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

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Promise and Failure of Aronofsky's Noah

By an unusual set of circumstances, MrsDarwin and I ended up being able to go see the Noah movie this weekend. Knowing virtually nothing about it other than the trailer going in, I was expecting a sometimes over-the-top biblical epic. This was something more interesting, though in the end I think the movie fails. MrsDarwin and I spent a good three hours discussing it afterwards, which is not something you can do with your garden variety movie spectacle.

I'm going to write a more general review first, then put in a spoiler warning, and after that get into the details, because this is a movie that it's impossible to resist discussing and picking apart in detail.

The key thing to understand about Aronofsky's treatment of the Noah story is that he seems quite purposefully to have decided at the get go that this would not be a straight biblical retelling. His Noah is the story of a man who suffers and experiences evil, becomes convinced that he is meant to participate in a plan to wipe out those evils, and becomes so relentless in his pursuit of that goal that he to a great extent becomes what he most hates and destroys what he arguably ought to be saving. It is a dark tale in which a "Creator" sends warnings and supernatural helpers to execute a plan to wipe out the evils to which humanity has sunk, but where that creator does not speak clearly as to what the actual purpose of the plan is. This means that Noah is left to improvise his own sense of meaning, and he does so driven by a sense of justice and hurt which gradually becomes an unbalanced obsession which risks destroying his family and his plan.

The movie has a number of big, CGI-driven spectacle scenes, and it has the seemingly inevitable Big Battle of Ravening Hordes. It has stone creatures called Watchers who, while their mythological explanation works and is evocative, to be honest look kind of silly. The spectacle in the movie is hit or miss. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. And there's enough of it that it's easy to get the impression from a preview that this is primarily a movie about spectacle in the tradition of some of the big bible adaptations of the past. However, the core drama here is intensely personal as we watch, desperately on edge, to see how far Noah will go with his increasingly violent and dark crusade to help rid the world of a humanity of which he increasingly despairs.

One of the key problems with the movie, in the end, is that it builds up Noah as such a dangerous fanatic that I personally was rooting for him to die in order to protect humanity from him, yet although Noah does at the last relent in a key way -- due to a moment of humanity which he nonetheless sees as a failure of nerve -- the movie fails to either mete out justice to him or show a sufficient conversion of character to seem dramatically satisfying. The story of Noah has been changed from one in which God deals out justice to humanity through clear (if dark) instructions, to one in which humanity, in the person of one ultimately powerful and relentless man, must decide for itself what is right and what is wrong. And never even quite does that clearly.

Another key weakness is that the movie is a bit confused as to what kind of evil has to be exterminated. On the one hand, the movie paints a heavy-handed contrast between the "sons of Cain" who have developed an industrial civilization which has all the environmental problems of Mordor and none of its garden spot charms, and the descendants of Seth (Noah and his family) who are vegetarian gatherers, though given where they live they must get by on about 10 calories a day. At times it's suggested that the Creator's reason for wanting to wipe out the Sons of Cain while saving Noah and his family is that Cain's descendants do not respect creation. However, there's also a sharp moral contrast drawn, with the Cain-ites living in seemingly constant murder, rape, cannibalism, etc. At one point, as he starts to sour on all of humanity, Noah tells his wife that even his own family is a blot on the earth, just like the Sons of Cain, but his argument in this case is moral: "We like they would kill, if we had to."

The movie never really settles on which of these is the reason that the Creator wants to wipe out men -- though either way Noah's people become more like what he is seeking to destroy: Just as he uses escalating amounts of violence to support his project, his arc building also wreaks environmental destruction on a literally Eden-like landscape in a way that seems consciously to mirror the destruction left by the Cain-ites, but this tension is never dealt with by the movie.

In the end, the movie is, I think, a failure. Too many things don't make sense, the key personal and moral conflict is never satisfactorily resolved. However, it is certainly interesting and discussable. I naturally find myself comparing it to Gladiator, in which Crowe also plays a costumed relentless killer bent on justice. Gladiator is a successful movie in a way that Noah is simply not. Its spectacle is more sure; its plot works; it resolves. But there are human situations and dilemmas in Noah which are stronger than anything in Gladiator. It's a noble failure in that it tries hard to think about hard issues. Perhaps part of why it fails is that it's based on a biblical story, yet determined to remove biblical morality and the relationship between God and man. Having removed that, it never really comes up with a workable substitute. I wish that someone would do a movie based on pagan mythology that took its issues this seriously, rather than churning out the abysmal sword-and-sandal epics that seem to have come back into vogue. Perhaps then the unwillingness to settle on a coherent message would go down a little better than it does in this pseudo-monotheistic cosmos.

I think Steven Greydanus's view of the movie is far too positive, but Barb Nicolosi's bizarre rant misses the virtues that the movie does have.

Spoilers follow the image.

So for those willing to read spoilers but who haven't seen the movie, here's the key outline of the movie:

We first meet Noah as a child, as he sees his father killed in cold blood by Tubal-cain, one of the descendants of Cain. Fast forward to Noah as an adult, and with three sons of his own, and almost the first thing we see him do is kill three Cain-ites who have just shot a dog-like animal. At least one of these killings is in cold blood: Noah has beaten the group, he stands over the man who lies on the ground. Noah meets his eyes for a moment, then plunges a spear into him. Then he buries the dog and leaves the men to rot.

It that seems like a dark opening for a biblical patriarch, I can only say it's going to get a lot darker before it's over. Noah is worried that the Cain-ites are closing in. That night he has a dream about the mountain where his grandfather Methuselah lives and the world being destroyed by water while the animals seemingly are lifted up to safety out of the waters. He takes his family on a trek to see if Methuselah still lives. On the way, he rescues a young girl from a group of Cain-ites who have been slaughtered by others of their own. She is badly injured with a cut to her stomach, but Noah's wife Naameh predicts that she will heal if the fever doesn't kill her, though she will never be able to have children. She does heal, and over the following years of story time she grows up to be Emma Watson (though in the film they call her Ila) who is like a daughter to Noah though to his older son Shem she is something much more interesting than a sister.

Noah has a discussion with with Methuselah and a couple more dreams, and realizes that he is called to build an arc which will save him and "the innocent" (animals) from a flood that will wipe out sinful humanity. This seems tricky when they live in a barren wasteland destroyed by the Cain-ites, but Methuselah gives Noah as "seed from the garden of Eden" which Noah plants and miraculously produces rivers of water and vast forests of trees. He also has supernatural help from the Watchers, semi-fallen angels who disobeyed God to come help fallen humanity, and as a punishment were imperfectly made corporeal with giant bodies of misshapen rock.

The Watchers build the massive, rectangular Ark, and providence brings streams of animals to the ark, two of each kind, whom Noah's family then puts to sleep with the smoke of herbs that will make them sleep until the end of the flood. The family is, meanwhile, getting restive. It isn't lost on them that they'll be the only humans left after the flood, and with Shem in love with the barren Ila (who is refusing to marry him because she thinks he needs a wife who can have children) and the other two boys single (and Jennifer Connelly looking good but too old to have more children as Noah's wife Naameh), there's a real problem with the future of humanity. Noah promises that the Creator will provide wives, and shortly after a large, ravening camp of humanity shows up under the leadership of Tubal-cain, who wants to take over the Ark for himself and his people. Noah goes into the Cain-ite camp to find wives for his sons, but he's so horrified by what he sees there (fighting, raping and meat-eating) that he decides that the Creator want humanity wiped out, even his family once they've done their job, and he goes back and tells his sons so.

Time is running out. Ham runs off to find his own wife and meets Na'el, an innocent and wronged girls in the Cain-ite camp. He starts to bring her back as his chosen wife. Shem and Ila both set off (separately) to find Ham. Ila runs into Methuselah, who gives her his blessing -- a blessing which immediately cures her infertility. She can tell and immediately runs into Shem and consummates a marriage with him. (This sounds dumb, but as done in the movie the blessing and natural marriage is actually one of the better and more movingly human parts of the marriage. Emma Watson and Jennifer Connelly are two of the stronger actors in the movie and do very good work.)

Now the rain starts and everyone (including Tubal-cain's ravening army) rushes for the ark. Ham and Na'el are almost there when she puts her foot in a bear trap which the Cain-ites have set. She's trapped and rolling on the ground in pain while Ham seeks to free her and the army rushing on when Noah appears. For a moment they think they're saved, but Noah, rather than helping, grabs Ham drags him away, leaving her to be trampled and killed by the army. Noah shuts is family in the Ark, and he and the Watchers set about slaughtering the army of Tubal-cain which is trying to break in. Hundreds if not thousands are slaughtered, including all the Watchers, who return to the Creator, apparently forgiven. Then geysers of water end it all. The only two survivors are Noah (who is such a bad mofo that he's killed his way through and makes it back into the Ark) and Tubal-cain, who is an equally bad mofo and cuts his way into the ark in an unseen corner. He is wounded, but protected by Ham who had a grudge against his father over Na'el's death.

