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

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 7: Christ in the Priest

 Previous: Chapter 6, Christ in the Church

Christ in the Priest was a chapter that I enjoyed reading, and yet didn't resonate with me in the way that earlier chapters have, so I'm glad that Erin is writing about it:

A good part of this chapter is a defense of the priesthood.  I'm concerned mainly with what it means to find friendship with Christ in the priest---and it seems to me that by this Benson means friendship with Christ in the priesthood and its attributes, friendship with Christ-as-the-High-Priest.  Because of course friendship with Christ can be found in the human personality of any particular priest you happen to meet or know; I suspect, though, that we are going to meet this particular image of Christ in later chapters, such as "Christ in the Saint," "Christ in the Sinner," "Christ in the Average Man."  Because of course a given priest could be any of those things, and God help him, he may eventually be all three.

The priest is a man whose job is to willingly do the will of God.  All of us have the job to do that!  But the particular version of this, for the priest, is---at very particular and crucial moments---to submit his own personality totally to the personality of Christ; to accept with John the Baptist, "I must decrease, and he must increase;" and to give God permission to use his hands, his voice.  Christ "energizes,"  Christ "exercis[es] the prerogative of mercy," Christ "mak[es] himself present in...the Sacrament."  The priest consents. 

So where is the friendship?

[Christ] exhibits, in that atmosphere that has grown up about the priesthood, through the instincts of the faithful rather than through the precise instructions of the Church, attributes of His own Divine character, in sympathy with which constitutes the friendship of those who love Him.

I think when people talk about having that "personal relationship with Christ," it is very easy for them to be picturing a relationship with the human nature and character of Christ only:  the same sort of imagination that gives us the parlor-game of "Which historical character would you like to have dinner with?"  We close our eyes and there is Jesus, copied from a picture we saw once, in sandals and tunic, sitting in our living room.  We try to make friends with this Jesus.  Even if we imagine a Jesus speaking in our interior hearts, it's a human-sounding voice. We try to make that connection feel as like a human friendship as possible.  When it really does feel like that, we understand it to be a grace and a consolation.

And it's not wrong!

But we must also make friends with the Divine character of Christ.  And for that we have not much in the way of models from practical experience.  

Benson is telling us that friendship with Christ is also "sympathy with attributes of His own Divine character," and that we are able to develop some of this by having a devotion to the priesthood.

Next: Chapter 8, Christ in the Saint 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Making It In The Stock Market

The stock market has been all over the news this week, because of a quixotic trading flash mob which rose up out of Reddit to cause losses to hedge funds and drive up the stock price of GameStop.  What is going on?

GameStop is, of course, a chain of brick-and-mortar retail stores which sells video games and related merchandise, and which buys trade-in video game cartridges back and then resells them.  During the last decade, their sales have flattened and then begun to decline, due not only to the overall decline in brick-and-mortar retail but also to the fact that many current gaming systems can buy new games online and download them without ever purchasing a cartridge.  By last fall, their stock was trading at around $4 per share and they were losing money.  However, there was a range of consensus of the company's direction.  Wall Street analysts had published price targets for the stock ranging from $3.50 to $33.  After a series of executive turnovers, the company had a new CEO and Michael Burry of "The Big Short" fame had invested in several million shares of the company and was pushing for various changes to improve the business.

Against this background, a big name user in a Reddit subreddit known as r/wallstreetbets began posting back in 2019 about how he had invested just over $50,000 in call options (bets that a stock will increase to above a target price by a specific date -- in this case the target was $8 per share and the due date was January 2021) on GameStop.  This user, whose somewhat colorful handle can be abbreviated DFV, posted repeatedly about his investment, and there was considerable excitement as the stock did indeed begin to rise, passing his target price in Sept 2020 and continuing up.  

At some point, two additional things happened: Lots of other people (r/wallstreetbets has several million users) wanted in on the action, and it became known on the subreddit that several large hedge funds had taken out shorts against GameStop.  

A short is a financial instrument where the buyer of the short borrows a stock at the current price and sells it, committing to give the stock back (called covering the short) at the market price of some future date.  So, if you short 100 shares of ACME when it's trading at $10 per share, and you cover when the share price has dropped to $5, you make $500.  If you shorted at $10 and the stock became totally worthless, you'd make $1000.  However, if you short at $10 and ACME shares go up to $100, your losses are $9000.  So a short can be very risky.  Your upside is limited and you could have infinite downside.  Shorting is also sometimes seen as a very negative thing to do.  After all, you're profiting off the company doing badly.  Back in the 2007/2008 banks asked (and the government agreed) for a temporary ban on shorting financial stocks, because hedge funds were making money betting that the big banks would go down.  (This didn't help -- the stocks continued to go down because the banks were teetering on the edge of insolvency, and it was only the bailout that saved them.)

What happened next is what created the huge news story.  Huge numbers of investors from reddit began buying GameStop shares, bidding up the price.  As they drove up the price, this made the hedge funds which had shorted GameStop lose money.  And the goal was not just to make them lose money, but to make them cover their shorts, realizing their losses.  If the hedge funds covered their shorts (by buying shares) this would drive up the price of the stock still further in an effect called a "short squeeze".  

Step one: destroy hedge funds
Step two: profit

Of course, there's a step three out there as well, which people don't seem to be thinking about as much: The price of GameStop collapses.  


At root, GameStop is a company which is not likely to grow dramatically in the future.  In 2020 it had $6.5B in sales and lost $471M.  It hasn't made a profit since 2018.  Even if current management manages to turn it around, it'll still be a retail chain with limited growth potential.  How crazy is the current valuation of GameStop?  As of today GameStop had a market cap (the total value of all outstanding shares) of $22B.  That makes it just short of the supermarket chain Kroger, with a market cap of $26B.  But by comparison, Kroger had sales of $122B in 2020 and profits of $1.7B.  Is there any reason to think that GameStop will become anywhere near as big or as profitable as Kroger?

Stocks sell for what people are willing to pay for them.  Usually, what people are willing to pay for them is in some way connected to how much the underlying company makes now, or how much people imagine it may make in the future. Clearly, this can at times result in wild swings, because people are constantly reassessing what they believe the future will be like.  There is nothing magically true about market prices.  But in the long run, companies that grow in revenue and profitability tend to increase in share price, while those that shrink tend to fall.  

Once people cease to desire to own GameStop stock for the online glory of it, the value will fall to the level which is justified by the company's actual prospects.  If I had to guess, that level is almost certainly less than 1/10th the $328 at which the stock closed today.  And of course, that suggests a rather uncomfortable fact: a lot of people have bought the stock at $350 or $200 or $100, etc. and all of those people are going to lose a lot of money.  So while I have no particular sympathy for the hedge funds which have suffered massive losses on their shorts against GameStop (they should have know they were playing a very risky game) I'm concerned about the people who are portraying this as some sort of a huge uprising which shows that the "little guy" can make money on the stock market just like the pros.  It is true that some people will come out of this having made a lot of money.  It is true that manipulating stock prices through the madness of herd behavior is something that pros had succeeded in doing in the past.  But in the long term, making smart moves during panics is not the way to make money on the stock market.  The way to make money on the stock market is to identify companies that will grow to become a lot bigger and more profitable than they are now, and to invest in those companies.  

Don't believe me?  Allow me to tell a story.

Back in 1996 I was heading into my senior year of high school, and I was 18 years old.  I was fascinated by what I'd read about the stock market, and I was a deep, deep believer in Mac computers.  I'd just bought myself one of the first color PowerBook laptops, planning to write a novel on it during my senior year of high school and then take it to college with me.  (I did do both of these things.)  Apple was not doing well financially at that time.  It was during the period after Steve Jobs was fired (he returned in 1997.)  But I was convinced that Macs were wonderful and that somehow Apple would prosper.  So I raided my college savings for $2,000 and invested that money via an online brokerage in Apple stock.  If you adjust for the splits that have happened since that time, the price of that stock was about $0.20 per share.  

By 1999 that $2,000 had grown to about $10,000, and I thought I was pretty brilliant.  I sold $3,000 of the stock and bought my first car, a 1989 Honda Accord, so I could get a better paying job off campus during my senior year of college.  And I "balanced" my portfolio by selling some more of the Apple stock and buying shares in other companies.  Looking back, those decisions cost me a lot of money, but I didn't have any kind of foreknowledge.  

In 2002, as we were a young married couple in Los Angeles expecting our first baby and struggling with college debt and high rent, I was advised to sell the stock (which had languished despite the recent introduction of the first iPod) and get out of debt.  I did sell the stock, and I did pay off our credit card debt (it would be another decade before we cleared our student debt) but I moved some of the remaining money into a Roth IRA and put it back into Apple stock.  And one other thing.  I had an argument with by boss about whether Amazon would ever make a profit, or if it was another .com that would go bust.  I was the one who believed in Amazon, because I'd been a loyal customer for a couple years.  So I bought a few hundred dollars of Amazon stock.  At the time, it was trading for about $20/share.

