Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Novena for Order, Day 1

I've been feeling lately the lack of order in my life, from the stresses of homeschooling to the stresses of a messy house. How unordered am I? I'd meant to start this novena on Friday, but couldn't find time to get around to it.

I'm praying St. Thomas Aquinas' Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely, found in The Aquinas Prayer Book from Sophia Institute Press. It's well worth having; the Prayer for the Forgiveness of Sins is perfect while waiting in line for confession.

For Ordering a Life Wisely

St. Thomas Aquinas

O merciful God, grant that I may
desire ardently,
search prudently,
recognize truly,
and bring to perfect completion
whatever is pleasing to You
for the praise and glory of Your name.

Put my life in good order, O my God

Grant that I may know
what You require me to do.

Bestow upon me
the power to accomplish your will,
as is necessary and fitting
for the salvation of my soul.

Grant to me, O Lord my God,
that I may not falter in times
of prosperity or adversity,
so that I may not be exalted in the former,
nor dejected in the latter.

May I not rejoice in anything
unless it leads me to You;
may I not be saddened by anything
unless it turns me from You.

May I desire to please no one,
nor fear to displease anyone,
but You.

May all transitory things, O Lord,
be worthless to me
and may all things eternal
be ever cherished by me.

May any joy without You
be burdensome for me
and may I not desire anything else
besides You.

May all work, O Lord
delight me when done for Your sake.
and may all repose not centered in You
be ever wearisome for me.

Grant unto me, my God,
that I may direct my heart to You
and that in my failures
I may ever feel remorse for my sins
and never lose the resolve to change.

O Lord my God, make me
submissive without protest,
poor without discouragement,
chaste without regret,
patient without complaint,
humble without posturing,
cheerful without frivolity,
mature without gloom,
and quick-witted without flippancy.

O Lord my God, let me
fear You without losing hope,
be truthful without guile,
do good works without presumption,
rebuke my neighbor without haughtiness,
and -- without hypocrisy --
strengthen him by word and example.

Give to me, O Lord God,
a watchful heart,
which no capricious thought
can lure away from You.

Give to me,
a noble heart,
which no unworthy desire can debase.

Give to me
a resolute heart,
which no evil intention can divert.

Give to me
a stalwart heart,
which no tribulation can overcome.

Give to me
a temperate heart,
which no violent passion can enslave.

Give to me, O Lord my God,
understanding of You,
diligence in seeking You,
wisdom in finding You,
discourse ever pleasing to You,
perseverance in waiting for You,
and confidence in finally embracing You.

that with Your hardships
I may be burdened in reparation here,
that Your benefits
I may use in gratitude upon the way,
that in Your joys
I may delight by glorifying You
in the Kingdom of Heaven.

You Who live and reign,
God, world without end.


translation by Robert Anderson and Johann Moser

Monday, March 30, 2009

Some photos, and a liturgical music post

Music first.

This past weekend was our parish's ministry fair, in which all the ministries set up tables in the parish hall and try to convince the post-Mass-going hordes to sign up for their ministry. My job as hawker-in-chief for the Schola is to "build awareness" so that those interested in listening will know we exist, and those interested in singing (the few, the very few) can be winnowed down to those with the requisite ability. To that end, I utilized my mad calligraphy skillz and made a nice display board, of which I display a poorly-photographed selection here.

My table was in the music ghetto with the tables of the five weekend Mass choirs. I had a CD player set up to waft chant and polyphony to draw in the music lovers. As I stood at my station on my third go-'round, two guys with guitars hustled over to the table next to mine, dedicated to the choir whose Mass had just ended. They started playing some vaguely familiar yet distinctly non-liturgical instrumental. In another moment, another choir member sauntered over and started singing along with the guys in what she must have thought was a soulful, down-wit'-dat sort of style. Although I couldn't understand a word she mumbled, I finally recognized the tune: The House of the Rising Sun. After a while, they switched to Good Riddance by Green Day.

On the other hand, I had more people show interest in the Schola's music after that Mass than after any other.

And some photos:

These are our Greek charts, for the edification of the young ladies here. (Do you know that with a few small adjustments, you can sing the Greek alphabet to the tune of the Alphabet Song? Try it.) We keep them behind the computer so that when the girls sit down to play games, they're really picking up the Greek alphabet by osmosis!

Friday, March 27, 2009


I liked his acting in Three Kings.

I liked his directing in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.

But watching the trailer for Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are, I can only think of the need for a whole new award category: Most over-psychologized full-length movie adaptation of a very short children's picture book ever.

Seven Quick Takes

Thanks as always to Jen for hosting.

1. The light posting this week was partially due to the wave of sickness that swept the house. Darwin and the baby spent all day in bed with fevers on Wednesday (the day after this post, for all concerned about Darwin's sliding work ethic). The other children did NOT spend all day in bed.

2. The WSJ did an interview with pianist Murray Perahia, in which his playing was extolled as having "lapidary precision". Wondering what that meant, I listened to his interpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Each note is indeed a gem, cut, polished, and set in Goldberg. This CD is on the top of my to-buy list.

3. The baby started rolling over last Friday. Since then he's rolled off a bed twice, rolled off the couch twice, thrown himself out of his Bumbo seat (which was on the floor, fortunately) and worked the tray off his swing and thrown himself out. I'm afraid to put him anywhere but the floor now. When I have to leave him sleeping in my bed, I tuck him well with pillows, for when the madness takes him, he must needs roll.

