Archive for April, 2008

Happy Birthday, Willie Nelson

April 30, 2008

Today is the 75th birthday of Willie Nelson. He is regarded as one of the great figures of American music, and I wouldn’t quarrel with that assessment. His frail tenor, and his gentle, unassuming way with his material, have never been enough to make me swoon with admiration, yet there is something endearing about him. The position he occupies in my musical world is something like a friendly, eccentric uncle who has always been around, but whom I never got to know very well. I suppose it would be easy to reel off a few jokes about his affection for “the weed” — about how he’s more likely to celebrate the day by lighting a joint than a candle — but instead I’ve gone digging on YouTube to find some songs.

Here is a video for his song “I Never Cared for You”, from the album Teatro. The lovely Emmylou Harris sings with him.

He was a member of the Highwaymen, a “supergroup” that included Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash. Here they play “City of New Orleans”, with Willie at the microphone. The video is formatted poorly, but you can get the idea.

Happy Birthday, Willie Nelson. May you have many years.

Ring and crown

April 28, 2008

“Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race until the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal — it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man.”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1943).

Solitude, solitude

April 26, 2008

My old friend Dan Haight sends me a music video he has made, and I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’m passing it on. Dan and I haven’t seen much of one another recently — separated, as we are, by 3000 km — but we were roommates for two years, and I have many happy memories of the two of us writing poetry, dining off Frisbees, and wandering the streets of Toronto.

The song is called “When I’m Alone (That’s How I Feel)”. He tells me that he and another friend put the video together in a single weekend, which is quite a feat. There are a few problems with synchronization of the music and video, but otherwise it’s a fine piece of work, and the song itself is awfully catchy. The words are nicely done, and admirably illustrate that understated Haightian humour that I remember so fondly.

The song is written and sung by Dan himself. I’d be willing to bet that he also plays the keyboards. I’m not sure who is on the drums and guitar, but I could probably hazard a guess. I’m on less firm ground trying to identify the background vocalists. The really big mystery is when Dan acquired a British accent.


April 24, 2008

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring —
\, When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
\, Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
\, The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
\, The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
\, A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy,

\, Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
\, Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

Doubting Johannes

April 23, 2008

Johannes Climacus, or De Omnibus Dubitandum Est (1843)
Johannes Climacus [Søren Kierkegaard] (Princeton, 1985)
60 p. First reading.

This is an unfinished work found among Kierkegaard’s papers when he died, but written many years earlier. It merits our interest, nonetheless, for being the first work of Johannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard’s most incisive pseudonymous characters. It is an inquiry into the nature of doubt, and more precisely into the philosophical doctrine that “One must doubt everything”.

Johannes begins by setting forth three statements which he has come across in his reading, but been unable to understand: (i) philosophy begins with doubt, (ii) in order to philosophize, one must have doubted, and (iii) modern philosophy begins with doubt. Are these statements equivalent? Are they true? How should we understand them?

The third statement, about specifically modern philosophy, seems to be historical, not properly philosophical. Does it mean that philosophy may legitimately begin in different ways, with modern philosophy happening to begin with doubt, or does it imply that other beginnings, whether in the past or the future, are suspect, and perhaps don’t really result in philosophy at all? That is, is doubt intrinsic to genuine philosophy? If so, the third statement is equivalent to the first, but if not, the first statement must be false. But by what authority is philosophy defined in this way? If philosophy must begin with doubt, why is that so? He doesn’t know the answers to these questions, and when he consults others he finds that they conflate the first and third statements. He thinks this unwise, but decides to consider the first statement on its own merits.

The first statement, that philosophy begins with doubt, does seem to be a properly philosophical claim, for it is about the nature of philosophy as such. He compares it to the Greek claim that philosophy begins with wonder. There is a substantive existential difference between these two claims: “Wonder is plainly an immediate category and involves no reflection upon itself. Doubt, on the other hand, is a reflection-category.” Wonder is an absorption in the object, but doubt is a rupture involving a reflective comparison of the thing with one’s expectations. On account of this difference, to say that philosophy begins with doubt is to say that it begins with a polemic against what came before. But in that case the claim seems to have become historical again.

What sort of claim is the claim that all philosophy begins with doubt? Is it like the claim “Man is mortal”, the truth of which everyone affirms as soon as they think of it? It seems not, for not everyone who has called themselves a philosopher has begun in this way — not even after the principle was enunciated. Perhaps it is a thesis that requires the one stating it to have authority, and the one receiving it to be receptive and obedient. But that seems to contradict the spirit of the principle.

