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

Monday, September 30, 2013

Ave Maria, with a Polish accent

Here's something for your Monday: Karol Wojtyla singing Ave Maria, two years before his election as Pope John Paul II.

And why shouldn't he be a good singer? He was a trained actor, after all.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

You Have a Duty To "Ban" Books

This weekend marks the conclusion of Banned Books Week, a festival of moral preening in which students, librarians, teachers and others congratulate themselves for bravely demanding that various books not be removed from library (typically school library) shelves.

The event ties in to basic modern tropes of progress and freedom. After all, says the common wisdom, who burned books? Nazis. And crazy people in the middle ages who were afraid of progress. We don't want to be like them, do we?

Of course, choosing not to have a book in your collection is not really "banning" it (as in making it forbidden to own) nor is it "censoring" it (removing parts). So to start with much of the furor over the "banning" of books is overwrought.

But it is true that, with a little looking, one can find really absurd examples of books being pulled from library collections in order to avoid controversy. One standard complaint is of religious parents of a certain stripe asking that fantasy books such as Harry Potter be removed from childrens sections or school libraries because of their portrayal of magic. Other "bans" are oddly PC. For instance, the edition of Little Red Riding Hood featured in the above anti-gun ad was apparently removed from the school libraries of two California schools some decades ago because Little Red Riding Hood's basket of food included a bottle of wine. Huck Finn is sometimes removed from school libraries because of its constant use of the word "nigger". Yet other "bans" involve books which contain descriptions of violence or sex which people are concerned are not appropriate for the age group of children for whom the collection is maintained. 

However, I believe all this fuss ends up ignoring a basic point: Those who are responsible for assembling a collection of books (whether for their own enjoyment or for that of a some wider group) have an intellectual and moral responsibility to populate that collection with books which are suited to its purpose. If it's a collection of books specifically for children, this means selecting books which are both age appropriate and which are not likely to damage their intended audience.

This last, clearly, is going to leave room for plenty of controversy. For instance, some parents believe that Harry Potter, The Hobbit and even the Narnia books are genuinely damaging to children because they are fantasy. I think this is utter nonsense. These kind of disagreements, like all disagreements as to what's good and what's true, will necessarily lead to certain types of controversy and struggle.

However, the fact that it leads to controversy doesn't mean that the basic principle is not worthwhile. I think that if advocates thought about this a bit, they would realize that their objection is not to book "banning" but rather to people with different standards than themselves being in charge of which books will and will not be in the collection of a given library. Would the champions of Banned Book Week really fight to make sure that kids had access to a picture book entitled "The Darkies Need Our Help" in which young readers learned that black people were governed by animal instincts and could only be civilized by the paternalistic guidance of white people? Or how about "They Eat Gentiles" in which young readers were taught, as if factual, the blood libel claim that Jews kidnapped, killed and ate gentile children as part of obscene rites?

I would hope that it would be clear to anyone that there are at least some books which it would not be a good idea include the collection you manage for public use -- especially given that in the reality of fixed budgets and space, including a book which you are convinced is bad means not having space and money to include books which are better.

This duty will require more active intervention in cases where the collection is being maintained for a specific purpose, for instance a children's collection or a collection which is intended to provide good information on a specific topic.

Someone tasked to maintain a children's collection has the duty to include only books which he reasonably believes are good reading material for children. Choosing not to include a book because you think it's untrue or offensive is a good action (as is choosing not to include books which you simply think are inaccurate, badly written, dull or ugly.)

A person who is responsible for a subject specific library also has a responsibility to use discretion. For instance, when a parish maintains a library for its parishioners use, I think there's an implicit assumption that the library will contain books that will allow readers to learn about the Church. Thus, the person in charge of that collection has a duty to select books which accurately convey Catholic teaching. That may mean that the collection isn't as exciting as someone interested in theological speculation might like, but that's not the purpose of the collection.

Most of the claims of book banning center around purpose-specific collections such as school libraries and children's sections of public libraries, but even with the general section of a public library, I think there's clearly a duty to exert a degree of quality control. Yes, to a great extent public libraries are simply in the business of stocking books which people want to read. In the non-fiction sections, I would hope there's some effort put into acquiring primarily books that are accurate. And frankly, I think it would be a good thing if there were more emphasis put on quality in other areas as well. The online catalog of our local city library tells me that it has 25 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (six of which are listed as "lost or stolen") plus three copies of the audiobook version and more in the large print and Spanish language sections. This from the library which didn't have a single copy of Tristam Shandy or Far From The Madding Crowd. I don't demand that libraries not stock smutty books, but if you want to read badly written smut, I would think the library might leave you to pick it up on your own at least until after it's managed to stock basic classics.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Factions Formed

I've always liked this passage from War & Peace dealing with the various factions in the Tsar's court, simply because it seems to true to how people argue about issues.

Among the opinions and voices in this immense, restless, brilliant, and proud sphere, Prince Andrew noticed the following sharply defined subdivisions of tendencies and parties:

The first party consisted of Pfuel and his adherents—military theorists who believed in a science of war with immutable laws—laws of oblique movements, outflankings, and so forth. Pfuel and his adherents demanded a retirement into the depths of the country in accordance with precise laws defined by a pseudo-theory of war, and they saw only barbarism, ignorance, or evil intention in every deviation from that theory. To this party belonged the foreign nobles, Wolzogen, Wintzingerode, and others, chiefly Germans.

The second party was directly opposed to the first; one extreme, as always happens, was met by representatives of the other. The members of this party were those who had demanded an advance from Vilna into Poland and freedom from all prearranged plans. Besides being advocates of bold action, this section also represented nationalism, which made them still more one-sided in the dispute. They were Russians: Bagration, Ermolov (who was beginning to come to the front), and others. At that time a famous joke of Ermolov's was being circulated, that as a great favor he had petitioned the Emperor to make him a German. The men of that party, remembering Suvorov, said that what one had to do was not to reason, or stick pins into maps, but to fight, beat the enemy, keep him out of Russia, and not let the army get discouraged.

To the third party—in which the Emperor had most confidence—belonged the courtiers who tried to arrange compromises between the other two. The members of this party, chiefly civilians and to whom Arakcheev belonged, thought and said what men who have no convictions but wish to seem to have some generally say. They said that undoubtedly war, particularly against such a genius as Bonaparte (they called him Bonaparte now), needs most deeply devised plans and profound scientific knowledge and in that respect Pfuel was a genius, but at the same time it had to be acknowledged that the theorists are often one-sided, and therefore one should not trust them absolutely, but should also listen to what Pfuel's opponents and practical men of experience in warfare had to say, and then choose a middle course. They insisted on the retention of the camp at Drissa, according to Pfuel's plan, but on changing the movements of the other armies. Though, by this course, neither one aim nor the other could be attained, yet it seemed best to the adherents of this third party.