4. Also -- he bit my finger on Monday. It starts.

5. I hadn't thought I'd had a problem, but after inadvertently buying a box of decaffeinated tea, I fell asleep twice during the day.

6. Gardening time! This really merits its own post. We've started our seedlings, and this year we're thinking heat resistance. We've loaded up our seedling trays with two different kinds of tomatoes, two different varieties of squash (which I hope we like, because they've gone mad in there), bell peppers, jalapenos, tomatillos, serranos, two different varieties of eggplant (one of which, Money Maker, had vivid blue seeds), and strawberries. Darwin has extended the garden this year, and we've been reading Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook for design ideas. Pictures soon.

7. I've come to the sad realization that I just can't wear one of my favorite colors -- robin's egg blue. It simply doesn't work with my coloring. That, however, wouldn't stop me from buying one of these if the opportunity ever presented itself:
What a fabulous color!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fairy Tale Economy

You can tell that I've got to used to thinking in economic terms when my three daughters are sitting in a row watching the Disney Sleeping Beauty (mummy is off at schola practice) and my immediate reaction to the animated classic is, "What did the rest of the kingdom have to say about King Stephon's resolution to burn all spinning wheels in the kingdom? Was there resistance? A black market for spinning? How did trade shift?
I'd happily listen to someone with a British accent read the phone book, but it's even better when the speaker is an articulate politician slicing through the politi-babble:

Confession keeps you honest

Jen finds that the accountability of confessing her sins to a priest compels her to make restitution:
As I recently discovered, evil always works through lies. I regularly confess my sins to God in private prayer, but when my confession remains within the safety of my own internal thoughts, it is fertile ground for lies to run wild. Too often my silent confessions to God tend toward mental meandering, bringing up only certain sins that are at the forefront of my mind, skipping over some of the older ones that lurk comfortably in the shadows. Too often the little stories I tell myself -- "I'll pay for it later" -- sound pretty good when they're fleeting thoughts in the shelter of my head, safe from the scrutiny of another human being.

But Confession drags my thoughts out of the shadows and forces me to examine my sins in the full light of day. Having a set place and time where I must account for all my sins since the last Confession remedies my all-too-convenient tendency to "forget" certain things. Having to codify my thoughts into spoken words brings clarity to all those amorphous ideas that ebb and flow in my brain. Having to go over my sins with another human being -- to be questioned about my actions by someone whose voice is much less easy to ignore than the still, small voice of God -- brings conviction and humility in a way that private prayer cannot for someone as spiritually immature as I am.
I've sometimes found that the thought of having to confess a sin out loud is enough to deter me from committing it.

On a related note, a few months back I had almost the same experience as Jen describes: I was unloading groceries from my cart into my van when I discovered that a tube of chapstick has been overlooked under a grocery circular while I was checking out. The kids were in the car fighting, the baby was crying, and I didn't feel that I could leave them alone while I ran back in to pay. It took me two weeks to make restitution, and oddly enough, during that time the chapstick was lost. I didn't find it again until after I'd paid for it. Served me right.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Office Life

Sometimes even the subtle revenge of quiet misbehavior is not enough to overcome one's feeling of ill use.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fraud, Folly or Probability

As the government continues to pump money into AIG, the foundering insurance giant which found itself at the center of the real estate and financial crashes, I've seen increasing numbers of commentators demand to know why no one is calling for the jailing of AIG executives on charges of fraud. How, the argument goes, was their selling of financial insurance products any different from the sort of fraud Maddoff carried out? They sold insurance policies they couldn't cover! They took money and gave nothing in return!

I think this tends to underline that people don't actually understand insurance and how it works very well. This is doubly concerning in that insurance has become increasingly central to people's ideas of economic security in the last few decades. Indeed, we've reached a point where lacking health insurance is itself considered a health problem, regardless of whether this actually results in someone failing to receive needed treatement.

What is insurance? Basically, insurance is a way of extending your savings for unlikely but high cost eventualities. For example, if I were to die this year, it would place a very heavy burden (in the form of lost earnings) on my family, such that it would be very difficult for me to save enough money to be prepared for the possibility. However, for a few hundred dollars a year, I can buy life insurance that would, if I should die in the next ten years, pay out a lump sum equivalent to 5-10 years of my current earnings.

The insurance company can afford to offer this to me because they believe they have an accurate model of how likely a healthy 30-year-old man is to die before 40. However, if a horrific plague were to strike the US, killing 10% of the population, and I was among its victems, could I console myself on my deathbed with the knowledge the insurance company would be taking care of my family?

No. Their models do not account for the possibility that 10% of the healthy, adult population would die in a single year. They would undoubtedly go bankrupt and my family would get little or nothing.

This is something we don't normally think of in regards to insurance, because insurance companies have good enough models that it would take something very unexpected to make them unable to meet their obligations. Still, because insurance companies base their prices on what they believe to be the probability of having to pay out, if something unforseen by their models occurs, they may well find themselves on the rocks. One should always understand insurance to come with a "all other things being equal" sort of proviso.

But shouldn't AIG have been able to forecast the possibility of a global real estate downturn and take that into account in their pricing? To my knowledge, there's never been a real estate downturn of the scale of the current one on such a wide scale. Sure, plenty of people were predicting the housing market would go down. That was one of my own reasons for getting out of California back in 2003 -- but those who bought a house there when I left would have seen 50% appreciation over the next four years before things went south. And even though many people were going around saying, "It has to go down," there was no historical precident for such a widespread downturn. In the past, it looked like so long as the economy and population were growing, real estate would continue going up.