As always, Kierkegaard (or, if you prefer, Climacus) is intent on the subjective experience of the thinker. How should an individual person relate to this thesis, that philosophy begins with doubt, if they want to philosophize? What should they doubt, and to what extent? Surely they should not doubt the principle itself! Or should they? He gradually works his way around to the idea that the thesis is incoherent, and he expresses the problem in a lovely parable:

“In an old saga, he had read a story about a knight who received from a troll a rare sword that, in addition to its other qualities, also craved blood the instant it was drawn. As the troll handed him the sword, the knight’s urge to see it was so great that he promptly drew it out, and then, behold, the troll had to bite the dust.”

The sword is the thesis, for “when one person said it to another, it became in the latter’s hand a sword that was obliged to slay the former, however painful it was for the latter to reward his benefactor in that way.” With each beginning, one is destroying the very thing into which one is supposed to be entering. It seems, therefore, that far from being the key to genuine philosophy, this thesis is a lock.

If we cannot coherently maintain that philosophy begins with doubt, perhaps we may yet maintain the second statement: that philosophy should be preceded by a period of doubting, just as one’s entry into the monastic life is preceded by a period of ascetic rigour. Maybe the doubt prepares the novice to receive truths. Yet it seems that doubt is not a fitting preparation for any such thing, for “He who doubts elevates himself above the person from whom he learns, and thus there is no frame of mind less appreciated by a teacher in his pupil than doubt.” With this, Johannes is at an impasse.

The final section of the book, which is unfinished, is by far the most difficult. Johannes takes up the question “What must the nature of existence be in order for doubt to be possible?” The structure of doubt that he develops is (I believe) similar to that which I alluded to above: it requires a confrontation between real things and one’s ideas of them (in his language, between reality and ideality). But this section is quite opaque, and breaks off in mid-stream.

Johannes Climacus is a minor work, but worthwhile. It is humorously written, Johannes not neglecting to take a few shots at Hegelian philosophy, always especially odious to Kierkegaard. There is much whimsy along the way, as Johannes confronts this allegedly indispensable principle with all of the naivety he can muster. Surely if we are to take modernity seriously, we must take this principle seriously, no? But he finds that it simply doesn’t make any sense.

Though they are unrelated to the main argument of the book, there are several sections worthy of remembrance. One is an extended narrative about a beginning student’s joy in discovering the life of the mind, and the second is a vibrant portrait of Johannes as a young boy — which we may, I have been told, take as a portrait of Kierkegaard himself. His love of dialectic started early.

[Boyish enthusiasm]
His father combined an irresistible dialectic with an omnipotent imagination. Whenever his father on occasion engaged in an argument with someone else, Johannes was all ears, all the more so because everything proceeded with an almost festive formality. His father always let his opponent say everything he had to say and, as a precaution, always asked him if he had anything more to say before he began his response. Johannes, having followed the opponent’s case with keen attention, had in his own way a co-interest in the outcome. Then came the pause; his father’s response followed, and — look! — in a twinkling everything was changed. How it happened remained a riddle to Johannes, but his soul delighted in this drama. The opponent spoke again, and Johannes listened even more attentively, lest he lose the thread of thought. The opponent summed up his thought, and Johannes could almost hear his heart beating, so impatiently did he wait to see what would happen. –It did happen. In an instant, everything was turned upside down; the explicable was made inexplicable, the certain doubtful, the opposite was made obvious.

One last hurrah

April 22, 2008

It’s been all Pope all the time around here for the past week. I’ll wrap up by pointing interested persons to a good panel discussion that aired last Friday on the Charlie Rose Show. The guests are Jon Meacham, editor-in-chief of Newsweek, Scott Appleby, professor of history at Notre Dame, George Weigel, author and papal biographer, and the always wonderful Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete of Communion and Liberation. The program aired, as I said, mid-way through Benedict’s visit, so in some sense it is incomplete, but it is still worth watching. (Duration: 27 minutes)

Benedict XVI: an appreciation

April 21, 2008

When I think back over these past few days, during which Pope Benedict XVI delivered so many speeches and made so many gestures, I am surprised to find that what comes most to my mind did not appear on any planner’s program, for it was a brief moment that passed without comment. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, the Pope processed up the main aisle and mounted the steps to the altar, and as he walked, dressed in his magnificent vestments, surrounded by the variously smiling and solemn faces of consecrated sisters and brothers, the thought came to me: “This same scene could have happened three, or five, or eight, or twelve hundred years ago”. It was as though a window opened, not on New York City in 2008, but on the whole history of Christian practice and devotion, for Benedict walked among them as an embodiment of that long tradition, the instantiation in flesh and blood of an ancient promise.