During most of the intervening years, I ignored that Roth IRA.  Occasionally I messed around with it, balancing the two main stock positions against an S&P 500 fund and occasional other stocks I was interested in.  Looking back, all those "balancing" positions were bad in the long run, but again, I had no way of know thing.  

When the pandemic hit, I sold virtually all of my stock in mid February, thinking that the stock market would go down by 50% of more.  It went down a lot, but not that much.  In the process, I made some dumb decisions trying to temporarily money it into something "pandemic proof" (during March, practically nothing was pandemic proof) when I should have just kept it in cash.  In the end, I put money back into Apple and Amazon, but not nearly as much of it.  I took some time to read and research, and I decided to put 40% of my money into large, mostly tech stocks (with a lot of that being Apple and Amazon again, but some Google, Facebook, Tesla, etc.) another 40% into stocks and funds which (at the prices I was able to pick them up in the spring) paid dividends ranging from 7% to 15% of the what they cost me; and the last 20% into "small cap" stocks which currently had market caps under $10B but had the potential to grow 10x or more in the coming decade.  My theory was that while I had benefitted from the massive growth of Apple and Amazon, with both of these companies being worth more than a trillion in total capitalization, it was unlikely that they'd be growing by powers of ten in the future.  Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google may grow faster than the economy as a whole in the future, but they are now such a big part of the economy they can hardly grow multiple times faster than the economy.  So I reasoned that I would need to start looking for the next big growth stocks.  And since I didn't have any particular insight this time (nor any guarantee of being lucky again) it seemed like it was best to go wider.  And my reason for putting 40% of the portfolio into high dividend stocks was that I wanted them to produce about five thousand dollars in cash every year which I could turn around and invest in new small cap stocks without having to sell the holdings I already had.  

I bring all this up not to argue that I am particularly brilliant, but rather to argue that one doesn't have to be particularly brilliant.  I made both picks out of brand loyalty, thinking they were well run companies that had a great product that would do better in the future.  Apple stock has increased 65880% since I first bought it.  Amazon has increased 16085%.  I did a lot of things which worked against that growth.  I took money out, "rebalanced" into an S&P 500 fund, and invested money in companies that went out of business such as SpaceDev and  But even so, the remains of that $2000 that I invested at age 18 were as of close of market today worth $162k.  (I have a separate 401k from my various jobs over the years which is invested more conservatively.)  Even with all that dilution, that's a 8000% increase.  For comparison, legendary investor Warren Buffet delivered a 4209% increase in Bershire Hathaway stock during his first 25 years on the market.  (I used that number because the last 25 years have been a more lackluster 999%, though even that is more than twice the increase of the S&P500 over that time.)  

Again, my point is not that I'm brilliant, because I'm not.  My point, rather, is this: the little guy investor does not need to join a roiling crowd to beat the market.  If the little guy does some solid research, invests in what he knows and believes in, follows the fundamentals, and ignores the temptation to get caught up in frenzies, he can outperform the market and even outperform the big institutional investors.  He won't turn huge profits inside of a month, but that's not generally how the stock market works.  

So I lay all this out transparently to say: You do not have to join an online swarm and manipulate the market to get ahead as a small investor.  Indeed, doing so puts you at risk of being one of the people holding the bag when the bubble pops.  Buy and hold solid companies.  Wait for the years to pass.  Do some intelligent maintenance.  Keep looking for the company which is still comparatively small (when I bought Apple and Amazon, both were under $10B in market cap) but which may grow huge.  That's really all it takes.  It's not that hard.  Please don't try do get in on a market manipulation scheme instead.  It's a lot harder to play that game right than it is to identify some basically solid companies and just let time pass.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 6: Christ in the Church

 Previous: Erin on Chapter 5, Christ in the Eucharist


I am the Vine, you the branches. (John 15:5)

For no one hates his own flesh bur rather nourishes it and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. (Eph. 5:29-31)

Benson emphasizes at the beginning of the chapter that, from a human perspective, focusing solely on our individual relationship with Jesus can lead to "spiritual disaster".

Now there is scarcely anything so  difficult of diagnosis and so easily misunderstood as certain impulses and instincts of the spiritual life. Modern psychologists remind us of what St. Ignatius taught three centuries ago, with regard to the bewildering difficulty of distinguishing the action of that hidden part of our human natures not usually under the direct attention of the consciousness, from the action of God. Impulses and desires rise within the soul, which seem to bear every mark of a Divine Origin; it is only when they are obeyed or gratified that we discover that often, after all, they have risen from self -- from association, or memory, or education, or even from hidden pride and self-interest -- and lead to spiritual disaster. It needs a very pure intention as well as great spiritual discernment always to recognize the Divine Voice; always to penetrate the disguise of one who, in the higher stages of spiritual progress, so often presents himself as an "Angel of Light".

Sartre famously proclaimed that "Hell is other people", but I would posit that Hell is being trapped in one's own head. We cannot see ourselves rightly solely from the inside. We are not made to be seen solely from the inside. "It is not good that the man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18).

Julian of Norwich, the great English mystic, reveals a vision of Christ saving humanity in which all people are seen as one, as Adam. God does not see humanity as fractured, but as a whole, each human as an essential and irreplaceable element of the one Man. When Adam fell, all fell. When Christ, the perfect Man, came and fulfilled his Father's will, all were saved. We are, corporately, one body.

The Church, too, despite her appearance to our fallen eyes as a banal and unsavory collection of sinful humans, is, corporately, One Body, and Benson emphasizes: that Body is Christ. The Church is Christ. When we interact with the Church, we interact with Christ. And Christ bears a thousand thousand wounds, and sometimes there is "no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him" (Is. 53:2). People grow to hate the Church, because of what its human members have done; they grow to hate it as anorexia makes a woman hate her own body, or depression makes a man hate his every thought and impulse.

But Jesus does not hate the Church, and indeed speaks of it not just as an entity, but as an individual. It is his bride; it is himself: the two become one flesh. We, corporate humanity, are the bride, and the Church is the marriage through which Christ continually gives himself and joins himself to us. 

This, then, is the Catholic position; and it is one not only necessitated by common-sense, but declared by our Lord's own words even more explicitly that is any promise of His to "abide" with the individual. To no single man did Christ ever say explicitly, "I am with thee always," except, in a sense, to Peter, His Vicar on earth.

Here, then, we have the only possible reconciliation of the fact that Christ is with the soul, and speaks to the soul, and the fact that is is exceedingly difficult for that soul, even in matters of life and death, alway to know certainly whether it is the Voice of Christ which speaks, or some merely human, or even diabolical, impulse. According to the Catholic system, there is another Presence of Christ, to which the soul also has access, to which He has promised guarantees which He never promised to the individual. In a word, He has promised His Presence on earth, dwelling in a mystical Society or Body; it is through that Body of Christ that His Voice actually speaks, exteriorly and authoritatively; and it is only by submission to that Voice that we can test these private intimations and ideas, as to whether they are indeed of God or not.

Benson proclaims: it is not enough to know Christ interiorly, when he has given himself to us also in an exterior form, the Church; that the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the Church is the same person revealing himself to us over time.

Thus, the process of conforming our minds to the teaching and traditions of the Church. Our judgment is not infallible; we see that every day in a million minor ways. Our desires, though sincere, though educated, though acute, must be tested. Our love needs a foundation if it is not to be blown away in the first storm. 

This foundation is friendship with the Church, with the Church as Christ himself. It is not enough to delude ourselves that we love the Church because we follow one charismatic preacher who claims to speak in her name; because we agree with one sharp prophet who claims to puncture all her false pride in the name of love; because we are part of some faction which holds itself a purer expression of Catholicism. It is the Church we must be friends with, learning her teachings, tracing her through history, loving humanity through her as Christ does.

Benson's last point is addressed to the person who rebels against this submission as an obliteration of his judgment and gifts, his individuality. He frames it in intellectual terms, as perhaps his own experience of converting in the scholarly setting of the Oxford movement warrants, but today I wonder if a more common objection might be to befriending the Church when it seems a place to shelter evil, an institutional cover for child abuse and sexual control. The glamor and mystique of the institution seem designed to blind the faithful and take advantage of them.

Yet, if the Church is Christ himself, the glamor is like the purple mantle the soldiers draped over Jesus, covering his torn body. And when the robe is ripped off, each wound is torn open and revealed in its horror. The mantle must be ripped off. The soldiers will gamble for it as Christ hangs dying. But that is not the end. Christ's resurrected, glorified body is beautiful and whole. His transformed garments are more dazzling than the tawdry Roman cloak. The wounds must be revealed before they can be healed. But Christ, whether bleeding and stinking on the Cross, or glorified and majestic, is the same, and his body must be loved always.