Now, if you'd asked me in 2006 to insure mortgages against real estate values going down (and the resulting mortgage defaults), I would have refused. And some cautious companies doubtless did. But since there was a decent historical/statistical case to be made that they wouldn't go down, it's not exactly a surprise that someone agreed to meet the need.

Shouldn't there have been regulations in place to prevent people from offering insurance products that they wouldn't actually be able to pay out on in an emergency? Well, here we run into the probability problem again. Is it in fact likely that something will occur which will bankrupt an insurance firm? There's no reason to believe that regulators will be all that much better at understanding what could happen in the future than insurance actuaries are.

In the end, we probably just need to accept that sometimes bad and unexpected things happen. We can do our best to prevent them, but the funny thing about unexpected events is that it's hard to know they'll happen until they do.

So no, I don't think there was necessarily fraud involved here. Though there was an excessive faith in our ability to forecast the future. We'd do well to avoid such excessive faith in analytics in the future, and yet most of the suggestions for "fixing the problem" simply involve having government regulatores forecast the future instead of private insurance writers. I rather doubt that ends us up in a better place.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I said, keep it down!

Truer words: "Parents are not interested in justice, just quiet!" -- Bill Cosby

The quote is at 1:35.

This is particularly appropriate for the feast of St. Joseph, the one father in the world's history who surely didn't have to put up with all this.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reverse Psychology

Here's a little phrase guaranteed to make even the most contentious siblings play peacefully together while creating long involved games full of imagination, for several hours at a stretch:

"I want that playroom cleaned by the time Daddy gets home."

Internet, Ph.D

Alright, Internets: anyone have any advice on what to do for a six-month-old with a cold? I've never had one get sick this early, and I'm not sure what I can give him, if anything. Recommendations? Advice? War stories? He snuffs so pathetically.

How Dry I Am

As I wrestle in my mind with whether St. Patrick's day is sufficient cause to take a day off my alcohol fast, it seems a reasonable enough time to put down a few thoughts on the project.

Last year, as I was trying to think of something improving to do for Lent, I told myself: "It would, of course, be completely impossible to give up coffee or alcohol. I need those."

As soon as I said it, however, I realized I didn't like the sound of that "need". So alcohol it was. (I'm willing to admit needing coffee, but having 1-2 drinks a day is something I'd rather "enjoy" than "need".)

Last year it was moderately hard. The point I get home from work tends to also be the point when the dinner prep/hungry child cacophony reaches fever pitch, and daddy Darwin likes his chance to pour a glass of beer or wine and try to slow down a little from 9-12 hours of coffee and multi-tasking. Giving it up required me to work harder to remain patient while listening to the cares of two or three high pitched voices talking rapidly and simultaneously. And yet it was, when I put my mind to it, eminently doable. And in a sense liberating to recall that one does not "need" these sorts of things.

I took the same discipline this year, but found quickly that although I went straight back to having 1-2 drinks most evening after last lent, the detachment had remained. It's been oddly easy to give up alcohol this year. Sure, I'd enjoy having a drink of an evening, but there's no longer any sense of "needing" just of "enjoying".

This is, perhaps, a terribly trivial example, but it seems to me that this detachment from material things is one of the disciplines we see encouraged again and again in the Bible. In the most extreme example: Job has a great many of the things which people consider to make life worth living: home, wealth, family, respect, social standing, etc. Yet he's called to remain faithful to God even when all these cans can be, and indeed are, taken away.

And this is, I think, why we're called as Christians to engage in fasting during certain times of the year. Going without food for most of the day is something we can sustain, though it takes concentration and is not enjoyable. And the discipline helps us recall our ownership over ourselves -- something which we must often achieve in subtler circumstances in order to obey God's laws. Finally, in this affluent place and time in which far more people are afflicted with obesity than hunger, fasting is a reminder that we came into this world with nothing, and with nothing we shall leave it. All that we have may vanish, yet we ourselves, not our possessions, are what have moral and human dignity are are loved by God.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Capitalism is 3rd World's Safety Net

While Americans weather layoffs and watch their 401ks dwindle, the developing nations in which many of our products originate are being hit even harder by the global downturn. Many of these developing nations have virtually no social safety net, and job loss can be crippling. However, as jobs manufacturing good to be sold to the West dry up, many are turning to the "informal economy" the open air markets, street vendors, and in-home manufacturers which make up more than half the economy in countries ranging from India and Mexico to much of sub-Saharan Africa.

The informal economy consists of cash and in-kind transactions and its practitioners do not pay taxes, hold licenses, or obey regulations. Pay is simply however much money is made, and there are no benefits. Because informal businessmen pay no taxes and work on a cash only basis (they seldom capitalize through loans, nor do they put savings into banks) economists have generally seen them as a drag on the economy. But as export-based jobs dry up, it provides a fallback safety net for many workers:
Until late December, Pilaporn Jaksurat, 33, was working full-time on a cotton spinning machine in a textile mill in Bangkok. She made about $7 a day and her benefits included bonuses of $30 a month for good attendance and a severance package worth about $800.

Then she was laid off when her factory, which sells fabric to clothing manufacturers in Europe, said it had to cut costs to cope with the global economic crisis. Finding a similar job wasn't an option, since other local factories were also dumping staff due to a massive decline in orders from buyers across Europe and North America. She decided to start her own business, selling shots of medicinal wine to truck drivers and motorcyclists on the highway by her home -- an adult version of the neighborhood lemonade stand. With help from friends, she fashioned a makeshift bamboo stand on vacant grass by the roadside. The start-up cost was about $275, she says, paid for with money from her severance package.

