Archive for February, 2009

For Lent: Fasting for joy

February 27, 2009

Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;

Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.

— G.K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, Bk.III.

Ash Wednesday: the internal debate

February 26, 2009

We have such stingy hearts that it seems to us we’re going to lose the earth if we desire to neglect the body a little for the sake of the spirit.

— St. Teresa of Avila
The Book of Her Life.


He who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.

— Samuel Johnson
in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Ch.XV.

St. Teresa of Avila: Autobiography

February 26, 2009

The Book of Her Life (1562)
St. Teresa of Avila (ICS Publications, 1987)
312 p.  First reading.
Written 25 March 2006.

The Flaming Heart

O thou undaunted daughter of desires!
By all thy dower of lights and fires;
By all the eagle in thee, all the dove;
By all thy lives and deaths of love;
By thy large draughts of intellectual day,
And by thy thirsts of love more large than they;
By all thy brim-filled bowls of fierce desire,
And by thy last-morning’s draughts of liquid fire;
By the full kingdom of that final kiss
That seized thy parting soul, and sealed thee His;
By all the heavens thou hast in Him
(Fair sister of the Seraphim);
By all of Him we have in Thee;
Leave nothing of my Self in me.
Let me so read thy life, that I
Unto all life of mine may die.

— Richard Crashaw

In the summer of 2005 I was in central Spain on holiday. Rather than loiter in Madrid, I decided to make a few day trips to some well-preserved medieval towns in the neighbourhood: Toledo, Segovia, and Avila. These places were splendid: imposing city walls, twisting narrow streets, beautiful castles and churches, and a far-ranging view of the Spanish countryside. Segovia boasts an astonishing Roman aqueduct, still standing despite having been constructed without mortar in the third century. When the Muslim armies swept through North Africa, Spain, and southern France in the 7th and 8th centuries, all three towns were conquered, and were not regained by the Christians for half a millennium, so the architecture of the towns reflects the mixed cultural influences of this history.

My tour through these towns wasn’t limited, however, to architectural sightseeing; it turned out to be an impromptu Carmelite saint tour. In a monastery just outside Segovia I found the tomb of St. John of the Cross, one of Christianity’s great masters of the interior life, and in Avila — here, there, and everywhere in Avila — I found St. Teresa.

I knew her only by reputation: a friend of St. John of the Cross; a reformer, with him, of the Carmelite order; a widely admired saint; a simple, straight-talking woman without much formal education, she was nevertheless the first woman to be named a Doctor of the Church in acknowledgment of her exemplary contribution to theology. In Avila I saw her home (now a church), visited her convent, and, every which way, stumbled upon sites associated with her. Avila today is not a large town, and she still dominates it. As I left, I promised myself that I would make a point of reading some of her books. It took me a while to make good on that promise, but here I am.

The Book of Her Life is Teresa’s autobiography, written under orders from her religious superior. It is a remarkably lively book, full of amazing events and unusual experiences for which she has to struggle to find words. It was written piecemeal, whenever she had a break from her other duties, which partly explains its episodic, digressive form in which, I confess, I soon lost the autobiographical thread. But there is always more to a book than the plot.

There is, for example, Teresa herself. I have never before encountered a person who united so artlessly — so naturally, I might say — the earthy with the exalted. Many passages in the book are difficult, describing ascending stages of prayer or religious visions, but they are written in the most unpretentious prose imaginable. This I believe, was the quality that struck me most forcefully about Teresa’s personality: her lack of pretension. She is celebrated as one of the Church’s great mystics, but she could not be less glassy-eyed or airy. Perhaps this is what is meant by that difficult word ‘humility’. Despite the unusual — some might say outrageous — nature of the experiences she describes, she is never defensive, never claims any authority for her visions, and welcomes criticism and correction.

If I were a person who had authority for writing I would willingly and in a very detailed way enlarge upon what I am saying… But so as to do no more than what they gave me the command to do, I will be briefer in many matters than I desire, more extensive in others than necessary – in sum, like one who has little discretion in anything that is good.