The Church can be seen under different aspects. There is the hierarchical Church, the Church in her formal structure, tier upon tier of bishops and archbishops, terminating ultimately in the Bishop of Rome. And there is the charismatic Church, the living traditions of sacraments, devotion, prayer, preaching, and charity that are the marks of her faith and action in the world. John Paul II referred to these two sides of the Church as the Petrine and Marian, respectively. The first is the skeleton, and the second the heart and flesh. It may be difficult to remember, in the semi-carnival atmosphere of a papal visit, that it is the Marian Church that has priority; the Petrine office and its authority, embodied in the Pope, exist only to serve this higher purpose, which is the salvation — the restoring to health — of souls. The preeminence of the Marian gifts is such that even the hierarchy is more effective and more truly itself to the extent that it is animated by them.

We have been blessed in my lifetime with Popes who have united in exemplary fashion the Petrine office to which they were called and the Marian virtues: wisdom, discernment, faith, hope, love. In such cases the papacy becomes more than a safeguard or a bulwark; it becomes a powerful force for good, not only within the Church, but for all. This was clearly seen in the life of John Paul II, and I think it becomes more and more evident that it is also true of Benedict XVI. Consider what we have seen in these past few days: this pastor stood before representatives of the nations of the earth and reminded us, lucidly and learnedly, of the philosophical foundations on which our commitment to human dignity and equality rests, and warned us of the perils of forsaking those foundations; he gathered around him members of the world’s great religions and spoke of peace, freedom, and the need for faith and reason to inform one another; he spoke directly to young people, encouraging them to lose neither heart nor focus, and challenging them to love truth in all its richness, living lives of inner depth and spiritual ambition. What other public figure can both command such an audience and is willing to engage such questions? Who else on the world stage is able to do so with comparable intelligence and good will? I can think of no one.

When Benedict passed up the central aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, therefore, and those assembled crossed themselves as he passed, or reached out hands to grasp and kiss his ring, they were paying homage to this great gift. It is the office, not primarily the man, that they honour, yet the man does make a difference, for the grandeur of the gift shines forth more readily when a good man bears the mantle. It seems to me that the more we know this man, the more reasons we have to give thanks.

I, for one, am most edified.

To the Big Apple

April 20, 2008

Benedict has made several lengthy and thoughtful addresses in the past few days, and though I have tried, I find I’m unable to keep pace with the pontiff.

Friday he delivered an address to the United Nations in which, among other things, he laid out the intellectual foundations for the UN itself, and reminded them that their Universal Declaration on Human Rights must, if it is to be truly universal, rest on reason rather than political power. He also delivered a rousing defence of religious freedom: “It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights.” It appeared to be well-received by those in attendance — unless standing ovations are standard protocol, in which case it’s harder to tell. Afterwards he gave a separate speech to the UN employees — as opposed to the diplomats — and they were very enthusiastic in their reception.

After making a brief stop at a New York synagogue to wish the Jewish community well on the eve of Passover, he went to (the appropriately chosen) St. Joseph’s church for an ecumenical meeting with Protestant and Orthodox leaders. As at the inter-religious meeting on the previous day, he did not limit himself to polite generalisations, but, with civility and generosity, laid down a challenge to his listeners: why are there so many divisions among Christians, and why do we permit them to persist when Christ himself prayed “that they may all be one”? The Catholic Church acknowledges that she bears some of the responsibility for the divisions that have arisen in history, and since Vatican II has explicitly committed herself to healing those wounds. She maintains that if the unity is to be real, it must be rational, which is why the Church has always looked to creedal statements as criteria of unity, for they “articulated the essence of the Christian faith and constituted the foundation for the unity of the baptized”. Yet today certain Christian groups — and though he did not name them, it is not hard to guess who he meant — are stressing and breaking communions, often while relativizing and privatizing doctrine, and always without sufficient concern for unity and continuity. One hopes that at least some of those in attendance experienced, as Fr. Neuhaus put it in EWTN’s coverage, “salutary squirming”.