Next: Erin on Chapter 7: Christ in the Priest

Friday, January 22, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter Five: Christ in the Eucharist

 Erin writes about "Christ in the Eucharist":

When I opened my book to read the chapter, I expected it to be a chapter about encountering Christ in the reception of Holy Communion.  In fact I began taking notes speculating about the usefulness of this chapter to people who, for one reason or another, may not receive:  the very young, those living where access to Communion is restricted, those in irregular marriages or other situations which preclude reception of the sacrament, and even those who are not Catholics.  Especially when I encountered the paragraph:

Jesus Christ, then, dwells in our tabernacles to-day as surely as he dwelt in Nazareth, and in the very same Human Nature; and He dwells there, largely, for this very purpose—that he may make himself accessible to all who know him interiorly and desire to know him more perfectly.

You see, that adjective:  "accessible!"  I thought I had found an objection.  In the act of Holy Communion, Jesus is most assuredly not accessible to all, at least not immediately. 

But in fact the chapter is not really about Communion.  It is divided into three parts, according to which Benson treats of three different ways which human beings may know Jesus our Friend in the Eucharist.  (Consuming Him not, in fact, being necessary to the knowledge!)  And those three different modes of knowing our Friend are as material object, the work of human hands; as Sacrificed Victim; and as Food.

We may know Him in these forms merely by contemplating the Eucharist itself, or by contemplating the behavior of believers:  our design of churches and chapels with the Tabernacle at the focal point, our reverential handling of the matter, the words of consecration, our adoration, our processions, our hymnody, our careful attention to how one must prepare to receive... even, maybe, in the pastoral barriers that keep some people from reception of the Eucharist.  It is our treatment of the Eucharist that communicates its meaning to the curious onlooker.  


"It is this Presence which causes that astounding difference of atmosphere, confessed even by Non-Catholics, between Catholic churches and all others. So marked is this difference that a thousand explanations have to be framed to account for it. It is the suggestiveness of the single point of light burning there! It is the preternatural artistic skill with which the churches are ordered! It is the smell of ancient incense! It is anything and everything except that which we Catholics know it to be -- the actual bodily Presence of the Fairest of the children of men, drawing His friends to Himself!"

Today is January 22, the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and hence a day of prayer for all lives lost to abortion. At St. Joseph Cathedral in Columbus, as in so many churches in so many cities, a Pro-life Mass was held today, celebrated by the bishop and attended by many people, including families with small children, all peacefully praying. I know many families who were there.

And then a pack of "reproduction rights activists" stormed in with signs, got up in front of the altar, and screamed at women and children about the church teaching hate.

The Catholic Church is not the only religious organization in America that stands against abortion. So why not invade the Baptist pro-life memorial prayer service? The Anglican service? The Methodist service?

Because of the Eucharist.

The one who absorbed their hate was Jesus, the dweller in the tabernacle. In the Eucharist, he makes himself utterly defenseless, completely vulnerable to being chewed up by our outrage, our contempt, our self-righteousness. Anyone can kick him. He can be stolen, trampled on, spat out, spat on. His humility is bizarre, offensive, outrageous. Why doesn't he fight back? Why doesn't he take care of himself? If he's God, why doesn't he come off that cross?

And yet he doesn't. He remains, small, consumable, completely Divine. "I am the Bread of Life," Jesus tells us, and that life draws those who love him and those who hate him. And day after day he allows us to grind him up as bread, whether in obedience to his command to take and eat, or in wailing and gnashing of teeth. 


Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Movement of Lies and The Cowardice of Leading From Behind

In the months since the election, hard-core Trump supporters are increasingly living in a different world from the rest of us.  Many of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6th (as well as millions more who stayed at home) believe that Trump actually won the presidential election, and that Biden and the Democrats stole the election with the support of a shadowy conspiracy of powerful elites.  

Most of the claims that are being floated around "proving" the election was stolen are easily refuted by even brief research, and I've tried to do my share in rebutting these claims.  (HereHereHere. Here. And a collaborative compilation with Letters From Cato here.)  But one of the things that these last couple months have made clear is that most people do not sit down and evaluate claims like this on their own.  Most people trust what "their side" is saying.  And in this case, "their side" is led by President Trump who seems to be mentally incapable of admitted than he lost.  

As soon as his election night lead (which was the result of some key states counting election day votes, which leaned Republican, first and mail-in ballots, which leaned Democratic, later) began to disappear, Trump began to amplify and embroider any theory which came his way suggesting that he hadn't actually lost the election.  The increasingly closed world of right wing TV, radio, and internet content happily provided and amplified more theories.  And the result has been that a great many people on the right have allowed themselves to fall for the theory that with so many claims about election fraud floating around there must be something to it even if any given theory can be shown to be false.

This could probably have been counteracted early if a lot of other leaders on the right (people who, unlike the average citizen, know a lot about how elections and election law work) had spoken out.  However, nearly all Republican leaders have taken the cowardly political approach of "leading from behind".  Even though they know that Trump lost the election and cannot salvage that loss through legal maneuvering, governors, senators, and congressmen, as well as media figures, have played the "let's wait for the process" and "Trump deserves his day in court" game in order to avoid offending the voters whom they want to appeal to again in 2022 or 2024.  They've hoped the voters would eventually figure out on their own that Trump lost, or that someone else would do the hard work of breaking it to them, and that they would not have to be the ones who were disliked by voters for not "fighting for" Trump.  (How bad has this been?  Representative Meijer R-MI told the Dispatch podcast that based on his own conversations with fellow Republican lawmakers, the number who actually believed the election had been stolen was "in the teens", and yet 147 voted to object to electoral votes.)

But if all the party leaders sit around and wait for the voters to get over Trump on their own, the voters will not recover for quite some time.  People may react negatively (especially after all this time) to being told the truth, but as we saw with the storming of the Capitol, if you leave people thinking that the election is being stolen from the, they may act drastically.

Of course, central to all this is the fact that Trump himself is and always was wholly unsuitable to public office.  He simply does not have the integrity of character we'd want to see in a political leader.  If Trump were not lying to the public, claiming to have won an election which he didn't win, if he'd stepped forward once the votes had been counted and conceded, then other Republicans would not be having to figure out how to act when Trump is telling his voters that he didn't really lose.  But this is where we are, and our political leaders need to step up and act like leaders.

Politicians want to be liked by the voters.  Voters don't usually like people who tell them things they don't want to hear.  So it's easy to see why most politicians have learned to tell voters what they want to hear (or at least not tell them what they don't want to hear) and hope that someone else will do the hard work for them.  Politicians are rewarded for acting this way.  Say you have two GOP leaders.  One tells people that Trump has lost and should concede.  The other tells people that Trump may still win in court and we should wait and see.  Since GOP voters don't want Trump to have lost, they will of course like the one who tells them that they didn't lose.  Even if they eventually accept that Trump lost, they'll still often dislike the politician who told them what they didn't want to hear.  He didn't fight.  He was with the other side.  He didn't stick with them.

I don't know of any solution to this trap.  What I am saying political leaders should do is something which will make people like them less than someone who behaves without integrity.  (Nor will the other side give them any quarter for having integrity.)  But we've also seen the terrible results of political leaders deciding to sit back and not tell their voters hard truths.  The voters will not figure it out on their own.  They will listen to rabble rousers who tell them what they want to hear.  And when we let rabble rousers spread lies, those lies have consequences.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Coup That Wasn't Really

Many are calling the storming of the US Capitol on Jan 6th by a violent mob an attempted coup by President Trump.  There is a certain logic to this, in that Trump told the crowd that he needed them to pressure congress and Vice President Pence in order to win the election and that, "if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore."  That crowd proceeded to storm the Capitol, violently assaulting the Capitol Police, and even reached the Senate chamber (though not till after lawmakers had been successfully evacuated to a safe location.)  

But it's also a bit odd to call it a coup.  A coup, after all, is an attempt to usurp control of the government by means of military force.  And yet, what the mob which attacked the Capitol did (whether it was anticipated and intended by Trump or not) is not an action which could have resulted in Trump maintaining control of the government past Biden's scheduled inauguration on January 20th. It's perhaps a very slight exaggeration to say that the recognition of the electoral votes by the Vice President and Congress is a purely ceremonial moment, but it's certainly not a point at which the result of the election is in question.  Even if the mob had somehow taken the Vice President and key legislators hostage and compelled them to vote Trump the winner, that would in no way have changed the outcome of the election.  The election is administered by the states.  At the point that the state legislatures certified their electoral votes, the election was for all intents and purposes over.  Trying to intervene at the point that Congress recognized the votes would be like trying to use force to make the person in charge of presenting the medals after an Olympic event to give the gold to the second place winner.  Even if successful, there is no reason why the world would go on to recognize anyone other than the first place winner as having been victorious.  