At one point, after arguing in some detail that a particular vision could not have been produced by her imagination or by the devil, she concludes by flatly stating that “if these reasons aren’t good ones, I must be wrong.”  She makes frequent asides to her superior recommending that the book be burned if it is not judged worthwhile. She endeared herself to me with her holy self-forgetfulness, as when her prose erupts with sudden litanies of praise to God, leaving the narrative thread dangling wherever it was when the impulse struck her, never to be resumed.

Nearly a quarter of the book drops the autobiographical genre entirely, and is given over to a treatise on prayer. The discussion is framed in terms of a metaphor of a garden:

It seems to me that the garden can be watered in four ways. You may draw water from the well (which is for us a lot of work). Or you may get it by means of a water wheel and aqueducts in such a way that it is obtained by turning the crank of the water wheel. (I have drawn water in this way sometimes – the method involves less work than the other and you get more water.) Or it may flow from a river or a stream. (The garden is watered much better by this means because the ground is more fully soaked, and there is no need to water so frequently – and much less work for the gardener.) Or the water may be provided by a great deal of rain. (For the Lord waters the garden without any work on our part – and this way is incomparably better than all the others mentioned.)

The garden is the soul, the water the grace of God, and the labour is discipline in prayer. Beginners struggle but see few returns; those who persevere find the benefits begin to outstrip the effort (as with a waterwheel). In a later stage a continuous stream of prayer bathes the soul, and then, from time to time, it rains, such that one is soaked to the skin. Despite the simplicity of her basic scheme, this section of the book is not easy to understand. She gives a detailed description of these types of prayer, along with the temptations and obstacles that one may encounter. But I suspect that to really understand her one would have to be a saint oneself, for this kind of understanding depends less on one’s intellect than on who one is. I myself could not follow her much past the first stage. The reason for this is obvious.

Later in her life, after she had advanced through the stages she describes, she began to have a wide variety of highly unusual religious experiences. Many of these were visions, though she struggles to explain that they were often not visible visions. What she really means remains, to me, unclear. It is startling to be reading along, calmly, and suddenly happen upon the off-hand remark that she spoke with St Peter and St Paul, or that she had a vision of the Holy Spirit, a dove with feathers gleaming like rainbow-coloured sea shells. In the latter half of her book these experiences begin to accumulate.  Before long, she has met Christ, Mary, St. Joseph, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Clare, and even seen the heavenly throne room. Each person will make up their own mind about what to make of these visions. It seems that either she was crazy, or she was a special friend of God, a very great saint indeed.  And while the Church has given us some guidance by elevating Teresa to a Doctor, she herself seems not to have been very concerned about what her readers would decide:

May it please the Lord that in what I said I knew how to explain myself.  I firmly believe that whoever has had experience will understand and see that I succeeded in saying something; whoever has not had experience – I wouldn’t be surprised if it all seems to be nonsense to such a one…nor would I blame anyone who says it is nonsense.  May the Lord help me to succeed in doing His will.  Amen.

[A soul full of love]
This is the experience of those to whom God gives the great impulses of love I mentioned.  These impulses are like some little springs I’ve seen flowing; they never cease to move the sand upward.  This is a good example of, or comparison to, souls that reach this state: love is always stirring and thinking about what it will do.  It cannot contain itself, just as that water doesn’t seem to fit in the earth; but the earth casts it out of itself.  So is the soul very habitually, for by reason of the love it has it doesn’t rest in or contain itself.  It is already soaked in this water; it would want others to drink, since it has no lack of water, so that they might help it praise God.

[That God tests with trials is a commonplace of spiritual literature. Teresa says that God may also test with blessings.]
It also seems to me that His Majesty is testing to see who it is who loves Him; He tests now this one, now another, by revealing who He is with superb delight and by quickening faith – if it is dead – in what He will give us, saying: ‘Look, this is but a drop from the vast sea of blessings.’  He does this so as to leave nothing undone for those who love Him: in the measure He sees that they receive Him, so He gives and is given.  He loves whoever loves Him; how good a beloved!

[On humility]
“Humility has this excellent feature: when it is present in a work, that work does not leave in the soul a feeling of frustration.”