Of a fourth opinion the most conspicuous representative was the Tsarevich, who could not forget his disillusionment at Austerlitz, where he had ridden out at the head of the Guards, in his casque and cavalry uniform as to a review, expecting to crush the French gallantly; but unexpectedly finding himself in the front line had narrowly escaped amid the general confusion. The men of this party had both the quality and the defect of frankness in their opinions. They feared Napoleon, recognized his strength and their own weakness, and frankly said so....

[The fifth and sixth parties are adherents of specific generals while the seventh consists of those with a nearly magical devotion to the Tsar and confidence that if only he will personally lead the troops, they cannot lose.]

The eighth and largest group, which in its enormous numbers was to the others as ninety-nine to one, consisted of men who desired neither peace nor war, neither an advance nor a defensive camp at the Drissa or anywhere else, neither Barclay nor the Emperor, neither Pfuel nor Bennigsen, but only the one most essential thing—as much advantage and pleasure for themselves as possible. In the troubled waters of conflicting and intersecting intrigues that eddied about the Emperor's headquarters, it was possible to succeed in many ways unthinkable at other times. A man who simply wished to retain his lucrative post would today agree with Pfuel, tomorrow with his opponent, and the day after, merely to avoid responsibility or to please the Emperor, would declare that he had no opinion at all on the matter. Another who wished to gain some advantage would attract the Emperor's attention by loudly advocating the very thing the Emperor had hinted at the day before, and would dispute and shout at the council, beating his breast and challenging those who did not agree with him to duels, thereby proving that he was prepared to sacrifice himself for the common good. A third, in the absence of opponents, between two councils would simply solicit a special gratuity for his faithful services, well knowing that at that moment people would be too busy to refuse him. A fourth while seemingly overwhelmed with work would often come accidentally under the Emperor's eye. A fifth, to achieve his long-cherished aim of dining with the Emperor, would stubbornly insist on the correctness or falsity of some newly emerging opinion and for this object would produce arguments more or less forcible and correct.
From War & Peace, Book 9, Chapter 9

On this re-read (my third time through the book) one of the various things that's striking me is that the book changes tone a great deal in the second half. Books 1 through 8 are written in fairly standard novel format, and it's the characters and their relationships that keep you moving through it. With Book 9, where Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 begins, you have three chapters right at the beginning that are all Tolstoy's theory of history and his narration of big historical events, and it's not till four chapters in we even catch a glimpse of a minor character.

Tolstoy himself said that War & Peace was not truly a novel and considered the other elements of it (philosophy, history, etc.) to be at least as important as the fictional narrative, but personally I'm pretty much only interested in the novel.

Pope Francis Excommunicates and Laicizes Dissident Australian Priest

Mr. (formerly Fr.) Greg Reynolds of Melbourne, Australia expressed "shock" at being the first priest to be excommunicated by Pope Francis for advocacy of women's ordination, homosexual marriage, and other offenses.
The letter, a copy of which NCR obtained and translated, accuses Reynolds of heresy (Canon 751) and determined he incurred latae sententiae excommunication for throwing away the consecrated host or retaining it "for a sacrilegious purpose" (Canon 1367). It also referenced Canon 1369 (speaking publicly against church teaching) in its review of the case.

"Pope Francis, Supreme Pontiff having heard the presentation of this Congregation concerning the grave reason for action ... of [Fr. Greg Reynolds] of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, all the preceding actions to be taken having been followed, with a final and unappealable decision and subject to no recourse, has decreed dismissal from the clerical state is to be imposed on said priest for the good of the Church," read the document, signed by Archbishop Gerhard Muller, prefect for the congregation, and his secretary, Jesuit Archbishop Luis Ladaria.

Excommunication refers to the severest measure of censure for Catholics and forbids an individual from participation in any eucharistic celebration or other worship ceremonies; the reception or celebration of sacraments; and holding any ecclesiastical or governing role in the church.

The document, dated May 31 -- coincidentally Reynolds' 60th birthday -- provided no reason for the excommunication. However, a separate letter sent Friday from Hart to his archdiocesan priests indicated Reynolds' support of women's ordination was a primary reason.

"The decision by Pope Francis to dismiss Fr Reynolds from the clerical state and to declare his automatic excommunication has been made because of his public teaching on the ordination of women contrary to the teaching of the Church and his public celebration of the Eucharist when he did not hold faculties to act publicly as a priest," [Melbourne Archbishop Denis] Hart wrote.

But Reynolds said he believes the excommunication also resulted from his support of the gay community. He told NCR that in the last two years, he has attended rallies in Melbourne advocating same-sex marriage and has officiated at mass weddings of gay couples on the steps of Parliament -- "all unofficial of course."

Reynolds apparently bought into the media narrative that Pope Francis is a "liberal" who would be sympathetic to his goals:
"I am very surprised that this order has come under his watch; it seems so inconsistent with everything else he has said and done," he said.

The now-laicized priest has been in trouble with his diocese and the Church for several years now. In 2010 he grabbed headlines when he preached a sermon to the three parishes he was responsible for, claiming that it was God's will that women be ordained priests. In August 2011 Reynolds resigned from pastoral duties and Archbishop Hart removed his priestly faculties, however Reynolds founded a dissident group called "Inclusive Catholics" which meets for liturgies (often as Protestant churches) in which women at times preside. These illicit liturgies managed to give scandal in various ways, including on one occasion by presenting communion to a dog.

Even with the media's carefully crafted image of Pope Francis as a progressive who will institute radical changes in the Church which theological dissidents have long yearned for, it's a bit hard to understand how someone as obviously at odds with Church doctrine and practice as Reynolds could imagine that Pope Francis would be sympathetic to him. Nonetheless, the answer to the question "Is the pope Catholic?" clearly remains "yes", and one can only hope that somehow Reynolds will eventually realize that outside of the Church there is neither truth nor salvation, and repent of his sins. To say nothing of the dog.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Visited Egypt lately?

Gentle readers, have any of you been to Egypt? Eleanor needs to interview someone who's been to Egypt and ask a few questions:

1. When did you go to Egypt?

2. Why did you go?

3. How did you travel in Egypt?

4. Where did you visit in Egypt?

5. What did you eat there?

6. Who did you see there?

7. Did you buy anything there?

8. What kind of animals did you see there?

If any of our world travelers would be so gracious as to answer her questions (before her class on Thursday!), we'd be awfully grateful.

Moral Laws vs Moral Fashions

Well-known atheist Richard Dawkins managed to grab himself some less than positive reactions a couple weeks ago when he gave an interview in which he dismissed the "mild pedophilia" which was common in the English school system of his youth as not being such a big deal if one considered the climate of the times. Justifying this attitude Dawkins explained:
I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.
The points most people drew from this are:

- Actually 18th and 19th century racism was pretty bad, many at the time did recognize it, and we should in fact condemn it.