The Ark rides the rough seas and what at first sounds like the wailing of the wind proves to be the sounds of thousands of people crying out in despair as they are struggling to stay afloat, and at last drowning. Against this background, and the survivors sit cringing in pain for those outsides (Ila wants to try to rescue people, but Noah fiercely refuses) Noah provides a re-telling of the creation and fall. This is a fascinatingly done set of imagery, and worth seeing the movie right there, ending with a stylized silhouette of Cain killing Abel which turns into a stylized representation of war and violence all through history.

Everyone is dead now except the occupants of the Ark, and the results of Methuselah's blessing now become apparent: Ila is pregnant. She and Naameh are worried about what will happen. Shem and Ila go to Noah for their blessing, but he is furious. He doesn't see this as a sign from God, he sees it as ruining his plan. He says that if it's a boy, he will let the child live, and he will be the last human being. If the child is a girl, Noah will kill her. Needless to say this puts a damper on family closeness.

Time passes. Ila is near her time. She and Shem have built a raft on which they plan to leave the Ark, even though the birds sent out have not yet found land. Noah, however, gloweringly shows up and sets their raft on fire as they've about to leave. Ila goes into labor. Shem sets guard and says he will kill Noah if he tries to take their child. Ham, who has nursed Tubal-cain back to health, now makes his play and the two of them try to kill Noah. There's a big fight between Noah and Tubal-cain while Ila is giving birth. Ham stands by with a knife, ready to kill Noah if necessary, then intervenes on the other side (killing Tubal-cain) when Tubal-cain brags that after killing Noah the women will be his and he will found a new race in his image. At this moment the Ark runs aground. Ila has given birth to twin girls. Naamah tries to convince Noah that this is a sign, but he is relentless in his determination to kill both. However, at the last moment, standing with his knife above the babies, he loses his nerve and walks away.

The water falls, plants grow, the animals wake up, and Noah's descendants start a settlement. Noah is meanwhile growing grapes and getting drunk on wine because he is disgusted with himself for failing to kills the girls. He tells a surprisingly empathetic Ila that he feels it was all for nothing because he failed to assure the extinction of humanity, but that when he looked on the girls he felt nothing but love and could not kill them. She tells him that perhaps the Creator wanted to give him the choice whether to let humanity survive, because the Creator trusted him. After this semi-reconciliation, Noah simply goes back and rejoins his family, while Ham goes off, unwilling to be part of it all. (I'm kind of with him on that.)

So, having laid all that out, here's the problem: I think Noah clearly does take on basically all the evils that he's trying to get rid of. The first thing we see him do is gratuitously kill people, and his violence only escalates throughout the movie, until he is on the point of killing his own newborn grandchildren in cold blood. He stops short of that, but there's no clear conversion of heart. He just stops short.

The way that I most wanted to see it end, was I wanted his sons to kill him, or see him washed over the side of the Ark. It's clear by this point in the movie that Noah have become everything that he's seeking to rid the world of, and the best way to assure that the Creator's plan is completed is to get rid of Noah. The rest of those on the ship are innocent. Noah is not. In the unforgiving logic of the movie, he should die.

An alternative would be a true conversion of heart. This would mean going Christian places that the movie seems hesitant to go, but there would have been an easy way to do it. There's a long moment, one of the most fraught and terrifying I've seen on film in a long time where Noah stand poised over Emma Watson (who holds her babies in her arms) reading to murder them. She won't look away, and the look for grief and horror and pleading on her face is one of the most powerful things I've seen on film in a while. If in that moment Noah had truly realized that he was wrong (not just that he wasn't strong enough to do what he wanted, but that he was wrong) this could have allowed the movie to resolve satisfyingly without killing him. The dove comes back with its olive branch only shortly after. If it had handed on his hand as he was poised to strike and he had finally, in his hardened heart, accepted this as a sign in a way that he was not willing to take the barren Ila conceiving as a sign, or the twin girls as a sign -- if he had dropped to his knees and wept and seen how wrong he had been -- that too could have saved the movie.

Yet another option would have been the sacrifice of an innocent. Noah's youngest son is still young enough to function in this role. If the young Japheth had somehow thrown himself in the way of his father's blow and been killed, and if this had somehow broken the hardness of Noah's heart, this would also have provided a strong enough change to make the turn work.

What does not work, what fatally does not work, to my mind, is the ambiguous non-ending to the key human drama that we see: Ham leaving rather than live with his father, Noah returning to his family but never really acknowledging that he was wrong to seek the life of the innocent. In the end, the movie as it stands grapples with tough moral and dramatic issues, but it never resolves them.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Yes, Catholic Marriage Can Lead To Happiness


A couple weeks ago, Emma Smith, a young Catholic woman who is engaged to be married, wrote a piece at Catholic Exchange entitled "Marriage is Work". She frames the piece by recounting a conversation between co-workers about marriage. They talk about people they know who have cheated on their spouses or been cheated on, and conclude that marriage is pretty much a roll of the dice and perhaps a bad idea. The author remains quiet:
I didn’t think they’d understand that if I said, “my fiancĂ© and I are never going to have that issue” that my statement would be one of fact and confidence, not one of blind love and young bravado.

I didn’t think they’d understand what I mean if I said “marriage isn’t just a luck of the draw. It doesn’t work like a lottery.” Because, to them, it does, while for me, I know that it doesn’t. Marriage isn’t a drawing of the straws, where if your spouse cheats on you, well, “sorry, you just drew the short straw. There’s nothing you could have done to prevent it!” It’s not an institution where if you are a strong, happy, and healthy couple you’re just “the lucky ones.” It’s not an institution where the fates decide who “wins” and who “loses.” It’s not a promise you enter into like buying a lottery ticket – someone will win the jackpot while most people just buy empty tickets.
It is a foreign concept that one would be able to say with complete confidence “my spouse will never cheat on me.” And yet, I can say that. I can say that because I have a faith and a God who stand behind me in that statement. And I can say that because the love my fiancĂ© and I share is not human, it is divine. We love each other because we love God and we have discovered that in loving one another, we get to love God more fully. Moreover, the love that we have for one another is divine in origin. God gave it to us at our baptism and it had a full 15-20ish years to grow and mature so that when we met, it blossomed.
We have a faith that can make these promises. Promises of faithfulness, love, commitment. Our faith allows us to make these promises because He who gave us love was faithful in His love until the end. He who originated love in our hearts died for us out of that same love. We as Catholics are granted the same strength of faithfulness to the end when we return our love to the one who is love. When we participate in making our love a sacrament, when we make a way for God’s grace to enter the world every day, when we demonstrate outwardly our inner devotion, we can say with full knowledge and confidence that we are not in a game of luck. We are in an institution of work and prayer, and we can rest assured that our success rests squarely on the shoulders of our prayerful work and the support of a God who made the universe.

Blessed Pope John Paul II is famous for his line: “man finds himself only in true gift of self.” If we only receive what we give away, then we must strive every day to give our hearts and our love back to Christ.

Giving a gift back doesn’t take luck. It takes work.
I think there's a mix of truth and starry-eyed youthful naivete in the piece, and it's drawn some criticism, notably from Simcha Fisher who wrote a response entitled "God is faithful, but we’re not marrying God."
[T]he confident if untried Emma Smith is right in sighing over the fatalistic modern view of marriage — right in condemning the idea that some people just get lucky, and there’s no way of improving your odds. But she is disastrously, innocently, offensively wrong when she thinks that we can somehow guarantee that things will turn out well, just because we intend to work hard.

Ever heard of Hosea’s wife? Ever heard of Israel? Ever heard of the entire human race? God knows that this is what happens when you enter into a marriage with another human being: one way or another, sooner or later, your love will be rewarded with pain. And I know this because I love my husband — my faithful, loving husband — and I’ve hurt him. I pray to God, and I hurt my husband. I understand marriage, I believe in marriage, I have spent years upon years working on my marriage, and I hurt my husband. And He forgives me, just as I forgive him.

I am glad that Smith understands so well that the grace of marriage is something that must be actively pursued, consciously acted upon. And I hope that her confidence in her husband is rewarded with unbroken faithfulness and love, and that she will not be shattered when she discovers that he does have flaws. I hope that people read her piece and realize that it makes sense to look hard for a spouse who is trustworthy.

But I hope to God she is never involved in any kind of marriage ministry — not with the childish understanding of marriage that she has now. What will she say to the woman whose husband is cheating? Or to the man whose wife won’t stay sober, or won’t stop gambling, or won’t stop browbeating him in public? What will she say to the spouses who do work hard, and have found themselves sinned against? Maybe “Let’s put our heads together and figure out how you could have worked harder to prevent this. Good marriages aren’t just a matter of luck, you know.”