[The consolation of death]
I am consoled to hear the clock strike, for at the passing away of that hour of life it seems to me I am drawing a little closer to the vision of God.

I write without the time and calm for it, and bit by bit.  I should like to have time, because when the Lord gives the spirit, things are put down with ease and in a much better way.  Putting them down is then like copying a model you have before your eyes.  But if the spirit is lacking, it is more difficult to speak about these things than to speak Arabic, as the saying goes… As a result, it seems to me most advantageous to have this experience while I am writing, because I see clearly that it is not I who say what I write; for neither do I plan it with the intellect nor do I know afterward how I managed to say it.  This often happens to me.

Lenten reading

February 25, 2009

What are you reading for Lent?  Usually I try to select one or two suitable books, in addition to the Bible.  St. Augustine’s Confessions and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets are old standards for me; almost every Lent I read at least one of them.  (This year it will be Eliot again, I think).   Last year I read Brother Lawrence, and found it good but not great.

Should I re-read a classic like The Cloud of Unknowing? (It has been over five years since my last look at it.)  Should I try something new?  Over the past year I have been slowly reading a very rich book called Ages of the Spiritual Life by Paul Evdokimov, an Orthodox writer, and perhaps I should just continue with it.  I have also thought of Kierkegaard’s shorter works, such as his Edifying Discourses.  But I am not sure.

And so I ask again: what are you reading?  Any suggestions for me?

Ash Wednesday 2009

February 25, 2009

And so it begins.  Today we enter into the forty-day desert that will bring us to the cusp of Easter.  It is time for self-examination and a renewed focus on the spiritual life.  It is time to simplify our lives and reorient them to the things that are really important.  It is time to renew our service to others.  The watchwords are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

This year the season has a special sense of anticipation for us, for it is likely — though not certain — that our child will be born before the bells of Easter ring.  Figuring out how to combine those feelings of joy and thanksgiving with the somber tone of the season poses a special challenge.  But I am sure we will manage.

Since I haven’t the time to post anything substantial today, I refer you to several Ash Wednesday-related posts from previous years:

I realize that not everyone who reads this web log will be observing Lent, but to those who are: let us remember to pray for one another.

Mardi Gras 2009

February 24, 2009

Today is Shrove Tuesday, folks, which means it’s time to get shriven and party like Lent starts tomorrow.  Which it does.  As for me and my house, we’re having a pile of people over for pancakes, whipped cream, ice cream, cake, maple syrup, and rum.  There will be much gorging of palates, and maybe, just maybe, fleeting display of female bosoms.  Maybe.

In the meantime, the good folks at Aggie Catholics have put together a massive all-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-Lent post, and it makes for edifying reading.  If you haven’t yet decided how you will observe the season, this may give you some good ideas.

Pieper: In Defense of Philosophy

February 24, 2009

In Defense of Philosophy (1966)
Josef Pieper (Ignatius Press, 1992)
127 p.  First reading.

Over the past five or six years I have, slowly and fitfully, been reading my way through philosophical history.  It has been a good education for me — though not as good as it would have been were I a more attentive and intelligent student.  As I have progressed along my middling way, I have noted something that troubles me.  Plato and Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas interest and absorb me, but with the advent of early modern philosophy — with Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, and Hume, for instance — I begin to lose interest.  I am attracted by the passion and literary genius of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but for the most part modern philosophy seems a desert.  This is not to claim that Locke and Fichte and Mill and Ayer and Quine are doing something unimportant, but it is to say that, in important ways, they don’t seem to be doing the same thing as the great classical and medieval philosophers were doing.

