Thursday, September 11, 2008

Blessings in Suffering

I never want suffering, I wish to avoid it in all circumstances. When I look back on my life and see the moments that were lived most intensely, those were the times when I had the greatest love and the greatest pain. Great transformations have taken place in my life through sufferings that I thought were too difficult to bear, but in retrospect the difficulties have brought other gifts that have transformed my life and the lives of others I know and perhaps those I do not. Saint Faustina writes that conversion always requires suffering. It is the way that the heart is drawn ever closer to God and it helps us to see that only God can satisfy our heart's desires. It turns the desires away from people or consumerism that can never satisfy the I. In this turning, we find a fulfillment beyond all expectation or imagination. Even in tremendous suffering we can be happy, this is a beautiful realization.

John Paul II's Warning to the United States

When John Paul II met President Clinton in 1995, our president was warned that America cannot survive as a nation in its present moral state. If we look at the history of our nation following this warning, we have seen seen our country's moral state decline even further. This is not a statement on morality. To be honest, moral writings is difficult to read and write. Rather I would wish to concentrate on the reality of contemporary American life. The actions of our people do not correspond to our reality. We are materialistic slaves. Instead of living within our means, the people of our state find themselves in more debt every day. We are the only country in the world with a negative savings rate! A recent IMF report suggests that 40% of the U.S. economy is borrowed funds. This means that our present consumption rate is unsustainable. We continue to buy and spend knowing that we do not have the money to pay for this junk, and yet we buy. The popular culture works to enslave Americans so that they spend continually more of their money at shopping malls and the voice of conscience ceases to stop unreasonable activities. George Bernanos wrote that modernity destroys the inner life of man. The marketing techniques of firms and the rise of a corporate sponsored 'popular culture' aims at deep vulnerabilities within humanity and promises solutions that can never satisfy our deepest desires. From an early age, we are bombarded with messages that tell us that the latest consumer product will provide us with more happiness, if only we buy it. There is a word for this: lies. And yet, we are like the foolish man in the tragic comedy who cannot see how the present crises was created by past decisions. And we continue to acquire more stuff...

Some philosophers of history wish to suggest that civilizations are conquered from within before they fall to outside invaders. John Paul II wrote that you can judge the health of a country by the families within it. When the family is in decay, the greater civilization is also in decay. Today we find families struggling more and more to make ends meet. Jobs are less stable and long-term income through labor is increasingly rare. And yet, we continue to spend like tomorrow will not come.

There is no mass solution to our struggles. Rather, we need to work to sustain our families and avoid the material elements in our 'popular culture'. Also, we have to work to keep our educational system from falling even further. We need to teach our children to see all of reality and respond to it with reason. There is always hope and hope does not disappoint. But we who are educators have a difficult task ahead of us.

Culture of Life

The culture of life and the culture of death are built on different understandings of the human person and of life. Here is a childlike list of differences:

Culture of Life -- Culture of Death
infinite - - finite
total self-giving -- self-possession
created -- produced
unique & unrepeatable -- individual
gift -- burden
hope --despair
free beings -- objects
vocation -- career
acceptance -- rejection
love --hate
peace in war -- war in peace
trust -- calculating
just --unjust
prudence --vice
bravery --fear
freedom to give -- freedom from giving
grace -- sin
need -- want
objectivity -- selfish
fruit -- consequence
end -- means
unitive and procreative -- severing unity and life
rejoice -- reduce
build-up -- deconstruct
together -- apart
peaceful -- violent
truth -- lie
mercy -- fate
restoration -- destruction
uplift -- decadence
perpetual -- temporary
realist -- toleration
fulfillment -- fragment
to be -- to have
addition -- subtraction
mystery -- gain
heart -- rationalism
open -- closed
inner freedom -- outer freedom
guiding -- ignoring

