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

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Not the Dummy

My dears, I have reached the pinnacle of my theatrical career. In October, I shall tread the local boards in the footsteps of the most beautiful, most elegant, most self-possessed woman ever to grace stage or screen. I give you my comedic hero, the finest straight woman in the history of straight women:

Margaret Dumont. Doesn't the name alone make your heart thrill? She was born Daisy Baker in Brooklyn, trained in theater and opera, and toured in America and in Europe. In 1910, at age 28, she married a sugar millionaire and retired from the stage.

Eight years later her husband died in the flu pandemic after World War I, and Dumont, childless, returned to the stage to play a new persona, the dowager.

After working on stage with the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, she went on to make seven movies with the crew. Groucho, who was simply unable to turn it off in real life, played up the image of Dumont as being able to keep a straight face because she didn't get the jokes. Dumont, however, was a seasoned veteran, and knew exactly what she was doing when the gags were flying at her head. She explained her technique thusly:
"Scriptwriters build up to a laugh, but they don't allow any pause for it. That's where I come in. I ad lib—it doesn't matter what I say—just to kill a few seconds so you can enjoy the gag. I have to sense when the big laughs will come and fill in, or the audience will drown out the next gag with its own laughter... I'm not a stooge, I'm a straight lady. There's an art to playing straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him."
And even Groucho, Jerk-In-Chief, hailed Dumont as "the fifth Marx Brother".

If you're in Central Ohio in October, come see Animal Crackers. Various Darwins will be representing: Eleanor as Zeppo, Julia as Mary, the sweet young thing, and moi as Mrs. Rittenhouse. But I'll really be playing Margaret Dumont.

On Dumont in Duck Soup:
Dumont was indeed formidable. The comedic duo of wise guy vs straight woman is almost necessarily imbalanced, the straight woman (or man) getting less attention than the jokester. But Dumont subtly upset that power balance with her generous acting style. She may have been the slightly more glamorous cousin of the battleaxe archetype, but she was also warm, charming, delightful, befuddled, naive and, most of all, humane. She feeds the Brothers straight lines, reacts to every syllable, sputters and sings and plays the fool, no questions asked, while still commanding attention and respect, affection, even desire — no mean feat for the only woman in a group of hyperactive manchildren willing to do anything for attention. She appeared in half of the Marx Bros. films, and in the other half, her absence always resulted in hundreds of letters to studios asking why she had been left out.


Did you hear the one about Cleveland Jim's Irish grandmother, who got married so that she could go down to two in a bed?

I'm 'bout ready to get married, myself.

I slept, if that's what we're calling it, wedged in the space between the baby, who coughed and flopped and threw arms, and the girl, whose pillow fell off the bed so she used mine. The older boy has been in my bed for the past two nights with the cough and the sore throat and the intermittent fever. The girl is worried about nightmares. The baby is worried about his space and will defend it with all his limbs.

Sunday night (or rather, Monday morning), the boy had a coughing fit which lasted two hours. This woke up the baby, who flopped and giggled until I turned out the light again. Baby snuggled up against me and wrapped his arms around my neck. "Mama!" he said. "Mama mama mama mama mama!" Then he hit me in the eye, and I saw a perfect ring of brilliant white light.

At 4:30 the boys finally settled. At 4:40 the girl came in because she'd had a bad dream.

Last night I dosed the boy with the cough syrup that causes oblivion. The girl decided to start the night draped across the bottom of the bed, which was no inconvenience to the boy whose feet don't extend down that far. Baby nestled up into a position in which he could cough in my face all night. By 6am I'd had enough. I never thought of myself as a morning person, but perhaps the trick is being too uncomfortable to sleep.


On Monday morning, I was up bright and early to see off my 17yo for her first day of school ever.

She's taking Chem 1111 and Stats 1350, neither of which I am equipped to teach her, or even help her study.


Ballet also started on Monday for my second daughter, who turns 16 next week.

The concrete guys are coming this morning to start demolition work on the 90-year-old eroding sandstone porch.

They're going to make it all look very elegant, I'm sure, but I am sad to bid farewell to the original stone, even if it is a major liability. On the other hand, having all the steps be at a standard height will be novel.