This points to what would have to happen for a coup to actually be successful.  Why would a mob which temporarily seized control of congress not be able to simply rule the country and install whoever they wanted as president?  Because the overall machinery of the US government, including its ability to use force, is still loyal to our constitutional form of government.  If a violent mob took possession of the Capitol and streamed out via their phones a video of their leader proclaiming "I am the captain now!" from the Senate chamber, we'd simply send in a SWAT team, clear them out, and return to our previously scheduled constitutional republic.

For a president to actually seize power coup, he'd need to be backed by both a military and a governmental bureaucracy that was willing to obey him even if he was remaining president in violation of the law.  This is why would-be strongmen cultivate generals and state officers and make sure that those officials are loyal to them over the normal processes of state.  

Were a president to try to seize power via his backing by crowds, he would need the crowds to be both willing to fight the state's power structure and capable of overcoming it.  How easy that would be depends greatly on how willing the military and governmental elite are to change the structure of government.  This means that countries which are already suffering a massive loss of confidence are most easily subject to toppling by angry crowds.  Think, for instance, of the collapsing USSR.  When crowds in the satellite countries which the USSR had long occupied rose up and occupied key installations such as radio stations and government buildings, the military often proved unwilling to engage in the mass killing it would have taken to dislodge the mob, and the local civil service was willing enough to shift their allegiance away from a form of government already seen as illegitimate and failed.  Countries with a long history of unelected government also often have military leaders and officials who are ready to get behind a leader with the backing of populist crowds.  In the US, I would argue, our military and civil servants are probably some of the most attached to the current system of government of any country in the world.  And Trump in particular did the exact opposite of endearing himself to the military and civil service.  No one in those careers was thinking, "Wow, I'd really be willing to risk everything to keep Trump in charge rather than letting the duly elected new president take office."

But I'm really not sure that Trump realizes any of this.  Twitter and big rallies brought him the presidency, and the fact that he won in 2016 despite polling and elite consensus seems to have given him and his movement confidence that these same tools could keep him in power.  

The deepest problem with the Trump presidency is, paradoxically, also what will keep him from being able to successfully remain in power contrary to law: he really doesn't seem to understand how the state works.  

Trump did figure out elections in some instinctual way that people need to do a lot more thinking about.  He saw that you can in fact win without getting bogged down in the defensive, lawyerly non-statements in which politicians so often communicate.  He also saw that you can kick over a lot of what a political party claims to stand for if you figure out how to appear to the tribal sense of a critical mass of its supporters.  

But at the same time Trump has never seemed particularly clear on how our constitution structures the state, nor on how large organizations in general work.  Yeah, he's run the Trump Organization (as his conglomeration of family businesses is called), and he's popularized his management of that through The Apprentice, but although the amount of money controlled is fairly large the number of people is pretty small and ruled primarily by fiat and personal loyalty.  That's how he's tried to run the government too, and the result has looked a lot like a body rejecting a transplanted organ.

I suppose we're lucky that Trump isn't someone who understands how to set the stage for a coup.  I don't see much evidence that it's any kind of integrity that's holding him back.  So someone might ask why it's worth writing about how this wasn't at all close to being a successful coup if Trump and the crazy periphery of his supporters thought they were in fact doing something that could alter who serves as president for the next four years.  Isn't that close enough to a coup to merit the name even if their methods were not capable of achieving their aims?  But I think it's worth considering because I think that if we want to protect and maintain our republic it's important to understand how it works at a basic level.  On both sides of our political spectrum there are too many people right now who don't seem to understand how basic elements of our government works: how elections are conducted, what the various levels of government (city, county, state, federal) do, how policing operates, the separation of powers, etc.  We'd do well to better understand those things and how to work the changes we want to see within those structures lest we allow our frustrations with our inability enact change lead us to gradually destroy the state which has served us for so long.

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 4: The Illuminative Way

 Previous: Erin on Chapter 3, the Purgative Way

On and off over the years, I've tried to read The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila. The initial image of the soul as a castle composed of a single crystal, with many rooms all leading inward, is so evocative, and yet I always choked -- probably because I simply was not spiritually ready to understand Teresa's charming Spanish mysticism. Benson's chapter on the Illuminative Way talks about many of the same processes as Interior Castle, but more concisely, and in ways I understand better. (And it encourages me that perhaps, if I pick up Interior Castle again [if I can find my aged paperback], I might find it more accessible now.)

Teresa's crystalline imagery is romantic, but I suspect Benson would be more attracted to the structure of crystal. His Illuminative Way echoes the structure of the Purgative Way, but now each illusion stripped from the soul in the Purgative Way is given back -- as reality, not as illusion. 

1. External Illumination

The first step of the Purgative Way was the stripping away of external comforts: the aesthetic or spiritual padding of our choosing that made the spiritual life sweet and easy. In the first step of the Illuminative Way, our external surroundings take on their true spiritual significance. But -- and this, I think, is the crucial distinction -- we stop choosing, and start accepting.

What do we accept? The thorns in our flesh, the goads that reveal our weakness, the trials that seem like distractions in our spiritual progress. The illumination is the realization that what we think hinders us from our path is in fact the path. Our chosen path that makes it easiest to hide (or hide from) our flaws; the path that God in fact gives us is the one that most reveals our flaws and makes us confront them -- through his strength, not our own.

An illustration, drawn from my last post: one of the great aesthetic comforts of my choosing is good music at Mass. When that crutch was taken away from me, I had to learn to love the Mass for its own sake, regardless of the externals. Now, once again, the quality of music at my church is slipping, and I'm the one singing it for the congregation. It is a mortification to me to have to sing such stuff, and yet, it is also an act of humility to give up my choice and take what I'm given in obedience. It's also an opportunity for discernment: is there any song which I feel is so inappropriate for Mass that I need to protest it? Are the lyrics actually from scripture? If so, can I sing the scripture itself, and give the awful tune to God? Twice recently, I've spoken up: once for a proposed change to the Gloria that was so liturgically off-base that I felt I could not cantor it in good conscience, and once against a song that was so banal and inappropriate both musically and lyrically that it had no place in Mass. 

And yet, the humility (and mortification) comes from the fact that these are mostly hidden measures, not big public battles where I'm a champion of good taste for the masses. I'm still singing bad fluff in church. This is the thorn in my flesh, and through it I learn obedience and the virtue of giving my best to God in all circumstances. 

It's interesting that Benson includes grappling with, and coming to accept, the Problem of Pain in this first step of illumination, not in some further, higher level. 

And it is, therefore, exactly at this stage that the soul ceases to be bewildered by the Problem of Pain; for, while she cannot, of course, intellectually solve the problem, she answers it, in the only way in which it is possible, by grasping Pain, or at any rate acquiescing in it. She now sees it practically to be reasonable; and henceforth endeavours to act upon that intuition.

A caveat, of course: accepting what the Lord gives us is not the same thing as submitting to spiritual (or physical, or emotional, or moral) abuse. Sometimes what God gives through this first step of illumination is the strength to step away or challenge people who claim to be acting in his name. 

2. Internal Illumination

I once took a class called Human Anthropology, a theology class devoted mostly to reading The Acting Person by Karol Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II). It was pretty dense stuff, and I took page after page of notes, only to find, when I looked back through them to study up for a test, that almost every single one said "Gift of self."

You can find "God is Love" in curly letters on stacks of plaques at Hobby Lobby, waiting to be hung in someone's bathroom to be idly contemplated during calls of nature. Everyone knows "God is Love", or that Christians say "God is Love" while doing a lot of things that seem unloving. "God is Love"; "gift of self": phrases that are deep, sure, that we profess with our lips, that we even try to slot in to our daily practice of religion. Am I giving myself here? Am I being loving there, because "God is Love"? 

And there are the tiny epistles of John, in which "God is Love" is a phrase that has become shot through with profound, incredible significance, so deeply, almost inexpressibly amazing that John trips over himself and repeats himself, trying to reveal every facet of this gemlike saying:

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the World. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfect with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us. If any one says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (1 John 4:7-21).

John repeats the word "love" in some form 26 times in this passage (not counting the address "Beloved"). He has been illuminated, and he is ringing all the changes to place love in every context he can: God's gift to us, our response to God, our response to others because of God, the very nature of God himself. The very word "love" has been transformed from an idea to a Person. As Benson says:

[The soul] finds, by an certain inexplicable process of spiritual verification, that those things which she has taken to be are true to her as well as in themselves; the path where she was walked in darkness, though in security, becomes dimly apparent to her eyes; until, if she, by grace and perseverance, ultimately reaches sanctity itself, she may experience by God's favour those clear-sighted intuitions -- or rather that infusion of knowledge -- which is so marked a characteristic in the saints.