- Identifying "mild pedophilia" as some kind of okay thing is something only a sick person with no morals would do.

I don't disagree with these points. Nor is this new territory for Dawkins, who has something of a history of trivializing child abuse. He's the one who argued, "Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place."

But I think there's a more general tendency to be seen in Dawkins' comments which is worth discussing as well. As a thoroughgoing materialist, Dawkins doesn't recognize the existence of objectively real moral laws. Rather, what he sees is a sort of moral fashion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, racism was common and socially acceptable. Even "good people" who you'd want to have in your drawing room were often highly racist. (After all, it paid to be racist: slaves were the most valuable capital assets in some whole countries, including the US.)

In Dawkins' mind, this apparently made it less bad to be racist in prior centuries. Never mind the fact that racism arguably caused more damage to people during those centuries precisely because it was so widespread and socially acceptable.

Now, there's a sense in which someone might be less culpable for a sin which is widely accepted and practices in society than for a sin which is widely condemned. Someone who killed another man in a duel in 1800 had a lot of societal expectations telling him that it was the honorable thing to do to defend his honor in that way. Today, someone who shot another man for insulting him would be violating a host of social norms which teach us from out youth that killing each other is not an acceptable way of resolving social quarrels. So you could perhaps say that someone who shoots another person in such a quarrel today is likely more culpable as he has more voices in society telling him that what he's doing is wrong.

However, sin is at all times discernible to us via natural reason. Even when slavery and the racism that supported it were common practice, people could and did think about the matter clearly and come to the conclusion that it was wrong. And in the 1950s England of Richard Dawkins' youth, anyone who thought about it knew that reaching into a young boy's pants was wrong -- even if "child abuse" did not have the social stigma then that it does now.

Those of us who recognize the existence of moral laws should try to be especially aware of how they differ from moral fashions of the age. It's easy to recognize sins where moral law and moral fashion align. However, it's where the moral fashions of the age do not recognize a sin as being particularly wrong, where those fashions assure us that "good people" can do something, that particular abuses occur.

We easily identify the sins of the past where moral fashions have changed. This has been striking me as I read War & Peace. Killing someone in a duel or beating a subordinate while you're drunk is considered quite socially excusable, while being caught publically lying or cheating is absolutely world ending. Fornication is considered almost infinitely worse than it is now (at least, for women) but adultery is considered almost tolerantly as fornication is in our society. (Not so much by Tolstoy, who is rather the moralist, but by the society which he is portraying.)

But, of course, sin is sin. And it can be all the more deadly to us when we allow social convention to lull us into the idea that it's not so bad, something that "basically good people" can keep on doing without too much blame.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion

Brandon over at Siris has a post upon on a saint story that I had not heard before (which isn't saying much, there's a huge number of saints and I don't claim to be the world's most well read about them):
It won't get celebrated in any liturgies today, since it is Sunday, but today is the memorial for the Theban Legion. The Theban Legion, as its name implies, was originally garrisoned in Thebes, Egypt; but, it is said, they were sent by the Emperor Maximian to Gaul to try to keep things in order there. This is very plausible historically, although not all details of the Theban Legion legend are. The commander of the Legion was Mauritius, usually known as St. Maurice, and a lot of the officers, at least, were Christians -- here, too, it was not an uncommon thing for soldiers in this period to be members of an eastern religion like Christianity, particularly on the borders of the empire. The Theban Legion, according to legend, was given the order to sacrifice to the emperor, and St. Maurice and his officers refused. Given the close connection between legions and their officers, it is perhaps not surprising that the entire legion followed their lead. In response the legion was decimated -- every tenth man killed -- as punishment; and when the legion still refused to sacrifice, it was repeatedly decimated until all were dead.

The plausibilities and implausibilities are interesting here -- it's implausible that there was an entire legion that was Christian to a man, but soldiers sticking with their captains is not implausible, and the Gaul campaign is perfectly historical, although our information about it is somewhat sketchy. Our earliest definite reference to the Theban Legion is about a century and a half afterwards, which leaves time for embroidery, and some historians have concluded, on the basis of what other information we have about that campaign (how many soldiers seem to have been involved, etc.), that if it occurred, it was probably a cohort, not an entire legion, that was martyred, or to put it another way, probably several hundred men rather than several thousand. That's a plausible way in which legends form around historical events.
There are various works of art showing St. Maurice and the martyrdom of the Theban legion.
Apparently some medieval artists assumed that since the legion was from Egypt, St. Maurice must have been black (this wouldn't necessarily be the case, obviously), as shown in this statue from the Cathedral of Magdeburg:

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Revolutionaries

I was struck by another section of Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday. In this one he talks about his disillusion with the group of anti-war intellectuals he had fallen in with while living in Switzerland in 1917-1918:
For the first time I really came to understand the eternal character of the professional revolutionary who feels that he is raised from his personal insignificance merely by adopting a stance of opposition, and clings to dogmatism because he has no resources of his own to support him.... In fact none of these coffee-house conspirators ever embarked on a real conspiracy, and of all those who improvised identities for themselves as international politicians, not one understood how to come up with a policy when it was needed. When positive actin began in the process of reconstruction after the war, they were still their old fault-finding, captious, negative selves, just as very few of the anti-war writers of those days wrote anything that was much good after the war. It had been the fever of the times speaking out of them, discussing, scoring political points, and like every group that has only temporary existence and does not owe its community to anything in real life, that whole circle of gifted and interesting people fell apart as soon as what it had been working against, the war, was over.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Do You Really Believe Pope Francis Said The Church Needs To Stop Talking About Abortion and Gay Marriage?

Pope Francis has given an extended interview which was published simultaneously today by several Jesuit magazines around the world, with America providing the English version.

The interview is good and very much worth reading, and of course the noise machine (ranging from the New York Times to left wing, dissenting Catholics) has kicked into full gear, radically distorting the pope's message to claim:
Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.
Perhaps because the interview itself is long and wide ranging, a disturbing number of people, even ones who should know better, have taken the reporting of the NY Times and other biased sources at face value, and this is too bad because not only is the message these sources are giving untrue, but it obscures a very, very important point about the faith that Pope Francis actually is making.

The interviewer asks the pope, "What does the church need most at this historic moment? Do we need reforms? What are your wishes for the church in the coming years? What kind of church do you dream of?" He replies:
I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.

