But the only way is death

Last night a friend from college days died suddenly. I didn’t know Matt well, but he married my wife’s former roommate, who was a good friend, and I was always grateful to Matt for being so good to Sharon. We got Christmas cards from them every year. I kept up with Matt via Facebook.

Last November, Matt posted this on Facebook:

Ok, so I’m going through a rough day. (nothing major, I’m not dying or anything.) But it occurs to me that we have to consider our place in the world sometimes. It’s been my pleasure to know some wonderful men and women, and it occurs to me that we live as long as God plans us to. Some young, some old, but all to their cause. There really is only one sin, “Non Serviam” … “I will not serve”. On the feast of Bl. Miguel Pro I offer and ask you to say a prayer that echoes his last words, “Viva Cristo Rey”:

Dear Lord, let me be your poor servant. Grant me the wisdom to understand Your will, and the health and strength to carry it out. Allow me the grace to serve you as my Eternal King and show witness to the world of your sacrifice. I know that I am an imperfect vessel, and while I may try at times to bargain with you, I trust you and will always keep Your words in my heart, ‘Satan, get behind me’.

Continue reading “But the only way is death”

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Frustration-free proof-reading

Proofreading is hard. Really hard. Have you ever noticed how you can wash a paintbrush forever and the paint keeps coming? Texts and typos are like that: proof and proof and proof your text, and mistakes keep pouring out.

Well, I have discovered a master secret for proofreading: text-to-speech software. The human eye is too smart, often filling in what “should” be there and so glossing past a mistake. Computers are mercilessly dumb. Whatever you have printed, they just read it, and if it’s a typo then it will sound strange.

Any time I write an important letter, a blog post, or anything else that is (a) destined for scrutiny and (b) relatively short, I crank it through my text-to-speech software. I use Natural Reader, but there are great free options as well.

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Rubber Baby Bloggy Bumpies

You may have noticed that the New Song blog fell suddenly silent a week or more ago.  I had just begun the Jesse Tree project, and I was tossing up additional posts, getting into the Advent season–and then nothing.  The Holmes house hit a major bump when all the kids came down with this nasty cold/flu thing going around and flopped around on chairs and couches like they had just rolled off the rubber chicken factory line.

Actually, the major bump was when Matthew the seven-month-old filled his head with mucus, started coughing, and stopped sleeping.  My wife and I took turns pacing with him through the night for the better part of a week; we did only the essentials during the day, and by the end we didn’t do those, either.  We hit that point where you have to rearrange things on the kitchen counter creatively so you can put down your cup.  Only you can’t find a cup, because all the sniffling, hacking rubber chickens take one sip from each cup in the cupboard, decide they need a new cup, and even drink from your cup when you’re not looking.

So the Jesse Tree project is dead for this year.  But in all that night-time pacing I thought a lot about new ideas and directions for the blog.  I actually compiled a spreadsheet one afternoon of all my top blog posts from the past couple of years and I ranked them by the number of “hits”.  And I learned something extremely valuable from that exercise:

Which posts get lots of “hits” and which do not is pretty much random.  It has nothing to do with how well written or thoughtful the blog post is.  Seeing that fact in cold numbers really takes the ego out of blogging.

So I figure I should just keep writing about whatever I enjoy writing about, although I do have some crazy ideas about new directions that may or may not work out, depending on which way the wind blows.  To this point in my life, when I have kept on doing things I enjoy then God has always opened neat doors in front of me.

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Official Mixed Drink of the Feast of St. Luke

Luke Drink

Mix one for the man.

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Three ways to manage your “inner other”

[This is the third in a series: 1. The “Inner Other”; 2. Discovering the “Inner Other”; 3. Three ways to manage your “inner other”.]

My posts about the “inner other” may come across as despairing, as a lament of the human condition, but they are not meant that way. In the end it’s a beautiful thing that we are built for relation even in what is most human about us.

But clearly, the “inner other” needs managing. Anything that boosts objectivity in thought will help to counteract the problems I have outlined in this blog series, so one could go on and on about what to do. In this last post, though, I just want to note three tactics that work directly on the “inner other”:

1. Move in more than one circle.

If the “inner other” is a composite of the people we interact with, we can make it a better and better conversation partner by interacting with people who think very differently from one another. We can make friends in different circles, or just make a habit of reading authors who think very differently from one another. The different circles don’t necessarily have to hate each other or disagree with each other about everything; they just need very different ways of getting to their conclusions. Round him out, make him complex, and talking to the “inner other” may be more profitable than talking to yourself.