Including St. Teresa and her Interior Castle.

3. True Illumination: Christ as Light Itself 

If the third stage of the Purgative Way was the soul learning to rely on Christ alone in a negative fashion, through realizing that she herself has no strength or goodness except through him, the third stage of the Illuminative Way is the positive formulation of this truth: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me

Benson uses the word "pressure" to describe Christ's presence in this stage: 

...Virtue is far easier, since it is very difficult for any soul to sin very outrageously so long as she feels the pressure of Christ's hand in hers.

In our Facebook reading group, this word "pressure" was a bit of stumbling block. The soul sins less because Christ watching over my shoulder, monitoring my every deed? That sounds like scrupulosity to some. But I thought of another example. My oldest daughter has a weighted blanket that she loves. The sense of constant and sheltering pressure is soothing. It's not oppressive to her to be under her blanket. It orients her in space and surrounds her securely. She is aware of the blanket. 

In the same way, the soul becomes aware of Christ everywhere and in everything. This is not something added suddenly; Christ has always been there. There was never a time when he wasn't present in the soul. But now the soul is always conscious of him at the root of all things and in every other soul. And it is he who is her strength and her salvation, as the Psalmist knew so long ago. 

This does mean that smaller and smaller sins, humanly speaking, take on greater and greater weight, just as in marriage, the tiniest acts take on great significance (both for good and for ill) because of the closeness and intensity of the relationship. A sigh, a roll of the eyes, a moment of freezing up before responding: every one of these can wound in marriage where they would mean almost nothing to a mere acquaintance. 

And yet, this constant awareness of Christ's presence, and the realization that our own strength is nothing, doesn't make us perfect people. I am here to attest that I am an objectively less organized, less hard working, less dedicated person now than I was when I was younger and thought that I could make myself into something different through my own efforts. Relying on Christ to strengthen you also means accepting that there are ways in which he will not choose to strengthen you, or that your weaknesses mean that you need to rely on the strengths that he has given to the people around you. 

And it will mean, not that you stop sinning altogether, but that you turn back to him constantly and are not afraid to confess to him what he already knows about you, because he is at the very core of your being and knows you better than you know yourself.

4. Dangers along the Illuminative Way

What is absolutely needed, then, if illumination is not to end in disunion and destruction, is that, couple with this increase of interior spiritual life, there should go with it an increase of devotion and submission to the exterior Voice with which God speaks in His Church: for, notoriously, nothing is so difficult to discern as the difference between the inspirations of the Holy Ghost and the aspirations or imaginations of self. (emphasis added)

No man is an island. We are created to be in community, and not a community of our own creating. Benson cautions that a soul, enamored of the interior illumination of Christ, must, conversely, also be willing to submit to Christ as he reveals himself to the world in the Church. This is not the Church as interpreted by the World, as interpreted by charismatic figures, as interpreted by people who want to use it for their own means, but as the Church interprets herself through Christ, in her teachings, traditions, and documents -- the True Church, not the idea of Church.

Ideas are heady things. The Purgative way strips away ideas from reality. Now the Illuminative Way emphasizes the reality behind ideas -- the testing of spirits, as St. Paul says. Otherwise, we can be lead away by high spiritual contemplation to do practically terrible things. "Rely not on your own understanding," cautions the Psalmist. Christ does not illuminate us and no one else. We have a part in the Body of Christ, and Christ tells us that that Body is the Church. 

Woe to him who having received the Friendship of Christ, and its consequent illumination, believes that he enjoys in its interpretation an infallibility which he denies to Christ's outwardly commissioned Vicar!

And so it behooves a true Friend of Christ to draw not only from his strength, but from his humility. And this humility is one of the greatest qualities to consider when looking for guidance from people who claim to speak in Christ's name. Do they model, not just his zeal or his power, but his humility as well? If not, better test that spirit some more. 

Next: Part II: Christ in the Exterior; Chapter 5: Christ in the Eucharist.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 3: The Purgative Way

 Previous: Chapter 2, The Friendship of Christ (Interior)


Erin writes about The Purgative Way:

Benson's Purgative Way (to be followed by the Illuminative Way, next chapter) is written as if it were a linear progression, a path.  There is a bit of hedging with words like "usually" and the sort, leaving room for some unusual folks to experience purgation differently.  For example:  

And extremely often, the first sign... lies in a consciousness that there is beginning for her an experience which the world calls Disillusionment....This then is usually the first stage of Purgation:  she [the soul*] becomes disillusioned with human things, and finds that however Christian they may be, they are not, after all, Christ.


The next stage of Purgation lies in what may be called, in a sense, the Disillusionment with Divine things.  The earthly side has failed her, or rather has fallen off from the reality; now it begins to seem to her as if the Divine has failed her too.


There follows... a third stage before the Way of Purgation is wholly passed.  She now has to learn the last lesson of all, and become disillusioned with herself.

There isn't any hedging, however, in the placement of the Way of Purgation before the Way of Illumination in the structure of the book.  

I think perhaps that Benson is showing us that, while the precise journey along the Way of Purgation can vary---perhaps some of us skip over the "first" or "second" stages mentioned in the book, perhaps some of us have to go through a stage he hasn't mentioned, perhaps we take the stages out of order, perhaps we retrace our steps over and over again---no Illumination is possible without some Purgation that precedes it.

I think we'll know more about this when we have dived deeply into the next chapter.   But my thought is that we don't necessarily become entirely purged before we can begin to be illuminated at all; rather that every illumination must be preceded by a thorough purgation of whatever bit is standing in the way of the light. 


This chapter (The Purgative Way) was my introduction to The Friendship of Christ, and I read it I felt, far more than Erin, that Benson was describing to me my own life. There was a time, more than ten years ago, when I hit the Benson's first stage. I had poured myself into liturgical life, fighting for the beauty of the Mass in both rubric and music. I educated myself. I wrote. I pushed for a schola. This, I thought, was my crusade, because honest beautiful liturgy glorified God and aided worship. 

I won small battles. But the fight was uphill all the way, and perhaps doomed from the start. Sometimes we commuted down to the Latin Mass, but the community was insular and uncomfortable, and the liturgy mediocre in other ways. No parish within easy driving distance offered anything better. I felt trapped, week after week, slowly dying in a desert. For the first time in my life, I longed to skip Sunday Mass. Each week as I heard another incoherent Gloria or banal 80s hymn, I felt driven further from God. The Mass, as I experienced it, felt like anti-worship.

I didn't skip Mass, because of the strengthening force of the Sunday obligation. There was no big breakthrough. Slowly, week by week, as I endured the Mass for the sake of the Eucharist itself, I was weaned off of the crutch of idolizing aesthetics, and delivered from the urge to liturgy shop. Eventually we moved, and started attending the local parish, where the music was basic but not aggressively bad. 

Inappropriate music at Mass will always be a thorn in my side, but that dis-illusionment, I hope, has been wrought effectively in me. 


Human loves being cyclical, I expect that disillusionment occurs over and over again, with varying degrees of severity. I do think that Benson is correct, however, that there is an initial stage in which we begin to realize that we have made the Church, and God, in our image, and must begin the sometimes painful process of stripping away all that clouds God's image in us.

Next up: Chapter 4, The Illuminative Way.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Baptism of the Lord

 Today's feast of the Baptism of the Lord seems notable not only for what it shows -- Jesus taking his first public adult action to start his ministry), but for what it does not show: how Jesus prepared himself to begin his public ministry.

And how did Jesus prepare for his public ministry? Not by spending years in the Temple studying the Scriptures. Not by extensive debate prep. Not by military training. Not by physical conditioning (à la the Rocky training montage). Rather, he spends the first thirty years of his life at home, quietly serving and loving his family and his neighbors. We know that the people of Nazareth were not necessarily intellectual equals for Jesus, as seen by his reception when he goes back and preaches openly in the synagogue. It's not noted in the Gospels that any of the apostles came from Nazareth, or were his relatives, so he doesn't even seem to have made such close and loyal friendships that his hometown comrades would become trusted partners in his work. 