A few weeks later, shouting to be heard over the roar of oncoming trucks, Ms. Pilaporn says she's making a profit of about $10 a day after expenditures for ingredients, including herbs and wine. That's better than the $7 or so she made at the garment factory. She likes being her own boss, she says, and the income allows her to keep sending money home every month to help support her parents and 2-year-old child, who live together in a rural area in northern Thailand.

"It's a bit noisy here, but you get used to it," she says. If business "keeps up like this, I'll be fine."

The outcomes of this shift aren't always so good. While Ms. Jaksurat makes more than she did in her export-based job, most others find themselves making less.
Kavitaben Uttambhai Parmar, 25, says she had one of the better jobs in the city until recently, stitching pants and other clothes in one of the few remaining major textile factories. During her five years there, her salary more than tripled to 115 rupees per day [about $2.25]; she recently dreamed of buying a refrigerator. Then one day in November, she was laid off with one of her best friends, 30-year-old Jayshree Kantilal Makvana.

"That was a bad day for us," says Ms. Parmar, whose income helped support a household of five, including her mother, brother, sister and grandfather. "I went home crying."

Both later found informal work, doing stitching for a smaller textile company that pays only by the piece, allowing each woman to earn about 50 rupees per day [about one dollar]. They also are making bracelets in their spare time to sell at festivals for about five rupees per 12 dozen.

Ms. Parmar says she is cutting back on electricity. Ms. Makvana says she's using city buses to get around instead of more expensive rickshaws. But they're happy they're still earning something.

"At least we're surviving," Ms. Makvana says.

In countries such as India where resources do not allow for providing the kind of social safety net services we take for granted in the US (much less the more expansive "guaranteed living wage regardless of employment" some advocate for) this kind of underground free market economy often provides the safety net, in combination with family/community support networks.

I also always find it a bit humbling reading about how prized manufacturing jobs that pay only a few dollars a day are in many developing nations. One often hears well meaning people in our country talk about wanting to avoid buying clothes made in developing nations, because of their concerns about unfair labor practices. And yet, it was those "Made in India" and "Made in Tailand" labelled products which gave Kavitaben Parmar and Pilaporn Jaksurat their jobs -- and decrease in demand for them which caused them to be laid off. Here's hoping that one way or another, Ms. Parmar gets to buy her refrigerator some day and that the deman for Ms. Jaksurat's roadside drink stand holds up.

Biber's Passacaglia for violin

Darwin has up a post on "babe violinists" over at American Catholic. Well, this guy isn't a babe violinist, but I love this piece of music:

The Passacaglia (also titled "Guardian Angel Sonata") is the last in a series of sonatas called the Rosary Sonatas, each of which involve tuning the violin a different way. They're all beautiful.

UPDATE: Ask and you shall receive... a reader sends us to a video of babe violinist Elizabeth Derham playing the Passacaglia.

Another Dante Blogger

Another Catholic blogger, a fellow by the name of Murray, is doing a start-to-finish blog-through of Dante's Purgatorio for Lent this year.

Halftime Report

So Lent is just about at the halfway mark, and I was sitting back and congratulating myself. "I'm not doing too badly," I thought. "It actually hasn't been that hard to get up early and say morning prayer." And upon further reflection I realized: it's not been that hard because I haven't been doing it. Not consistently, that is, and not early enough to be a true sacrifice. I kind of roll over when Darwin's alarm goes off (which isn't at the same time every morning, and to which sound I have a strong immunity from years of ignoring it), and if I shake myself enough, I reach for the prayerbook and say Morning Prayer nestled under the covers snuggled up with baby. (Well, he's gotta eat, doesn't he?) And a few times, I've fallen back asleep altogether. All in all, a rather cushy Lenten gig.

But: Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation! I still have the second half of Lent to make things right. New Lenten practice: to get my own alarm clock, get up at the same (early) time every morning, and say Morning Prayer sitting up. Not in bed.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rerun time: Let Not the Precious Time Be Lost

Darwin's Lenten series on Purgatorio, and my own reading of Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life, brought to mind this piece from 2007 on sloth. Interestingly enough, many of the particulars are the same now -- I'm still exercising, and "the baby" is now potty-training herself. And my kitchen is still a mess.

Here's Darwin's Purgatorio meditation on sloth

Lately, I've been feeling burned-out. The kids have more energy than I do, and they burn it off by fighting with each other or throwing all their stuffed animals on the floor or raiding the freezer. On top of that, keeping house is a dull occupation for a results-oriented person, because even if you clean the kitchen one day you have to do it again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. It seems like I have to run as fast as I can just to stay in one place, and recently my speed has been slacking.

And speaking of placing one foot in front of the next, I'm physically tired. Darwin and I have finally come to terms with the fact that our average metabolisms and relative youth won't last forever, and have decided to take steps to get and stay in shape. And that means running. (Well, for Darwin it means running -- for me it means a mixture of walking and jogging and hoping to God that no one drives by and sees me.) The fickle bathroom scale is putting me at a pound or two less, but the progress is hard and slow and sometimes seems pointless.

There are times when all I want to do is just read my book, for Pete's sake, but real life keeps trying to intrude. Julia's potty training is going oh-so-slowly because she doesn't seem to care about it, and it's getting to where I don't either. Baby is a good-natured little thing, but she gets tired of sitting in the recliner with my book long before I do, and she loathes the computer. Eleanor wants to raid the fridge or climb up to various shelves to get picture albums or dishes to play with. And I just want to be left alone to do my own thing, because what's the point of wiping down the table or folding the laundry when I'm just going to have to do it again tomorrow? LEAVE ME ALONE and let me read!