And what was that?  I can do no better than to recall the etymology of “philosophy”: the love of wisdom.  Philosophy, in the old key, was to be an act of love, and a way of life.  It was a quest for wisdom, for a kind of understanding that surpasses mere knowledge of facts, an understanding that addresses and involves the whole person, in all of his capacities, that earnestly concerns itself with goodness and strives after the highest.  Philosophy was to be an intrinsically humanistic enterprise, with deep connections to art and to religion.  It should concern itself with specific questions, of course, often of a technical nature and requiring rigour, but ultimately it should have large ambitions, referring itself to the great questions of life.  There is a reason why philosophy was once the handmaid of theology — a role that denoted her dignity rather than her servility.  This, at least, is ultimately what attracts me to philosophy, and I find that in modern philosophy that ambition, that central concern with the human person and his relation to the whole of reality, is gone, or has at least lost the main tune.  I am aware that it is often stated the other way around — that modern philosophy began with a renewed focus on the human person — but to me, in my own experience, this does not ring true.  Descartes focused on the I, but in such an artificial, and even perverse, way that I cannot relate his project to my own life without ignoring a good deal of what constitutes my life.  Why should I wish to do that?

These reflections provide something of an opening to the main themes of Josef Pieper’s little book In Defense of Philosophy.  His purpose is to defend his understanding of the philosophy and the philosophical impulse against common objections and deformations.  His view of philosophy has a strong affinity with my own:

. . .to engage in philosophy means to reflect on the totality of things we encounter, in view of their ultimate reasons; and philosophy, thus understood, is a meaningful, even necessary endeavor, with which man, the spiritual being, cannot dispense.

Against this expansive view of philosophy are arrayed a number of objections, and Pieper considers four main ones.  First, there is the common charge that philosophy consists in the study of questions that cannot be answered, and is therefore pointless.  Second, that philosophy has no real object of study, for “the totality of things” is not a thing.  Third, that philosophy must yield its place to the sciences, which are the only sure means to knowledge.  And, finally, that philosophy simply serves no purpose in modern life.

We have all heard the first of these objections, and perhaps even felt it ourselves when we survey the history of philosophy.  For all their brilliance and intricacy, have philosophical arguments really settled any of the major questions with which philosophers have concerned themselves over the centuries?  Do we not still wonder what constitutes the good, or how we know, or whether God’s existence can be demonstrated?  We do.  This is so in part because philosophers have proven themselves marvelously adept at fashioning fresh objections to alleged demonstrations, but also in part because the questions persist in asserting themselves.  Reality itself seems to burst out of neat categories, disrespecting the distinctions we draw.

All this may be true, but it does not follow, says Pieper, that philosophy is therefore useless.  Philosophy does address itself to important questions, and it offers provoking and sometimes convincing answers, but its answers are not such as to eliminate the questions. One generation does not take up philosophy where the previous generation left off; each generation begins again at the beginning.  This is so because the philosophical enterprise is, as I have said, intrinsically personal; each person must encounter the questions, and relive the grappling with them, in his own life.  It is here that philosophy reveals itself as a deeply humanistic discipline, for it grapples with matters that arise naturally in any thoughtful life.  That the questions so often exceed our capacity to subdue them speaks more of the richness of the reality we encounter than of the futility of the effort to understand it.

That philosophy is love of wisdom reminds us that the proper attitude for a philosopher is loving attention to the world in all of its aspects, and this is possible only if reality itself is seen as something good and worthy of love. Pieper says that the philosophical stance is one of “receptive silence”, a kind of contemplation of the world, always with the determination to leave nothing out, to do justice to the whole.  As such, philosophy must acknowledge that it often works with unclear or partial knowledge — philosophy, indeed, is only possible from a position of incomplete understanding — and it cannot permit a preoccupation with precision to limit its scope. It should seek clarity, of course, but this is not the same as precision.  Everything, as Einstein said, should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.  This is the answer Pieper gives to those who assert that philosophy should yield to the sciences.  The sciences interrogate the world, and they do so brilliantly, and their findings are always of interest to a philosopher, but they cannot address the great philosophical question, “What is it all about?”  Attempts to subject the world to an exclusively scientific description inevitably leave certain things out, but this is just what the philosopher cannot do.  Instead, he attends to the richness of this multi-faceted reality, and, argues Pieper, should occupy a middle ground between agnosticism and rationalism: the world may be known, but not fully.  Philosophy has the structure of hope.

As to the charge that philosophy has no purpose, Pieper responds in the affirmative:

Indeed, it is true: philosophy does not serve any purpose — not only as a matter of fact, but because it cannot and must not serve any purpose!