Did we ever show you the hole in the bathroom ceiling? I feel sure we've written about this. Certainly I've told enough people about it. This isn't a great photo for scale, but I don't feel like getting up and taking another one.

That's the brick wall of the chimney, and the stud to which the plaster used to be attached. Also, a mystery pipe, though not, apparently, the cause of the leak. The brick, too, is mainly dry. We believe that water is coming in from a missing slate above the nails at the bottom of the picture -- at least, that's where we were getting dripping during the rains the other day.

Still, we all take showers in this bathroom because it's better than the other working shower, which has no pressure. The plumbers just sent me an estimate for that, which on the one hand makes me cringe after college fees and class registrations and the porch work, and on the other... Time is money, and we could really use two fully functional, up-to-code showers with modern plumbing. The pipes of 1929 have done their time.

Someone once told me that houses need renovations at 25, 50, and 100 years. We're approaching the 100-year mark for the bathrooms. (The 1929 renovations were at the 40-year mark for the house itself.)

Looking forward to seeing Darwin again on Friday night. The idea of two hearts thrilling in unison across the globe is romantic, but the reality is more of a humdrum loneliness for the other. I'm sure Sweden is nice, but does it have decaying porches and crumbling plaster and three kids in the bed? I think not.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Where There's A Will

Darwin is far from home this week, and by "far", I mean Stockholm, Sweden. This was a trip we knew he was likely to have to make ever since he started his new job in June, but it didn't feel very real until perhaps a week ago. And then I started thinking again about how we don't have a will.

For about a decade, I've made a resolution each New Year that this is the year that we will make wills. As you may have picked up with your excellent reading comprehension, I'm not very good at keeping that kind of resolution, and so, as the years roll by and the children rack up, we have gambled, mostly subconsciously, that the risk of both of us dying intestate is pretty low. As that's a bet we've won for many years now, the idea keeps getting shoved into the background as more immediate concerns will keep popping up.

But a transatlantic flight and a week's stay in a Nordic social democracy will get anyone thinking about mortality. It is time, I said, that we make a will, before you leave, I said. And I took action, too: I went down to the library and had them print off some official-looking will forms, and brought them home. And Darwin and I sat at the table and made wills, as one does, with our children sitting around kibbitzing, as they do. And let me say that some sibling of mine will be very surprised to they find they've inherited seven children.

But making the will is one thing, and making it official is another. Friday, before Darwin left, I was searching around for a notary who could witness our signatures, and striking out on front after another. Finally, after the close of business hours, I found an explanation: notaries are not necessary for Last Wills in Ohio. They can notarize the witnesses signing, but the Will itself is valid even without that.

Saturday morning Darwin had to leave the house at 10am, no later, to get down to his flight. At 10am, therefore, we were knocking at the neighbors' door on the odd errand of getting them to witness our wills, as one does at the neighbors' house on Saturday mornings.

The girl next door popped out her head and said that mom and dad were both out running errands. And Darwin had to take off immediately, and I was left standing with two unsigned wills and a husband gone to Sweden for a week.

Now this takes people different ways, I'm sure, but for me it had an unhappifying effect. And why? If it had been so all-fired important to get this thing done, I would have done it years ago. If it had been a matter of life and death, I would have made it a priority last week, not two days before the flight. Nor is it likely to matter, since the odds of Darwin dying in or en route from Sweden and my dying in Ohio in the same week are infinitesimal. And if only one of us dies intestate, the other is provided for already. Observe, as well, that in the 36 hours that Darwin has been gone, I have not rushed out and gotten my own will witnessed by amenable friends, which argues that my priority here was not simply legal protection.

People with severe medical issues, people who live on life's edges, people in precarious relationships -- they know that everything is balanced on a knife's edge, and that what is now may not be soon. Those of us who live in a more established fashion nurture the illusion that we control a great deal more than we do. No evening is guaranteed to end the way the morning promised. But when, day after day, most things do adhere to a semblance of order, it's easy to fall into the error that not just the order but the ordering is of our making. In this light, a will seems like a magical contract: sign this document, and because you are prepared for the bad thing, the bad thing will not happen.