The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds. [emphasis added]

Note the order here. The first and most important message of the Church is to preach Christ as savior. If people do not believe in God and in their need for Christ's grace, they will not listen to Christ's moral message either. Then, the Church as the dispenser of God's grace must extent his mercy, pursing neither a discouraging legalism nor a soft-headed compassion which pretends that sin does not exist. The confessor who pretends that a sin is not a sin is not doing the sinner any favors. He duty is to compassionately help heal spiritual wounds, not pretend that they do not exist. Pope Francis emphasizes the missionary duty of the Church:
Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent.
This leads into the section which has caused so much controversy. The interviewer prompts him, "I mention to Pope Francis that there are Christians who live in situations that are irregular for the church or in complex situations that represent open wounds. I mention the divorced and remarried, same-sex couples and other difficult situations. What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases? What kinds of tools can we use?" and Pope Francis responds:
... A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. [emphasis added]

The order of priority is essential here. People come to believe in God and want to do His will, and from that love of God they desire to do His will. Rare is the person who will go from opposing abortion or opposing gay marriage to believing in God. Yes, these moral laws are accessible to reason, but the desire to "be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect" comes from love of God, not the other way round. In virtually every conversion story I have heard, the convert first came to believe in God and in the Church as the channel of God's graces, and then, from that point, came to accept the Church's teachings on the moral issues which are so controversial in today's world. I'm sure there are examples of the contrary, but they are not the norm.

The word "obsessed" (especially after we've heard it thrown around a dozen too many times by triumphant opponents of Church teaching) goes down like a piece of broken glass, but if we pause to think about what Pope Francis is saying, he is clearly right. The Church's ministry cannot be reduced to "a disjointed multitude of [moral] doctrines to be imposed insistently". It doesn't matter whether that multitude of doctrines relates to "right wing" issue such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage or "left wing" issues such as justice, poverty and protecting women: If the Church's message is not rooted in the proclamation of salvation, then the edifice of all those moral issues will crumble like a house of cards. Without Christ, "I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal."

I often hear the complaint that we seldom hear a sermon mention that fornication is wrong, that divorce and remarriage is wrong, that contraception is wrong, etc. This is true, and that silence hurts the faithful. And yet at the same time, how often do we actually hear, from the pulpit, that we need the graces earned by Christ's suffering and death, channeled to us through the sacraments, in order for us to be one with God forever in heaven? How often do we hear that we need to be saved, and that only by completely giving ourselves to Christ can we be saved?

Not very often. Yes, we hear a lot about how God loves us, but it often sounds as if this is simply because we are in and of ourselves so lovable. We're great, says modernity, and we can only hope that God is enlightened enough to realize it. Francis's message since the first day of his papacy has been, by modern standards, radical: Without Christ we are nothing. The Church's primary mission is to proclaim Christ to a world which no longer believes, because until people embrace Christ, until they recognize that they are sinners in need of treatment in the field hospital which is the Church, they will not be able to listen to all these other teachings with make up the moral edifice which those of us already in the Church spend so much time worrying about.

So: Did Pope Francis say that the Church needs to stop talking about abortion and gay marriage? Of course not. And honestly, more fool anyone who thought he did. However, he did, rightly, emphasize that we will get no where telling people about abortion and gay marriage if we do not preach Christ to them first. And in that, he's right.

In closing, it's worth noting that everything I've written about here, and virtually all the quotes you've seen from the interview, come from one section out of twenty. Elsewhere in the wide ranging interview you'll read about everything from what Francis has learned about leadership in the temporal church to why he chose the Jesuit order to his favorite painters and books. I think the section being quoted so much is, perhaps, the most important, because it emphasizes the way in which the central doctrine of Christianity relates to the moral doctrines about which we talk so much, but the whole thing really is worth reading, and I hope that people will read the whole thing and not just the biased summaries of it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Prose Thoughts

I was thinking about prose style last night, and I went back and started re-reading the beginning of my last year NaNo effort, If You Can Get It. I hadn't re-read any of the novel since finishing it. At first, I figured I needed some distance before I could come back and revise successfully. When I've first put words on the page, it's hard for me to imagine them being other than they are. They still sound like I meant them to sound. When I come back after a while, I'm able to see how they fell short of conveying what I meant them to, and revision become possible.

Re-reading the first seven installments, I was kind of shocked at how telegraphic the narrative style was. The first couple in particular were almost more like a script: all dialog with a few visual queues, but not enough description to put you in the place and very little of what the characters are thinking or feeling.

Some of this was a deliberate choice. One of the beginner weaknesses I was trying to fight is the need to describe everything, regardless of relevance. What do people look like, how is the room laid out, what at they wearing, what is the irrelevant stuff that happens between plot point A and plot point B? I recall that one of the rules I was trying to employ throughout was, "Do we need to know this, and if not, leave it out." That may have focused things a bit, but re-reading I think I took it too far and the narrative seems kind of dry and sterile as a result.

I remain divided as to whether to go back to this one and flesh it out into a finished novel at some point. Over the last few months a couple plot ideas fell into place which I think would improve the second half in terms of pacing and plausibility, plus sharpen some character conflicts.

However, in general I'm more interested right now in working up the WW1 novel that I'm hoping to start posting next year. Plus the challenge of writing a historical novel seems like a good place to work out the need for richer narrative description that I was noting.

An Unequal Marriage

I've been reading Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday, which doubles as both autobiography and a cultural history of turn of the century Europe. Zweig grew up in Vienna (he was born in 1881) in an upper middle class Jewish family, and he wrote this memoir while living in exile in 1942. He had been a successful writer since his late teens, and so in the course of writing about his own life he writes about a lot of the leading lights of central European art and literature at the turn of the century.

One of the chapters that I've been doing a certain amount of thinking about is titled "Eros Matutinus" (early love). In it, he writes about the attitudes towards sex in his youth (in this chapter, he writes almost exclusively about the wider culture, he's fairly reticent about what his own personal experiences were.) Zweig is generally pretty critical of what he sees as the hypocritically buttoned-up attitudes towards sex in the 1890s, which he contrasts with what he sees as much more natural and open attitudes "now" (the 1940s) and even in the 1910-1914 period.

While reading the chapter, I was trying to decide how seriously to take his view. Some of his claims don't hold up well against the test of time. For instance, he argues that freer attitudes towards sexuality have resulted in pornography and prostitution becoming virtually unknown. To my knowledge, even today prostitutions is less pervasive than it was in the late 1800s, however, the idea that loosened views on sexual morality have removed pornography from circulation is pretty laughable at this point.

