Monday, August 27, 2018

The L Word

It used to be that I avoided confessing weaknesses.  Part of that, no doubt, was growing up in a large family of unrepentant teasers with elephant-trap memories.  I still shudder at the recollection of assorted siblings chanting “Chesterton packs more pleasure / Because Chesterton is more perfectly packed!”  In retrospect, given his aphoristic style, it was probably funnier even than they realized at the time.  And I probably was insufferably in love with his style (cf. the title of this blog).

But now, being older and wiser, I am beginning to come to terms with certain … eccentricities that previously seemed too dark and devious to confess in the light of day.  (Speaking of which, we won’t talk about fear of the dark; that’s for another post.)  For example …

There is an entire category of words that I avoid using.  Anglo-Saxon words?  Well, no, for all the elaborate Victorian prose that sometimes festoons this blog, I do love a good British word when I find one: girth, for example, or hog.  Swear words?  Well, admittedly, this is not the most likely place to go looking for those.  But that is as much a matter of principle as anything else; and I am speaking of matters of taste (because what else does this blog exist to dispute about, hmmmm?).


Here it is, the dirty truth: I don’t much like the word “soap,” and I really can’t stand “shampoo” and “lotion.”

Now before you start to back away with your hand over your nose (can I prevail upon you to take a sip of coffee?), let me assure you that I have no objections to routine ablutions.

Mind you, as small children multiply, these routine ablutions may be …

curtailed in frequency and length. 

But I digress..

I fully understand that the difference between us and the Middle Ages is that we are clean and they weren’t, and that’s why we don’t have the Black Death.

Actually, none of that is true.  Europe in the Middle Ages was relatively clean;

 and there are lots of other differences that are more important anyway. 

But again, I digress.

But that doesn’t alter the way I feel about these words.  The things themselves may be necessary; the words describing them are nasty.  Especially the L word.  Why could we not (instead of that) say, for example, rubcob?  Would not s--- be more fittingly represented by the sound poom?  And s------ by pillibalm?

But I digress; for my purpose was not to propose these alternations but to deliver a warning.  Here’s where things grow dark.  

There’s a conspiracy out there, mon frères.  A deep, dark, devious conspiracy to surround me with the L-word.  I’m not entirely sure what the motivation behind it is, and it probably won’t do me any real harm; but let me just lay the facts out before you.

First, I should observe that a number of my acquaintances, especially mothers of young kids who wash their hands multiple times an hour, frequently discuss their favorite L-products.  Church, barbecues, Facebook, store check-out lines, you name it: no place is safe from the mention of the L-word.

Second, it is becoming abundantly clear that, with the rise of Etsy and similar online platforms, as well as the Organic movement, more and more people are swapping and sharing recipes for home brews of the L-thing.  And if “home brew” makes you think of comforting autumnal beers rich in oatmeal and amber, think again: we’re talking more like witches’ brews here.

I’m just waiting for them to come up with a “Pumpkin Spice” hand ----.

Third—and here is where the plot really thickens into something you wouldn’t want to stick your fingers into—there is an obvious plan to introduce young children to the L-thing at an early age, so that we are all inevitably surrounded by a generation Z+ who, having been swaddled from cradle to school bus in the loathsome stuff, will take it to college with them, enroll in classes on how to market it to an unwilling public, and then probably install it in wall dispensers everywhere, just like they have h—d s----izer now.

Skeptical?  Don’t think it’s a real conspiracy?  I dare you to google “baby bedtime routines.”  Just go do it, for me.  See what pops up.  Yep, that’s right.  It’s mentioned in every routine.  Every single one.  “Bath, l-----, books, bed.”  Maybe with a little “quiet play” or a “song” thrown in to sweeten the deal and make you ignore the obvious weirdness.  I mean, how many young kids do YOU know who like being slathered in stinky slimy soapiness at the end of the day?

Oh, you do know some?

And where do you think they learned such disgusting heathen behavior?