Yesterday afternoon as I was standing amidst the wreckage of the kitchen, I realized that my shirking of responsibilities was more than mere laziness or burn-out. It was sloth -- "not merely idleness of mind and laziness of body: it is that whole poisoning of the will which, beginning with indifference, and an attitude of 'I couldn't care less', extends to the deliberate refusal of joy and culminates in morbid introspection and despair."* Sloth can take different forms -- Tolerance, Disillusionment, Escapism. And I was worn-out with being slothful, and I was ready to combat it.

So I pulled out our copy of Dante's Purgatory to discover what the penitents on the Fourth Cornice did to atone for their sloth, and what prayer they chanted. Upon flipping to Canto 18, I at once found the passage where the souls cry to each other, "Quick! Quick! Let not the precious time be lost for lack of love! ...In good work strive, till grace revive from dust!" The slothful souls are the only ones in Purgatory who are given no prayer to pray -- their prayer is in their labor.

And the labor that makes up their penance? Ceaseless activity. Namely, running.

*The description of sloth is taken from the commentary on the Image of Sloth in Dorothy Sayers' translation of Purgatory, Penguin, 1955

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lenten Meditations on Purgatorio: Gluttony

As Canto XXII opens, the poets have just ascended from the terrace on which greed and prodigality (both unbalanced loves of material possessions) are purged, and the angel who guards the pass has wiped another P from Dante's forehead. Virgil and the second century Roman poet Statius are deep in conversation. Virgil asks Statius how it is that he came to be a Christian.

And he told him, "You were the first to send me
Toward Parnassus to drink within its caves,
And you the first to light my way to God.

"You were like one who, traveling by night,
Carries the torch behind — no help to him —
But he makes those who follow him the wiser,

"When you announced, ‘The ages are made new:
Justice returns and the first world of man,
And a new progeny comes down from heaven.’

"Through you I was a poet, through you a Christian.
(Purg. XXII, 64-73)

Statius paraphrases, in Dante's Italian, several of the most famous lines from Virgil's 4th Eclogue. The poem talks about the coming of a new golden age, started by a man sent down from heaven:

Now the last age by Cumae's Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn's reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy's birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden race arise,
Befriend him, chaste Lucina; 'tis thine own
Apollo reigns.

Written during the Augustan peace, the 4th Eclogue is a "prophecy" to the consul during whose period in office Augustus had been born, and it describes the new Golden Age which will unfold when this child comes to reign over the world. However, since the poem was written shortly before the birth of Christ, and Virgil was revered as the greatest Latin poet throughout the Middle Ages, Virgil's poem was often interpreted by Medieval Christians as being an unknowing prophecy of the coming of Christ. Dante uses that mythology surrounding Virgil to provide an example of how non-Christian art can nonetheless powerfully guide people towards Christian truth -- because Truth itself is one. He imagines Statius, who revered Virgil deeply, to have come across the early Christian community in Rome and immediately seen them to be the coming of the new age into the world which Virgil had foretold. And thus we get this beautiful (though in a sense tragic) image of Virgil bearing a light behind him which for others illuminates the path of truth, but which Virgil himself cannot see. Although the truth of Virgil's poetry helped guide Statius into the Church, Virgil himself is relegated to the Limbo of the virtuous pagans, an afterlife like heaven as these pagans had imagined it (with green grass, white marble buildings, and good company) yet without that greatest happiness of which they had had no knowledge, the beatific vision of the infinite God.

Statius then goes on to describe how he long admired the Christians as they suffered persecution, and at last was baptized, though he kept up an outward show of paganism to avoid sharing in their persecution and for this failing spent many centuries farther down the mountain on the terrace of sloth.

Their conversation ended, they set off along the new terrace they have reached. Soon the poets come upon a tree in the path, with a stream of clear, cool water cascading down upon it from above. A voice from within the tree tells them that they must not eat of the tree or drink of the spring, and then recites a series of examples of fasting or abstinence from the Bible and antiquity.

They are about to move on when they hear a psalm called out from behind them:

And suddenly in tears and song we heard
"Open my lips, O Lord," sung in such tones
That it gave birth to gladness and to grief.

"O gentle father, what is this I hear?"
I wondered; and he: "Shades who journey on,
Perhaps loosening the knot of their bad debt."

Like pilgrims who go wrapped in pious thought
And, overtaking strangers on the road,
Turn toward them but do not stop to talk,

So from behind us, moving faster, coming
And passing by, there gazed at us in wonder
A throng of spirits, silent and devout.

The eyes of each were dark and hollowed-out,
Their faces pale and they so shriveled up
That their skin took its contour from their bones.
(Purg. XXIII, 10-24)

One of these spirits hurrying by slows to speak to Dante, and reveals himself to be Forese Donati -- a long time friend, fellow poet. Dante, who had not recognized him in his emaciated form, greets him joyfully. Forese asks about how Dante comes to be there with his companions, and then tells them about the plight of the souls on this terrace:

"All these people who in weeping sing
Resanctify themselves in thirst and hunger
For having followed appetite too much.