Anthony Everitt's Cicero

Many times I have witnessed conversations where a comparison was made between the decline of contemporary western civilization and the Roman empire. It is interesting to go back and read an account of history that details the transition in history from a republic to the emperors as seen through the eyes of the great statesman who sought to preserve the republic. Cicero is someone who decided to not enter into an agreement with Caesar and Pompey that eventually led to a civil war that brought Julius Caesar to the role of dictator for life. At the end of his life, Cicero used the very same methods he so ardently avoided earlier in his career in the hope that the republic could be preserved. After having initial success, his policy failed when the Senate did not perceive the immediate danger from an invasion from Octavian and Mark Anthony. Eventually, Anthony sends troops to kill Cicero. Of course, this is not the collapse of Rome, but it could be argued that this was the time when the Roman hegemony ultimately began to fail.
Pope John Paul II has frequently stated that the family is the center of civilization. In the time of Cicero, divorce was common and children often betrayed their family to gain political rank. I do not know how much of Everitt's warning about the decline of Rome can tell us about the decline of U.S. as an international hegemonic power. The beginning of the transition for the U.S. originated with the 1973 economic recession that saw massive adjustments in the restructuring of employment. We need to look back at our own history to see how we arrived where we are now. It is perhaps no coincidence that abortion was legalized prior to this decline. Once we started to fail to recognize the value of all human life, our civilization started its gradual decline and we find ourselves where we are today. How has family life changed in the U.S. since the Supreme Court recognized abortion as a right? There are problems with the specific comparison I am making, but nonetheless, there is also something important there.
Reading the text of Roe vs Wade we find that the justices assert that no matter what the reality of human life is, they have the power to legally interpret reality. Perhaps the downfall of our civilization is linked to a failure to adequately understand the human person and as a result to failure to understand the world in which we live.

Summary: Hans Urs van Balthasar: A Theology of History

A Summary of
Hans Urs van Balthasar: A Theology of History
Any examination of the whole of history must present a subject that works within and shows itself within historical events if it is to prevent falling into gnosticism. This subject which provides the general norms can only be God or man.
It must be asked if the subject is man how does one differentiate within the philosophy of history between individual man and the essence of the human race? (St. Thomas solved this dilemma by referring to individuation in terms of matter.) The mysterious nature of communities and communion at the level of essence increases because individuals so joined are metephysically unique yet identical. This can only mean that
mankind has a common destiny. An individual's action is never irrelevant to the community. As man by his nature stands in relationships to other man this action must in some way influence
the community.
Is it possible for philosophy to explain how one man through a sin could affect every man to live after him? This man would be so dominant as to become a center of history. Or the
possibility that one man could give salvation to all and bring forth his own new doctrine? If all mankind shows the same essence how could one man have this influence? Only something philosophy could not anticipate could do this, a miracle. The union of God and man in one subject calls for a great, almost infinite, humbling of God who descends and is attached to one flesh that remains a man. The humanity of Christ is essential for the salvation of man. The 'absolute uniqueness' of God possesses a 'relative uniqueness,' man. Christ's words are not only the sounds He spoke but include His whole existence as He reveals the Father. Christ who governs history because He creates it, also is history, He becomes confined to space and time, here He reveals the Father. All of Christ's actions are revelation, He does nothing on His own. ('His self-consciousness never becomes an object for Him.') Time is real in the life of Christ. He did not anticipate the will of the Father but waited to see what the Father would bring Him. Christ must patiently await His hour which is also the Father's hour. Christ gives up His own sovereignty and places it in the hands of the Father. The events of Christ's life become a gift of the Father that sustains the Son. Christ in these events is not only vertically obedient to God but is horizontally obedient to those with natural authority.
The sins of man cause man to step outside of time. God intended to give man what is good but man was not patient and instead sought to get the good himself. Sin then consists in stepping outside of God's plan.
Christ's thirty plus years were unveiled after the resurrection when His divinity was shown to His followers. After He rose it was only believers who could see Him, whereas before He was seen by all. The two periods are related as 'concealment to unveiling.' Christ is historically present in His resurrected form in the sacraments. Christ's divinity is disguised or concealed even though it is fulfilled. Christ is also present in the Church which has become His body. The Church presents new truths that can never be exhausted because of the infinite nature of God. Within the Church are the two states of life that exist with and for each other and within the love of Christ and each contains the meaning of the other.
Man must imitate Mary, whose yielding to God was in no way passive, This surrender requires a great devotion to remove all that would prevent man from receiving God's word and
substance and living the message. Also, man must be called to a mission where what we may do is what God expects of us. The mission is the only way man fulfills the will of God.

Balthasar writes that the body of Christ, the eucharist, is the risen body of Jesus. When Jesus said the first mass at the Last Supper He has not yet suffered His passion. So how could the Eucharist at that time be the risen body? This is a mystery, (Prevenient grace)
Christ's humility before the Father is the same attitude we must take before God. At first glance this self-denial seems to only take and not give, but this allowed Christ to enjoy the surprises the Father would send. Our life, our relationship with God is deepened by being opened to these surprises.
In His glory Christ can only be seen by believers. He is present today in the poor but few can see Him there. His presence in the Church and His people is not apparent to the world except through grace. Christ once recognized must be believed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Carl Anderson's Remark at John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family 1996 Commencement

"May it please Your Excellency Bishop Lori, Reverend Clergy and distinguished guests.