Who’s responsible for this conspiracy?  Well, Big Pharma, clearly.  After all, someone needs to be making these (probably medicated) products for small children to use.  Big Organic probably has a hand in it as well.  The Freemasons are doubtless players (you’ll notice NONE of those “bedtime routines” mentions night prayers at all; it’s like they don’t exist; L is the new god of the One World Order).  And Silicon Valley is obviously involved, otherwise the Google results wouldn’t be so uniform.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m their target.  I don’t have those kind of delusions.

Other kinds, now …

But I am saying that you should consider, very carefully, what’s happening around you.  I know it’s scary, but we can’t put our heads in the sand forever.  Awareness is everything.  Preparedness is all.  I recommend buying lots of canned goods, and don’t forget the can opener.

Oh.  And remember, whatever you do, don’t say the L-word.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

... and No One Is Troubled

“... The series of calls upon one’s time from members of the family, from visitors, and from the hundred and one other sources of interference with one’s plans, is almost endless.  We may have to draw a line somewhere if we wish to keep up regular practices such as prayer and reading.  Still, we should be on our guard against feeling that time devoted to family functions and to family fun is wasted.  There is a proper measure in everything; and each has a right to his own private life for some part of the day.  But those who live with their family need have no scruple in spending much of their time in sharing the life of the family.

If they maintain a healthy interior life, they can find Christ in their family and be united to Him, even in family fun. To make a fourth at family bridge, to help to entertain some guests, to take a walk with one’s parents and one’s children—all such things can be more meritorious and more pleasing to God than private prayer or even, say, a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. A saint should be a very easy person to live with. Unfortunately, those who try to be saints are often quite the opposite. Might we refer them to the example of St. Jane Frances de Chantal? While she was still living in the world, St. Francis de Sales became her director. The result of his influence may be gathered from the comment of one of her servants: ‘The first director that Madame had made her pray three times a day, and we were all put out; but the Monsignor of Geneva (St. Francis de Sales) makes her pray all day long and no one is troubled.’”

Boylan goes on to recommend de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life, urging the reader to ignore the bits that are dated (advice which I cannot forbear repeating to any prospective reader of Boylan!).  The basic principle, in any case, at work in both de Sales and Boylan seems to be the same as that found in the Gospels: by their fruits you shall know them.  A good spiritual life will show itself in a person’s interactions with those with whom they spend the most time—and conversely, those who hope to maintain even ordinary charity (if that is not an oxymoron!) with those around them need to have a good spiritual life (whatever that means—on that, de Sales of course has much good concrete advice, and Boylan as well).

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Death Penalty and the Nature of Human Government

As the Register has reported, Pope Francis’s recent request for a reformulation of the catechism’s language on the death penalty (as relayed in the official CDF letter, which can be read here) has met with both cheers and concern among faithful Catholics.  While theologians and philosophers debate the proposed change and its implications for understanding the Church’s development of doctrine, a certain amount of confusion has arisen among ordinary lay Catholics due to the language used in the letter.  The key paragraph (#2) gives three reasons for revising the Church’s standard language on the death penalty.
If, in fact, the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good, today [1] the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes, [2] the deepened understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the State, and [3] the development of more efficacious detention systems that guarantee the due protection of citizens have given rise to a new awareness that recognizes the inadmissibility of the death penalty and, therefore, calling for its abolition.
The third reason is one that applies to modern states (if not, perhaps, to some third world countries), and constitutes a simple reiteration of an argument made by many Catholics, including notably Pope John Paul II — namely, that modern prisons being more or less break-proof and humane, the common good is equally protected by the incarceration of criminals as by their execution.  This is a prudential judgment—a claim that the death penalty is not necessary, rather than that it is absolutely wrong—and as such is readily aligned with previous generations of Catholic teaching.

The first reason is more complicated.  The wording—“the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes”—presumes (a) that the death penalty necessarily is more contrary to human dignity than life imprisonment and (b) that there is only one sense of human dignity.  It is largely on these two points that theologians and philosophers have their debates; and as I am only an amateur on this topic, I will not venture into that minefield.

The second reason, however, is a matter of history; and here I have something to suggest.  The CDF letter says that today we have gained a “deepened understanding of the significance of penal sanctions applied by the State.”  The words are vague.  One plausible reading is that we now realize (based on new psychological studies, etc.) that penalties such as life in prison are in fact appropriate and sufficient responses to crimes such as murder, while the penalty of execution is excessively cruel.  (Of course, what constitutes the appropriateness of a punishment is another question—one to which, again, the professional philosophers and theologians are welcome.)