And what will she say to herself when she finds herself sinning against her husband? Maybe she will not cheat, but oh, she will hurt him. She will. This isn’t a warning about your husband-to-be, dear confident, untried brides. It’s a warning about you.

Leticia Adams writing at The Catholic Stand is similarly unimpressed in a piece entitled "Marriage is not a Fairy Tale":
The common thing that I see among believers and unbelievers is the need to avoid pain. It’s what motivates people. “Happiness” is the carrot that is hung in front of us and the way to get “happiness” is to avoid pain. That is the trick of the devil. The only way to happiness is through pain, it is through resurrection, after the worst pain that life really begins. That belief is the center of our faith. That includes our life, our conversions, our marriages, our bodies, our relationship with Jesus, our friendships and everything else. Nothing can become holy without pain, death and resurrection. The more we avoid that fact the more we reject a Christ who was crucified, died, was buried and rose from the dead. That is our Christian faith.

It goes for marriage too. Catholics cannot go into a marriage thinking that there will be no pain. We are human, we sin, it’s how we roll. Then we have to reconcile ourselves to God through confession and mercy, and in marriage there has to be those same elements.

I am thirty-seven years old. I was thirty-four years old, divorced, been around the block and had four children on my wedding day and I thought that God would protect me from being hurt by my husband because of the grace of the Sacrament. I was wrong. I have hurt my husband deeply and he has hurt me. In fact, this marriage has caused me (and my husband) more pain that any other relationship ever has.

However, there is a grace in the Sacrament of Marriage that you can do nothing to earn. Sometimes that grace is the only thing you have when you are sitting in front of the tabernacle telling Jesus how much you wish you had never heard of Him because this whole Christian thing sucks and marriage is the worst part of it all.

It is grace that helps you get past the pain and get to marriage counseling. It is grace that helps you see the human being in your spouse and realize that his wounds are why he has let you down and not because you are not worthy of love. It is grace that helps you realize that God is faithful and His Love is where you go for the safety, security and the promise of not being let down. Your spouse isn’t God. Your spouse can not carry the weight that is intended to be carried by God. It’s that simple. Anytime you put that kind of expectation on a finite human being, you will be disappointed.
As I said, I find the original piece somewhat naive, but the pile-on against it is starting to bug me as well, because while I suppose people could accuse us of not knowing that much about marriage either (thirteen years and six kids isn't a lifetime) the "you and your spouse will constantly hurt each other" account of marriage does not resonate with me. We've experienced pain and frustration during our marriage: miscarriage, the breakup of my family through death and hers through divorce, the many difficulties and frustrations which can surround issues ranging from finances to child rearing to sex. But if there have been times when we have hurt each other purposely, they have been so small and so infrequent I can't think of them. And while we may occasionally hurt each other unintentionally, the fact that we know it is not intentional takes much of the sting from such occasions.

Now, don't get me wrong: I do not think that there is any guarantee that spouses will not intentionally (or unintentionally) hurt each other. Being Catholic, understanding some theological concept of marriage, loving each other: none of these impart impeccability. Anyone can sin. But you can also choose not to sin. That's the thing about sin, it doesn't just "happen"; you do it. Which means you also have the choice to not do it.

And while "being Catholic" -- whether by that one means simply being a baptized member of the Church, or being a sanctuary rat, or spending one's hobby time arguing about theological and liturgical fine points on blogs -- is certainly no guarantee that people will not sin, or will not sin in some particular way, even aside from the graces of the sacrament of marriage itself, one of the ways in which sharing a Catholic understanding of marriage is helpful to a married couple in being happy together is that it provides an shared understanding of what marriage is and what it is for. MrsDarwin and I are naturally well suited to one another, but another thing that aids us in a happy marriage is that we shared a deeply and clearly held understanding of what we were getting into by getting married. Not in the sense that we knew what would happen to us. There are lots of things about what it's like to share a house and a bed and a crowd of children that we didn't know when we got engaged. But we did understand the nature and purpose of marriage, and that understanding we share was one of mutual sacrifice and self gift.

We shared an understanding that love is an act of the will, not only something you feel in your heart (or your loins.) We shared an understanding that the purpose of marriage is to form a family together, not necessarily to experience ever increasing satisfaction and fulfillment. We shared an understanding that our actions matter, and thus that it mattered how we treated each other, even in seemingly insignificant ways.

Because we knew we shared a commitment to the same idea of marriage, I would have said then, and would still say now that I know MrsDarwin will never cheat on me. That's not a probabilistic assessment of the future or a claim to some magical foreknowledge. It is a statement of faith. Knowing MrsDarwin as a person, and knowing the ideals that we share, I have faith that she will never cheat on me.

In saying that, I know full well that MrsDarwin is a person with free will that allows her to betray that faith of mine. I'm not claiming that because I'm Catholic and hold certain beliefs that I deserve to have a happy marriage. But I do make this claim: to the extent that spouses act virtuously (and as a Catholic, I believe that the Church reveals to us what virtue is -- both through nature and through revelation) they will be happier than if they did not. To the extent that people share and strive after a correct understanding of virtue, they will be happier than if they did not.

It's worth distinguishing between two kinds of hurt in marriage. One kind of hurt is what I'll call external hurt: things that happen to us which cause us pain. A lost job. A lost child. An injury. The inability to conceive. Conceiving when it seems utterly overwhelming to have another child. There are any number of things which can happen to people sharing a life which are incredibly difficult. And most certainly, being a Catholic and trying to live according to a Catholic view of marriage will do nothing to prevent these things.

Another kind of hurt is what I'll call inflicted hurt: things that we do to each other that cause pain. Nagging. Browbeating. Cheating. Selfishness. Insulting. All the ways, great and small, that one person may hurt another by intentional act or omission. Now, if we think that the Catholic Church has an accurate understanding of marriage and of virtue, then I think that we have to say that if people are living according to that Catholic understanding of marriage and virtue, they will not do these things to each other. That doesn't mean that people who are Catholic won't do these things. But it means that doing these things is acting contrary to the Church's understanding of virtue. In other words: sinning.

If both spouses actually act according to the Church's understanding of virtue, they will be protected from inflicted hurt. The times when they inflict hurt on each other are those times when they do not live according to the Church's teachings. So when I say that I know that MrsDarwin will not cheat on me, I am saying that I have faith that she will live according to her belief that cheating on me would be wrong.

Indeed, I would say that the reason why a major act of inflicted hurt such as adultery is so damaging to a marriage is that it is important to maintaining a relationship to have faith that your spouse will not hurt you. It would be very, very hard to maintain a relationship with MrsDarwin if I could not say that I knew she would not cheat on me. If a couple can't say that before marriage, they better not get married until or unless they can resolve that issue. And if a married couple has reached the point where one of them can no longer know that the other won't cheat -- rebuilding faith in that relationship until that can be said again is going to be a key aspect of saving the marriage.

Holding the Church's beliefs about marriage (or any other topic) is not a magic talisman. It doesn't ward off catastrophes that may befall us, nor does it assure that people will live according to their stated beliefs. But our faith is also not irrelevant to our happiness in marriage. Our faith teaches us what marriage is and what it is for. It is a guide, and to the extent that we follow that guide, we will indeed be happier because we will be living more in keeping with the purpose for which we were created. I was struck the other day by a quote from a book on (what else) World War One that I was reading, and I think it's relevant to marriage as it is to other aspects of life:
"If God binds our wounds, he does not prevent them from burning. On the contrary, they are supposed to burn, but in feeling them burn we understand the meaning of our suffering." Marc Boasson, "Au soir d'un monde", 1916


 Not reading this whole marriage tempest-in-a-combox has been the best thing that's happened to me since going off Facebook for Lent.

I think that we can speak with confidence about the possibility of fidelity in a marriage, because, although we have no guarantee of the future, we have the witness of the past and present. We draw on the examples of the saints as models of heroic virtue, and we look to them as proof that what seems impossible can be realized, and not just realized by the skin of our teeth, but in full, glorious richness. There have been saints in hard marriages -- St. Rita of Cascia comes to mind, or St. Monica. They were not defined or destroyed by their traumatic marriages. Examples of bad marriages abound, but good, faithful, virtuous marriages abound too, in all walks of life. Bob and Harriet. Frank and Dee. Jon and Mary Ann. Liz and Eric. Charlie and Charlotte. Barb and Mark. Jake and Christina. These are the merest fraction of the good marriages I've known, true examples of what it means to be faithful to one another in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, as long as they both shall live. If any member of these couples had predicted before marriage, as very likely happened, that the other would never cheat on them, they would have been right. They would have been right! So there is some measure in which it isn't presumptuous to state that your spouse, or fiance, will never cheat on you. In fact, as Darwin said above, if you can't say that with confidence about your fiance, it's time to reexamine the relationship before you make it permanent.