But right now I have no will, and I'm also left with the unedifying revelation that what I fear is not my children becoming wards of the state. I fear being left alone with a family to provide for and no marketable skills, having just proven that when a paying project did come my way, I failed to apply myself sufficiently to complete it. I fear I have become comfortable and complacent, and that if disaster should strike, I would not be able to rise to the occasion.

It's always useful to write things out and look at them. In the cold light of my computer screen, these sentiments are silly and bathetic, and they're not even what I actually believe about myself and my competencies. But the feelings from which they were distilled are real. How mortifying, to admit that feelings have power! To be weak and vulnerable in such an unreasonable way! To crave self-sufficiency, and yet not be able to attain it! And this is the temptation of Eden, to be like God, not because one is God, but because of a trick, a stratagem advertised to ward off the ills of death.

And how remote all this will feel when Darwin comes back safely on Friday, and our unsigned wills sit patiently in the important papers file in the kitchen until my next New Year fit comes upon me. Until then, I call you all as witness that Darwin is my legal representative, and if we die at the same time or in such a way that no one knows who died first, his will is to supersede mine, even though it's exactly the same.*

*Hey, it's part of the will form, so it must have been an issue for somebody at some point.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

From What Foundation

The New York Times has been successfully generating talk with a series of articles they're calling The 1619 Project, referencing the bringing of the first African slaves into North America in 1619. Their stated purpose with the project is ambitious and goes well beyond simply documenting the many ways that slavery and its aftermath shaped the United States:
The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
You can read the entire 1619 Project edition of the NY Times Magazine in PDF format here. (Which is handy, since reading it piecemeal on the NY Times site would deplete one's free articles for the month.)

Thinking about it, and participating in several social media discussions of the series, it seems to me that there are broadly two aspects to the project. The first is to convey historical events, and in this sense it is doing a valuable job. For too long, the evils of slavery and their extensive reach through the world economy during that era was not widely conveyed in popular histories. The second aspect, however, is interpretive: an attempt to interpret the meaning of the US and its history. Here I think it is rather more problematic, and it's in that respect that I'd like to write a bit more here.

As their purpose statement explains, the goal of the editors is to "reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding", making the selling of enslaved Africans to the Jamestown colonists the true moment at which the US became the country it is today -- not the moment at which the US defined itself as independent from Britain in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, nor the moment in which it defined its systems of government in the US Constitution in 1787.

What does it mean to say that a country's founding is to be found in a particular event? Let's think about two countries which celebrate clear founding events. France celebrates Bastille Day, seeing the storming of the Bastille by an angry crowd as the moment at the modern sequence of republics with their values of democracy, secularism, etc. can be seen as marking their origin in contrast to the older monarchy they displaced. The United States celebrates the 4th of July as its origin, taking as its birth the point at which the Continental Congress voted as a representative body to endorse the Declaration of Independence from the British monarchy.

What seems to make these clear origin points for the nations that celebrate them is that they contain values which the countries to point to as their central values, and also that they represent an event which sets the country apart from other countries. The US does not consider the signing of the Magna Carta as its origin, because although that document might be seen as a more distant origin of the principles of government which it holds today, that origin point is not unique to the US but is shared to varying degrees with the entire Anglosphere: Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa, India, New Zealand, etc. Similarly, France does not mark as its founding the coming of the Franks into Western Europe, because although some of the modern French could trace their ancestry to them the Franks were also the progenitors of many other modern countries with the Frankish empire near its peak encompassing modern France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, northern Italy, Switzerland, etc.

So, is the purchase of slaves by English colonists in 1619 something which distinguishes the US from other countries? Does it represent core values which the US identifies with to this day?

Both of these seem to me deserve a resounding "no".