There is, however, another sense in which the modern mind has gained a new notion of the state’s penal sanctions; and it has to do with our understanding of the nature of the state.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Side on Which We Ought to Err

It is a point I have made before, but one which, I think, bears repeating; and it came up again in my reading tonight.

"We all know the cringing, fearful way in which a dog shrinks away from our caresses if he has been previously ill-treated by others.  One meets children whose arm goes up to ward off a blow as soon as anyone in authority approaches them.  The same sort of attitude is often found with regard to God.  He is thought of as a hard master, overexacting and meticulous, setting traps for His creatures, and almost only anxious to catch them in wrong-doing.  No true love of God is possible with such a concept in one's mind.  Yet such ideas exist, and we must take care that we are not responsible for their formation.  That is one reason why, if we must err in dealing with our neighbor, we ought to err on the side of mercy and kindness rather than of justice and rigor."--M. Eugene Boylan, This Tremendous Lover.

I should perhaps underscore that this is a statement what is preferable with regard to personal action, and not a remark regarding any religious or political group or subgroup in particular.  One of the sad tendencies of the world, especially perhaps the social media world today, is to forget personal sanctification in favor of top-down solutions.  The top-down stuff won't work, in no small part because most of those who really do want to make the world a better place aren't in a position to exert real power--but also because, even if they were, they would discover themselves hampered by this pesky thing called human free will.  But the little way operates in any political or social sphere, however dismal, degenerate, or dire.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Why the Martyr Wears a Crown

At the end of June and beginning of July the calendar of the universal Church is marked by the feasts of a number of well-known martyr-saints.  June 29th marks the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, preceded on the 28th by Irenaeus and followed on the 30th by the First Martyrs of Rome; Thomas More and John Fisher had their feast the previous week; Oliver Plunket, Thomas the Apostle, and Maria Goretti the following week.  Mid and late July is thinner, but the little-known bishop St. Apollinaris has his feast on the 20th, and St. James on the 25th.

The presence on the calendar of so many martyrs raises the question—more striking with the martyrs of more recent eras—of the martyr’s crown.  The phrase is a familiar one, and the concept is old: a fifth-century fresco from the catacomb of St. Gennaro (unfortunately under copyright) shows Sts. Peter and Paul carrying their crown of martyrdom in their hands.

The crown is perhaps a puzzling symbol in our day and age.  The martyr’s palm is more easily explained: the palm branches from Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, linked to the suffering and the victory of his passion and death, makes their association with the martyr’s sufferings commonsensical.  But in our (almost) post-royalty age, the martyr’s crown may seem outdated: a relic of times when we thought leaders of countries required a shiny thing on their heads to impress their subjects, or possibly to mark them out in battle.

I would not deny that a crown serves those functions as well: like any singular article of clothing, it marks its wearer out.  But there is a significance to decorating, indeed, to glorifying the head, which goes beyond mere convenience.  The head contains the brain, the seat of the mind; it is associated with wisdom, insight, good judgment … Perhaps the king wore a crown not merely to impress, but to remind his people and himself that his job was above all to be wise, to rule justly, to judge with “epikeia” (roughly: “reasonableness”).  That perhaps is part of the reason why English judges long retained the practice of wearing enormous and ridiculous wigs: because (on some unconscious level) people felt that they looked more impressive and specifically more wise and therefore worthier to be judges.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Homo Erectus

My long-running obsession with justice and judgment (fed by the current dissertation chapter) has made the words pop out everywhere; Scripture, of course, is full of the ideas.  And in mulling over the Hosea reading mentioned in my last post, it occurred to me that the obsession may appear a little grisly to anyone not writing an academic chapter focused on the topic.  “Justice” brings to mind such disturbing phrases as “the justice system” or “Justice Kavanaugh”; our ear catches at a word and surrounds it with the auras of other words with which we are used to hearing it matched.  Nor is it of any help if our mind interposes the more apropos phrase “a just God,” for it is generally uttered these days in doubt or mockery or, at best, when trying to lay doubt and mockery to rest.  Justice sounds like a sham; and if it dares enter our heads to think of real justice, most of us (we tell ourselves rightly) tremble.

