Month: October 2013

Of Saints and Souls and Death

End of October, thinking of transitions and a little haunting passage or two:


By Bill Knott

Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.   
They will place my hands like this.   
It will look as though I am flying into myself.

Economic Suffering, the Mystical Body and Mystery

Such a  beautiful and thoughtful meditation from John Savant in America:


Theology, on the other hand, while attentive to all that human learning and science continue to provide, is committed to the entire phenomena of human reality, including issues whose answers lie beyond the province of human investigation. These issues we call “mystery,” a concept that identifies the primary territory of religion. Mystery refers to those questions and intuitions that have enduring force in our lives even as we realize that their answers lie beyond our means. Mystery poses questions like: Why is there anything and not nothing? Why do the good often suffer and the evil prosper? Why do we have transcendent longings? What explains quantum leaps in the advance of the universe from inanimate matter to human thought and achievement? And especially, why must the progress of our universe, including the rise of human civilization, entail violence and evil, depravity and loss—despite our longing for goodness, peace and beauty?


Regarding mystery, the Book of Job is instructive. Addressing Job’s overwhelming afflictions, his conventional counselors offer some concrete advice, but advice that effectively reduces the challenge of inexplicable evil to the quasi-quantitative resolutions of legalisms and virtuous deeds. To put it another way, they aspire to dismiss one expression of the mystery of evil with the human “magic” of merit: Do this, this and this, Job, and God will have to restore you to prosperity. Job, of course, in his ornery integrity, refuses to bribe God with virtue and, eschewing human explanations, enters the whirlwind of divine mystery. Here he comes to realize a relationship with God is infinitely more reassuring than any human proposition. His subsequent recovery, the story compels us to see, is due not to his virtuous deeds, but to his humble acceptance of God’s unconditional love. He leaves the whirlwind with no more answers than he had before, but with the ontological conviction, “My savior lives” (19:25).

Against rigidity

The great temptation of the would-be orthodox believer or apologist for the faith. What Pope Francis said:

“The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.”

Not a metaphysical exercise

From the  just-published prayer journals of the young Flannery O’Connor:

“My dear God, I do not want this to be a metaphysical exercise but something in praise of God. It is probably more liable to being therapeutical than metaphysical, with the element of self underlying its thought. Prayers should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication and I would like to see what I can do with each without writing an exegesis. It the adoration of You, dear God, that most dismays me. I cannot comprehend the exaltation that must be due You. Intellectually, I assent: let us adore God. But can we do that without feeling? To feel, we must know. And for this, when it is practically impossible for us to get it ourselves, not completely, of course, but what we can, we are dependent on God. We are dependent on him for our adoration of Him, adoration, that is, in the fullest sense of the term. Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You, for even this I cannot do for myself. Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You. Give me the grace to adore You with the awe that fills Your priests when they sacrifice the Lamb on our altars. Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I shall see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore You. Give me the grace, dear God, to see the bareness and the misery of the places where You are not adored but desecrated, ” –

Shining world

Marilynne Robinson, from her novel Gilead:


Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? … Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.

What happened to Catholic writing and art?

A sharp critique from Dana Gioia, interviewed by the Catholic World Report:


The Catholic Church has historically been both a patron and inspiration for the arts.  It would be impossible to discuss the growth of the arts in the Western world without constant reference to the Church.  Artists have also—until recently—been drawn to Catholicism for its sacramental vision of the world and its rich tradition of ritual, symbol, and liturgy.  This long relationship broke down in the twentieth century, and then collapsed further after Vatican II when so much of the Church defined itself mostly in terms of social action.  But man does not live by bread alone.  When the Church gave up its mission of inspiring through beauty, so much of its activity became merely functional—not quite ugly, but barren, perfunctory, and abstract.  Artists went elsewhere.  In the process both the Church and the arts were diminished.

The Devil within

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recommended that a journalist who didn’t believe in the Devil go away and read The Screwtape Letters of CS Lewis. The New Yorker takes a look at  why this book holds true for a contemporary reading of human nature and sinfulness:


Somewhat surprisingly, [Screwtape the senior devil] tells his nephew, “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself.” Organized religion is full of misguided liturgies, bad preachers, and off-key singing: the sort of minor but menacing distractions that can slowly undermine the patient’s faith. “Indeed,” Screwtape later says, “the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Opportunities for sin are what fill a human lifetime. Screwtape tells Wormwood that God “cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice,” and letter by letter he reveals these temptations. “You are much more likely,” he says, “to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne when he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy.” Alcohol is not the only instrument of vice, and Screwtape insists that the most ordinary of instruments are the best.

The patient’s mother, for instance, is a supreme glutton, but not the excessive kind. She is the sort of person who is always sending plates of food back to the kitchen because they are too large or refusing tea because it is too strong, offending servants and friends alike with her self-concern. As Screwtape observes, “At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance.” So often, sin is accomplished by manipulating the pursuit of virtue. Wormwood is advised, “Catch [the patient] at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear.” With little effort, gluttony can be disguised as temperance and pride can be hidden by humility