If I have to be honest here, though, let me say that I grow weary of reading articles and advice on marriage from kids who aren't married yet or have been married for two or three years (two whole years!). Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and the Church's teaching is right there for anyone to explicate, but the challenges you expect to face as a youngster or a newlywed are generally not the actual challenges of living out a marriage. Cheating is very dramatic, but takes a lot of effort that most people aren't going to expend. Much harder is the lifetime task of remaining faithful and charitable to your spouse in every word and every thought, in every conversation with friends and in every situation. Everyone knows, and rightly so, that the self-giving of sex can lead to heights of ecstasy, and that abstinence can be bitterly difficult. It's harder to foresee that in certain seasons, abstinence is the easier path, the cop-out, and that expressing love through sex, the making a free gift of one's body, without reservation, without the luxury of detachment, can be a crucifixion.

Crucifixion? Yes. Marriage is a crucifixion. It's total self-giving, which sounds romantic until you're actually having to to die to self. It's the death of selfish, and selfishness has a long, hard, painful death agony. It's wringing every last drop of mine out of yourself. Crucifixion is groaning, stretching, dying -- but it's not hell. And marriage doesn't have to be hell either.

That's because crucifixion is the opposite of hell. The crucifixion is a total act of love, love made so physically real that it can die to rise again. Hell is the absence of love. Crucifixion is the emptying of self. Hell is full of self, a suffocating overabundance of self feeding on itself. Hell is bitterness and recrimination, the nursing of deep wounds and petty scratches. Hell on earth has the potential to be Hell in eternity. Crucifixion on earth ends. It ends, and the end is joy. Julian of Norwich said that the pain of Christ in the crucifixion was the worst pain that could ever be suffered, but that the pain was completely overshadowed by the joy of Christ, because his pain was finite and his joy is infinite.

I will go so far as to say that in as far as a marriage on earth can be perfect, I have a perfect marriage. So far as men can be perfect, I think Darwin is perfect. I don't believe he's ever knowingly hurt me, and the few times when I have felt hurt have been not because he caused my pain, but because no person on earth, no matter how good, can stand in God's place and give total happiness. Part of the sorrow of this vale of tears is the realization of the limitations of this life, of how imperfectly even the most perfect are at doing good. The crucifixion of marriage is not caused by being nailed to the cross by your spouse (or by nailing your spouse to the cross either). The contradiction of crucifixion is that I nail myself to the cross. Jesus said that no one took his life from him; he laid it down willingly. And I will go so far as to say that there is no growth in marriage without crucifixion. The good times can be a deep source of joy, no doubt. Love comes in many forms, and many of them are pleasant. But unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains nothing more than a grain of wheat, and until spouses bury themselves in the deep trenches required to uproot selfishness, the marriage remains nothing more than shallow soil that can be blown away by the slightest disturbance.

And hey, I prefer the crucifixion of marriage to the crucifixion of the single life, no question. I'm going to die anyway. I'd rather do it with my own dearest one than alone. They say that the coward dies a thousand deaths, but that's not true: it's the brave that die a thousand deaths every day, and the coward who holds so tightly to his own life that he's only willing to die once. For myself, I need all the dying practice I can get.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cancer Has No Ass to Kick

There's a group at work trying to get sponsors for some sort of bicycle ride to end cancer. They're put up posts encouraging us, "Let's get together to kick cancer's ass!"

Confronted with this piece of braggadocio, I realized that I've heard this "kick cancer's ass" formulation before, particularly in referring to someone who's survived cancer. It appeals to the wise-cracking action-movie sort of martial spirit. And it's not as if people who have cancer, or have a loved one with cancer, can't use something to pick up their spirits a bit.

Still, while as someone who has lost a loved one to cancer I can understand the sentiment at a certain level, I don't like it. And indeed, it's because of having lost my father to cancer eight years ago.

The thing is, you can't kick cancer's ass. Cancer is not an opponent whom you can defeat by being one tough mofo. Cancer is part of your body growing uncontrollably, in a way that can threaten your health and life. To say it's impersonal misses the point a bit -- obviously having part of your own body turn against you and try to kill you seems rather personal -- but certainly cancer is not a person. As with many diseases, hope and determination can help in recovery. But survival is also (indeed mainly) a matter of at what stage of development the cancer was discovered, how susceptible it is to treatment, and luck.

You can have a great attitude and still die. You can have a terrible attitude and survive. Surviving doesn't mean that you're so tough that you kicked cancer's ass -- it just means that you survived.

The odd thing is, that the slogan seems to turn cancer survival from a fact into a virtue by applying to it a veneer of martial glory. To be a "cancer survivor" sounds passive. No, you didn't just survive, you kicked cancer's ass, you big bad cancer warrior, you. But the claim to have achieved martial glory through sheer badassery is itself a distortion. A soldier can decide whether to act with bravery or not, but he can't decide whether or not to survive. Too much of that is the result of chance. In war, the survivor may have survived not because he was big and bad, but simply because he was a couple feet in the right direction at the right moment to not get killed. The cancer survivor, likewise, does not survive because he or she is simply too tough to be killed. He survives because that is how chance and fate worked out. The amount of bluster applied has nothing to do with it.

Dealing with cancer is a brutal physical and spiritual struggle. It requires hope and fortitude. But having hope and fortitude does not guarantee survival. Simply dealing with the day to day experience of cancer requires hope and fortitude. Surviving (whether in the sense of gaining a remission for some length of time or of living on to eventually die of something non-cancerous) is not primarily the result of however much of these virtues one may have. It is the result of whatever we call the design of the universe: fate, chance, providence.

I believe that God knows all things and created all things. That's why I believe that our lives have meaning, whether we die of cancer or of something else (for one thing is certain: we all die.) But I don't think that God rewards or punishes us for how tough we are or aren't by deciding whether we shall survive cancer.

We don't have control over whether we survive something like cancer. We only have control over how we face it.

This Is The Fasting I Desire

Every night baby William and I contend together as to whether I'll put him down or he'll put me down. He wins most of the time -- he has cuteness and the baby sleep waves on his side, while I am weighed down by thirty extra pounds of quotidian grind. This, as you may have noticed, cuts into my writing time. William is content to let me sit in front of the computer as long as I'm nursing him. This literally cramps my style -- the weird contortions of wrist and spine necessary to type while a baby is attached to your breast just aren't conducive to the free play of imagination.

And I'm not sitting in front of the computer much since giving up Facebook for Lent. This is not just as a negative result of the sacrifice (which scarcely impinges on me, to tell the truth), but as a result of the positive effort to reform my schedule and put my vocation first. I'm seeing the first promising buds of springtime inside and out as bits of my daily life are gradually coming back into a small sort of order, and though it's a continuing process of dying to self, I want that order to spread and grow.

These fruits seem to be the result of an odd fast -- a fast from reading and writing. As I've given up reading all but a few essential blogs and a few essential books, and given up writing almost all together,  both my prayer life and my home life have been strengthened. I can't undertake a strenuous fast from food this Lent while I'm nursing the ravenous beast (three months today!) but God seems to be giving me a different fasting from overconsumption. I'm trying to accept this by taking my different evening time as a gift instead of a frustrating battle to get the baby down so I can write.

Psalm 40, from today's mass readings, says that God doesn't not require sacrifice and holocausts, but a heart open to do His will. The holocausts were the required offering, much as fasting from food is during Lent. But I can't follow the required fast, so God has given me a different fast from writing and reading, and in following it I myself become writing and reading: "“See; I come with an inscribed scroll written upon me. I delight to do your will, my God; your law is in my inner being!” (Ps. 40: 7-8)

ADDENDUM: Fr. Barron on fasting as distancing yourself from a good thing to allow deeper hungers to emerge.


Intertwined with all this is my effort to say the rosary daily. I'm following The Rosary: 31 Days, 31 Ways (recommended to me in the comments by Angelico Nguyen of The Korrectiv), and also reading along with Enbrethiliel's Book Club posts on The Secret of the Rosary by St. Louis de Montfort. In keeping with the theme of putting work into my actions, I'm trying hard to meditate on the mysteries when I pray them, instead of just rattling through the decades, and I'm also trying hard to let that meditation turn into prayer instead remaining just a novel I write in my head.

Today is the feast of the Annunciation, so here's my meditation on the first decade of the Joyful Mysteries:

When Mary says to the angel, "How can this be, since I do not know man?", the angel tells her not to be afraid and speaks comforting words about how nothing is impossible with God. However, just a few verses earlier in Luke, Zechariah asks almost exactly the same question about how his wife Elizabeth can be pregnant in her old age, and the angel rebukes him and strikes him dumb. Why is Zechariah punished for questioning while Mary is commended? Well, Mary is asking how the impossible can occur. She is a virgin, and she isn't getting married that day, and she knows that God is not asking her to go out and sin to get pregnant. It's a fair question, and the angel answers it seriously. In Zechariah's case, he's married. As long as he and Elizabeth are having sex, they're performing the creative act that brings children into the world, even though they've been infertile until now. John the Baptist's conception isn't a miracle. A couple getting pregnant when they have sex is not a miracle -- it's merely God willing nature to work as He intended it. Jesus's conception is a miracle, a physical impossibility -- a virgin conceiving and bearing a child through no human agency.