I think it need not and ought not to be that way.  The Hosea reading suggests that there is a sort of incipient “justice” we human beings should cultivate in our lives on earth; if we do that, we need not fear when Divine Justice rains down.  But I think one can go farther than the cryptic metaphors of the Old testament prophet.  His image of our justice springing up to meet Another’s coming down, with its insistence on the perpendicularity of the arrangement, calls to mind another common translation of whatever biblical word is being rendered in English as “just”: upright.

Just, upright, erect.  The former two are synonyms, as are the latter two, although the first and the third do not share a common meaning.  But with good reason Hosea calls up the image of grain growing erect towards the sky: there is a coordination between standing erect and being just, an inherent symbolism that is not a merely human invention.  The etymology tells the story: the thing that we call just is also called being upright; to be just is our birthright as human beings, and what distinguishes us from other animals; it is no terrifying external imposition; it is as natural to us (in one sense) spiritually as walking erect is physically.  We stand erect because that is an image of how we ought to stand internally: upright.  To be upright, that is, pointing up at the sun, is natural for flowers that draw from its rays their strength.  In an upright human being who does the same, we say briefly and without comprehension that he is “just.”  What we really mean is that, like the sunflower, he stretches naturally towards the Sun of Justice from which all the rectitude of his nature comes.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Justice Up and Justice Down

I have been thinking a bit about the odd ending to the reading from Hosea earlier this week.

Sow for yourselves justice,
reap the fruit of piety;
break up for yourselves a new field,
for it is time to seek the LORD,
till he come and rain down justice upon you.

The first line, taken by itself, sounds semi-Pelagian: as if we can somehow make justice happen by ourselves.  The last line, taken in similar isolation, sounds quietist, as if God will do all the work making justice take place.  It is also, depending upon one’s spiritual temperament, a trifle terrifying; for the scrupulous, “justice” can be a frightening word.

The point, as with any quasi-paradoxical lines from Scripture, seems to be that there is an essential both-and going on.  We ought to plant justice in the same way that we plant seeds: not as if we can make corn grow, but knowing that (weather providing) corn will come of our planting.  What we do may not be just in any perfect sense—certainly we are not justified by our own efforts—but it is necessary for justice to come about, just as the kernel is not the ear of corn, but is (assuming a natural order of things into which God has not chosen to intervene with a miracle) a prerequisite.

And of course, the fact that justice rains down could be terrifying or splendid, depending upon what is there in the field to meet it.  If our little “justice” is poking its head up, the Justice that comes will be refreshing and life- and abundance-giving.  But if we haven’t planted any seeds at all, then we shall at best be like those ladies who forgot their oil.  In any case, the story told here is, like so many of the ones in Scripture, one of cooperation: justice up and Justice down.  One hopes to be congruent in the end.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Sanctity Has a Beauty that Will Save the World

The Tuesday, July 3 edition of NPR’s “All Things Considered” celebrated the anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae with the headline “50 Years Ago, The Pope Called Birth Control ‘Intrinsically Wrong.’”  The story focuses on how the Church’s stance on contraception has led Catholics to contravene Church authority.  Sources include a Jesuit at Boston College (whose Jesuitical charism enables him to twist the Thomistic insight that “‘bad law … breeds contempt for good law’”); a Georgetown researcher; a baby boomer puzzled by how contraception offends God; a millennial who equates NFP with “the ‘rhythm method’”; a divorced mother of seven; a divorced female lay minister; and a priest who finds the word “believe” problematic.

To believe NPR, pro-encyclical representatives have little to say for themselves: Mary Eberstadt is quoted in generalities, an archbishop talks about a desire to retain the Church’s “uniqueness,” and a lay Catholic is concerned about the dilution of an unspecified “‘message.’”  But such “revisionist” views are, according to NPR, in evidence only among “some Catholic conservatives” reacting to “the move toward a more tolerant approach under Pope Francis.”  The piece ends by noting that American Catholics mostly don’t accept the prohibition on contraception, and (according to the Georgetown researcher) “‘The American Catholic church is assimilating ever further into American culture.’”