“Purpose” here means a social, economic, or otherwise impersonal purpose external to philosophy itself.  It does, of course, have its own purposes, but they stand outside the world of practical ends and means. Philosophy is an end in itself, and that because it is concerned entirely with truth, which is the proper object of the mind. In philosophy, the nature of the mind is most fully manifest: it is a truth-seeking and truth-knowing thing.  It is enough.  Human beings are by nature oriented toward everything that exists — this is almost the definition of what it means to be a spiritual being. Philosophy, rightly understood, does not “contribute to” man’s good, but itself constitutes part of that good.

But only part.  In the closing pages of the book, Pieper addresses the question of the relationship between faith and philosophy.  May a philosopher admit faith into his philosophizing?  Is there, for instance, such a thing as a “Christian philosophy”?  Yes, says Pieper, there is, for a philosopher must omit nothing if he is to be true to his vocation.  Faith and philosophy each have their own integrity, and it would be imprudent to mix them cavalierly, but neither may they be kept entirely separate.  It will not do for him to seal a set of “religious” ideas off from the rest, not if he genuinely believes them.  He must consider the whole, in humble honesty.  John Paul II, in his great encyclical Fides et Ratio used the image of faith and reason as two wings, in the cooperation of which the mind may ascend to greater heights of understanding than is possible with reason alone.  Pieper contributes another image: that of polyphony.  Each melody has its own beauty and integrity, but when combined with another, the whole is greater than either part alone.

This was a thought provoking and enjoyable book; I have never read anything by Pieper that was not.  It does not rise to the level of his greatest books, and the argument he develops is occasionally repetitive, but on the whole it was well worth reading.  His discussion of the reasons for a lack of progress in philosophy is deficient in some respects.  I am not convinced that philosophical questions have no good, enduring answers.  The reason for a lack of cumulative progress may lie in something other than the subject matter.

[Society and philosophy]
We may from the first and without any prior knowledge presume that in any society where the genuine philosophical quest is considered “socially irrelevant”, which of course can happen in many different ways and also outside political dictatorships — we may presume, I would say, that in such a society there will not flourish the fine arts, and religion either.  And it is very likely, incidentally, that there will also exist a tendency as well toward trivializing death and Eros, thus depriving them of their true cathartic power.  And this, after all, is very true: catharsis as such does not produce efficiency.

[Scientists and philosophy]
There may even be a particular form of mental constraint that afflicts only those who reason scientifically, precisely when they venture into philosophy -– or to put it more cautiously –- when they try, in their own ways, to determine what the world as such is all about.  Whoever then claims to use the approach undoubtedly appropriate for science by saying, for instance: I disregard, now as philosopher, anything that cannot be demonstrated cogently and proved critically, I am interested only in things ‘clear and distinct’ -– such a one would already have distorted the genesis of the philosophical quest.  He already would have excluded the mental openness that is the mark of the philosopher per definitionem, the openness for the unabridged object of human cognition, that is: for reality as such, to be contemplated under any conceivable aspect.  What makes him so sure that there are no possible insights into reality, which are in fact true and yet can neither be verified nor defined ‘clearly and distinctly’? (Incidentally, nobody could stay alive even one day unless he accepted as true numerous insights of precisely such a kind.)  How do we know that it may not be in fact those realities ‘most obvious in themselves’ to which our mind relates like the eyes of nocturnal birds to the light of day — as Aristotle asserts?  A ‘critical attitude’, for the philosopher, does not primarily mean accepting only what is absolutely certain, but being careful not to suppress anything.


Related reading:
Josef Pieper – Scholasticism
Josef Pieper – On Prudence
Josef Pieper – In Tune with the World
Josef Pieper – Happiness and Contemplation

For Buddy Miller

February 23, 2009

Take note, country music fans: Buddy Miller has been hospitalized after a massive heart attack late last week.  His triple-bypass surgery is said to have been a success, but his condition remains serious.  He is just 56 years old.  Let us hope that God grants him many more years.