One hears the example of infertile couples raised when the discussion turns to the procreative nature of sex, or the natural barrenness of homosexual relations. But the act of sex is how God wills children to enter the world, and He wills to honor biology, whether a man or woman is married or not, fertile or not, contracepting or not. As long as a man and woman are having sex, natural conception is not impossible, whether or not a couple has been trying for years or are having sex for the first time.

I think this mystery also speaks to the immorality of creating babies outside of natural conception. A child has a right to be conceived as the fruit of sex between his or her father or mother. The child also has the right to be conceived into a family, to married parents who have vowed to accept him or her. Any aberration in this -- fornication, rape, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy -- is a violation of the rights of the child. (So is abortion: you don't correct one violation of the child's rights -- conception through rape or fornication, for example -- through violating another right by killing the baby.) If God desires that conception happen outside the natural act of sex in marriage, He doesn't require the agency of man and a lab to make it happen, and He pays the mother the respect of asking her first by sending an angel to make a formal announcement and request.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Frankly, My Deer, I Don't Give a Bam!

In a bizarre entry in the "birth control makes everything better" files of our modern society, environmentalists have apparently latched onto the idea of providing rapidly growing deer populations with birth control rather than simply allowing more hunting:
Some environmentalists, especially in urban areas, oppose hunting to cull the herds and argue instead for deer "birth control." Yet contrary to persistent urban legend, there's no handy oral deer contraceptive we can slip into a pile of acorns. Nor is there a permanent contraceptive that can be delivered with a single shot from a dart gun. Currently available immunocontraceptive agents have no effect on 10%-15% of the treated does. Even when they're effective the first year, booster shots are needed in subsequent years.
Then, too, it's difficult to inject enough does in a large, free-roaming population—and more difficult still to inject each one repeatedly, right on schedule. Even if we could, all those deer would still be present for years—still eating, still wandering out into traffic, and every day welcoming their fertile new friends arriving from nearby. The most optimistic cost estimates for each injection are around $500 per deer. Even surgical sterilization has been tried in a few locales. Although it costs over $1,000 per deer, it is 100% reliable and permanent.
Perhaps I'm callous to the charms of our four footed friends (I like deer well enough, whether on the hoof or in sausage, but my commute is down a veritable deer suicide alley with up to five deer to be seen lying by the side of the road any given day depending on the time of year) but this seems like the sign of a society which has lost all touch with basic realities. There are rational reasons for having pets "fixed". They live with us in our houses, so we have to live with their uncontrolled sex drives if they aren't, and since they're domesticated it's easy to take them into the vet for the old snip, snip. However, deer are wild animals. Sterilizing them or putting them on birth control is wildly impractical. And let's be honest: a deer is also a walking piece of meat. Far better to harvest more of them when the population gets too large than to resort to such quixotic measures.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Gotta Dance

The big girls have a dance recital tonight, for which they've choreographed a tap dance to "Moses Supposes" from Singin' in the Rain:

We've spent many days watching this scene for dance cues, so fortunately it's one of those wonderful pieces of Hollywoodiana that never gets old. The increasingly absurdist tone is enhanced by Bobby Watson's diction coach, who is the ultimate straight man.

Bobby Watson was a character actor who had bit parts in many films of his day, but his signature role turned out to be doing impressions of Adolf Hitler, due to a fleeting physical resemblance. He played Hitler in nine films, and often had to spend the time between takes locked in his trailer because cast and crew had such a visceral reaction to seeing him in Hitler makeup and mustache.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Signs Your Civilization May Fall (From People Who Know Nothing of History)

There's an enduring fascination with civilizational collapse, and so everyone is naturally eager to read an explanation for why civilizations fall that pins the blame on something they don't like anyway. Such seems to be the reason why stories about a "NASA sponsored study" on civilizational collapse and flying around social media. The problem is, the stories are really lousy. Take this edition from the National Journal. It opens:
Few think Western civilization is on the brink of collapse—but it's also doubtful the Romans and Mesopotamians saw their own demise coming either.
Where is this coming from? Civilizational collapse does not, in fact, tend to come out of nowhere. The "fall of the Roman Empire" was such a long process that the factors some people are in the habit of citing (dictatorship, bread and circuses) go back 400-500 years before Romulus Augustus, the last Western emperor, was deposed by Odoacer. The late empire was in obvious decline for at least a hundred years before the "fall", with an increasing tempo of coups and civil wars, incursions by Germanic tribes, and slowing productions and population.

Undaunted by such concerns, the article goes on:
If we're to avoid their fate, we'll need policies to reduce economic inequality and preserve natural resources, according to a NASA-funded study that looked at the collapses of previous societies.

"Two important features seem to appear across societies that have collapsed," reads the study. "The stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity and the economic stratification of society into Elites and Masses."

In unequal societies, researchers said, "collapse is difficult to avoid.... Elites grow and consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society."

As limited resources plague the working class, the wealthy, insulated from the problem, "continue consuming unequally" and exacerbate the issue, the study said.
There is some evidence for resource based collapses. For instance, there's some evidence that the "dark age" between the Bronze Age civilizations and the Iron Age ones had to do with a collapse natural resources needed for making bronze. However, a lot of over civilizational collapses are hard to pin on resource issues. And inequality? What are the two longest lasting civilizations to date? The Chinese Empires and the Egyptian Empires -- both societies so unequal they were divided between a vast majority living as farmers near the edge of subsistence and an emperor who was believed to be a god.

We as members of liberal democratic society may see that kind of society as backwards and doomed to fail (and I think we're right to reject many of their basic values), but the fact is that they were in many ways far, far more stable as societies and political structures and democratic modern states with far more equality.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Benedict Wrote Critique of Francis's Blockbuster Interview

Via the AP, this story is everywhere this morning: according to Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, who works both as Pope Emeritus Benedict's personal secretary and the head of Pope Francis's papal household, Pope Francis sent the first post-publication copy of his much-talked-of interview which was published in Jesuit magazines worldwide to Benedict for critique, and Benedict provided four pages of notes in return:
Though Benedict's comments had no impact on the published article, the revelation is further evidence of the remarkable and unprecedented collaboration between the two popes, who stay in touch by phone, in person and by sending notes back and forth across the Vatican gardens via Gaenswein.

Gaenswein told ZDF that Francis had given him a first copy of the interview to forward on to Benedict, and received a four-page letter from the retired pope three days later.

"He did his homework — he read it and, in accordance with his successor's request, he did indeed offer some thoughts and some remarks on certain comments or certain questions on which he thought something additional could perhaps be said in another place," Gaenswein recalled.

"Of course I won't say what, but that was interesting," Gaenswein said.

Francis has said he relies on his predecessor's sage advice and has increasingly coaxed Benedict out of his secluded retirement to participate more in the public life of the church.
Knowing Benedict's careful and clear style of writing, I'm sure that Benedict's comments were both kind and insightful, and it's interesting to know that there is this kind of substantive give and taking going on between the two men. I think it serves to underscore what has been my impression: that whatever their differences in style and emphasis the two men understand themselves to be in complete agreement on substance. The conflict between them and their visions for the Church is a product of outsiders reading their views onto the two men.

At the same time, I can't help finding this a bit odd. While I have complete faith in Benedict's humility and discretion, I am not crazy about the idea of a pope emeritus as an office. That may simply be my instinctual reaction to the unfamiliar, but there it is.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Briefly Reviewed

I had various ambitious plans over the last weekend, but I ended up spending most of my free time reading The Martian, which had come in for me at the library and proved to be one of those fun page-turners that is hard to put down. Having finished, I'd definitely recommend it (with a language warning) and given that I've read a fair amount of fiction lately it seemed like time for a quick rundown:

The Martian
I was initially drawn to Weir's near-future hard SF novel dealing with the struggle for survival of an astronaut accidentally abandoned on Mars by reading about how his novel went from free web edition to Kindle self-published ebook best seller to commercially published hard cover. That's a history I find interesting, given our penchant for writing novels on the blog. I also found the plot description interesting, as near-future realistic SF is a neglected sub-genre these days.

Weir really knows his science, and the novel is an engaging problem solver with and increasing tempo throughout. Most of the novel is told in the form of astronaut Mark Watney's log entries after he comes to after having been injured, knocked unconscious, and left for dead during an emergency evacuation of the third human expedition to Mars. The severe sand storm which caused the evacuation has died down, and the habitat in which the astronauts lived is intact, so in the near term he has food, water, and air. But his communications with Earth are knocked out and the next Mars mission isn't scheduled to arrive for nearly three years, so if he's going to survive until he has a chance of rescue, he needs to find a way to significantly extent his food supply.