One aspect of the Pope’s visit that has not appealed to me has been the way that everything that has been said has been scripted beforehand. Even greetings have been dutifully read from placards. This doesn’t make the greeting any less sincere, but it sure makes it less natural. I was very pleased, therefore, to see a bit of spontaneity in both of Benedict’s two meetings on Saturday. In the morning he presided over a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for priests, deacons, and religious. It was wonderful to see the church full of Missionaries of Charity, Sisters of Life, Franciscan Friars, and many others. The service lasted for several hours, and just before giving the final blessing the Holy Father spoke spontaneously for a few moments. He thanked those in attendance for the encouragement they have given him, and, comparing himself to St. Peter, a man with many faults and failings, asked the prayers of the assembly. It reminded me of his first words after his election as Pope, when he called himself “a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord”. On such occasions I feel that I see, for a moment, Benedict the man, a modest, shy, and thoughtful man. The more I see of him, the more I like him.

In the afternoon he met with a crowd — size estimates I saw varied from 10 000 to 25 000 — of young people at New York’s seminary. There was another bit of spontaneity at the end of this address, when, realizing that he had forgotten to read the Spanish portion, he joked with the crowd about his forgetfulness. It was charming, and it delighted the already jubilant assembly. The speech itself — the English part, at least — was excellent. It was perhaps the most direct and effective one he has given thus far. This Holy Father, God bless him, is not a dynamic public speaker, but this afternoon he was clearly engaged with the crowd, wanting his message to come through as forcefully as possible. It was a complex address, but what caught my attention on first hearing was the way he stressed the value of contemplative prayer. We don’t hear this very often, and it was refreshing to me to hear it again. He must have been under the inspiration of his namesake.


Address to the United Nations: textvideo

Address to UN staff: text

Ecumenical meeting: textvideo

Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral: textvideo (his unscripted remarks are at about the 2h20 mark)

Meeting with young people: text

Professor to professors

April 18, 2008

The pace of the Pope’s schedule picked up yesterday, and I can’t hope to keep up with it all, but here are a few comments on what I saw and heard.

The day began with a Papal Mass at the awkwardly-named Nationals Park, a baseball stadium in Washington. This was the largest public event of the visit so far, with about 46 000 attending. His homily was substantive, and bears attention. It was largely a commendation of the vitality of the Catholic Church in the United States, and an encouragement to further conversion and faithfulness. American society is known for its confidence in the future and its love of freedom, and Benedict related those national characteristics to Christian hope and freedom. He reminded them that the Church in America is but a part — and a small part — of a Church that extends far beyond the US in both space and time. Perhaps he wanted to give them some perspective on the issues (you know, the pelvic ones) that animate controversy in the US. He himself comes, he said, as the Successor of Peter, a source of unity for the Church. While largely positive in his portrait of American Catholicism, he did note the problems of poor catechesis, resulting in many Catholics who do not understand the faith and fall away under the influence of secular culture, and he spoke once again of the sexual abuse scandals. Finally, he enjoined his listeners to renew the practice of sacramental confession in order “to inspire conversion, to heal every wound, to overcome every division, and to inspire new life and freedom!” A coda in Spanish closed the address.

Around the homily was the Mass itself, much juiced up with choirs and singers and so on. Probably the less said about this the better. The most charitable assumption is that those who planned the service had never read any of Benedict’s many writings on liturgy. It was self-consciously politically correct, with even Japanese Americans — that much neglected demographic block — given their moment in the diversity sun.

In the afternoon, Benedict delivered a much anticipated address to academics and educators at the Catholic University of America. This was, again, a substantive address, containing much to ponder. He reaffirmed the centrality of education to the life of Catholic culture and to the Church. His vision for Catholic education he condensed into a simple phrase: intellectual charity. It is leading students to truth out of love. He cautioned, as he has before, against too narrow an understanding of truth. “Truth is more than knowledge.” A Catholic education is not only informative; it is performative; it addresses the whole person and changes him; it is life-giving. Catholics cannot ultimately separate truth from goodness and beauty, and a true education touches not only intellectual life, but spiritual and moral life as well, in an integrated whole. Catholics ought to seek to integrate their studies with religious practice, for the two are ultimately in harmony: “Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom.” The indispensable foundation for any education is a devotion to truth, and teachers must lead by example:

To all of you I say: bear witness to hope. Nourish your witness with prayer. Account for the hope that characterizes your lives (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) by living the truth which you propose to your students. Help them to know and love the One you have encountered, whose truth and goodness you have experienced with joy. With Saint Augustine, let us say: “we who speak and you who listen acknowledge ourselves as fellow disciples of a single teacher”.

There had been some speculation that he would take to task those who have steadfastly resisted implementing the changes to Catholic higher education requested by John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but he did not. His words were encouraging and positive, in harmony with the general tone of his visit thus far. We shall see whether that continues for the remainder of the visit.