I am partial to him.  Never mind his string of fantastic solo albums — bookended by Your Love and Other Lies (1995) and Universal United House of Prayer (2004), which are two of the best country albums you’re ever likely to hear — I owe him a debt of thanks for that night, four or five years ago at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, when he gave me one of the great concerts of my life.  The man’s voice is as big as a thundercloud (what? he needs a microphone?) and his way with a guitar is a wonder to behold.  At a time when Nashville has been churning out country-flavoured pop — Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and so forth — Buddy has done his part to sustain the gutsy, red-blooded, deep-souled country music of yore.  He is also reputed to be one of the most amiable, genuinely likable people in the business.  At that memorable concert he was giving away CDs to anyone who would sign up to support a child through WorldVision.

He and his wife Julie — a seriously talented singer and songwriter in her own right, and Buddy’s long-standing musical collaborator — have a new album (Written in Chalk) coming out in early March.  On it, they are joined by some of the people with whom they have worked over the past decade: Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant, Patty Griffin.  If you’re curious about his music, you could do much worse than pick up a copy.  I am sure, given what has befallen them, that they could use the support.  Say a prayer for them too, if you’re so constituted.  We really don’t want to lose this man.


There is a generous collection of clips from their albums at their web site.  There isn’t much available in the way of quality video.  Here’s an unnamed ballad that has, to my knowledge, never been released on record:

And here is an interview (8 min.) with Buddy playing songs from the upcoming album.

(Hat-tip to Andy Whitman for bringing Buddy’s heart attack to my attention.)

McCarthy: The Road

February 19, 2009

The Road
Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 2005)
241 p. First reading.

Reading The Road is like taking a long walk in which each step is a little more painful, each turn in the road adds another knot to the stomach, and each crest of a hill makes it harder to breathe.  By the end, I was begging for relief, for some respite from the relentless march.

We never learn why the world died.  The man remembers a red glow on the horizon.  That was some years ago — maybe five or eight.  In the meantime everything has gone to hell.  The government has collapsed, the economy is gone.  Nothing grows, and there are apparently no animals still living — no birds, rodents, or insects.  The sky is slate grey, raining ash, and one cannot see the sun, much less the stars.  Gangs roam the mostly deserted countryside, and slavery, infanticide, and cannibalism have returned.

Through this desolation the man and his son tread their wary way, heading south. We don’t know where they have come from; they don’t know where they are going.  They are looking for help, for some remnant of civilization, and some milk of human kindness.  They pick their way through town and village, raiding deserted homes for tinned food and supplies, hoping to scavenge before someone else arrives with the same purpose.  The landscape is wasted and dead, and they have no real grounds for hope.  Dreams of the vanished world overshadow the man’s mind as he sleeps, though the details are falling into forgetfulness.  The only light for their path is the love of the man and his son for one another.  The boy remembers goodness better than his father.  He is sustained by the idea that they are “carrying the fire”, and must not let the fire die.

Under such circumstances the material conditions of life are of overwhelming concern.  Each battery, each drop of fuel, each tin of beans is of great importance.  McCarthy’s prose shows this.  His descriptions of physical actions and material objects are precise and focused to an uncommon degree.

The novel’s vision is bleak, but not desparing or misanthropic.  You will find no reassurances here about the basic goodness of man, but neither is it nihilistic.  The world, even when blasted and laid waste, presents a real moral challenge, and though many fail the test, the good continues to beckon, brooding over the bent world.

This is the first of McCarthy’s novels that I have read.  His prose style is new to me.  His disregard for punctuational conventions could have been an irritating gimmick, but in this case the primitivism suits the subdued, desolate tone of the book.  When the world has fallen apart, one doesn’t worry overmuch about quotation marks.  What is most impressive is that using very simple means — short, declarative sentences and sparse dialogue — he is able to create a strong sense of atmosphere, drama, and character. It is an excellent book.

Atheism made easy

February 18, 2009

Millinerd explains how. The key is to flatten one’s understanding of the natural world, throwing the emphasis on those aspects that can be clearly and distinctly perceived and univocally described.  Then imagine God as a being among beings, describable without recourse to analogy.  Game, set, and match!