As God Himself made man, this is the example that he wants to give, the way that he wants us to think of him. Clearly Jesus knew and studied the scriptures with love and deep scholarly understanding, but he wasn't learning them as tools of evangelization, or with an eye to owning the Romans. His religion was not a weapon to fight the dominant Greek culture. His later conversation with a scribe shortly before his death reveals what he learned in his private life of preparation in Nazareth:

One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he answered them, asked him, "Which is the first of all the commandments?" Jesus replied, "The first is this: 'Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' The is no other commandment greater than these." The scribe said to him, "Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, 'He is One and there is no other than he.' And 'to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself' is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." (Mark 12:28-34)

To love your neighbor as yourself. That is what Jesus did in his quiet life in Nazareth to prepare himself for the labor of his public ministry. He loved, not his conceptual neighbor, but the real physical people around him, no matter their intellectual or moral shortcomings. He was not a citizen of the world but a citizen of Nazareth. And he loved his neighbors as he loved himself, and with him the Father was well-pleased.

Friday, January 08, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 2: Interior

Previous: Erin on Chapter 1 

 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. 

--quoted by Ratzinger in Introduction to Christianity, pg. 146.


It's easy, when thinking about the interior nature of friendship with Christ, to focus on the hallmark of the modern Protestant concept of "accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior". And yet, this formulation is odd on its face. Think, for a moment, about the idea that Jesus is something outside of yourself that you allow in.

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock," Jesus says to each soul (Rev. 3:20), which seems to reinforce the idea of him being external. But wait! He goes on to say, "If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me." But we do not provide this meal to Jesus. He is the meal on the other side of the door, just as he is the door (or the true gate), and he is the house, and he is all in all. He is already in everything, and longs to be recognized. Our part in fostering this friendship is not to invite him where he is not, but to recognize and welcome him where he already is.


Benson starts his chapter by laying out the basis for our friendship with Jesus: that he is like us. He is true man, and therefore he understands, on the deepest, most personal level. Of course his humanity means that he knew happy moments and was hungry, sleepy, joyful, etc. It also means that his body was weak at times. That he shook involuntarily in fear. (Is there a more human moment in the Gospels than Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he died, awaiting the awful thing that he must do, and trembling in determination and terror, begging God for strength?) 

And what sparks this friendship is recognition. C.S. Lewis touches on this neatly in The Four Loves in his chapter on Friendship, when he speaks of the moment of "You too?" that makes two people realize that they have something real in common. Benson goes back even further to the microscopic impulse that make one person notice something special about another, the tiny detail that become a microcosm of a whole astonishing personality we long to discover. We glimpse the whole person in those infinitesimal flashes. We recognize. And we respond by revealing ourselves, sometimes instantly, sometimes cautiously.

We can recognize Jesus because he is like us. And our friendship with him, Benson points out, follows the recognizable path of human friendships. But this friendship must be based in absolute truth. "Marriage," a friend of mine says, "is often a discipline of learning to prefer a person to an idea." And friendship with Christ is the same: learning to love Him, and not just our idea of Him. It is also a superhuman friendship, and it requires a superhuman honesty, a constant stripping away of the barriers between us: both barriers that we ourselves have built, and the barriers that are the scar tissue of the damage other humans have done to us. This demand can, at times, seem almost impossible, but Benson gives a hint as to the solution:

...He [Jesus, our friend] demands from us what He Himself offers. If He strips Himself before our eyes, He claims that we should do the same. As our God He knows every fibre of the being which He has made; as our Saviour He knows every instant in the past in which we have swerved from His obedience: but, as our Friend, He waits for us to tell Him.

"He waits for us to tell Him": which is as fine a description of the Sacrament of Confession as I've ever seen, where Jesus Himself gives us the grace to give him this gift of honesty, and where he gives us the gift of healing.

(Not long ago, I experienced this process from Jesus's point of view, as it were. A child was sad and guilty, burdened with a sin which they were embarrassed to confess and yet wanted to be rid of. I sat with them as they cried, stroking their hair and waiting, encouraging them toward the moment where they could speak out loud the thing I already knew; wishing that it were easier for them and yet knowing that making a clean breast of it was the only thing that would ease them, and loving them through it. That's when I first thought of Confession in this way Benson describes, and I was delighted to see him corroborate this idea.)

And we're not alone in this slog, sometimes, toward total honesty. (Benson notes the happy aspects of friendship with Christ which make it easy and pleasant to bare our souls, but he's not going to leave it at the easy times.) Throughout history, souls have been wrestling with the cyclical nature of human loves, including human love for God, which can have volcanic explosions of joy and then cool and harden and get glassy. And this cyclical love is natural, only human, not a sign that friendship with God was a mistake in the first place. He is there to help us through the dull or painful dry times, and our friends, the saints, provide us with their own experience and questions to help us keep up our strength.  "There is not one such incident that has not been experienced by other souls before us," Benson assures. The witness of these other souls, also our friends, helps us rekindle our first love:

Yet, as time passes, and as we emerge through these crises one by one, we come more and more, to verify that conviction with which we first embraced our Friend. For this is indeed the one Friendship in which final disappointment is impossible; and He the one Friend who cannot fail. This is the one Friendship for whose sake we cannot humiliate ourselves too much, cannot expose ourselves too much, cannot give too intimate confidences or offer too great sacrifices. It is in the cause of this one Friend only and of His Friendship that the words of one of His intimates are completely justified in which he tells us that for His sake it is good to "count all things to be but loss"--"and count them as dung, that I may gain Christ."

Next: Erin on Chapter 3: The Purgative Way

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

The Great War, Volume 2: Chapter 7-3

 Wrapping up Chapter 7 with this installment.  The next chapter will focus on Jozef.  

I did a bit more looking at dress designs from 1910-1915 as I was thinking about what the present Natalie receives in this installment might look like.  I think it looks a lot like this 1912 vintage mourning dress, but it's a deep red color rather than black.  (source)

Terespol. Aug 2nd, 1915. Before the war, Russian Poland had stretched out as a peninsula, the westernmost part of the Russian Empire, surrounded by Germany to the north and west, and Austria-Hungary to the south. Through the summer offensives of 1915, that peninsula was being gradually eaten away. Not only was Warsaw now at the extreme western end of this peninsula, but it was under assault from both the north and south.

Much closer to where the field hospital and Third Army were in the fortress of Terespol, at the end of July, a mixed force of German and Austro-Hungarian forces commanded by Generalfeldmarschall August von Mackensen successfully captured the main southern railroad line which connected Brest-Litovsk and the rest of Russian Poland with Kiev.

Warsaw had not yet fallen, and in Brest it was yet another heavy summer day with the enemy still in the distance, but the men who moved pieces on maps at the Russian central command consulted their rail maps and their unit strengths and determined that it was necessary to begin moving resources out of Poland lest they be cut off and lost to the enemy.

These map men wrote up a strategic note. That note was turned into a set of army group orders. The army group orders were turned into orders for divisions, regiments, and battalions and support formations, and on Monday afternoon Doctor Kalyagin called the field hospital’s key staff together and announced, “We have orders to leave the city.”

This led, naturally, to an explosion of questions. Where were they going? Would they take the patients with them, send them back to the nearest base hospital, or leave them behind? How soon would they leave? Why were they leaving when things seemed relatively peaceful?

To most of these Doctor Kalyagin had no answer, so he answered those he did: They were to board a train for Bialystok, well to the north, within 48 hours. They would indeed take their patients and their supplies with them. The process of packing and moving must be as orderly as possible. This was no panicked move. Nothing should be abandoned which could be used. But with the Germans advancing and Warsaw about to fall, the front would be split and the field hospital would be serving the northern half of the Russian forces as they fell back. No one was to see this as a defeat or as hopeless in any way. They were falling back in an organized fashion. Surely the generals and the Tsar knew what they were doing. Anyone who had read of 1812 knew that Russia knew how to defend through the depths of her territory. Soon the Germans would be as confounded as Napoleon had been in his time.

Many of the orderlies and sisters were still asking questions about why they were leaving and the military situation. Natalie’s mind was already on what needed to be done in the next two days in order to move the field hospital. The patients were to come with them, but even so it would be as well to assess all of them and send any who would eventually need to go to the base hospitals off now. Were there medical stores in Brest which they could take with them in order to avoid shortages later? Could they replace some of the cots which they had lost in their sudden retreat earlier in the year?

She recognized a similarly thoughtful look on Sister Travkin’s face, and together the two of them stepped aside from the press of staff and began making plans, speaking in the half completed phrases and cryptic nicknames which are the language of people who have long worked together.

As with so many aspects of her hospital service, it caused a moment’s shock to think that this familiarity with packing up the hospital and getting it onto the road was the product of only three months’ experience, since the hammer blows of the May offensive had started Third Army’s long retreat from southern Galicia to this point. Three months and two hundred and fifty miles, which had left them feeling like seasoned veterans of maintaining a hospital on the road. Just as the time before the war seemed a lifetime away, it now seemed that the hospital had always been on the move. And Doctor Kalyagin had only been with them on the last, though admittedly longest, of these moves. Here was an area where they were expert while he was still comparatively new.

