century.”
At each Station, one of us would read a reflection. One knee bended in the snow, the front of the bottom of our jeans became dampened by the cold wetness. Soon, the bitterness of the cold was becoming sweet as we yearned for some slight discomfort that we might unite our discomfort, however pathetic, to the sorrow of Christ, to his friends, and to his Mother.
The last time that I had participated in the Stations of the Cross was in Mexico on Good Friday. This weekend, I was participating in the Stations in wintry Cochrane at a Fransciscan retreat Centre. I reflected on the continuity of this practice, the consistency of the devotion. Across time, cultures, and weather, the ritual remains.
Our ascent up the mount was simultaneously a descent into the humility of Christ’s passion. I gazed up at the trees that were beautifully covered in snow. Every branch was coated perfectly. Some of the statues were covered with snow. Brushing the snow aside from the faces of statues, we sought to uncover the mystery of the characters who were there with Christ when he carried the cross. We could taste the crispness in the air. The sky was white. We did the stations of the cross, uniting our own suffering to the suffering of Christ. Journeying through this ritual affirmed the smallness of our anxieties compared to the ultimate sacrifice of love made by Christ. The final reflection called us to reflect on how the Christian life is a journey of little deaths and little resurrections. We humbly imitate the salvation story through our lives. Even in the face of profound sorrow, there always remains the hope of immense joy.
This weekend I was on a retreat for youth ministers who serve on the Diocesan Youth Retreat Team. We lead retreats for students of the Calgary Catholic School District and also facilitate retreats through the parishes for sacramental preparation in the diocese.
On Sunday morning, youth minister Michael Chiasson gave an excellent talk. He spoke the topic of anxiety. “Google this word,” he says, “And there will appear 172,000,000 results in 0.18 seconds.” He proceeded to discuss how God brings us in over our heads so that when we get through things, we will look back and know that we didn’t do it by ourselves.
Throughout his talk, I though about two quotations almost in such a way that the first became like a question to which the second served as the answer:
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” – Søren Kierkegaard
“Peace is the tranquility of order.” – Saint Augustine
We love our liberty, yet we resent anxiety. Peace is perhaps the love of liberty along with the recognition that this liberty includes the anxiety of responsibility for the fruits of our freedom, for our choices.
Hannah Arendt eloquently says, “Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity. ”
As Augustine understood that “peace is the tranquility of order” which includes disorder, so Arendt understands that liberty is the the tranquility of freedom, including necessity.
It seems reasonable that the desire for liberty, like the desires for knowledge, perfection, etc. cannot be achieved in their fullness in this life. Why, then, should liberty be different? This does not diminish the goodness of liberty, but disposes us to seek moderation even in its pursuit and its defense. Could it be that extremism in the defense of liberty is, in fact, a vice? Libertarians can and will busy themselves their whole lives long seeking liberty. Liberty without limits is boundless, but it is also meaningless. Chesterton said that the liberty of which he chiefly cares is the liberty to bind himself. Socrates said that all that he knew was that he was ignorant. The paradoxical truth seems to be that it is the nature of our liberty to be limited.
In thinking about the relationship between liberty and responsibility and between volition and action, I have been reflecting on this passage in scripture:
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” – John 5:6
According to the Gospel of John, the man who Jesus came upon in Jerusalem had been ill for thirty-eight years. That is a really long time. If you have been in any state for such a length of time, I too would wonder if you are not simply desiring to maintain it. And so Jesus asks the sick man if he wants to be made well. This is a very interesting aspect of the story and one that we can easily forget.
A friend of mine recently shared one of his favorite non-biblical verses and that is the oft-repeated saying: “God helps those who help themselves.”
Is not the story of the man who is asked if he wants to be made well a sort of variation of this saying though? If the man did not want to be made well, Christ could have still healed him since he can do anything, but I doubt that he would have.
When I was a child, I was very curious about one part of the Mass. We would say, “Lord and I not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed!” I would tug on my mother’s shirt and ask her, “What’s the word?” I thought that there was some magic word that we should say to be healed and then she answered me, “The word is: ‘I want to be healed!'”