Let's start with the first. Was this purchase of enslaved Africans something which set the Jamestown colonists apart from other peoples, making them clearly proto-Americans rather than Englishmen or more broadly Europeans? No. Indeed, the slaves purchased by the Virginia colonists were not the first slaves held in what is now the United States. The Spanish had long been exploiting slave labor in the Americas, both enslaved natives and imported enslaved Africans. Indeed, the slaves sold to the Virginia colonists by English pirates had in turn captured the slaves from a Portuguese ship which had been transporting them for their own uses. As a piece in the Federalist mentions, the Spanish had taken enslaved Africans with them to found a colony in what is now South Carolina in 1526 (some of which slaves proceeded to carry out the first slave rebellion in North America.) Slaves were also held by the Spanish in Georgia and Florida prior to 1619, and the British had slaves in their Caribbean colonies prior to 1619 as well. Indeed, far from the slavery in the colonies that would become the US being unique, it was all too usual. The Spanish, Portuguese, French, and British all used slaves in their New World colonies. Nor was their use of them peripheral to their economies. The French considered the slave-run plantations of the sugar islands of Guadeloupe to be so valuable that in the Treaty of Paris which ended the Seven Years War in 1763, France ceded all of Canada to the British in return for keeping Guadeloupe because they considered Guadeloupe to be clearly more valuable. As a side note, reading about Guadeloupe, which is still a part of France to this day and thus a part of the EU despite being in the Americas, is fascinating. It went through multiple rounds of freedom, and re-enslavement as a result of the French Revolution until slavery was officially abolished in 1848. However, the French then brought in indentured labor from their colony of Pondicherry in India. The descendents of those Indians were not granted full citizenship and voting rights until 1923.

So it's incorrect to see the Jamestown colonists as acting in some unique way that sets them apart from other countries as being clearly American. They were not the first people to enslave Africans in the territory of what is now the United States, and in using slaves they acted exactly as many other Europeans of many nationalities were doing in the Americas from the 1500s to the 1800s.

But if they were not unique in having slaves, did the Jamestown colonists act in a way that points to the core values of the United States, acting in a way which modern Americans would point to and identify with? Clearly not. Indeed, the very point of the 1619 Project is to try to convince modern Americans that they should see their origin in this 1619 purchase of slaves by the Jamestown colonists despite the fact that this behavior is something that modern American loathe. It's significant that the two pivotal presidents in American iconography are George Washington, the first president who led the Continental Army in the fight for independence yet participated in the contradiction of fighting for liberty while owning slaves, and Abraham Lincoln, who led our country though the Civil War and abolished slavery.  In a real way we cannot see our national project as becoming the country we are today until the Civil War.

Indeed, choosing to see 1619 as the "true founding" of America would seem, at least to conservative eyes, as being a statement that the United States is an evil country which should be rejected or destroyed. In that sense, it seems like a confirmation that those on the left hate our country. That was certainly my own first reaction at first. Yet I'm not sure it's entirely accurate. After all, this idea is being pushed by progressives, who have in their way a salvific concept of politics. I expect that many who wrote for the 1619 project or who find themselves nodding as they read its mission statement would not in fact say that they hate the United States. Rather, they see themselves as offering salvation to the rest of us. If we endorse them and their "woke" views, we purify ourselves of the stain of racism with which all others are fouled from birth into "the system" which the 1619 Project tries hard to prove is tainted by slavery in every respect.

In the end, however, I think the whole interpretive framework simply fails. It's not correct to see 1619 as the founding of the United States. Rather, it's right to see the US like virtually all Western countries as having had deep historical and economic ties to slavery. What distinguishes the US from France or Britain is that rather than being able to wink at slavery as something they only did in their overseas colonies, which were either shed or became of far less importance as the slave economy was sidelined and replaced by the industrial economy, the US lives with the land and the peoples who were enmeshed in slavery, while European countries drew back to their own continent. Dealing with these echoes through our history is important, and in no way should we flinch from the facts about the role of slavery and repression in our history. But to see this as the uniquely American phenomenon which defines us as apart from all others is wrong.  Our founding was not in 1619.  It was in 1776, but arguably not complete until 1865.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019


While I was on retreat, the priest hearing my confession gave thanks for my gift of a humble heart. This surprised me, because I couldn't see any humility in what I'd just said. Indeed, it reminded me of the time a few years ago when a priest complimented me on making a good confession, when all I'd done was apply some character analysis to a situation. Sure, I sounded incisive, but was I really humble?