Zweig particularly speaks against the double standard that was applied to the sexes in terms of sexual propriety: He writes that young men were pretty much expected to rack up a series of sexual experiences with prostitutes, lower class women and unfaithful married women while girls were intensely sheltered until marriage. Of girls he writes:
I cannot deny that, on the other hand, this ignorance lent young girls of the time a mysterious charm. Unfledged as they were, they guessed that besides and beyond their own world there was another of which they knew nothing, were not allowed to know anything, and that made them curious, full of longing, effusive, attractively confused. If you greeted them in the street they would blush -- do any young girls still blush? Alone with each other, they would giggle and whisper and laugh all the time, as if they were slightly tipsy. Full of expectation of the unknown that was never disclosed to them, they entertained romantic dreams of life, but at the same time were ashamed to think of anyone finding out how much their bodies physically craved kind of affection of which they had no very clear notion. A sort of slight confusion always animated their conduct. They walked differently from the girls of today, whose bodies are made fit through sport, who mingle with young men easily and without embarrassment, as their equals. Even a thousand paces away in our time, you could tell the difference between a young girl and a woman who had had a physical relationship with a man simply by the way she walked and held herself. Young girls were more girlish than the girls of today, less like women, resembling the exotically tender hothouse plants that are raised in the artificially overheated atmosphere of a glasshouse, away from any breath of inclement wind; the artificially bred product of a certain kind of rearing and culture.
This is put so strongly, that I couldn't help wondering if it was a bit of a retrospective exaggeration. However, though I have a certain protective affection for the mores of times past, I also have to be clear that I haven't lived with the social restrictions of times past, even though I have strong sympathies with the idea of socially reinforced moral codes.

Having this section of Zwieg's book I (which I'm reading in print) at the back of m mind, during my commute today I reached the point in my reread (via audiobook) of War and Peace where we hear about Prince Andre's courtship of Natasha Rostov.

Prince Andre if one of my favorite characters, and as in past readings I find myself wanting the romance between him and Natasha to work out. She's a likable character, and being in love seems to be good for him. Yet, this time through, one of the things that was hitting me with great force is that Prince Andre is my age (mid 30s) and a widower while Natasha is sixteen. And although here we're reading about Russia circa 1809 rather than Vienna circa 1890, Zweig's point about the extreme girlishness of young women seems to apply here. For instance, here's 16-year-old Natasha coming in to discuss another potential suitor with her mother a few weeks earlier:
One night when the old countess, in nightcap and dressing jacket, without her false curls, and with her poor little knob of hair showing under her white cotton cap, knelt sighing and groaning on a rug and bowing to the ground in prayer, her door creaked and Natasha, also in a dressing jacket with slippers on her bare feet and her hair in curlpapers, ran in. The countess—her prayerful mood dispelled—looked round and frowned. She was finishing her last prayer: "Can it be that this couch will be my grave?" Natasha, flushed and eager, seeing her mother in prayer, suddenly checked her rush, half sat down, and unconsciously put out her tongue as if chiding herself. Seeing that her mother was still praying she ran on tiptoe to the bed and, rapidly slipping one little foot against the other, pushed off her slippers and jumped onto the bed the countess had feared might become her grave. This couch was high, with a feather bed and five pillows each smaller than the one below. Natasha jumped on it, sank into the feather bed, rolled over to the wall, and began snuggling up the bedclothes as she settled down, raising her knees to her chin, kicking out and laughing almost inaudibly, now covering herself up head and all, and now peeping at her mother. The countess finished her prayers and came to the bed with a stern face, but seeing, that Natasha's head was covered, she smiled in her kind, weak way.

"Now then, now then!" said she.

"Mamma, can we have a talk? Yes?" said Natasha. "Now, just one on your throat and another... that'll do!" And seizing her mother round the neck, she kissed her on the throat. In her behavior to her mother Natasha seemed rough, but she was so sensitive and tactful that however she clasped her mother she always managed to do it without hurting her or making her feel uncomfortable or displeased.

"Well, what is it tonight?" said the mother, having arranged her pillows and waited until Natasha, after turning over a couple of times, had settled down beside her under the quilt, spread out her arms, and assumed a serious expression.

These visits of Natasha's at night before the count returned from his club were one of the greatest pleasures of both mother, and daughter.

"What is it tonight?—But I have to tell you..."

Natasha put her hand on her mother's mouth.

"About Boris... I know," she said seriously; "that's what I have come about. Don't say it—I know. No, do tell me!" and she removed her hand. "Tell me, Mamma! He's nice?"
And here's Prince Andre (called Andrew by this translator) falling in love with Natasha at her first ball:
Like all men who have grown up in society, Prince Andrew liked meeting someone there not of the conventional society stamp. And such was Natasha, with her surprise, her delight, her shyness, and even her mistakes in speaking French. With her he behaved with special care and tenderness, sitting beside her and talking of the simplest and most unimportant matters; he admired her shy grace. In the middle of the cotillion, having completed one of the figures, Natasha, still out of breath, was returning to her seat when another dancer chose her. She was tired and panting and evidently thought of declining, but immediately put her hand gaily on the man's shoulder, smiling at Prince Andrew.

"I'd be glad to sit beside you and rest: I'm tired; but you see how they keep asking me, and I'm glad of it, I'm happy and I love everybody, and you and I understand it all," and much, much more was said in her smile. When her partner left her Natasha ran across the room to choose two ladies for the figure.

"If she goes to her cousin first and then to another lady, she will be my wife," said Prince Andrew to himself quite to his own surprise, as he watched her. She did go first to her cousin.
One of the things that always has struck me in re-reads of Austen's novels is the maturity of her younger heroines like Elizabeth Bennet (though 27-year-old Ann Elliot in Persuasion does definitely seem more mature.) Natasha, however, is still very much a girl and seems like a girl. I find myself feeling almost guilty rooting for her and Andre's relationship to work out.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How Many of Me?

Sometimes I wonder if we're going to have to the time to put up any substantive posts before October, so here, something amusingly non-substantive: find out how many people in the US share your name.

My brother is the only person in the US with his name, but then, I always knew he was unique.

A search on Mrs Darwin reveals:
LogoThere are
or fewer people with the name Mrs Darwin in the U.S.A.
How many have your name?

The "or fewer" is the relevant phrase here.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Book Delusion

This isn't the Dawkins post that I intended to write today, but it seemed to good to pass up. The NY Times has a book section interview with Richard Dawkins. Most of it, frankly, is pretty pedestrian and underscores that Dawkins is a fairly predictable reader and thinker. One part that struck me (and apparently the editors too as they included it in the sub-headline) is his response to the question: "Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?"

Dawkins' response is:
“Pride and Prejudice.” It must be my prejudice, and I am not proud of it, but I can’t get excited about who is going to marry whom, and how rich they are.
His reaction to Austen's classic seems to fit well with his other answers, in that he seems a fairly literal reader and the fiction he likes he likes for sociological reasons. For instance, he waxes eloquent about a historical novel set in Africa, Red Strangers, which he describes as interesting because it gives the reader an in depth understanding of what it was like to be a Kikuyu.