2. Silence

The “inner other” comes into play in our moments of interior talking, so we would do well to have periods where we avoid all chatter, exterior or interior, and simply gaze at reality. My own experience has been that the more exterior talking I do, the more interior talking I do, so it is useful now and then simply to shut up for a while. If I am working on a particular question, I need to take some time to look at reality in silence. This always leads to more honesty with myself about what I really think, and sometimes it leads to a breakthrough: the mind has ways of working without words, if we will only let it.

3. Prayer

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange once wrote that as our spiritual life progresses, our interior conversation should tend more and more to be conversation with God. Besides contributing to holiness, a habit of talking to God does wonders for your “inner other,” for several reasons.

First, God is not imaginary but real. I don’t mean that he “talks back” in the usual way, although I know several people who have heard God speak to them audibly at least once. But the fact of God’s reality makes him more satisfying to speak with than an imaginary interlocutor, even when we don’t notice a direct response. In itself this doesn’t contribute to objectivity of thought, but it does contribute to happiness.

Second, the more we refine our understanding of God, the more we come to see how far removed his way of thinking is from everyone around us. Early in life, talking to God may be a lot like talking to anyone else, because we think of him as a very big but somehow invisible human, but for a mature Christian talking to God takes the conversation away from the usual reference points and above the usual horizon. Instead of cramping our viewpoint, God expands it. The same is true of speaking to Jesus as God Incarnate: the more we meditate on the mysteries of his life and his glorification, the more we see the degree to which he rises above the current concerns of Democrats or Republicans or any other merely human group.

Third, we know that God actually sees right through us. Unlike our family or our friends or the authors we read, God sees our thoughts and our desires directly, and we imagine him as doing so. Consequently, we are less likely to let ourselves get away with crap when speaking to God. Even with nothing supernatural going on, when we are just interacting with God as we imagine him, we still imagine God as stopping us short, cutting us off, giving us “the look,” when we say something blatantly selfish or lie about our feelings or thoughts. He doesn’t wink-wink nudge-nudge the way the standard “inner other” is wont to do.

So there you have three ways to live with that natural phenomenon, the “inner other”: make him better, shut him up, or baptize him. But if you don’t do anything else, at least become aware of his existence and you will be better off for it.

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Discovering the Inner Other

[This is the second in a series: 1. The “Inner Other”; 2. Discovering the “Inner Other”; 3. Three ways to manage your “inner other”.]

In my last post, I spoke about the mystery of the “inner other” and the power it exercises over our interior life. And I asked, Where does this shadowy figure come from? We make him up ourselves, but how do we do it?

Usually the answer is fairly straightforward: the imaginary, interior interlocutor is a composite projection of our real, exterior interlocutors. He reflects the circle that makes up our lives, and he changes when we change from circle to circle. In fact, that is how I first became aware of him.

When I was young, my family and my friends were conservative and religious. This remained true when we transitioned from Protestantism to Catholicism, throughout my college years and all the way up to the completion of my masters degree. To the extent that I dealt more than superficially with people of a different persuasion, it was through reading.

When I began my doctoral program, however, I suddenly found myself in a completely new world: my professors and my fellow students were religiously liberal and sometimes not religious, they all focused on the same professional conferences and talked about the same books, and in general they had a coherent but entirely foreign set of priorities. What my social circle considered important and acceptable was suddenly different.

Part of this transition was helpful. I realized after a while that I had accepted certain arguments about Scripture not because they were strong arguments but because they had satisfied my interior interlocutor. When I imagined myself speaking argument X, in my imagination the results were great: Yes, of course, triumph! It was like making an argument against climate change in a room full of petroleum executives. So in certain respects my thought gained a new rigor from the transition to a new social group.

But not all the results were happy. In spite of my personal inclinations and background, I found that my own mental horizons swung slowly around to a closer match with that of the new group. I was aware of it at the time, and I could even feel the effects spike when I attended a conference: temporarily, the kinds of things likely to make for publication in such-and-such a journal seemed REALLY important while other things shrank. While I myself remained religiously conservative, my “inner other” was becoming a liberal biblical scholar.