Then, as part of my penance, I was asked to think of a specific grace I'd been given and to thank God for it. So I sat in Adoration and considered this cynical talent of character analysis. Is character analysis a grace? It's a gift, sure, as it's part of who I am and how I respond to the world. As such, it's given to me by God. But what's the grace that underlies that? Most of the time, when I'm analyzing character, it doesn't feel like humility. It feels like pride. 

When I write, when I look at life, I may not be lyrical, but I hope I'm honest. Is that humility? What is humility? Is it honesty? Is it a sense of the real, a truthful way of viewing the world? I don't think it can be meekness, or simply meekness. Humility, it seems to me, is everything in its place. But how can that feel like pride? Or perhaps it's that I need to pull myself out of my character analysis, so as to look at reality without feeling that my analysis reflects any glory on my own understanding. 

And relying not on my own understanding was what I specifically resolved to pray for while on retreat. 

Often in Adoration, I posture and arrange my prayer time to fit some preconceived notion. Pray a rosary, because that's what you're supposed to do. Try to feel something like adoration. Read the same devotional manual everyone else reading. Pray like others. And praying like others is fine for Mass, a liturgical and ritual form. But I'm not like others, and neither is anyone else, because "others" is just a collection of individuals. If I am specific, it's because God made me specific. He wants me to see and love all things in him, not to suppress the gifts he's given me. So if words and analysis are what I do well, why should I not pray that way? In the beginning was the Word. If that's how God has granted me to encounter reality, that's how he wants me to pray.

I'm not supposed to change myself, but offer myself.

So I sat in Adoration and studied the Blessed Sacrament intensely. If God is truth, then here he is, truthfully -- not symbolically, for us to draw tidy lessons from, but as he actually wants himself to be revealed: bread to be consumed. The humility is in the exposure. Nothing is hidden or held back. 

The humility lies in simply being. In the Eucharist, God doesn't use force or manipulation or any artifice to draw me closer to him. He simply is, on the altar. I can approach or not, as I please. As on the cross, he is fixed in place. I am the one who changes. 

He does not hide in the form of bread. He is revealing his true nature. He is to be consumed. He is to nourish. He is for others. He is still. He is.


Part of living and thinking in words is the enforced humility that comes when the words don't come. Being truly myself before God means having the honesty to admit that the words dry up frequently when it's time to work. It's so easy to write stories in my head, where I have total control. It's not so easy to be faithful and carry on without inspiration. When I look back later, it's hard to tell what was written in a dry spell and what was written in the blazing fire. Only the words remain.

The dry spell is me. The words are You. Make me faithful.


Recently I've had opportunities to peel back the scab of self-love. I had to finally admit -- in words, written, formal, that I was not going to be able to finish the textbook I said I would write. The opportunities for serious work were too few and far apart, in a house filled with children, and when I did have the opportunity, the words wouldn't come. It cut to the quick of my self-image as someone who can be professional, who can finish what she commits to, who is capable of working at an adult level. 

Even now, as I sit in my room, at the table and chair I dragged up to make a private writing space for myself, I have four children hanging over me, begging for computer time, for something to eat, trying to draw angry lines in my journal, trying to drive cars over my laptop screen. And I think of Jesus in Adoration, completely exposed, holding nothing back. I hold a lot back. I hoard my mental space, because my physical space is not my own. My room, my bathroom, even my body belongs to others who have a legitimate claim on it. I want something that is completely, unequivocally mine, something no one can make me share with anyone else. 

I want a space so private even God can't see it and make claims on me.

And there, if you like, is pride. There is idolatry. In this day and age, I don't violate the first commandment by making public idols and worshipping them communally. I am my own private idol and worship myself in cramped, grasping, solitary rites. Like the early vineyard workers in today's gospel, I want what rightfully belongs to me, by my own determination of rights.

In Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) quotes: 
Non coerceri maximo, contineri tamen a minimo, divinum est.
Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest -- that is divine.
We're used to the absurd question, "Can God make a rock so big that he can't lift it?", but constantly, we live the notion that there is a thought, a sin, a mental corner so small that God won't know about it. Yet there is nothing so small that the core of it is not God himself. This is the essence of the Christian life: to let God shine through the smallest, most obscure actions, motions, thoughts. The big showy projects of Christian life are an afterthought, the least effective means of communicating his presence, and the most likely to fail. 

I don't know yet how to square this with my desire to maintain something that is distinctively my own, but I do know that I don't have to do that work myself. Rely not on my own understanding. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

College Jitters

For years I've talked and written about how a liberal arts education is worth having for its own sake, regardless of the practical and economic value of a four year college degree. This year our eldest is going into her senior year of high school. She's taken the SATs. We'll be making college visits in the next couple months. It's about to get real. And I confess, I'm suffering from some jitters.

Looking back at my own life, I have no doubts about the value to me of my college experience. There were costs to it, to be sure. Not just the clear cost of tuition, which 25 years ago I was convinced was already at unsustainably high levels. How innocent my shock at those figures looks now when they've about doubled during the intervening years. But I also paid a cost in lost earning for the first 5-7 years out of college. My friends who studied subjects like Information Technology came out and make $40k-$60k/yr. I came out and considered myself lucky to make $14/hr as an office temp. Classics degrees do not, in and of themselves, pay very well. But with sufficient drive and adaptation, I've since made it up. And what I could not have made up since is the chance to spend four years studying deeply on a subject that matters to me deeply: how the people of the past wrote and thought and acted.

And yet, one of the unsettling things about parenthood is that your children are not you. If I had a driven kid who was eager to go get a liberal arts degree and then find a way to earn a good living, I'd have no doubts. Instead I have a child who is different from me in many ways. Rather than the fierce, "I will get a liberal arts degree and then I will show the world I can make it," her response on the college question is more of a, "Yeah, I guess so."

My competitiveness has not always been one of my more likable characteristics, and I was distinctly frustrating as a teenager at times, so I count my blessings in not having a kid exactly like me. But it does leave one to ask: for the kid who would probably enjoy college but doesn't have very specific life plans, is investing the monumental cost of a modern college education worth it? Our own alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville is considered cheap for a four year private college, but the total "sticker price" is still over $30k/yr.

For now, my approach is to make it clear that we will support college for those who want to go (whatever the reason) while not pushing people to go who don't want to. We're also getting the two oldest kids started on taking some community college classes this year, allowing them to cover topics that might be best covered in a classroom setting (Chemistry and Statistics for our senior, Spanish for our sophomore) while at the same time getting college credit which should save them time and money at a four year college. I'm also trying my best to get them thinking more about what they want to do with their lives post college, and how going to college will or won't relate to that.

But many seventeen year olds don't have a very clear idea of what it is they want to do with the rest of their lives. Indeed, going to college is one of the formative experiences that often helps with forming such plans. So we're charting the course and hoping for the best, despite the jitters which the very rocky coastline of higher education brings to the heart of those preparing to land on it for the first time.

Understanding Rebellion

Ever since we came home from Texas, I have been immersed in paperwork and administrative details related to running a house and homeschooling children across a large age spectrum. Notably, I've been trying to get the two oldest girls enrolled at the local community college so that they can take a few supplemental courses. As with everything I've done lately (and my apologies to the many generous souls who've had to bear the brunt of this), it's been last-minute, skin-of-my-teeth work, squeaking in just under every deadline. 

Yesterday, I sat down to yet another morning of administra. I made some notes, looked up some details, starting sketching in schedules. And then I hit a wall of rebellion. I'd picked up a one-volume edition of Robertson Davies's Salterton trilogy, intending to flip through the first book, Tempest Tost, to refresh my memory on whether it would be an appropriate readaloud for the kids. And instead of putting it on the pile and moving on, I just sat down and read the other two books in the trilogy. And not really reading, either, but consuming -- skipping through the book to trace a particular story, following plot details, ignoring long lyric passages to find out what happened next. I was dogged, mostly ignoring my children, only attending in the most cursory manner to necessities such as feeding and changing the baby. From outside myself, I looked down and thought, "I really should put this book down and do something," and yet I carried out my own internal protest against all the tedious work of the week. 