This got me wondering how I would respond to the same question. At first I was stumped, as I tend to be pretty good at not reading book that I don't expect to like. However, after consultation with memory and Goodreads I came up with the following:

Swans Way by Marcel Proust -- I expected to at least find the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past interesting because novels dealing with the theme of memory often attract me, and I'd heard Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time novels compared to Proust's better known works. However, I found myself consistently annoyed by most of Proust's characters, and it deals with memory in terms of association rather than recollection. I ended up finding it rather hard to get through.

The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies -- Davies is an author that I generally like a great deal, indeed I've at times rated some of his books among my favorites, but this last novel of his rubbed me very strongly the wrong way. I found the characters repulsive and in the end found myself wondering why I'd read it.

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James -- Throughout the book, people keep saying there's something exceptional about Isabel Archer. Personally, she simply drove me up the wall. Which made it rather hard to care about the rest.

Which books did you feel you were supposed to like but didn't

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Universalism and Contrition

Brandon has a pair of interesting posts (part 1, part 2) dealing with an argument that had been put forth (in a book and on another blog) for universalism (the idea that all will be saved.) The argument itself is novel, though I don't think it works well for reasons that Brandon points out. Briefly put, the proponents argue that heaven must be perfect bliss, yet the bliss of the saved would be marred if they were aware that some souls were suffering in hell, and thus all must be saved or else no one will truly experience the bliss of heaven.

I through Brandon's response was very good, but the point which interested me most was actually something of a side note. He says right near the beginning:
It's worth noting in most of these discussions that, just as original sin is formally lack of original justice and materially concupiscence (craving for lesser goods) arising from such a lack, so hell is formally lack of contrition and materially penalty intrinsic or appropriate to such a lack. Everything else is either fully or partly symbolic, and no serious universalism is possible unless it accounts for universal contrition. (Most universalists don't even make an attempt at such an account, but a few -- like George MacDonald or Hans Urs von Balthasar -- do.)
It strikes me that most claims that all must be saved center either around the idea that no one really sins all that seriously, or that God would be cruel to send anyone to hell even if they weren't contrite for their sins. Perhaps this is in part because people tend to have difficulty conceiving of hell as simply being the state of being eternally unrepentant (and the suffering being that which that would naturally imply.) Brandon's observation that any account of universalism must somehow include and account of universal contrition strikes me as very much on point. Obviously, one once gets to universal contrition, universal salvation is no problem at all. My own severe doubt that all could be saves is simply a doubt that all would be contrite.

Monday, September 09, 2013

In The Midst of Life

Please pray for the soul of my grandmother, Harriet Merrill Egan, who passed away over the weekend. I take my middle name, Merrill, from her maiden name.

I say "passed away" as the accepted euphemism, which sounds lingering and languid, but it seems, from what the medics tell us, that she died suddenly, just like that, from a heart attack, probably before she hit the floor. I think she would have appreciated that. There was nothing lingering and languid about Grandma -- she was all Irish, brisk and active, "sharp as a whip", as my brother said. She had been ready to go, and when it was time, she went, though we weren't expecting it quite so soon.

Saturday morning I was looking through some photos of the girls that I'd meant to send out to family members in April or May but, true to form, had forgotten all about. I thought that I really ought to send pictures to Grandma, but I wasn't in any hurry. It could wait the weekend, surely, and we were going down to Cincinnati for a last-minute bridal shower for my brother's fiancee, who becomes Mrs. Egan in three quick weeks, and anyway, Grandma was probably coming to the wedding, health permitting. But on Sunday afternoon, as the girls and my mom and I loaded up the van with packages from Crate and Barrel before heading out to the shower, I checked my phone to pull up a map of where we were going and saw I'd missed a text from my dad:

Grandma found dead this morning.

And so, after some quick prayers, we headed out to the shower, trying to think out the logistics of remembering the late Mrs. Egan as we prepared to celebrate the future Mrs. Egan. Again, Grandma would have appreciated that, that life went on and we didn't stop right away and make a big fuss over her when there was a wedding coming right up.

Pray for us, too, as we drive the family out to New Jersey for Friday's funeral.

Grandma singing the old Irish songs with the help of the latest technology.

Mixed Spiritual Signals

I feel like I've been living an odd double life lately. Several weeks ago I went on retreat and came home feeling very refreshed in spirit. I've been greatly inspired the writings of Elisabeth Leseur and Julian of Norwich. In the middle of the night I wake up and experience what I guess you could call "consolations": a sense of peace and joy, a desire to pray, the desire to forgive, material for fresh and fruitful meditation.

And yet, it doesn't seem like this spiritual goodness is bearing a lot of fruit in action. I'm as disorganized as ever. I can't seem to discipline my will to stay on task or to keep the kids on task with their lessons and work. Am I more patient and loving? Maybe. I don't know. My kids probably don't think so. Am I more present to my family? I don't feel like it. I feel checked out and immobile, unready for action, unwilling to enforce order, schedule, or basic routine. I am not the wife from Proverbs 31 who gets up when it's still dark and manages her family and spins her flax and clothes her charges and makes her own headcheese, etc.

In short, the consolations come without my exerting any effort, and though I am deeply grateful for them, I find that in matters which do require me to exert effort and discipline my will to do boring, routine, or frustrating things -- which is about 90% of my daily existence -- I'm slacking off, again. I'm not actually feeling the discontents of bootstrapping it at the moment, but I'm also not sure if I'm even kinda doing my work. Is there a benefit to being spiritually at peace if it doesn't lead to improvement in other areas of life? Am I making life better for my husband and children, or is this just like hogging all the chocolate? And yet I didn't ask for this gift, so God must know that I need it in one way or another.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Does Anyone Really Reject God?

Kyle has written another post on hell, this one dealing with what he says, with at least some degree of accuracy, is the historically common belief among Catholics that many people will go to hell while few will be saved. (Personally, I have no opinion on the question of what ratio of people will go to heaven and hell, and other than warning people away from the one and towards the other, I can't really think why one would have much of a position on the matter.)

It seems to me that there are two main points which Kyle martials to his cause. His first is that if many are damned, then God's will has been frustrated, and unless we are prepared to think God a failure, we can't think that many are damned:
If you say, as much of Christianity does, that God created the universe and specifically human beings–creatures made in his image and likeness–for the purpose of participation in the love life that is God, and you also say that most people will refuse this destiny, then logically you’re led to say that, overall, creation won’t achieve its purpose. Overall, it is a failure. Overall, the purpose for which God created goes unrealized. Overall, God’s desire and will are not done. This would seem to make God, as Creator, something of a failure, even if you can, through some dexterous theodicy, get God off the hook for the damning decisions of his hellbound creatures.
This is, as I recall, a complaint that many of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation (or Revolt, if you prefer) were big on. If we allow that God created each of us with the purpose of knowing, loving and serving Him and being united with Him forever in heaven, and if we also allow that in sin we may reject God and separate ourselves eternally for Him, then by this line of thinking man may defy the will of God and frustrate His providence, and God is thus not all powerful. The most extreme solution for this is to claim that God actually intends some people to be damned (predestination) and that He crated them for this purpose. Thus, God's will is never violated since He wanted those souls damned anyway.