At the end of the day he travelled to the John Paul II Cultural Center for a meeting with leaders of other religions, and a special meeting with Jewish leaders to mark the beginning of Passover. Benedict has in the past expressed reservations over John Paul II’s eagerness to dialogue with other religions, and his remarks were correspondingly moderate. He spoke of the need for religious freedom, and cautioned against a religious pluralism that forsakes a primary concern for truth:

Dear friends, in our attempt to discover points of commonality, perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity. While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace, we must also listen attentively to the voice of truth. In this way, our dialogue will not stop at identifying a common set of values, but go on to probe their ultimate foundation.

In his meeting with Jewish leaders he expressed great appreciation and affection, highlighting the common heritage of Christians and Jews.

Sometime during the day he met privately with several victims of sexual abuse by priests. I am glad that this was done off-screen, to avoid the appearance of pandering to the cameras. More details here.

Today he moves to New York City, where he will address the United Nations and visit a synagogue.

Bishop to bishops

April 17, 2008

On Wednesday the Pope had two public engagements in Washington. The first was an elaborate reception on the south lawn of the White House, followed by a private meeting with the President. The reception was splendid: marching military bands, the Lord’s Prayer sung by soprano Kathleen Battle, and nearly 10 000 in attendance. Both the President and the Pope gave short addresses. Benedict’s speech was very complimentary. He acknowledged the vibrant religiosity of the United States, praised the creativity of American culture, and reminding them of the principles on which their nation was founded: freedom supported by virtue and a concern for the common good. The entire speech is available here.

Later in the day he went to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for a meeting with the US bishops. They celebrated Solemn Vespers (very beautifully) in the church’s crypt, and then Benedict delivered an extended address. He acknowledged all the many pastoral challenges facing the Church, and encouraged the bishops to lead by an example of holiness, relying especially on prayer:

Time spent in prayer is never wasted, however urgent the duties that press upon us from every side. Adoration of Christ our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament prolongs and intensifies the union with him that is established through the Eucharistic celebration. Contemplation of the mysteries of the Rosary releases all their saving power and it conforms, unites and consecrates us to Jesus Christ. Fidelity to the Liturgy of the Hours ensures that the whole of our day is sanctified and it continually reminds us of the need to remain focused on doing God’s work, however many pressures and distractions may arise from the task at hand. Thus our devotion helps us to speak and act in persona Christi, to teach, govern and sanctify the faithful in the name of Jesus, to bring his reconciliation, his healing and his love to all his beloved brothers and sisters. This radical configuration to Christ, the Good Shepherd, lies at the heart of our pastoral ministry, and if we open ourselves through prayer to the power of the Spirit, he will give us the gifts we need to carry out our daunting task, so that we need never “be anxious how to speak or what to say” (Mt 10:19).

It was a reminder of what makes a good bishop. Judging from their past conduct, a not insignificant number of the bishops need such a reminder. It is no secret that the sexual abuse scandals continue to cast a long shadow over the American Church, and the bishops bear much of the responsibility. The number of abusers was small, but the scandal of covering it up affected many dioceses, and reached high into the US hierarchy. The malfeasance is appalling. They put the public image of the Church ahead of the inner reality, and ended up marring both. They betrayed the trust of the faithful in the most flagrant way, and somehow thought they could get away with it. When the story did break, and they were forced to do something, they hung their priests out to dry, almost always without due process, and protected themselves. It’s really disgusting, and I had hoped that Benedict would take this opportunity to emphasize the gravity of their sins and call them to account. He did confront the scandals, and even dwelt on them at some length, but his language was moderate:

Responding to this situation has not been easy and, as the President of your Episcopal Conference has indicated, it was “sometimes very badly handled”. Now that the scale and gravity of the problem is more clearly understood, you have been able to adopt more focused remedial and disciplinary measures and to promote a safe environment that gives greater protection to young people. While it must be remembered that the overwhelming majority of clergy and religious in America do outstanding work in bringing the liberating message of the Gospel to the people entrusted to their care, it is vitally important that the vulnerable always be shielded from those who would cause harm. In this regard, your efforts to heal and protect are bearing great fruit not only for those directly under your pastoral care, but for all of society.

I am not the Pope — thank God! — and I don’t know what is said behind closed doors to those most responsible, but I can’t help wishing he had read them the riot act. Where’s a hardliner when you need one?

The whole of his address to the bishops is available here.