"Craving for food and drink is kindled in us
By the fragrance wafted from the fruit
And from the water splashed on the green leaves;

"And not just once while we walk round this road
Is our ordeal renewed — I say ordeal
And yet I ought to say our consolation,

"For that same will that leads us to the tree
Led Christ in gladness to call out ‘Eli,’
When he delivered us with his own blood."
(Purg. XXIII, 64-75)

It's important to consider the difference between this terrace of purgatory and the circle of gluttony in Inferno, because it tells us something important about Dante's understanding of Purgatory, and how the sufferings of these souls (though often severe) are not mere punishments. In the Inferno, the gluttonous wallow in a muddy swamp with rain beating down on them. The ever-hungry Cerberus runs throughout the circle, biting and snapping at the damned with this three heads. The punishment is the sin exemplified. When we give ourselves up to gluttony we wallow in consumption while at the same time being chased by hunger. We eat or drink compulsively, not because we need to, but because the appetite drives us to dig ourselves in deeper and deeper. Indulgence enfolds us like the swamp, yet even so the appetite remains. We want more because we have given in so completely to the habit of consumption. We hunger because we are eating, and eat because we hunger.

The souls here did not give themselves in completely to appetite -- however much they indulged in gluttony they kept their central desire for God. But they allowed their wills to be weakened through so often giving in and making consumption a little god. Now they are purifying their wills by remaining intent upon their eternal goal despite deprivation. They hurry constantly round the terrace, racing along the path towards God, while foregoing the refreshing water and fruit they see before them. Their bodies as seen in Purgatory do not require rest and sustainance -- they are not being damaged by their hunger and constant hurry -- but what they are suffering is the denial of will.

In Lent, this is a good point to consider. We never seek to hurt ourselves through Lenten sacrifices. The purpose of penance is not to suffer, but rather to accustom ourselves to mastering our appetites and wills. For most healthy adults in modern occupations, giving up food for a day (partially or even completely) will not harm us in any real way. But the difficulty of overcoming that natural desire to eat (and the confidence of seeing that we can do it) helps us to own ourselves more fully and see how we can do what we believe is right or necessary even in difficult circumstances.

Dante compliments Forso Donati on having got so far up Mt. Purgatory in the mere four years since his death, and Forso explains that this is due in great part to the prayers of his wife (still living) and his sister (dead and in heaven.) He then points out several people whom Dante knows or has heard of, including Pope Martin IV, who died after overindulging in eels.

At last, Forso can hold back from his purpose no longer, and runs off to catch up with the other penitents. The poets continue on, and shortly reach another tree where they hear examples of the suffering brought on by gluttony. After an angel has wiped one more P from Dante's forehead, they poets begin their ascent to the next terrace.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by AllenMandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Apocolocyntosis, Web Style

An enterprising reader has showcased his design skills by giving the Vatican website a facelift based on the new Obamafied White House website.

As he said: It's easy to bring the Obama marketing look to the Vatican website -- but if only the Vatican's morals could somehow be brought to the Obama administration.

Caption this photo!

This is what happens when technology and big sisters collide. Every time I download the pictures from the camera, there are scads of photos of baby looking rather confused.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Time Usage

Unfortunately, I've had to spend a lot more time on work lately:

Than on Dante:

The sad commentary is, that when I received that cartoon via email today I started laughing out loud. Excessive analytics does this to one.

Though to mix up the drudgery I took time out this weekend to break an additional 3'x15' strip of sod in the back yard, yearly doubling the width of the vegetable garden for this year. This becomes necessary when you get carried away and order around twenty varieties of seeds.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Seven Quick Takes

As always, thanks to Jen for hosting.

1. I'm getting my hair cut this weekend. I don't know if it says something about me that I want to look like Eve Harrington.

I guess that's better than Darwin and his flowing locks.

2. I find it was a mistake to not specifically give up something food-related during Lent, especially as we have have all sorts of candy bribes toilet-training rewards sitting around. Getting up early and saying Morning Prayer is working out pretty well, though.

3. What makes me laugh: Tom Cruise dancing in Tropic Thunder.

Warning: rap song profanity

4.One of the top songs during the Depression was Brother, Can you Spare a Dime? Thanks to a friend's Greatest Hits of the Thirties songbook, I knew the song before the current resurgence, and it's a blast to play on the piano. Here's Al Jolson singing his heart out:

5. Isabel turned three this week, and I can't believe how big she's getting.

Wow, three.

6. After watching 300, I wanted to learn more about what actually happened at the battle of Thermopylae. Darwin recommended that I read Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield. I had two reactions: 1, the Spartans were pretty amazing; and 2, Thank God my little boy doesn't have to go through Spartan training.

7. Thanks to Big Tex's recommendation of The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess, whereas four months ago I could not even do one lunge, I can now blast through 10 Bulgarian split squats without batting an eye. Hoo, fitness!

Expect to be Offended

My wife subscribes to the local Catholic homeschooler email list, and although I don't usually dip into the innumerable messages that pour in (most of them more lifestyle and education focused, so far as I can tell) I occasionally read a thread that catches my eye.

This week there's been much discussion of an Envoy magazine article about how a mother took her twelve-year-old in for a check up and was shocked and angered when the doctor asked if he could speak to the girl privately for a few minutes, and during the course of that asked the girl if she was sexually active and if she needed a prescription for birth control. The moms on the list exchanged similar stories, and were indignant not only that birth control was offered but that their teenagers were routinely asked if they did drugs, had sex, etc. Why, everyone wanted to know, would any reasonable doctor ask to speak to a teenager alone about these topics? Surely a mother should always know everything there is to know about these topics.