As the novel progresses, we continue to get 80% of the story through Mark's log entries, but we also see occasional scenes back at NASA and with his crew mates who are headed back to Earth.

Like the similarly enjoyable hard SF from the "golden age" back in the 1940s and '50s, characterization is close to one dimensional. Mark's ingenuity and sense of humor make the book a pleasure to read, but none of the characters, him included, are deeply drawn. I wouldn't so much say this is bad writing, as with perhaps one or two minor exceptions I wouldn't say Weir ever has a character act in a way that doesn't seem humanly explicable. It's just that he's tightly limited his narrative to the scope of solving the problem at hand. This isn't a novel about the place of humans in the universe or why a world which can at times be so indifferent to suffering can at others pull together in order to save just one human life. It's a novel about how to solve a long string of interesting problems, rigorously thought out. And in that scope, it's intensely engaging.

The Polish Officer
This was the first Alan Furst spy thriller that I ever read, and returning to re-read it after a number of years (and reading all the novels he's written since) I'd still rate it as one of his best. It follows the experiences of Polish Captain Alexander de Milja, a map analyst on the Polish general staff who is recruited into the intelligence service of the Polish government (and army) in exile after the conquest of Poland in 1939 by Germany and the Soviet Union.

As always, Furst's research is top notch, and he subtly works to counteract some of the things which "everyone knows" in retrospect about the war and the nations involved. For instance, all the Polish characters stake their hopes, after the occupation of their own country, on France really getting into the war: France had fought Germany to a stand still twenty years before and eventually beaten them. Surely they can do it again. It's only once he's working with Polish intelligence in Paris, talking to French officers, that de Milja realizes that the spirit of 14-18 is not there. The French leaders are seeing themselves as a beaten force even before the army is hopelessly disrupted by the German advance.

More than some of his other novels, this one makes a point of sketching out the overall shape of the war as it develops, but it does so with a deft hand and never becomes pedantic. The reader feels that he is coming along with the characters in what he learns. Furst never crams history in edgeways and it never interrupts the story.

Having read a number of his novels now, one of the things which is characteristic of Furst's novels is that his character's are low on close personal connections. de Milja is married, but his wife has been in a mental sanitorium for some years when the story opens, distant from the world. He is not able to take her with him she he flees the country. During the course of the novel, he has several sexual relationships of varying closeness, but one of the things that he recognizes as happening to himself is that as he has given himself more fully to the clandestine way of fighting that he is engaged in, he necessarily commits himself to not forming human attachments. In trying to destroy those who have destroyed his country, he is engaged in destroying his own life further. So it does flow naturally from the kind of events being described (espionage is not the kind of work that those with close and stable families are drawn to) and yet in that Furst's novels seem to rise above the espionage genre and succeed as very good stand-alone novels about the period, I find myself wishing we could see a bit more of the sort of life that is being fought for.

Fall of Giants
I decided to give the first volume of Ken Follet's Twentieth Century Trilogy a try on audiobook this month, because Follet is a best seller in the "big history" type of historical fiction. I figured I should know the marketplace a bit since I'm aiming to try my hand at it. I wasn't necessarily expecting a brilliantly written work, best sellers often aren't, but I figured it'd give me a sense of what sells.

I'm not finished yet, so this deals with the first quarter or so of the 1000+ page book. However, it strikes me in relation to the other two books that I just mentioned in that both of them have limited characterization and very good description of unfamiliar places or times, yet carry off what they're trying to accomplish very well. Weir's characters may not go far, but what we see of them seems very realistic. Fursts characters are all of a certain type, but they are very good portrayals of their type. Follet's scope wide: He follows an English earl, a Welsh coal mining family, a pair of orphaned Russian brothers, a German military attache, and a well connected young American lawyer. He's determined to get major world figures in too, so we see President Wilson, King George V, and Winston Churchill. The handling, however, is not deft.

Follet has a lot of exposition he wants to get through, and he cheerfully crams it in everywhere. At one point, the German military attache goes to talk to his father about the woman he wants to marry (the English earl's sister), and end up digressing into explaining in abbreviated textbook fashion how Germany is trapped between France and Russia and thus has developed the Schlieffen Plan in which it will defeat France first and then turn to fight Russia. You get asides such as "He wondered if Britain's bird-watching foreign minister was in London, or if he was off at the country house which he so adored." I'm sure you find similar thoughts running through your head on a summer Sunday morning.

His attempts at human relationships are similarly painful. Romance is handled with the same blunt exposition as foreign affairs, and while the characters are too shallow for one to care much about their sex lives, Follet is determined to show us, even in patently unlikely ways. (Not only does one not want to read about a clumsily described hand-job in an opera box, but if the author is going to put in lines like "She thrilled at the touch of his hardness through the soft fabric of the pale grey suit he wore", he should at least consider (I hesitate to say "have the decency to consider) that no man, no matter how besotted, is going to want to be given a hand job while wearing a pale grey suit if he's going to have to talk out of the box before the eyes of hundreds of fellow opera goers in a few minutes. For obvious reasons.

I pretty much always finish audiobooks since, when I'm in the car commuting, I'm a captive audience, so I'm sure I'll finish this one, if only for the market research reasons mentioned above. But this is a pretty badly written book.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Six Degrees of MrsDarwin on Sacred Heart Radio!

Catholic Radio fans! Tune in to Sacred Heart Radio this morning at 8:40 EST to hear my brothers Will and Nathanael Egan playing Irish music with their band, Easter Rising, and, in a case of rank nepotism, being interviewed on the Sunrise Morning Show by Will's wife, Anna Mitchell Egan.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

True Penance

Up from the comments: Mandamum sends a quote from St. Josemaria Escriva which is just what I needed to hear today:

"Penance is fulfilling exactly the timetable you have fixed for yourself, even though your body resists or your mind tries to avoid it by dreaming up useless fantasies. Penance is getting up on time and also not leaving for later, without any real reason, that particular job that you find harder or most difficult to do.

"Penance is knowing how to reconcile your duties to God, to others and to yourself, by making demands on yourself so that you find enough time for each of your tasks. You are practicing penance when you lovingly keep to your schedule of prayer, despite feeling worn out, listless or cold.

"Penance means being very charitable at all times towards those around you, starting with the members of your own family. It is to be full of tenderness and kindness towards the suffering, the sick and the infirm. It is to give patient answers to people who are boring and annoying. It means interrupting our work or changing our plans, when circumstances make this necessary, above all when the just and rightful needs of others are involved.

"Penance consists in putting up with the thousand and one little pinpricks of each day; in not abanoning your job, although you have momentarily lost the enthusiasm with which you started it; in eating gladly whatever is served, without being fussy.

"For parents and, in general, for those whose work involves supervision or teaching, penance is to correct whenever it is necessary. This should be done bearing mind the type of fault committed and the situation of the person who needs to be so helped, not letting oneself be swayed by subjective viewpoints, which are often cowardly and sentimental.

"A spirit of penance keeps us from becoming too attached to the vast imaginative blueprints we have made for our future projects, where we have already foreseen our master strokes and brilliant successes. What joy we give to God when we are happy to lay aside our third-rate painting efforts and let him put in the features and colors of his choice!"

Friday, March 14, 2014

My Future in a Shelf of Books

Over at the NY Times, James Collins considers mortality in a box of staples. Then he moves on to other large numbers, such as his collection of books:
I have been blithely buying them all my life without ever giving a thought as to whether I will live long enough to read them. But will I?

I am not in any way a collector of books, but I am an accumulator of them. Counting shelves and estimating an average number per shelf, I figure that my bookcases hold about 4,250 books. In addition, I own over 100 books on my Kindle, and there are at least a couple of hundred in boxes in the basement. Let’s call it 5,000 books (that number again) in total.

How many of my books have I already read? That’s a delicate subject. I hold that by simply owning a book I deserve about 90 percent of the credit I would get if I also read it, but not everyone looks at things that way. I am a little shocked to discover that on any given shelf, I seem to have read, according to the conventional standard, only about one-third of the books.

That leaves around 3,300 unread books. If I read one book a week … but you and I know that I don’t read one book a week, I read a couple a month, grazing in a few others. If I read two books a month, it would take me 137 years to read those unread books. So there we have it: absent the discovery that those long-lived, underfed mice thrive equally well on a diet of vodka and peanut M&Ms, I am not going to live for 137 more years, and therefore I do not have enough time left to read the books I own. Death will intervene (thank God) well before I get around to the later volumes of “A Dance to the Music of Time.”

We can look at this another, equally pessimistic way. If I die in 30 years, when I will be 85, and if I read two books a month, then I have 720 books left to read in my entire life. That number seems so … numerical. So low. Far too few slots remain in my life for anywhere near the number of books I want to read. Now what am I supposed to do when I go into a bookstore?

I'm twenty years younger than Collins, but I've apparently already lived more (or less, depending on how you look at it) since I've now read all 12 novels of A Dance to the Music of Time through at least three times.