Today is a day of thanksgiving for our graduates and for their families. Let me begin by extending to you a special greeting from the President of our Institute, His Excellency, Bishop Angelo Scola. Today Bishop Scola met with the Holy Father to discuss the work of the Institute and indicated that at the conclusion of this meeting the Holy Father imparted to each of you his apostolic blessing on the occasion of your graduation.

During the time that you have studied at the institute we have received the great gifts of Pope John Paul II to the Church on the publication of his encyciicais, Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. Together, these two pillars proclaiming the "Splendor of Truth" and the "Gospel of Life" will support the mission of the Church as it carries forward the new evangelization into the Third Millennium. And you have been one of the first to study these magnificent teachings here at the Holy Father's own Institute with the specific expectation of going forward to answer the call of the Holy Father that the Catholic people become truly "a people of life and a people for life."

Today is a day that we that we are proud of you, of what you have accomplished and of what you will accomplish. None of us can say now what will have been accomplished by you fifty years from today. But we can say now that each of you has been chosen for some specific, unique and unrepeatable service to the Church.

It is now a little more than a year since the publication of Evangelium Vitae and in that short time in the United States we have seen the efforts of the Congress to restrain the most brutal excesses of the abortion industry rebuffed by the veto of the President, we have seen at least one state prepare for the legal recognition of "marriage" between persons of the same sex and we have seen two federal appeals courts recognize a constitutional right to doctor-assisted euthanasia. We now find a society that is turning its back on the dignity of human life at its beginning and at its end and in the one institution that truly nurtures and defends life in all its stages.

As we survey these developments we find prophetic the words of Evangelium Vitae: "Faced with the countless grave threats to life present in the modern world, one could feel overwhelmed by sheer powerlessness: good can never by powerful enough to triumph over evil!" Wemust admit today that there are many people in society and some in the Church-perhaps even in the clergy who feel this way. But you must take up the challenge of this Pope when he states: "At such times the People of God ... is called to profess with humility and courage its faith in Jesus Christ."

Today the faculty joins me in asking that you are ever mindful of these words of the Holy Father from Evangelium Vitae and that you make them your own: "To all the members of the Church, the people of life and for life, I make this most urgent appeal, that together we may offer this world of ours new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of life will be affirmed." Resolve today to make these words your own. And so our prayer for you today is that of the Holy Father at the end of his great encyclical: "Grant that all who believe in your Son may proclaim the Gospel of life with honesty and love to the people of our time. Obtain for them the grace to accept that Gospel as a gift ever new, the joy of celebrating it with gratitude throughout their lives and the courage to bear witness to it resolutely...."

I would now ask His Excellency to grant us his blessing."

Review: Harold Bloom on Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

Harold Bloom. 1998. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. Riverhead: NY.

When an author has spend his life examining a classic writer, it is interesting to hear what he writes at the end of his career. Harold Bloom is an important figure in American literary circles, although his ideas do not follow contemporary conventions. Modern scholarship, particularly in U.S. Ivy League universities, is so taken with the structuralists or deconstructionalists or postmodern methodologies that it becomes so disassociated from the subject it investigates as to be generally worthless. This is particularly problematic in contemporary Shakespearian scholarship. Bloom notices this defect and wishes to reexamine Shakespeare with a seriousness that reflects countless hours of struggling with the various plays and poetry to provide an interpretation without the popular ideological shackles that only serve to increase the distance between author and reader.

Bloom’s main point is that Shakespeare uses monologues to allow characters to overhear themselves speak and, from this self-awareness, change or alter their behavior. We recognize this in many writings that follow Shakespeare, but he was the first. Through this innovation, Bloom argues that Shakespeare is able to invent our understanding of the human. This may be a revolutionary position from which our civilization owes a debt to Shakespeare. However, even from this basic observation of Bloom a question emerges: what capacity does the reality of the person determine the meaning of humanity? While Bloom is on to something unique and wonderful in Shakespeare, there is a problem with Bloom’s interpretation that yields itself over and over in his interpretation of the plays.

This book features separate chapters for every one of Shakespeare’s plays and each one is wonderfully written and worthwhile in itself. He is able to show where there are many flaws in contemporary scholarship and performances that illustrate that mistaken interpretations are more common than is commonly assumed.