Needless to say, I'm not crazy about the idea of my three daughters being offered birth control and quizzed about their experiences when they become teenagers. But at the same time, I think the outrage is overblown. As Catholics we often talk about how we are counter-cultural. And we are. But when you're counter cultural, you can hardly be surprised when the fact that you do not fit in the mainstream culture is often thrown into relief. It ill befits us, I think, to act like the Muslim parents whose stories are gleefully fun by a certain stripe of website when they sue over pictures of Piglet (Pigs are dirty! How could you offend my child by showing one?) or dogs.

I recall fielding these questions myself as a youth. I too a certain amusement in the doctor coming in with her multi-page questionnaire and long explanation of how all this would remain confidential, only to have her ask. "Are you sexually active?" "No." (flips two pages.) "Have you experimented with illegal drugs?" "No." (flips two more pages.) "Smoked?" "No." "Alcohol?" "Only wine with my parents." "Well, that was quick. Do you have any questions you want to ask me or should we invite your mother back in?"

It's indeed a sad commentary that starting to ask kids if they're using drugs and having sex at age 12-13 is reasonable, but given a culture in which the majority of kids have had sex with multiple partners by age 17, and many kids experiment with drugs and alcohol in their mid teens, it's hardly surprising.

Perhaps I'm overly idealistic, but I don't think many children who are otherwise well brought up in the faith will be corrupted and fall from grace as a result of a few embarrassing questions from a doctor. Though it does certainly serve as a reminder of something that our children will be well aware of anyway -- that they live in a different world from that of many of their peers. And for many children in the wider culture, whose parents do not know half of what their children are doing, a few words from a doctor about the risks involved in their actions may be all to the good.

One hopes that some day our culture will come to its senses enough that it will no longer seem reasonable to discuss these topics with boys and girls in their young teens, but in the mean time we can hardly congratulate ourselves on being counter-cultural without feeling the strong current of the culture flowing against us.

Distance and Truth

As I mentioned a while back, I got drawn into a group providing adult catechesis lectures at our parish. This evening I went down to hear another member of the group, a middle-aged immigrant from Lebanon, give a talk on commandments 5-10.

After several other topics under the heading of "Thou shalt not kill", he moved into the Church's teachings on just war, and put up the standard four bullets from the catechism which those familiar with online Catholic debates of the last eight years are so familiar with. Those sorts of topics always draw questions, and sure enough one woman raised her hand pretty quickly and asked, "So what should a Catholic soldier do, if he's in Iraq right now but he thinks that we hadn't tried everything, that war wasn't a last resort for us."

He launched into an explanation of how a soldier has certain duties to follow orders, but must do the right thing in each situation in which he finds himself, and how leaders of a country have a responsibility to make sure they do not send soldiers into a war without need. For many people this would have been a brief and perhaps somewhat awkward explanation. It is the natural human response of the unpracticed speaker to sound apologetic and qualified when addressing a topic on which he knows people hold strong feelings. But in this case, the explanation was long, fascinating, and intensely personal -- because he was talking about his experiences being drawn into the civil war in Lebanon: Becoming a soldier at the age of 13. Being wounded by a sniper's bullet at 14 and again by a mortar shell at 16. About people being stopped at roadblocks, walked around the corner, and shot. And about how -- as a battlescarred teenager he'd begun to study his faith for the first time.

All this personal history, relayed in the strongly accented and sometimes ungrammatical English of someone who grew up speaking French and Arabic, made the doctrinal points about casus belli and jus in bello come alive in a deeply compelling fashion. Much more so, I think, because of the language barrier. There's a pain, sometimes, in hearing truly harrowing experiences expressed too plainly. We need that slight layer of distance to allow us to listen and soak it all in without our minds wincing away and closing in on themselves.

The points about just war and just soldiering would not, I think, have sunk in if they'd come from somoene who'd been a civilian all his life. And at the same time, hearing of such harrowing experiences from a more fluent English speaker would, I think, have caused people to stop listening. It would have been too personal. Sometimes we need distance to see truth.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A Pretty Big Wad of Dosh

What does $1 trillion look like?

H/T The Corner

Rerun time: Hey! I'm sexually active!

Here's a oldie from the archives.

Here's a problem I never faced in college: apparently, the price of birth control on campus is skyrocketing.

For years, drug companies sold birth-control pills and other contraceptives to university health services at a big discount. This has served as an entree to young consumers for the drug companies, and a profit center for the schools, which sell them to students at a moderate markup. Students pay perhaps $15 a month for contraceptives that otherwise can retail for $50 or more.

But colleges and universities say the drug companies have stopped offering the discounts, and are now charging the schools much more. The change has an unlikely origin: the Deficit Reduction Act signed by President Bush last year. The legislation aimed to pare $39 billion in spending on federal programs, from subsidized student loans to Medicaid. And among the changes was one that, through an arcane set of circumstances, created a disincentive for drug makers to offer school discounts.

The contraceptive prices offered to schools are now included in a complex calculation that determines certain Medicaid-related rebates that drug makers must pay to states. In this calculation, deep discount prices would have the effect of increasing drug makers' payments.

Colleges and universities say the change is having a significant impact on their health centers and the students they serve. Prices have begun skyrocketing for many popular brands of birth control. Health centers are having to reconfigure their offerings and write new prescriptions. And college students are making some tough choices, such as switching to cheaper generic brands or forgoing their privacy in order to claim their pills on their parents' insurance.

"Forgoing their privacy": that phrase caught my attention. I'm assuming that it means that a co-ed thinks that it would be a violation of her privacy if her parents were to discover that she was sexually active. I would challenge that assumption. After all, the student knows her parents are having sex -- where's their right to privacy? Heck, not only my parents, but my in-laws, and my siblings, and all my friends and acquaintances and even people I see on the street know I'm sexually active, and that I've had sex at least THREE times. The government knows.