Kyle, of course, being a less dour fellow, is taking things in the opposite direction: God doesn't want us to be damned, and we can't believe that God's will isn't accomplished, so obviously none (or few) go to hell. It seems to me that either course essentially assumes that God doesn't will humans to really have free will. If we believe that God really wills us to have free will, then it by no means follows that if people use that free will to reject God that His creation is a "failure".

The second point Kyle makes relates to whether anyone ever really chooses to reject God:
From my own place, the doctrine that many are doomed to fire and brimstone and endless replays of One Direction hits just makes no sense. My own senses lead me to deny the observation of Fr. Longenecker that “every verifiable bit of evidence from history and yesterday’s newspaper reveal the total depravity of many men’s hearts and their spitting hatred of all that is beautiful, good and true.” I can’t think of one person who, in total depravity and rightness of mind, hates all that is beautiful, good, and true. Not one. Even the worst of sinners are motivated by something they value. That many people’s hearts are totally depraved and hateful of every swell thing just doesn’t correspond to reality.
This, it seems to me, is the more key question. Kyle wrote similarly here a little while back:
I know people who sin, of course, and do so knowing it's wrong, but none of them mean to put themselves above God or in opposition to him, as if that's their motivation. Either they justify it or presume God's mercy, in which case they would seem to have a lack of full knowledge, or they have fallen due in part to their weakness, which would suggest a lack of full consent. You're describing moral sin in such a way that very few people are really guilty of it. That sounds nice, but it doesn't sound like what the church says, certainly not the traditional idea that few will be saved and many will be damned.
Once again I'm reminded of a someone more dour version of the same concern: one of my friends I used to debate religious issues with as the teenager was always insisting that no act was really good because no one was ever totally motivated by "the good" and not by other more practical or selfish concerns. It seems to me that Kyle is, in a somewhat similar manner, arguing that no act is ever a total rejection of God because we always act with some other object in mind as well, in addition to the knowledge (assuming we have that knowledge) that we are acting contrary to God's will.

There's a sense in which I would agree with this.  During this life, no rejection of God is total, since we still have the chance to repent.  Our experience of God in this life is not direct and total, and our rejection of Him in this life is, likewise, not yet total.  That is why (contra one of Dante's innovations) we cannot be damned until the individual judgment, after death.

However, we do reject God often -- sometimes more gravely than others, sometimes more knowingly than others.  We do this whenever we put our own will above God's and choose to do what we want rather than what we know to be God's will, what we know to be good.

As Kyle points out, we invariably do this with some sort of proximate good in mind.  Our goal is not simply to offend God or to reject good, but to achieve something or other that we think of as a good -- that is, "a good" in the sense of some thing which we desire.  Even if I do something out of sheer orneriness (say, someone I dislike asks me to do A, and so I choose to refuse to do A simply to defy that person) I am still seeking a good of sorts in that I'm seeking some (perhaps illusory) sense of satisfaction in commanding my own actions. 

The thing to keep in mind, however, is that when we set our own will above God's and seek "goods" other than that which is good, we reject God even if that is not our sole object.  If I defraud Kyle, I may at a certain level do so in order to achieve the "good" of absconding with the riches produced by his philosophical blockbuster, but at the same I am choosing to put my will (to take what I want) above God's will (which tells me "Thou shalt not steal.") 

If I make a life of defrauding people, I build for myself a warped understanding of the good.  The more I live by that warped conception of the good, the more I train myself to reject the true good which is God's will.   

This is the sense in which people often describe all sin as being at root idolatry.  Even if I tell myself "I'm just weak" or "I'm counting on God's mercy" or "I don't agree with God on this one", when I form a habit of choosing my will over God's will, I form a habit of rejecting God and putting myself in isolation from Him. 

I think it's not a bad image to look on the individual judgment in terms of a final choice to either embrace or reject God, however it's important to see that decision in the right terms.  This is not a simple question of "would you like everlasting happiness or unhappiness?" in which every person would obviously have the same answer.  After all, we know that Lucifer, one of the chief among God's angels, rejected God utterly.  Why?  Did he simply get fed up with happiness and decide he wanted to suffer instead?  No.  To the soul which refuses to embrace God's will, union with God is no happiness.  Isolation may be suffering, but it is a suffering chosen because to the rebellious will union with God is suffering too.  When we build the habit of putting our own wills above God's, as we wrap those decisions in price or self-definition, we turn ourselves into the sort of people who would find it very painful to embrace God's will totally.  Perhaps I simply have a much darker view of humanity than Kyle, but I find it quite believable that someone would rather reject God than reject all the actions and beliefs which he holds in opposition to God.  Sometimes people even state things in exactly those terms.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Ancient Chinese Guide to Ancient Rome

Some time ago, a good friend gave me a charming little book: Traveller's Guide to the Ancient World: the Roman Empire The conceit is that it is a travel guide for the visitor to Ancient Rome, advising on everything from "how to get there" to "entertainment on a budget".

It turns out that back in the fourth century a true outsider's guide to the Roman Empire was in fact written, by an ancient Chinese writer. Among the useful things it tells you is even a bit about the entertainment on offer:
This country (the Roman Empire) has more than four hundred smaller cities and towns. It extends several thousand li in all directions. The king has his capital (that is, the city of Rome) close to the mouth of a river (the Tiber). The outer walls of the city are made of stone.

This region has pine trees, cypress, sophora, catalpa, bamboo, reeds, poplars, willows, parasol trees, and all sorts of plants. The people cultivate the five grains [traditionally: rice, glutinous and non-glutinous millet, wheat and beans], and they raise horses, mules, donkeys, camels and silkworms. (They have) a tradition of amazing conjuring. They can produce fire from their mouths, bind and then free themselves, and juggle twelve balls with extraordinary skill.

The ruler of this country is not permanent. When disasters result from unusual phenomena, they unceremoniously replace him, installing a virtuous man as king, and release the old king, who does not dare show resentment.

The common people are tall and virtuous like the Chinese, but wear hu (‘Western’) clothes. They say they originally came from China, but left it.

They have always wanted to communicate with China but, Anxi (Parthia), jealous of their profits, would not allow them to pass (through to China).

The common people can write in hu (‘Western’) script. They have multi-storeyed public buildings and private; (they fly) flags, beat drums, (and travel in) small carriages with white roofs, and have a postal service with relay sheds and postal stations, like in the Middle Kingdom (China).