The doctor finished speaking to the staff and approached the two of them, with Sister Gorka following in his wake. “I’ve already told the regimental transport unit that we require wagons or trucks to move the patients to the rail depot. It’s difficult because we don’t yet have our train schedule assigned. But I’ve made it clear that we must have the absolute highest priority. We must make sure that we have a clear plan for what goes in each load, what goes first, and who is to oversee both here and at the rail depot.”

Natalie could see Sister Travkin’s mouth tightening into a thin line and resolved to deflect the doctor before an argument broke out. “We were just saying, Doctor, that this journey by train offers us an opportunity which our previous movements have not. If you could review all the patients and determine which ones could be returned to duty with another week or two of care, and thus should remain with us, and which should be sent back to a permanent hospital for longer term care, we could arrange for the long term cases to be transported immediately and we would have fewer patients to care for on the journey to Bialystok. After all, there’s no sense in carrying a patient all the way north only to send him off on a hospital train a day or two later.”

Doctor Kalyagin hesitated. Natalie hoped she had been sufficiently diplomatic in directing him. Assessing the patients and determining their course treatment was rightfully a task for a doctor, and in this sense he should not wish anyone else to do the work. But it was also quite clearly his work. It would keep him occupied while the nurses and the housekeeping sisters organized their own domains without his interference.

“Of course,” the doctor said at last. “The patients must be assessed. That first of all. I will prepare the list of which cases should be transported. Send an orderly or a runner to regimental transport and ask when they can provide a couple of cars on a train for Minsk or Vilnius so we can dispatch the patients who won’t be staying with us.” With this resolved, he strode away with purpose, his footsteps echoing on the floorboards.

Continue Reading...

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

COVID Death Statistics: Looking Back at 2020

 It's been a while since I've written a post on COVID data, but the calendar year has ended and it's the time when people are looking back on 2020.  In particular, I recall a sort of debt of honor, in that back in April I promised Joseph Moore who blogs at Yardsale of the Mind that I would check back in at the end of the year to assess whether the pandemic had resulted in significant and measurable deaths in excess of what we would expect in a normal year.  

Joseph Moore, the author of the above linked blog Yard Sale of the Mind holds that in fact we're not really seeing any "excess deaths" due to COVID-19, as the people dying all would have died soon anyway. I think this is false and that the deaths in the US and elsewhere will be clearly visible in overall death data for the year once that becomes available. Since I think it's important to put one's credibility on the line when making statements like this, I'll lay out in a separate post my commitment to report back in January 2021, examine the data, and either rhetorically eat my hat or show clearly that this was in fact a serious matter causing a death toll in the US of over 75,000, at which point I'll invite Joseph Moore to rhetorically consume a hat of his own.

Though I'd never entirely forgotten this, I was reminded of it recently when I noticed that Joseph Moore had a year end review post up in which he looked back at COVID numbers.   His own analysis is perhaps a little incomplete.  He first spends some time discussing the difficulty of finding the data one desires on the CDC website, and then examines the comparison of the number of deaths it shows that involved COVID (shown as of then at 301,679) as compared to a percentage of the deaths of people in age categories under 34 that involved COVID (very low).  His wrap up is:

I note one last thing from the CDC data now, with more to come when I’ve gotten a chance to digest the data: the overall death rate in the US in 2020, pending, of course, updates that should roll in over the next couple weeks and push it ever so slightly up, was 0.884. That’s 884 deaths per 100,000 Americans. Back in May, I looked up the UN’s 2020 projected death rate prior to COVID, and it was 0.888. This number just comes from extrapolating from long-term tends, nothing special, but, barring a deadly pandemic or other disaster, such a method should produce a pretty accurate forecast. So it looks like the US, despite a raging pandemic that’s killed, they say, 350K people, will have had pretty much the same number of dead people in 2020 as projected before the pandemic. Huh.

This analysis did not strike me as particularly illuminating, so I decided to do my own analysis of how many more people have died than might otherwise be expected.  I pulled my data from the CDC FluView Dashboard, which is nice because it allows you to break the data down by week, age range, and region.   I then organized the data in Excel and produced some graphs.  The data for the last 4-6 weeks is not complete, but it's certainly complete enough for us to get a good picture.

As I mentioned, the FluView data is broken down by week.  This makes it easy to compare the period that you're trying to analyze with the same period in previous years.  To start with, I looked at this year compared to the data for 2016-2019.  As you can see, the deaths per week all cluster very closely around the 2016-2019 average, except for 2020, which beginning in Week 11 (mid March) rises above the norm and has not come down since, though the highest deviation from the average was in April.

Since all the other years stay pretty close to average and deviate from it only for brief periods, I decided it was acceptable to simply compare 2020 to the 2016-2019 average in the rest of my analysis.  Here I compared 2020 deaths by week to the 2016-2019 average.  Then I calculated the difference between 2020 and the previous four years as the "excess deaths".  I've charted those excess deaths as columns at the bottom.  As you can see, we peaked just under 25k in mid April, but we've had around 10k excess deaths nearly every week since.

If I total that excess death number from Week 1 to Week 49 (data for weeks 50-52 are still not remotely complete, as you can see by the "tail" at the end of the year -- they'll be revised as full data is collected over the coming weeks) I get a total of 384,857 excess deaths.  That's actually a higher number than the 365,170 US COVID deaths that appears on WorldofMeters as of today.  Of course, the excess deaths are not necessarily all COVID deaths.  Say, for instance, that it were the case that there were an elevated number of suicides due to lockdown loneliness.  Those suicides would be included in this number.  So we can't necessarily say that all of those deaths are due to the virus itself, but I think it's virtually impossible for someone to look at this data and argue that we are not experiencing a lot more deaths than we would normally expect, absent a pandemic.  How many is that 384k compared to the normal number of deaths?  Well, from 2016-2019 the average is 2.83 million deaths.  In 2020, there were 3.13 million deaths, and the last 4-6 weeks aren't even fully complete.  So the 384k additional deaths represent a 13.6% increase over the normal number.  

Obviously, another question someone might ask if whether the number of deaths is just higher because the population of the US grows ever year.  I think the first graph showing the deaths by week for the last five and a half years makes it pretty clear that the population effect is not the main cause here, but to give you another view of it, here's a graph of the total deaths by year for 2017 to 2020 (because this data set is based on a "flu season" which begins in September, the 2016 data is partial so I left it out.)

As you can see, the increase during the last couple years was 15k-25k.  Going up 300k+ is clearly something more than population growth.

Another question that often comes up is how these deaths are spread across different age groups.  Is it only very old people who are dying of COVID?  Obviously, the deaths of all people are important, but the argument that is made in this respect is that the only people dying of COVID are people who were on the brink of death anyway.

I think that the sheer magnitude of the death increase is some proof against this.  However, let's look at the age breakdowns, because there are some interesting things to see there.  This first graph looks at excess deaths for Americans who were 65+

That's a total of 294,595 excess deaths versus an average of 2,083,936, which is a 14.1% increase above the norm.  The FluView dataset doesn't cut the ages more finely than this, but as has been widely reported, a lot of these deaths are at the older end of the range.  The next graph surprised me a bit:

This above looks at the deaths among people aged 18-64.  It looks a lot like the previous one.  In total, it shows 93,388 excess deaths over a 2016 to 2019 yearly average of 703,566 per year, a 13.3% increase.  I would have expected the increase to be a good deal less.  Of course the number of deaths from people aged 18-64 compared to the number of people who are in the age group is much lower than the deaths per person aged 65+.  However, people aged 18-64 just aren't that likely to die in the first place, so apparently the increase in deaths to people 18-64 is almost as large on a rate basis as the increase for people aged 65+.

The next graph is interesting if your want a weird silver lining that people still haven't really figured out.  For people aged 18 and under, the number of deaths this year has been below what you would normally expect, and the periods when it's been most below have been the spring and fall, when the deaths for other ages have been highest.

People under 18 are very unlikely to die, so the numbers here are quote low.  2,914 fewer people under 18 have died than you would expect given the average of the prior years.  That represents a 8.2% decrease versus a base of 35,492.

So there you have it.  The due to the pandemic a lot of people are dying, significantly more than we would normally expect to die in a year.  Not only have almost 300k more people over 65 died than we would expect, nearly 100k people between 18 and 64 have died.  We're so far past the 75k number at which I offered to eat a hat, it seems shocking that anyone can still argue the point.  And yet, there are still people out there in my social media feeds claiming that it's all a hoax. 