I even noticed the effect when I tried to read the Bible devotionally. To read the Bible subjectively was anathema in the group, the worst thing one could do. But the objective meaning of Scripture was not what you might think: biblical scholar John Meier famously wrote that the objective meaning of a Scripture passage is what you would get if you locked a Catholic, a Jew, a Protestant, and an agnostic—all biblical scholars—in the basement of Harvard Divinity School and did not let them out until they reached a consensus. I felt that committee always judging me, even in my most private moments. The loose and comfortable feel of spiritual reading vanished.

During this period I also struggled with my Catholic faith. Because my own beliefs differed drastically from those of my “inner other,” my interior conversation turned into a never-ending debate: Oh yeah, prove this! Oh yeah, prove that! I felt that I was on trial every hour, and it was all the harder because the only evidence acceptable to this inner other was the kind of evidence that would have been acceptable to my professors and fellow students and all the people at the conferences. I found myself replaying and replaying and replaying arguments for the existence of God, parrying and thrusting, meeting objection after objection, running over the same ground again and again.

A number of things fell together for me around this time and saved me from mental exhaustion and possible loss of faith. My academic advisor was a true believer, a very important witness; I came to a new understanding of faith, as I have described in my blog series on faith; other things I will probably never write down. The relevant part for the present post is this: I realized that I had been trying to convince the “inner other” instead of trying to convince myself. When I honestly asked myself what persuaded me, Jeremy Holmes, I saw that the existence of God is actually easy to prove, stupidly obvious: the facts are apparent and the arguments clear. What is hard is not demonstrating the existence of God; what is hard is persuading an atheist. As soon I escaped the limitations my shadowy interlocutor imposed on the conversation, I found that I was not in anything like the trouble I had thought.

As I have gone on in life, I have observed the “inner other” phenomenon in myself time and time again. When I move to a new job and find new friends, suddenly I see the world against a new horizon; a new set of things seems to loom large and some things that seemed important before suddenly seem to shrink. When I withdrew from work this past year for my sabbatical, I found that I was able to reshape my horizon and realize that some things that seemed like big problems at work were neither big nor really my problem at all. When I am reading more of a particular set of authors, those authors shape my “inner other” for a while.

While my experience is pretty typical, not everyone reacts to a new social group the way that I do. I have met people who seem to be immune to transition because their “inner other” does not readily change, so that when they move on to a new social circle they retain the old interior conversation partner. The ongoing mismatch between their own priorities and those of their group create the impression that they are objective, above influence, free-thinking. But over time I have realized that their “inner other” is no less present, just more stubbornly persistent.

Similarly, I have known people of a less social disposition who form their “inner other” largely from books. They read constantly, and the “group” formed by the authors they read serves as a basis for the “inner other,” again creating the illusion that they are free of such influences because they don’t seem to measure their thought against the people actually around them.

In both cases, the impression of objectivity makes the situation more dangerous, because we tend to notice things when they move or change. When your “inner other” remains the same over time then you are less likely to notice “him” as something other than “you”.

So are we hopelessly and helplessly chained to the “inner other,” incapable of objective thought? By no means. In my next post, I’ll describe three approaches to making your “inner other” not an obstacle but an ally in the pursuit of truth.

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The Inner Other

[This is the first in a series: 1. The “Inner Other”; 2. Discovering the “Inner Other”; 3. Three ways to manage your “inner other”.]

It may sound paradoxical to speak of an “inner other.”  How can what is within be what is without?  How can “inner” be anything but “same”?  But in fact our rationality, because it is human, is social:  we only learn to reason after we learn to speak, and our reasoning is largely done in words, and yet we learn to speak in order to speak to others.  An orientation toward the other is built into human thought.

Hence the “other” right within us.  Because words are of their nature other-oriented, the interior conversation that constitutes our mental life is often—perhaps more often than not—carried out as though it were a dialogue with someone.  Although we might describe this interior conversation as “talking to ourselves,” usually we talk to a vague, imaginary interlocutor we have constructed, a shadowy “other” that acts as a kind of objective check on our subjective excesses.  It is easy to mistake this interlocutor for our own selves, but the otherness of this other turns out to be important.