It is hardly accidental that the piece ran a day before July 4: it reads like a veritable declaration of independence from Church teaching.  Superficially, the main teaching in question is contraception.  But disagreement about artificial birth control is not really the heart of the matter.  What is at stake is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the family.

For the NPRs of the world, the family is defined by the individuals who make it up.  Every family, they argue, is like every person unique: “Let a thousand flowers bloom.

On the other side, followers of Pope Paul VI share Leo Tolstoy’s belief that happy families are all alike.  This does not imply that happy families fit a certain rigid structure, that they all practice the same hobbies, or include a certain number of children.  Tolstoy’s axiom suggests rather that there are certain important factors upon which the happiness of a family depends.  According to this viewpoint, while families possess their own unique cultures, a “family” must meet certain baseline criteria in order to be happy—and, to extend the principle, a family must meet a certain baseline definition in order to be a family at all.  This view defines a family in the strict sense as a man and a woman who live together in a way such as is liable to produce children.

That is where the orthodox Catholic’s quarrel with NPR truly lies.  That definition of family is the root matter in dispute when arguments about contraception, IVF, donor babies, divorce, abortion, polygamy, transgenderism, or gay marriage surface.  Sister Lucia of Fatima wrote that “the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family."  If she was correct, then NPR’s latest sally is but one of many in this long-drawn-out war.

But why is there a war at all?

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Who's to Judge?

At Mass recently we heard a famous passage, recognizable even to many a non-Christian.  Pope Francis has riffed on it, and it is a familiar element in the arsenal of moralists of the ilk of retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”  (Matt. 7:1-5)

The common interpretation of the passage assumes that recognizing that an action is bad is identical to “judging.”  According to this interpretation, it would be “judgmental” to inform the alcoholic that his addiction is compromising to himself and his family!  The absurdity of that reading—obvious in the case of such an example—makes for an easy target; and it is healthy to occasionally remind ourselves and our friends that fraternal correction is not per se wrong.

But that is only a negative interpretation; what the passage does not mean.  It does not mean that we should gloss over sin.  But on the other hand, it clearly refers to a real problem (why else would the Holy Spirit have seen to it that those particular words were recorded?).  And I suspect that, as with much of the Gospel’s advice, the words hit closer to home than most of us would like to acknowledge.  Arguing about what the words mean for our current politico-social debates is safer than considering how they apply to our day-to-day lives with family and friends.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Your Dissatisfaction with Your Present State is a Holy Thing

The first act of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience, among its many absurdities, includes the following quatrain, sung by a bevy of poetical maidens and their beaus the British dragoons:

The pain that is all but a pleasure will change

For the pleasure that’s all but pain,

And never, oh never, this heart will range

From that old, old love again!

The absurdity of the quatrain lies in the fact that the love-struck singers will in a very few moments be separated as the maidens discover their latest literary crush: the devastatingly handsome poet Grosvenor.

The story is a deliberate farce.  The author, W.S. Gilbert, meant the lyric as a parody of Victorian sentimentality, which he undoubtedly considered fully as shallow as any aesthetic maiden.  But Gilbert nearly always wrote a little truer than he intended; and the hackneyed paradox on which he seized might (handled well) have done credit to a Donne or a Pope: the paradox of love so strong that it hurts.

That phrase too sounds hackneyed, partly because we have heard it so often that we don’t really hear it at all.  We assume blithely that the pangs of love are due to fear of losing the object of our love.  There is some truth in this assumption.  A wise professor of ethics once told us in his class that from the day we had children we would never lack worry again.  He was right: and a great part of a parent’s worry is the fear that through their actions or neglect something bad will happen to their child.  That is, perhaps, the paradigmatic human fear of loss.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Jesus Is Disappointed

Among the many time-tested ways of motivating one’s children to behave well is to tell them, when they fail to do so, that Jesus (or God, or Our Lady) is disappointed with their behavior.  “Time-tested,” I say; how well this strategy passes the test is, like so many things, a matter of debate.  Much of that debate seems to result from different understandings of what the statement implies—to the adults who use it, and to the children who hear it.