If you compulsively surround yourself with books, however, it's impossible not to soon start thinking in these terms. I read 20-30 books a year. If I have about 50 years (if I'm lucky) left to me, that's 1000 to 1500 books -- and some of those will doubtless be re-reads or books not yet written. I don't have as many books as Collins, but there are doubtless some books that I already own, and mean to read, that I never will.

It's almost lunch time. I feel like I should go read something.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Raising Kids Catholic

I've had this post from Catholic Moral Theology sitting in my "to blog on" list for quite some time now, in part because I'd wanted to read all the Commonweal essays that it's based on.

Our oldest children are currently 11 and 10, not yet, by any stretch, what Elizabeth Bennet called "the most trying age". Intellectual development, with it's joys and trials, is a continuum, and watching my children grow older and wrestle with ideas themselves I experience both the joy of seeing them really adopt ideas as their own, and the fear that they will someday use that intellectual ability to stray from what I believe is the path of truth and goodness.

To love someone is to want the best for them. My belief in God and practice of the sacramental life of the Church is one of the things that I think of as "best" in my life, and so naturally I want it for my children as well because I love them. And yet, as a parent, this is one of these naturally terrifying things, since no matter how much I pray, no matter how well I teach and live my faith, there is always the chance that my children will turn away from it -- for a time or for good. This would not make me a failure as a parent. After all, we are children of God, and yet we believe that the very first thing that humans did was rebel against their creator. The parent whose children leave the faith is experiencing a taste from the same cup which God drinks -- seeing His children turn away from what He knows is good, and what would, in the end, make them happy.

Perhaps it's fear of this pain, fear of being thought a "bad parent" which creates the desire to create some alternate bar of "success". This is what bothers me in the CMT article. The author writes:
The parents in these essays attended weekly mass, prayed in their homes with their children, introduced them to great thinkers in the tradition, had them involved in youth groups and community service. Some of the children grew and continued to practice the faith, and others did not. Almost every author whose children were no long practicing attempted to figure out why. Was it their failure? The disposition of the child? The failure of church leaders? The surrounding culture? The lack of friends with a shared faith? The lack of a Catholic subculture? None of these answers sufficed.

Yet, many of the authors noted that their children who were not practicing carried with them much of their formation. They were committed to the vulnerable in their community. They took their civic responsibilities serious. They had a strong commitment to do what was good and right in their personal and professional lives. In “Passing on the Faith in an Era of Rising ‘Nones’” (a 2013 presentation at the College Theology Society Annual Meeting), Julie Hanlon Rubio asked if this was the standard by which parents might hold themselves? We might hope for a committed faith, but, perhaps, we should be happy if our children grew up to do good and avoid evil.
I think this suggested division of hoping for a committed faith but being happy if children follow more general social values of good and evil is problematic, because it suggests a division of "good" from God. Belief in God is not simply a nice add-on to our core moral values and political beliefs. God is the source and summit of goodness.

Having read through the Commonweal essays on raising kids Catholic, I wonder if part of the thinking here is that for many progressive Christians, their moral/political positions are held with a greater absoluteness than their belief in God and certainly in the Church. The goodness of equality, the need to fight oppression -- these are seen as truly absolute and pure. With God and with the Church, however, there is a sense of tension. The Church must reform in order to deserve it's faithful. God is in some sense in the dock over the suffering and injustice He allows, and the supposedly retrograde way His church has behaved. Rather than an act of unmerited love, in a certain progressive view the Incarnation becomes a necessary move on God's part because otherwise He would never truly understand the suffering which is humanity's. It's the least that He could do, and perhaps due to it we can forgive Him.

I think we, as humans, are drawn to belief in that which is pure and absolute -- and to the extent that people make their moral values more absolute than their belief in God or belief in the Church, people will tend to drop the less absolute faith in deference to the more pure one.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Ongoing Lent

I gave up Facebook for Lent and find, as I found last Lent, that it's surprisingly easy to go cold turkey -- so easy, in fact, that I feel, as I felt last year, that perhaps it was the wrong sacrifice. And yet, my days haven't become more productive, exactly, and I wonder what spiritual benefit I'm accruing, if any. Or is the point of Lent to accrue spiritual benefit, or is that a secondary effect of drawing closer to God? Am I even drawing closer to God? Lent is actually very much like ordinary life, in fact, in which no bright lights signal my spiritual path, no voices guide me, and as usual, I have to rely on my own discernment.

I've realized that the reason I'm not more productive even though I've cut out Facebook is because I was on Facebook a lot while nursing. Well, I'm still nursing a good portion of the day whether or not I'm scrolling through posts on my phone. Perhaps it would have been a more demanding sacrifice if I'd set strict limits on my browsing time. And now, since I'm not nursing in front of the computer either, I'm not reading blogs as much as I used to, and I feel like I've become oddly insular and lost my connection with the larger world, even though I still read the paper. In fact, I feel like my ability to write is slipping, in terms of focus and agility. And so I hesitate to write anything, and so skills atrophy further. Perhaps it would be a discipline to have a set amount of reading and writing time each day, but is that necessarily a spiritual discipline? Or since all aspects of life are connected, does any kind of increased discipline have a spiritual component?

Lent is, in short, a time of refinement, and I'll probably be refining my practice all the way to Holy Thursday. Something I have added is using all that nursing time to finally ready and chew on The Four Cardinal Virtues, by Josef Pieper, and in conjunction with that, to read Father Copleston's History of Philosophy, Volume 2, Part 2, on Thomas Aquinas. Pieper is drawing a great deal from the Summa in his study of virtue, and I'd like to read some of the original, but I'd like a curated introduction. Can anyone recommend a good introductory book of selections from the Summa?

I also need to refine my practice of prayer, which is currently a scattershot of intentions and unfocused meditations throughout the day. Maybe it's time to just buckle down to my stumbling block, the rosary. I can keep company with St. Therese, who said, "Reciting the Rosary costs me more than using an instrument of penance. I feel I say it so bad; in vain do I strive to meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary; I am unable to fix my attention For a long time I was sad because of this lack of devotion which surprised me, for I love the Blessed Virgin so much that it should be easy for me to say in her honor prayers which please her so much. Now, it saddens me less; I think that the Queen of Heaven being my Mother, she must see my good will and be content with it."

I hope I evince enough good will for God to be content with it! There's another goal for the rest of Lent.

Historical Analogy

There's a piece up over at The Federalist which seeks to debunk various historical analogies which people have attempted to deploy in looking at the Russian occupation of Crimea:
Every international crisis brings out the amateur historian in pundits and politicians. The Russian seizure of Crimea has been no different, sparking all kinds of analogies and examples, including the inevitable Hitler comparisons. (Yes, Secretary Clinton, you have a point. But it was still over the top, especially coming from America’s former chief diplomat.)

That is not to say that history itself is not useful. Professional historians have much to tell us about the roots of this conflict, as do political analysts, who (like me) see proximate causes for the crisis in recent events, including serious errors in U.S. foreign policy. But facile historical comparisons are only obscuring more than they are clarifying.

Many of these parallels are put forward by people who understand neither the present situation nor the past to which they’re comparing it. Taking an early lead in the competition for the worst way to open an article in this category, a “senior political analyst” at Al Jazeera began a story recently by writing: “Like most of the people speaking about Ukraine, I am no expert. But I know one or two things about the history of the Cold War to recognize…”

As is so often the case, knowing just one or two things is almost always an invitation to later intellectual trouble.

Sometimes, of course, the goal is intentional obfuscation: Russian apologists, for example, rely on flawed comparisons with Kosovo and Iraq as justifications for the Kremlin’s aggression. In America, meanwhile, some partisans, determined to prevent this disaster from staining the Obama administration, invoke George W. Bush’s tepid reaction to the 2008 Russian attack on Georgia as the precedent for Western inaction.

In the end, however, these historical analogies are mostly nonsense, especially when they are used to draw false moral equivalences. There may be precedents to consider in determining our reaction to the Russian invasion, but they are not to found among clumsy historical fairy tales. So let’s dispense with them right now.
He then proceeds to explain how he considers the situation in Crimea to be different from Kosovo in 1999, Iraq in 2003, Georgia in 2008 and Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 respectively. (How Sudetenland gets left off the list I can't imagine, as that seems like one of the more frequently made analogies.)

His points are all pretty good, and it is of course true that no one situation is exactly like another and thus that each event should be analyzed on its own merits. I'm not really sure that means people shouldn't make analogies so much as that analogies are always limited in application and scope.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Way We Live Now

Over the weekend I finished reading Emile Zola's The Belly of Paris, which deals with revolution and bourgeois morality against the backdrop of the gargantuan Paris food markets. The main character is Florent, a former tutor who got caught up in the fighting in Paris during Napoleon III's coup which began the Second Empire (1851) and was (despite his basic harmlessness) transported to Devils Island. As the novel begins, he has escaped after many years imprisonment and returned to Paris. He's found, fainting with hunger on the road, by a market gardener as she drives her produce in to sell at the markets in Paris, and in that neighborhood of the markets he finds his younger brother, who is now married and runs a pork butcher shop. An acquaintance who is a poultry dealer with revolutionary leanings helps Florent get a job as a substitute inspector in the markets, but the who of them also become involved in plotting revolution with a group of fellow political dissidents who meet every night at a wine shop.