Now, I'm all for people seeking privacy when they're having sex. (It's not something I want to watch other people doing.) But I don't think there's some right to privacy regarding whether one is known to be sexually active, because sex is an act that has social ramifications. It creates a bond between the actors (whether acknowledged or not). It's the cheapest, most efficient way for societies to obtain new citizens, so in a sense I find it rather odd that the government should have been subsidizing this in the first place. If anyone should be subsidizing birth control for female college students, it's the guys who benefit from it.

College Guy: Hey, you wanna hook up Friday night?
College Girl: Sure. That'll be $50 upfront.
College Guy: WTF? That's prostitution!
College Girl: No, that's economics.

Perhaps the objection is that students forfeit their medical privacy if they use their parents' insurance to obtain birth control. Guess what? If someone else is paying for your medical care, they have a right to know what they're paying for. It's basic. You get as much privacy as you pay for. Simply being a college student doesn't entitle to you no-strings-attached, child-free, privacy-protected sex. In fact, contrary to the unwritten assumptions of the WSJ article, being a college student doesn't entitle you to have sex, period.

But for all the college girls out there who can't afford birth control, here's my tried and true method for avoiding pregnancy in college: Keep your pants on.*

*Like all birth control methods, this only works if you use it every time.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

NFP: Magic 8 Ball edition

Baby's less than six months old, and I've already taken a pregnancy test.

I won't string you all along: it was negative. I sat staring at the lone line in the test window, almost shaking with relief. Oh, thank God, I murmured. Thank God.

But MrsDarwin! you say. If you don't want to get pregnant, why don't you just abstain? Aren't you using NFP -- shouldn't you know when you're fertile? Anyway, aren't you breastfeeding?

Let me say it here, once and for all: NFP may be a science, but practicing it in daily life is an art. And figuring out returning fertility is enough of a crapshoot that I sometimes think I'd get more clarity if I stopped taking my temperature and just shook the Magic 8 ball every morning.

Can we all be honest here? There are better and there are worse times to be pregnant; this would have been a worse time. Financially, we could have afforded another child. Physically, it would have been difficult, but I could have managed. Mentally -- I'm pretty resilient; I would have adjusted quickly to the idea of another baby. We don't have a "life or death" reason not to conceive, whatever that means. But I have a newborn and I'm still adjusting to life with four, and I simply don't want to be pregnant now.

I didn't worry about this stuff back in the days when I innocently assumed that if you were doing ecological breastfeeding your fertility would just take a happy vacation (maybe because people who encourage ecological breastfeeding push this line). My shimmering bubble of ignorance was popped real quick by two pink lines. Now I find that the first six months postpartum are a rather anxious time. It would be almost easier to just abstain for six months than to worry for several days about whether I made the right call -- except that it wouldn't really be easier. I never thought I was all that good at math, but the extensive calculus I go through to assess the daily status is worthy of a doctoral dissertation.

But yes for what?

Keyboard alert: Betty is much funnier about early fertility than I could ever be.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Take Note

Amy Welborn is moving over to BeliefNet and starting a new blog: Via Media.
Well, here we go again. Again.

I should probably give a prize to those who have been reading my blogs since 2001 - you certainly deserve it.

Yes, that's "blogs." In Between Naps, Open Book, Charlotte Was Both and now, in selling out to both The Man and the requirement, resolutely ignored before, to name a spiritually-oriented blog with a Latin phrase, I give you Via Media.
This is not going to be a grief-centered blog, although I will post reflective of that reality which accompanies me now, a reality which has brought grace, a void, confusion, spiritual growth, but still generally sucks, I can say that a month to the day on which my husband died.

I'm still mulling over some regular features. As this first week unfolds I'll commit to some, beginning with the next post - the very popular and (to me) fascinating, What did you see and hear? post which will grace this space every Monday. Or, Tuesday, in this case - look for that later today.

I'm not going to predict what this blog will be like. I've learned not to try to predict anything of late. My goal is to make it newsy, meditative and ...well..unpredictable. Like life.

Let's just say that if you can imagine a day - the same day - in which you experience a breath of grace through the voice of a child, the cool hand of an elderly priest, gently laid on yours as you pour out regrets and questions, and then the plaintive voice of Lucinda Williams singing in a darkened theater those same regrets and questions that your heart has been crying for a month now...


Gun Control

The Waiter discoveres that he serves well with the M1911 .45 pistol.

Man... Just reading that makes me want to head down to the range. It's been too long. But since it's a busy week, here's a gratuitious M1911 picture instead:

Monday, March 02, 2009

So Much For Selection

While out on a round of birthday shopping (typically last minute) for our Now Very Big Three-Year-Old Girl, I stopped by Borders thinking, "Surely a place as big as Borders will have the currently in-print translations of Dante and I can see if any of them have footnotes on every page instead of the end of each canto."

Ha. More fool I.

I checked in both Literature and Poetry (a two bookshelf section sharing an aisle with the much larger Gay & Lesbian section) but they did not have a single Dante translation. Not one.

And they wonder why we say the world is going to the dogs.

So I spent a little time yesterday evening browsing the Look Inside! links on Amazon and it appears that there are no current editions with notes on the bottom of the page. Sorry, Bearing. I am, however, very curious to pick up the Anthony Esolen translations. Soon, but soon, I hope.

If you don't mind reading online, the Cotter translation has notes right next to the text.