Too easy, I thought. Is that really all it takes?
Sometimes it seems that instead of wanting to be made well, which requires some work on our part, we would rather that others be made worse. That would be a much easier solution.
Why do people like watching reality television? Recently at the Mustard Seed, after the vice-presidential debate, the show that came on television was Beyond Scared Straight. “The series follows at-risk teens who have been in trouble for everything from fighting, theft, and drugs to promiscuity, gambling and gang-relations. They are forced to spend a day in jail, interact with convicted felons and truly experience what a life behind bars is like. In the end, some change for the better, but for others, nothing changes at all.”
With my Mustard Seed friends, I debriefed this. One resident, with whom I disagree on almost all things political said, “For once I agree with Amanda. This show is exploitative.” What does it say about the state of our culture or even human nature that this show is so succussful and that people delight in the suffering of others?
To whom do you think this type of show appeals? I asked.
“Middle class Americans.”
“Why is that?” I wondered aloud.
Both of us answered nearly in unison that it is because those who view it watch and say with satisfaction, “My life is not that bad.”
As we lead our lives, we find peace when we get glimpses of the fullness of reality as consisting of liberty and limits, healing and vulnerability, order and disorder. Will we be among those who sit on couches watching reality television and delighting in the suffering of others?Will we be like Simon and emerge from a crowd to help strangers and friends to carry their crosses? Perhaps there is a time for all of these activities, in our lives that ever consist of little deaths and little resurrections.
Spiritual Despondency, Vanity of Vanities, Foolishness to the World, and Paradoxical Truths
It is rare for me to take notes during Mass. But today I did. The priest began his homily by referencing a book that he then encouraged us to read. The book is by Kathleen Norris and is called Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. The book is described on Amazon as “a personal and moving memoir that resurrects the ancient term acedia, or soul-weariness, and brilliantly explores its relevancy to the modern individual and culture.” Here is an excerpt from an excerpt on the meaning of the term and its significance in illuminating the nature of a struggle with spiritual despondency:
At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cry out,” as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother.
The first reading at Mass today was from Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.
Right after explaining acedia and reminding us of the first reading, the priest said:
“I am a celibate priest. Have you ever heard of anything more stupid than that?”
It was a striking thing to say. He continued, “Genesis tells us that we are made for community… Ecclesiastes tells us that ‘all is vanity’… I could have made a lot more money. But when you become conscious of emptiness and brokenness and then come to see this emptiness and brokenness in the light of the gospel, we begin to pray earnestly the prayer of the psalmist who prays: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
Briefly this priest discussed Alcoholics Anonymous and how the process of moving from brokenness to freedom in fellowship with others that is so emphasized in the Twelve-Step Program is really quite like every soul’s journey of return to God.
The Christian message is foolishness to the world explains St. Paul:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom. […] For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
G.K. Chesterton, in his chapter “The Paradoxes of Christianity” wrote, “It is my only purpose in this chapter to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.
This is important to bear in mind when reading the lives of the Saints. For example, St. Teresa of Avila writes: “The Lord told me once that it wasn’t obedience if I wasn’t resolved to suffer, that I should fix my eyes on what He suffered, and that all would be easy.” This profound desire for communion with God lead her to resolve, “I need no rest; what I need is crosses.”
Searching for purpose in this life, we often aim for success of the worldly variety. Every day I am asked dozens of time what I will do next in this life. “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established,” says a proverb.
I am a flower quickly fading
Here today and gone tomorrow
A wave tossed in the ocean
Vapor in the wind
Still You hear me when I’m calling
Lord, You catch me when I’m falling
And You’ve told me who I am
I am Yours, I am Yours
– Casting Crowns lyrics “Who Am I?”
It is easy to doubt God’s purposes. They are so foolish in a dark world that has not been illumined by the light of Christ. But Christ has come, is come, and will come again. And, as the priest today concluded, “[A life in Christ] surpasses any other ways in which we could move toward a fullness of life.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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