On the one hand, the idea of disappointing Jesus echoes the old Baltimore Catechism definition of sin (once memorized by all children preparing for first Confession and Communion) as “an offense against God.”  God is offended; God is disappointed—the second idea is easily derived from the first.

On the other hand, telling some children (and some adults) that “God is offended by what you did” is bad strategy.  Broadly speaking, the remark could provoke three possible reactions: (a) contrition, involving an appropriate degree of guilt and a resolution to offend no more; (b) guilt in an excessive or unhealthy degree, perhaps leading the culprit to despair of being good; and (c) anger or resentment at the messenger or (worse) at God himself.

If all these reactions are possible—and experience testifies as much—why is that?  And how do we know when to expect result (a) versus (b) or (c)?  In other words—how do we know when it is good to bring the idea of divine dissatisfaction to bear?

Read the rest at the Register.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

You're Not the Only Masterpiece in the House

It’s hard to find a piece of good advice that isn’t bad advice for somebody or, at the least, the wrong advice for a certain person at a certain time.  Indeed, perhaps the chief thing separating a good advice-giver from a poor one is that the former knows what to say to whom when, whereas the latter dispenses wisdom indiscriminately to all and sundry.  Likewise, the good listener knows when to accept and when to reject advice offered, and knows further that advice which was illuminating in one circumstance may be disastrous when applied in another.  This is perhaps especially true of the spiritual life, in which today’s victory is apt to become material for tomorrow’s temptation.

For some time I’ve been fond of two analogies regarding how earthly life works.  One compares life to a tapestry: while we live, we see only the backside, a confusion of buckling loops and tied-off threads.  It is only in heaven that the design on the other side will be manifest, and each dangling thread’s part in our good and God’s glory revealed.

The other analogy makes a similar point by comparing life to a story.  Like fictional protagonists, we don’t usually understand the significance of the little things we do and say and think and suffer; it is only when we finally view life from the Storyteller’s viewpoint that the plot becomes comprehensible, and we understand how its every twist and turn, however harrowing it seemed at the time, led towards the happy end.
These are comforting analogies, with a good deal of truth in them; but like any analogies they have their pitfalls, and may sometimes confuse more than they enlighten.  The problem (or potential problem) is that both analogies make it all too easy to assume that one is the central character.

Read the rest at the Register.

Friday, March 16, 2018

SQT 3-16-18—Spiritual Direction Edition

Seven Quick Takes is hosted at This Ain’t the Lyceum.