I'm pretty impressed by the ability to juggle twelve balls and produce fire from their mouths, but even more so with the claim that deposed rulers did not dare show resentment. You don't find that just anywhere. The whole thing makes fascinating reading.

On Leave From War

This piece from the Daily Mail has been going around today, and serves to underscore how the Great War stood at a turning point, with elements both of an old "gentlemen's era" of war and also the utter savagery of the modern industrial battlefield:
When British prisoner of war Robert Campbell asked the Kaiser if he could visit his dying mother, he was astonished to be given permission – on condition that he promised to return.

The Army captain kept his word and returned to the German camp after the two-week trip in November 1916, remaining in captivity until the end of the First World War.

Historian Richard van Emden, who discovered the incredible incident, said such an act of chivalry was rare even a century ago. ‘Capt Campbell was an officer and he made a promise on his honour to go back,’ he said. ‘Had he not turned up there would not have been any retribution on any other prisoners.

‘What I think is more amazing is that the British Army let him go back to Germany. The British could have said to him, “You’re not going back, you’re going to stay here”.’

Capt Campbell, who joined the Army in 1903, was leading the 1st Bn East Surrey Regiment when his battalion took up a position on the Mons-Condé canal in north-west France just weeks after war broke out in July 1914.

A week later, his troops were attacked by the German forces and Capt Campbell was seriously injured and captured. The 29-year-old was treated in a military hospital in Cologne before being sent to the prisoner-of-war camp in Magdeburg.

In 1916, he received word from home that his mother Louise was dying of cancer. He wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II, begging to be allowed to see her one last time. The Kaiser gave him two weeks’ compassionate leave, including two days travelling in each direction by boat and train, on the proviso Capt Campbell gave his word as a British Army officer that he would return.
Capt Campbell reached his mother’s bedside in Gravesend, Kent, on November 7 and spent a week with her before keeping his promise and returning to Germany. His mother died three months later in February 1917.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Follow Your Vocation, Not Your Bliss

There's a inspirational piece going around that got my hackles up. An artist did a Bill Waterson-style cartoon to illustrate a speech which Bill Waterson gave. Click on through, it's a quick read, and the artist does a good job of imitating Waterson's visual style, which is certainly one I have a great affection for having grown up on Calvin & Hobbes.

The message of this inspirational cartoon, leaves something to be desired. (And really, it's the cartoon much more than the speech that has be annoyed.) We see a dreamy illustrator, oppressed by using his skills to draw things such as Jeep advertisements. Finally, he quits his job, goes home, and paints dinosaur models instead. His wife gets pregnant, they have a child, she goes off to work to support the family, and he stays home drawing and watching after their child. His old boss shows up one day to offer him a new job, but he turns it down because he'd rather stay home with his daughter and draw.

Really, there are two different things that bother me here. One is entirely related to the story layered on by the cartoon. The reason why the artist shown is able to do whatever he wants is because he has a wife who is going off and making the living to support the family -- doing what he is not himself willing to do. He thinks that it's degrading to work for a living, luckily, he can skip out of that and make his wife do it for him instead. Now, there's nothing inherently selfish about being the stay-at-home half of a single income family. This is, of course, the way that MrsDarwin and I live. But the cartoon doesn't really show staying home to take care of your children as being needed work -- something that is worthwhile for its own sake but also (like any form of work) often keeps you from what you would most like to be doing if pursuing the "follow your bliss" creed. In real life, there would be a lot of days when taking care of his daughter and keeping the house in order and making sure that there was something to eat when his wife got home would keep the artist from being able to sit down and draw like he wants to. Because parenting and keeping house is also work -- not a vacation.

And, whatever any feminists may say, I would also add that the configuration shown here is harder on both spouses, but particularly on the wife. There are couples for whom it has to work, but all other things being equal it does not work as well to have the wife working and the husband staying home. When we have a baby, I'll take a week or two of personal time, work a bit from home while I'm doing it, and then head on back to work with nor more difficulty than a bit of tiredness from sleeping a little less well than usual with the tiny new member of the family in bed with us at nights. Two weeks after giving birth, MrsDarwin still has trouble walking for long, and she'd have an incredibly hard time going back to a full day of work. When we see the smiling mom heading off to work to support her stay-at-home-husband in the cartoon, we don't see the bags under her eyes from being up nursing the baby at night. Nor is there any easy way to show that mothers simply have a stronger desire to be with and bond with very small children than fathers do. That's not to say that fathers don't care about their children, but it's not the sort of bond that being gone for ten hours at a time strains at all.

The second thing that bothers me here has to do with how one reconciles one's desires and aspirations (following your bliss, in the oft quoted feel good phrase) with the need to make a living. Your job's function is not to allow you to fulfill all your dreams, provide your primary intellectual and artistic stimulation, and give your live a deep sense of meaning and purpose. And let's be honest: for most of us our jobs will provide none of those.

I feel that I'm very fortunate in my job. It pays well, it's relatively challenging and interesting, and I work with fairly nice people. Is it what I most want to be doing in the world? Is it what I would do if I didn't have to worry about earning a living? Of course not. But that's okay. Your job doesn't have to provide your main sense of excitement and meaning in life. It has to pay the bills and allow you to fulfill your real vocation, which for most of us means: supporting your family.

Sure, I'd love it if I could read and think and write full time about whatever I wanted. But a whole lot of people would love to do that, and very few people want to pay for it. I'd enjoy it if someone offered to pay me to work full time researching and writing a novel about World War One -- but as it stands I'm very happy to make a good living for my family doing pricing analytics and research and write in my spare time.

Yes, there are those rare people who have talents and desires (and opportunities) such that they can do what they most want to do and also make a great living at it. If you are Steve Jobs or Bill Waterson: Follow your bliss.

However, most of us aren't Steve Jobs or Bill Waterson. And I kind of doubt that there's anyone whose great dream and passion is plumbing or cost accounting or working register or supply chain logistics. And yet we need all these things, and they're not ignoble things just because they aren't the only thing someone wants out of life. It's okay (indeed good) to work to pay the bills while being primarily focused on your family and your hobbies.

Actually, at times I'm very glad that my job doesn't look too much like a vocation or a dream. One of the temptations that people seem to face in that situation is to let the job start to crowd out one's other (often more important) needs and aspirations. If I had a job that looked more like "my bliss", I'd be tempted to stick with it even if it wasn't providing my family with the income and security and time with them that they need. I'd be tempted to string things along miserably year after year of just barely making it (or not) on the conviction I was meant to do this.

As it is, one of the great things about my job is that my boss says, "Look, at the end of the day, we're just here to earn a paycheck. It's what we go home to that matters."