When we speak to a real “other,” a flesh-and-blood person, the dynamic is clear.  If we argue, we bring up facts likely to be accepted or deemed important by the person with whom we are arguing.  If we just make conversation, we avoid certain topics if they are very offensive, and tend towards the topics our companion will find both interesting and sympathetic.  All the while, we may be aware that other facts are also real and other topics even more important, but we know that bringing them up to this individual would be useless.  We have more interiorly than we display exteriorly.

Something similar is true of our interior conversation.  The vague “other” with whom we converse most of the time, the inner other, limits conversation in the same way as a real person:  we only appeal to facts “he” is likely to accept and to arguments “he” is likely to deem important.  But now the result is amazing.  Because our interior conversation is our mental life, the “inner other” effectively determines the horizons of our mental life, deciding what facts and arguments we possess interiorly.  Speaking to a flesh-and-blood person, we reserve something of our interior life; speaking with the inner other is our interior life, most of the time.

Obviously, we need to discover who this inner other is.  Where does he come from, this powerful figure?  He is somehow our own creation, and yet he exercises tremendous control over us.  To understand ourselves we have to bring him forth from the shadows.  Who is he?  I’ll take up the problem in my next post.

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One less reason to dislike Thomas More

In his good piece on the “Escriva Option,” Austin Ruse mentions that he dislikes St. Thomas More:

I am reminded of one of the reasons I do not care for St. Thomas More (heretical, I know). More longed to have been a Carthusian, who are tougher even than the Trappists, and he imposed Carthusian practices on his family including, cruelly I think, interrupting their sleep at 1 a.m. to chant the Night Office. Such a thing is not natural for someone in the lay state.

His point is well taken, but his view of More may be mistaken.  We tend to interpret such things through the lens of our own sleep customs, forgetting that sleep worked very differently before about the year 1800. Before the advent of artificial lighting, people slept in two segments.  They would sleep for a while, get up for a while in the middle of the night to do this and that, and then sleep for a long time again.  So the middle of the night was a common time for story telling, love making, prayer, and so on and so forth.  Wikipedia lists some of the studies on this; another helpful presentation is here.

Notice that the custom of prayer in the middle of the night has almost died out even in monasteries.  The reason we lay people find it strange to get up and pray at 1:00 a.m. these days is not that we’re lay people, but that we live in these days.  St. Thomas More was not being cruel; he was not even being unusual.

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No need to drop “Benedict” from the “Benedict Option”

Over at Crisis Magazine, Austin Ruse has written a nice piece about the “Escriva Option.”  I get Ruse’s weekly Letter from the UN Front, but their tone is so hyper that I usually ignore them.  This article, however, is worth a read:  he urges that one way to pursue Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is by following St. Josemaria Escriva.  The more ways we can get of describing and approaching what is needful in our times, the better.

But there is one point where I want to take issue with the article.  He makes a big deal of saying that laypeople should not look to religious orders for the way to live the lay state:

The question becomes: is St. Benedict a proper model for the laity? Whether there is withdrawal to the mountains or not, the implication of the Benedict Option is that laymen can somehow follow a monastic model. Certainly there are third order Benedictines, there are even third order Trappists, though I suspect they are chattier than those behind the walls. But, laymen need not ape the practices of those we may think are spiritual athletes to live out our vocation as laymen.

Continue reading “No need to drop “Benedict” from the “Benedict Option””

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Argumentum ex umbris verborum

Over at Rorate Coeli, folks seemed to know what they thought of Pope Francis’s new encyclical the moment it came out.  All they had to do was pump the encyclical through a word cloud generator and shazam!  The truth was out:

LaudatosiwordcloudThey add this little note:  “Word Cloud of the Encyclical: Not exactly, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30)”  The biggest word in the whole cloud is “human”–and notice the little arrow they put in, pointing to the tiny word “Jesus”?  Cute!

Now that we have the master method for determining the catholicity of papal encyclicals, I wonder what would happen if we generated a word cloud for some old classic?  Let’s try Libertas praestantissimum, by Leo XIII:

Leo Libertas

Shoot.  The biggest word is “liberty”–and Jesus doesn’t even appear in the cloud!  And did you notice that “reason” has huge letters, while “faith” is nowhere to be seen?  Now that we know the secret to judging magisterial documents, we may need to re-write the history of doctrine….

[A tip of the hat to Peter Kwasniewski, who both found the Rorate link and created the Libertas word cloud.]

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