One of the reasons I haven't written a much about COVID lately (or indeed about the election hoax true believers) is that it's become increasingly clear that many of these people's beliefs have little to do with the alleged evidence they cite.  A clear sign of this is how quickly people slide from one claim to another, or resort to simply kicking sand at the knowability of it all.  "Of course, it's gotten so hard to even know when THEY control everything."  Still, I think it's important to circle back every so often to look at the basic numbers.  These are knowable things.  It is not hard to go pull your own data and do your own analysis, and the conclusions are pretty obvious.

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 1

 Erin posts on Chapter 1 of The Friendship of Christ. (On Friday I'll write about Thursday's reading of Chapter 2.)

A couple of years ago I got it into my head to write a blog post on the topic of "having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."  Specifically, what that oft-heard, evangelical-sounding phrase even means

"Obviously," I thought, "we can't have an interpersonal relationship in the same sense that we have friendships with other earth-dwellers.  So what is it?  He already knows us perfectly.  How can an individual soul know him back?  In a way that is highly personal and specific to that particular person, not just as a story that's available to anyone?"

My working theory, fairly nicely tied up and following the rule of three:  A person can know what Jesus has done for them (by self-examination of their own specific sins and faults that Jesus atoned for.  A person can know what Jesus promises them:  forgiveness of those sins specifically, truthful answers to the questions in their own heart, the wholeness of the person that they are created to be.  And a person can know what Jesus is asking of them, specifically:  their particular vocation, the sacrifices asked in each moment, their cooperation in the divine plan.

And it was all very logical and smart, but despite starting to write it many times over a period of nearly two years, mostly in crowded coffee shops—remember those?—I never could make it come out onto the page in a satisfiying way.   My formula lacked something.   I touched on the idea of "personal" in the sense of being particular to the person who seeks, but I missed the Person Sought.   I wrote about "knowing" in an intellectual sense, but not at all in the relationship sense:  all savoir and no connaître.

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In Chapter 1 of The Friendship of Christ, Robert Hugh Benson solves my problem. ...

Sunday, January 03, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Reading Schedule

Greetings, friends! Erin at Bearing Blog has put together our reading plan for The Friendship of Christ. The day after each reading, either Erin or I will post about the chapter/section, and anyone reading along can comment or link to their own posts. I'll link to all Erin's posts here at DarwinCatholic, and of course everything will also be easy to follow along with over at The Friendship of Christ Reading Group on Facebook.


Part I:

Monday, Jan. 4: Ch1, "The Friendship of Christ (General)"

Thursday, Jan. 7: Ch2, "The Friendship of Christ (Interior)"

Monday, Jan. 11: Ch3, "The Purgative Way"

Thursday, Jan. 14: Ch4, "The Illuminative Way"

Day off to allow for the long MLK weekend

Part II:

Thursday, Jan. 21: Ch5, "Christ in the Eucharist"

Monday, Jan. 25: Ch6, "Christ in the Church"

Thursday, Jan. 28: Ch7, "Christ in the Priest"

Monday, Feb. 1: Ch8, "Christ in the Saint"

Thursday, Feb. 4: Catch-up day or open thread.

Monday, Feb. 8: Ch9, "Christ in the Sinner"

Thursday, Feb. 11: Ch10, "Christ in the Average Man"

Monday, Feb. 15: Ch11, "Christ in the Sufferer."

Day off for Ash Wednesday Feb. 17

Part III.

Chapter 12, "Christ Our Friend Crucified" is an extended meditation on the Seven Last Words from the Cross, which we'll break into four pieces: I, II-III, IV-V, and VI-VII. Page numbers listed below are from the paperback.

Monday, Feb. 22: 12.I. "Father, forgive them," pp. 97-104

Thursday Feb. 25: 12.II. "This day thou shalt be with me"/ III. "Behold thy Mother", pp. 104-113

Monday, Mar. 1: 12. IV. "My God, My God"/ V. "I thirst", pp. 113-122

Thursday, Mar. 4: 12.VI "It is finished"/ VII. "Father, into Your hands", pp. 122-130

Monday, Mar. 8: Ch13, "Christ Our Friend Vindicated"

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Public Domain Day Thoughts on Public Domain Publishing

New Years marked the point where works from 1925 entered the public domain, including a few pretty famous ones such as The Great Gatsby.  

I was surprised to discover that some people actually consider works lapsing into public domain to be a bad thing, since it means that corporations (as in, publishers, movie adaptations, etc.) can make money from a book but the author's descendants no longer do.  Since this was a year when I had a book published, we published MrsDarwin's book ourselves, and we worked together to publish a re-print of a book which is out of copyright, I felt like talking about the topic a bit.

As the linked post explains:

Works from 1925 were supposed to go into the public domain in 2001, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years.  Now the wait is over.

This change in the laws was jokingly called the Mickey Mouse law, because one of the major lobbyists supporting it was Disney, which is considering the fact that the first Mickey Mouse cartoon was made in 1928.  

When a book comes out of copyright (when it goes into the public domain) it becomes possible for anyone to print and sell a copy without having to pay royalties to the author (or since copyright lasts 95 years, the author's heirs.)  That's precisely what we did when we reprinted Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson's book The Friendship of Christ.  The book was originally published in 1912.  The text was available for free on the internet in a scanned version with a number of typos.  MrsDarwin sat down with a copy of the original edition and corrected all of the errors in the scan.  She also updated the bible citations (which had both scanned badly because of Msgr. Benson's use of Roman numerals and also were based on the older numbering of the Psalms rather than the one used in modern Catholic bibles.)  Then we digitally typeset it and published it as both a paperback and and a Kindle book.  In order to do all this legally, we did not have to track down some heir of Msgr. Benson and get their permission.  Nor do any profits have to go to the author's heirs.  

Is that unfair?  I suppose it depends upon your point of view.  But here's the case I would make: We put about $100 in cash (buying a the rights to an image for cover art and a couple of ISBNs) and used money we'd already invested (in buying design and layout software) plus we put about 20 hours into getting the book ready to go.  That time is our free time, so in a sense it had not cost, but if you wanted to bring out an edition that wasn't a bad scan, you had to do it.  In return, we've as of today sold 30 ebooks and 59 paperbacks, a rate which I'm assuming is far above the normal number because our friends have been buying copies.  Maybe there's a steady rate of demand of 250 copies a year?  Nor does one make much money per copy.  For the 89 copies sold so far we've earned just under $200 in Amazon fees (which we will not actually receive for another couple months.)  So in return for our money and time investment, maybe we'll end up getting $500/yr for this book?  Not money to walk away from, but I don't think a commercial publisher would have considered it worth it.  And honestly, would I have done it if I'd had to track down whoever now owns the copyright to Msgr. Benson's work and get permission or pay that person royalties?  No, we'd probably just have walked away and searched up an nice old used copy.

There are, of course, a few cases where a work remains a valuable 'property' 95+ years after its original publication.  The Anne of Green Gables books, for instance, are reliable sellers which are mostly out of copyright.  The result is that there are some pretty junky editions out there where people are trying to cash in on the books' fame in order to make a comparatively easy buck.  I'm sure that the Tolkien Estate is thinking a good deal about these questions, since The Hobbit was originally published in 1937.

I have no objection to the Tolkien Estate continuing to make money off J. R. R. Tolkien's works.  And I'm sure they'd happily pay quite a bit of money to extend the copyright on his works past the 95 year mark.  But for a lot of lesser known authors (and even less known works by more famous authors) copyright long after the author's death results in non-availability. 

There's an interesting example which relates to Msgr. Benson's brother E. F. Benson, who wrote light, comedy of manners novels somewhat akin to P. G. Wodehouse.  Some of E. F. Benson's novels (the series about Mapp & Lucia) are pretty well known because they were made into a BBC series back in the 80s and again in 2014.  The Mapp & Lucia novels which are still in copyright are available from reputable publishers in modern editions, and the ones which are out of copyright are also available in hideous knockoff editions:

However, my personal favorite E. F. Benson novel, a stand-alone entitled Secret Lives written in 1932 and thus still in copyright, is out of print since a 1988 paperback edition (which is what my copy is.)

One the one hand, one is grateful that it hasn't seen the junky treatment being meted out to the public domain Benson works.  But on the other, it's comparatively unavailable.  There's no Kindle edition available at all, and used copies of the paperback start at over $20 on Amazon (ABEBooks is a better choice, with copies starting around $12.)  

As an author, I certainly want to be paid when people read my published works during my lifetime.  If I manage to eventually write something that lots of people buy, I wouldn't mind being able to leave the income steam to my children.  But at root, my deepest desire as an author is that people continue to read my works as long as possible.  I'd love people to still be reading me 100 years from now, and if letting the books lapse into public domain is what it takes to keep works available, I am very much in favor of it.  Not only does it result in people putting out economic new copies (though admittedly many of those are badly designed) but the full text becomes available and reachable online, which is a huge help for access.