While Bloom’s work addresses weaknesses in contemporary scholarship, there is nonetheless an important problem in his work. Since he approaches Shakespeare’s plays through a modernist lens, he rejects ontology and is unable to even begin to understand the point of Shakespeare’s works. This leads the reader to question whether Bloom even knows anything about Shakespeare, “With Shakespeare, we know a fair number of externals, but essentially we know absolutely nothing [718].” In other words, because he has rejected metaphysics, he is unable to interpret Shakespeare’s plays. On one hand, this shows great dedication to a writer that he acknowledges that he cannot understand. On a deeper level, what can Bloom really tell us about an author whose work eludes his intellectual methodology? Thus, Bloom wishes to address a methodological gap in contemporary scholarship, but his work is also reduced because of his approach to his subject. It seems that Bloom is a victim of the very same reality he criticizes. There are many great parts of this text and it is worthwhile to take the time to read it. Still, one wishes that Bloom has more courage to actually interpret what Shakespeare wrote.

The Unmasking of Desire: Oscar Wild and the Heart

There is something beautiful about the conversion that is brought about after someone was publicaly humiliated as a sinner. Joseph Pearce's book The Unmasking of Oscar Wild describes Oscar Wild's painful life and ultimate conversion. Everyone desires happiness, but not every passion can satisfy the human heart. Baudelaire and Huysmans, after failing to find correspondence between his heart and the self-destructive perversions that they sought, ultimately found this correspondence in Christ and became Catholic. Oscar Wild had a more difficult experience, although he at times tried to follow his true heart, he was easily led astray by eager seducers who he could not resist. The beauty of Pearce’s book is that people who are ultimately faithful to their desire can only find its completeness in Christ.

What about the inner life of man in our contemporary world? Do the endless distractions prevent people from finding the path that corresponds to their hearts? George Bernanos saw many years ago that modern culture attacks the inner life of man. While there can be no limits to grace, the task of conversion seems more difficult today. There are many who seem to be led astray in attempts to find happiness, but the effectiveness and destruction brought about in modern marketing efforts are so extensive that people are prevented from observing their inner-lives. The conversion of Baudelaire and Huysman would have been different today because of the extensiveness of modern culture and the greater reform Christianity seems to require today. In the days of Wild, there were many Oxford professors who were faithful Catholics, and their presence at Oxford provided a place for people to go and ask questions to intelligent people that they could trust. The distance in modern culture and its vast efforts to remove the voice of Catholics, particularly in Europe, from culture, means that conversion now involves a more radical commitment than ever before.

The paradox is that never has the world seen as much unhappiness as today. The promises of materialist culture cannot even approach the needs of the human heart. This means that there has never been a time when people would be more open to the promise.

Joseph Pearce's Quest for Shakespeare

When reading works by scholars who share their perspectives on the classic writers sometimes we discover, usually in retrospect, that the modern author provides flawed interpretation of the work. Pearce provides a text that does not interpret Shakespeare’s plays, but rather focuses on his life. There is very strong evidence that Shakespeare was Catholic. Anyone who is honest with the historical record must acknowledge this fact. Through the lens that Pearce provides, one can see that the majority of modern criticism on Shakespeare is at best irrelevant and at worst misleading. Earlier I reviewed Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and gave it a qualified, positive review. After reading Pearce, I would change this review and suggest that Bloom’s methodology is entirely inappropriate and confuses rather than clarifies Shakespeare. The true value in Pearce’s work is that it provides the reader with a basis from which to grasp Shakespeare's vast writings. Although it may not provide a definitive method for interpreting the great playwright, a great strength of Pearce is his ability to show why modern literary criticism is inadequate means for approaching Shakespeare's work.

There is something of a dialogue between Pearce and Bloom in this work. Pearce examines Bloom’s interpretation directly in the book’s first appendix. Although he provides a criticism of Bloom, he holds back and is moderate in attack. Perhaps this is because of his respect for one of the most important contemporary literary critics. Pearce refrains from polemics in this critique, but his work is a direct challenge to Bloom.

The second appendix provides a preview of a future book where Pearce promises to interpret Shakespeare given the direct knowledge that he was a Catholic. Pearce does this by offering a brief interpretation of King Lear. The resultant book promises to be culturally important and interesting.

{Normally, I try to be more critical in the books I review on this blog. This book made me rethink my own ideas about Shakespeare and renewed my desire to reread his plays.}