I’d been thinking about these for a while, and it seemed time to haul this growing list out, inasmuch as Lent is upon us.  Some of these may be worth a post to themselves … sometime.  Meanwhile …
1.     The problem with “forgive and forget” isn’t that it’s always wrong, but rather that it’s not always right—that is, it isn’t always the healthiest response to an injury.  Sometimes, forgetting is not possible.  And sometimes, it’s not even preferable: sometimes, coming to understand the injury from a supernatural perspective really is better than forgetting that it ever occurred.—Riffing off a good Jesuit’s homily-in-brief.
2.     “Sometimes you don’t have time for meditation, or a rosary, or reading anything.  Do you have a crucifix on your wall, somewhere where you see it often?  Good.  Then try just to look at the crucifix when you can during the day.  That is enough.”—Paraphrase of confessional advice to a mother of a newborn.
3.     “The sorrow of the world worketh death, says the Apostle; we must, therefore, Theotimus, carefully avoid and banish it as much as we can. If it be from nature, we must repulse it by contradicting its movements, turning it aside by the practices suitable to that purpose, and using the remedies and way of life which physicians themselves may judge best. If it come from temptation, we must clearly open our mind to our spiritual father, who, will prescribe for us the method of overcoming it, according as we have said in Part IV. of the Introduction to the Devout Life. If it arise from circumstances, we will have recourse to the teaching of Book VIII., in order to see how grateful tribulations are to the children of God, and how the greatness of our hopes for eternal life ought to make all the passing events of the temporal almost unworthy of thinking about.
“And last, in all the sadness which may come upon us, we must employ the authority of the superior will to do all that should be done in favour of divine love. There are indeed actions which so depend upon the corporal disposition and constitution that we have not the power to do them just as we please: for the melancholy-disposed cannot keep their eyes, or their words, or their faces, in the same good grace and sweetness as they would do if they were relieved from this bad humour; but they are quite able, though without this good grace, to say gracious, kind, and civil words, and, in spite of inclination, to do what reason requires as to words and works of charity, gentleness and
condescension. We may be excused for not being always bright, for one is not master of cheerfulness to have it when one will; but we are not excusable for not being always gracious, yielding and considerate; for this is always in the power of our will, and we have only to determine to keep down the contrary humour and inclination.”—Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God., book 11, chapter 21, conclusion.
4.     “The bees gather honey from the lily, the flag, the rose; yet they get as ample a booty from the little minute rosemary flowers and thyme; yea they draw not only more honey, but even better honey from these, for in these little vessels the honey, being more closely locked up, is kept better. Truly, in the low and little works of devotion, charity is not only practised more frequently, but ordinarily more humbly too, and consequently more usefully and more holily.
“Those condescensions to the humours of others, that bearing with the clownish and troublesome actions and ways of our neighbour, those victories over our own humours and passions, those renouncings of our lesser inclinations, that effort against our aversions and repugnances, that heartfelt and sweet acknowledgment of our own imperfections, the continual pains we take to keep our souls in equality, that love of our abjection, that gentle and gracious welcome we give to the contempt and censure of our condition, of our life, of our conversation, of our actions:—Theotimus, all these things are more profitable to our souls than we can conceive, if heavenly love have the management of them. But we have already said this to Philothea.”—Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God., book 12, chapter 6, conclusion.
5.     God answers all prayers.  Sometimes He says yes, and sometimes He says no.
6.     God answers all prayers.  Sometimes He says yes, sometimes He says no, and sometimes He says “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
7.     God answers all prayers.  He never says no.  His answers are Yes, Wait, and For you, I have something even better. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Happy Lent

Every now and then in signing off on an email, one Catholic to another, I have to restrain myself from employing the phrase “Happy Lent!” as a complimentary close.  “Happy Easter” most people understand; but the idea of Lent as “happy” sounds off, at least in modern English.  Since most people would take it as sarcasm, I usually refrain.  But really, Lent is happy.

Mind you, I am not an utter barbarian: I would no more wish anyone a “Merry Lent” than I would express hope for their “merry death.”  That’s not just because “Merry Christmas” has different associations than the more solemn “Happy Easter.”  It’s because “merry” and “happy” actually have different connotations, even different meanings once word detection scrapes beneath the surface.  The first sense that the OED gives for “merry” is “That causes pleasure,” and most of the derivative senses of the word involve “pleasant” or “pleasing.”  The second major sense of “merry” is “Characterized by happiness or joy”—which makes sense, since “happy” and “merry” are sometimes treated as synonyms. 

Similarly, the secondary senses of “happy” “relat[e] to pleasing appropriateness or aptness” (italics added).  But the first senses of “happy” are those “related to good fortune.”  It is under this sense that the Beatitudes are sometimes translated with the word “happy,” even though that leads to some rather curious and (ahem) infelicitous combinations, e.g., “Happy are they that mourn.”  (Or, in the Old Testament, “Happy the man whom God chastises.”)  It is probably better on the whole, modern English being what it is, that “blessed” has been almost universally adopted instead; like “consubstantial,” it has the advantage of being a word that we all know we don’t quite understand, and thus cuts down on more serious misunderstanding.

But etymologically “happy” does suggest what the word “blessed” also aims to convey: the idea that one is fortunate.  It comes from the same root hap that yielded “happen” and “happenstance.”  Originally, all three were relatively neutral words relating to luck, lot, or chance.  But somewhere along the way some bright people (who were almost certainly Christian, and might recently have been discussing Romans 8:28) got the notion that, Providence being what it was, every hap that happened to a man was ultimately for his good.  So “happy” came to mean not merely “eventful” or “having stuff happen” but specifically “having good stuff happen, fortunate.”