It's not often that one gets an immediate answer to the question, "What's wrong with me?", and yet later in the day it became clear that my lassitude was of the hormonal/cyclical variety. The mundanity of that is both uninspiring and helpfully contextual. St Paul says in 1 Corinthians that he does not even pass judgment on himself, since the Lord will bring to light what is hidden in darkness. We think we understand ourselves or others, for good or for ill, and then we stumble on some obscure motivation which puts the situation in a new light. I'm not just lazy. She's not just malicious. He's not just a pushover. They're not just tactless. It's simply that I didn't understand. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," said the man of perfect understanding, in the most intolerable circumstances, giving the rest of us a model to follow.

I'm going on retreat this weekend, and something I'll be praying about is my tendency to rely on my own understanding*. My understanding is not so bad, in general, but it's incomplete. Recently I read that something that differentiates angels from humans is that angels are unchangeable because they have a complete understanding. They don't have to revise their understand as new knowledge comes in to fill in the details they didn't know. Sin as the angels and you sin by pride, they say --  Lucifer didn't reject God because he didn't understand his beauty or majesty or ineffable will. He knew all these things, and he understood them, and he didn't want them. 

By contrast, the Christian life is one act of humility after another, the constant admission that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do. Even the Confiteor in Mass is an act of humility -- say the words as loud as you like, and you still can't call attention to your own sinfulness because everyone else is saying them too. That seems to be the path of Christian life, though. The point isn't to single yourself out, either for praise or condemnation, but just to do the good thing you're supposed to be doing at that moment. It sure is helpful to know what's wrong with me, but it doesn't change the fact that I need to be acting in love at this present moment, according to my best understanding.

*Understanding is one of those gifts of the Spirit which it's hard to differentiate from Counsel, Wisdom, and Knowledge. I think it's ability to assimilate knowledge into a complete picture. Wisdom gives that picture divine nuance, which leads to the ability to give counsel.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Sojourning in the Promised Land

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place
that he was to receive as an inheritance;
he went out, not knowing where he was to go.
By faith he sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country,
dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise;
for he was looking forward to the city with foundations,
whose architect and maker is God.
--Hebrews 11:8-10
On Saturday night we returned from a sojourn to Texas. Many generous friends opened their homes to us, whether for a meal or for the night. The architecture of modern Texas developments is removed from our aged manse in Ohio -- for example, everyone's shower had pressure, and no one had a hole in their bathroom ceiling. And yet we were glad to get back to the cracked plaster and the woody smell of the auld pile. Our home, where we plan our projects and raise our family. Where we're settled. Ours.

And then Sunday's reading presented me with Abraham, who "sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country". Even in the land God had promised him, Abraham didn't live as if he had total control. He didn't try to reshape it according to his own desires and schemes. He didn't take the land by force. Indeed, the only part of it he ever owned was the small parcel where he buried Sarah.

On the trek back northward, Darwin and I talked through the long stretches, discussing our plans for this coming year and what work we wanted to do on the house. That's legitimate; it falls to the heads of the family to make plans and try to stave off entropy. These plans, however, are all contingent on everything going just right: job, money, family stability, health. We think we're able to manage all the various streams of our existence, but we're really just sojourning in the land we've been promised. We don't own anything that really matters. Our children, ourselves, even our house -- we're merely custodians of these things for a time. There are better and worse ways of being custodians, and we hope we've chosen the better part, but in the end everything must handed over to someone else.

This weekend is my annual Homeschooling Mothers' Retreat, held at a fine old retreat center built in the best tradition of 30s religious institutional style. Everything there focuses the mind toward what is good and eternal. But there will be a gaping hole this year. One of our local mothers, a gracious woman with seven children, died on Sunday from breast cancer. Her presence will be missed, as will be the presence of many others who will be attending her funeral on Saturday. The beautiful style of the retreat house can't compensate for the absence of each individual. Place is important, but it is the people who matter.

Of your kindness, please pray for the soul of Becky, and for her grieving family, and for the community which is rent by her loss.