Reading a bit about Zola's overall project, of which this novel is a part, I'm fascinated by the scope of it. The Rougon-Macquart novels are a loosely connected set of twenty that Zola wrote from 1871 to 1893. His goal with the series was to provide a portrait of life during the Second Empire through the experiences of one family tree -- a project undeterred by the fact that the Empire was felled by the Franco-Prussian War, and replaced by the Third Republic, just as Zola was writing the first novel. Thus, what was intended to be a novel cycle portraying the present ended up being a sort of historical piece, though of very recent history. The 19th novel deals with the Franco-Prussian war itself.

I'm fascinated by the scope and ambition of the project of writing a set of novels to the social experience of an entire country throughout an era. Is any current writer attempting such a thing? I'm not aware of any. There's the temptation to say that our society is too big and too fragmented, but then, French society was pretty diverse in the middle of the 19th century and Zola was, after all, taking twenty novels to complete his project.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Sartorial Saturdays: Casual Day

So perhaps your office gives you the option of "casual Friday" or as it's referred to around here: Biz Cas Fri. Of course, the office dress code on normal days is "business casual" which means (for men) chinos or slacks and an oxford or dress shirt. So what casual Friday really means is permission to wear jeans at the office.

The important thing to keep in mind is that permission to wear jeans to the office does not mean that it is a good idea to show up for work looking like you're there to do yard work.

Not A Good Choice for Biz Cas Fri

Unless, of course, you really are a lumberjack. In which case, you really don't need casual Fridays anyway.

For the sartorially conscious office worker, this is not an opportunity to become slovenly, but rather to stretch the genre a little bit. The key here is to keep in mind that in menswear, pants are the least attention-grabbing article of clothing.

Wear a conservatively cut pair of jeans (not baggy but also not of the overly slim type always worn by those vaguely suspect looking male models in the catalogs that you don't buy clothes from) in a moderately dark shade. It goes without saying that jeans for the office should not be overly faded, torn, or stained.

Pair these with a pair of brown or black dress shoes, preferably something a little on the older or more casual side. If you're the adventurous type when it comes to footwear, this can be the time to do something a little off the beaten track: suede loafers or colored oxfords. I'm a conservative bloke (and don't have the money to blow on lots of pairs of shoes) so I stick with my black McTavish brogues.


Top it off with a nice, open collared dress shirt. Sure, if you're the sporty kind of chum, you could wear a golf shirt instead, but I think that a good dress shirt makes a particularly good contrast against jeans. This fellow seems to be pulling the look off nicely:

A princess and a guy like me...?

Friday, March 07, 2014

To Bay Rum Or Not To Bay Rum

When I was writing my first NaNoWriMo project, I sought a detail to attach to a character, something that would be recognizable as his throughout the rest of the story, and what I ended up with was the scent of bay rum aftershave. It seemed evocative enough, a distinctive masculine touch with a bit of name cachet. Everyone's heard of bay rum, right? Not everyone, as it turned out -- my dad, giving me a few notes on the finished product, said it made him think that the character had been drinking.

There was one hitch in my use of bay rum as a stand-in for a manly sort of man thing: I actually had no idea how it smelled. I'd never encountered it myself. I just knew the name. It sounded nice, so I went with it.

On a lark, Darwin recently acquired some bay rum aftershave, and we all gathered around to sniff at it. And then, taken aback, sniff again. It's... it's sweet. It smells like cloves and allspice, like pumpkin pie minus the good warm pumpkin part. I don't know much about top notes and hearts and bases, but no matter how the scent changed, it was still weirdly sweet. The cloves were too clove-y.

I turn out to be one of those people who don't know much about scent, but I know what I like. I wish I knew what Chanel No. 5 smelled like, or the original Eau de Cologne. The names sound so elegant and delicious, but then, so did bay rum. In the wired world, fragrance is a throwback to a more physical model of commerce. No amount of description really does a scent justice. There's just no substitute for holding a bottle to your nose and taking a sniff.

When I was a teenager, there used to a be a shop in the mall that carried all sorts of essential oils that could be blended into custom fragrances. It was a bit too rich for my limited income, but it was a lovely place to browse, sampling this essence and that: lavender, sandalwood, vanilla, orange blossom, cherry blossom, and my all-time favorite, tea rose. Little slips of paper allowed you to take home sample drops of each scent, and for weeks afterwards while rummaging in your purse, you'd stir up the faint exotic blend of paper and the parfumerie.

Bay rum is not destined to be among my favorite scent memories, though. I can't like it. If I ever get around to editing my NaNo novel, I'm going to have to put something else in, but what sounds quite as classic as bay rum? Old Spice? Do I know the smell of Old Spice? I can't even rummage through Darwin's medicine cabinet; we are a remarkably fragrance-free family, not from preference but from lack of precedent. His father never used aftershave; my mother rarely wore perfume. For a time in college I had one of those Bath and Body Works sprays that smelled like apple, but once it ran out I never replaced it; ever after it smelled too freshman. Having a signature scent seems like such a wonderfully literary character choice, but I'm fresh out of opportunities to browse the counters at the mall, and it's not exactly something one wants to chance without sampling, or one ends up with a blue glass bottle full of rejected bay rum.

Social Science is not a Moral System

Helen Rittelmeyer has an interesting piece over at First Things (much of it behind a paywall, sadly) which talks about the extent to which data and social science have become so enshrined as the sources of real knowledge and wisdom in our modern society that people often talk in pseudo-sociological or pseudo-economic terms when what they really want to address are moral or philosophical topics.
Dame Rebecca West had a theory that the history of civilization since Christ could be divided into three panels like a triptych. In the first panel, stretching roughly from the Crucifixion to the Middle Ages, the language of theology so dominated learned debate that all complaints were expressed in religious terms, even when the problem at issue was economic or political. The poor and discontented “cried out to society that its structure was wrong . . . and said that they did this because they had had a peculiar revelation concerning the Trinity. The hungry disguised themselves as heretics.” After a few brief centuries of clarity, mankind proceeded to the third panel, in which the opposite problem prevails: “Those suffering from religious distress reverse the process, and complain of it in economic terms. Those who desire salvation pretend that they are seeking a plan to feed the hungry.”
The moral vocabulary that now prevails in the United States is less Marxist but no less vulgar, for it is just as adamant that all moral claims be translated into material terms. The only difference is that material self-interest is now permitted to coexist with material altruism. Bad behavior can be condemned only if it is shown to correlate with some quantifiable negative outcome like a greater likelihood of receiving a free or reduced-price lunch among grade-schoolers, a higher incidence of antidepressant use among adults, or a measurable decline in the national GDP. Moral questions are treated as if they were, at the end of the day, merely empirical. We are hesitant, almost to the point of paralysis, about making moral claims on moral grounds.
When Rep. Herbert Parsons spoke in favor of child-labor laws on the floor of the House in 1909, he quoted Matthew 18: “Our doctrine . . . is that, if possible, ‘not one of these little ones should perish.’” I would guess that Congressman Parsons began with the same starting point a modern politician would have: a vague but definite conviction that the law ought to address child labor. When he proceeded to ask himself what it would sound like to make that assertion in a public forum in a way that would command agreement, the answer came back to him: Scripture. To a modern, it would have been: lifetime earnings differentials.

I do not mean to say that all political arguments should be made more biblical. I only suggest that, when we find ourselves looking for ways to bring some authority to our political convictions (or looking for spokesmen who might carry such authority), we should broaden our search. It may be that integrity, erudition, literary genius, holiness, or wisdom carry as much weight in a democracy as expertise.
The key thing, it seems to me, is to maintain a sense of balance, and to cut through the pseudo-empirical modern approach to recognize: Am I dealing with a practical question or a moral question.

Sometimes I find myself playing the empiricist side. If your objective is a practical one, in a mass society a data analysis approach may be the only way you can go about understanding and trying to solve the problem. So, for instance, if your object is "help relieve the poverty of families with children", and the solution you're considering is a federal program, it would make sense to analyze the effectiveness of that program and potential changes to it in a fairly pragmatic way.

However, many times we see abject confusion as to what the division between a moral and a sociological question is. If my belief is that it is morally wrong to have sex outside of marriage, presenting me with statistics suggesting that people who have sex before marriage do not have significantly higher divorce rate (so long as they don't cohabit) than those who wait to have sex until marriage simply isn't addressing the type of belief that I'm expressing.