Seeing new tracks in Daniel

The first time I went snow tracking, it was amazing.  My class drove into the mountains to find a clean snow field, and there, far from urban disturbance, we saw the stories of local wildlife written into the powdery surface:  the tiny prints of a mouse, the widely spaced prints of a rabbit, the linear prints of a deer.  But the amazing part was when we came back to Lander:  the city itself was suddenly full of animal tracks!  Had those tracks been there all the time?  Had I really been so blind?  Our instructor told us we had acquired the appropriate “filter” so as to notice what before had been hidden before our eyes.

I feel like that happened recently with the book of Daniel.  Chapter four tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar, who becomes boastful and ascribes all of his great works to himself instead of giving glory to God, and as a consequence God takes away his rationality for a season.  The great king goes on all fours, eating grass and living outside, until God deigns to give his reason back.  Then the king publishes an edict praising God and ascribing all of the king’s great works to the Almighty.

And it struck me:  Is this not clearly saying that a king or kingdom that fails to acknowledge God will become less than human?  That only the king or kingdom who acknowledges God will regain his humanity?

Chapter seven recounts one of Daniel’s most famous visions.  He sees three beasts, each more ferocious than the last, and the beasts are strange, monstrous creatures made of parts from different animals.  Then he sees “one like a son of man” who comes and supplants all the beasts.  The dream is interpreted thus:  the three beasts are three kingdoms of the Gentiles, and the “one like a son of man” is the kingdom of God’s people—or the Messiah himself, for later Jewish readers.

And it struck me:  Is this not saying that all kingdoms that do not worship God become somehow subhuman and even monstrous?  That the kingdom of those who worship God is, in fact, the only fully human kingdom?

I had a new “filter” on as I listened to Daniel this time, because I had just spent the morning on Gaudium et Spes 22:  “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

And Gaudium et Spes 36: “But if the expression ‘the independence of temporal affairs’ is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear.”

In retrospect, it seems logical that Daniel would have a strong message about the relation of religion and state.  The narrative setting is the exile of Israel, when Israel lost its state but—miraculously—kept its religion, thus introducing a sharp distinction between state and religion for the first time.  And if you believe the modern view that Daniel was written around the time of the Macabean revolt—which I do—then we also have the first time of the state setting itself very directly against the people’s religion.

Share Button

The Particularity of Death

Yesterday I went to the hospital for an MRA. I filled out the usual forms–no, I’m not claustrophobic; no I’m not pregnant or breastfeeding; no, I don’t have any metal body parts–and met the usual uber-cheerful nurse. Sure, I’ll lay down on this tray and get sucked into a giant Star Trek device. I had an MRI just a couple of weeks ago, and this is all routine. I know what I’m doing.

So when the nurse casually mentioned that we would need to do an IV, I just about bounced off the tray. “SERIOUSLY?” She was amazed that I had never had an IV before: “How old are you? 37? And you’ve NEVER had an IV?” It felt like high school again, where you find out that everyone is doing it and you are obviously the nerd. I tried to explain that I react really badly to needles, but she couldn’t believe me. “You look scared to death all ready!” she laughed. Me: “That’s because I AM!”

But when they actually put the IV in and watched me reel into unresponsiveness, understanding dawned. “You weren’t kidding, were you?” she smiled. Um, no. I wasn’t. As I lay inside the giant Star Trek device, semi-coherent, with a metal thing sticking into my veins, I meditated on how Jesus was nailed to the cross, and how the metal things just stayed there. Oh God, oh Jesus, help me Mary.

Somehow I survived, and after taking a while to lay in the car I managed to drive away.  For some reason, after I got home, I felt in the mood to pick up a book by Richard John Neuhaus called As I Lay Dying. He makes a great point:

Death in the thousands and millions is different.  The generality is a buffer against both guilt and sorrow.  It is death in the singular that shatters all we thought we knew about death.

That is exactly right:  News of multitudinous deaths in a far-away war does little, or news of semi-fictional people who live real lives across town but don’t seem real to me.  But when the little Lewis girls died, daughters of my friend, it was like an atom bomb going off in the living room.  Death in general, as an idea, can be tolerated; death in the particular, in you, in me, is an abomination the mind refuses to grasp.

But it occurred to me suddenly, reading Neuhaus, that the only answer to death is Jesus.  And if we know Jesus as a generality, as an idea, then we will only be able to deal with death as a generality.  Only if I know Jesus as a particular, as a this person, will I be prepared for the particularity of my death.

Share Button

A note about Pope Francis

As I recently mentioned, I bought a book for the Triduum about the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  The author mentions at one point:

Prior to opening the [second Vatican] Council, Pope John XXIII made a pilgrimage to Assisi, where he placed the Council under Saint Francis’ special patronage and prayed that he who was called “the father of the poor” in his own time would intercede for the Church so she would recognize herself once again as a Church “of the poor and for the poor.”

This seems to be where Pope Francis got his tag-line.  Anyhow, since JPII’s pontificate was all about enacting the Council, and BXVI’s pontificate was all about correcting wrong understandings of the Council, it seems to me no surprise that Pope Francis’s name and schtick would have do with the intention behind Vatican II.

Share Button

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam

While reading the Catechism this morning, I saw something new (to me) about the idea that the world was created for the glory of God.  At least, I don’t think I saw this as clearly before.

It is not hard to grasp that God created to share his own goodness:  the only other alternatives are that he created for some benefit he would derive, which is not possible, or that he created for the sake of sharing something else’s goodness, which again is not possible since anything not God is part of his creation.

What struck me this morning is the transition from there to the notion of glory.  Because the greatest share of his goodness God can give is knowing and loving, and the greatest thing he could offer to be known and loved is his own goodness, it follows that the greatest share in his goodness God can give to a creature is that the creature acknowledge and praise God.

Share Button

Revelation and the Shape of the Church

As I read through the Catechism yesterday, I was struck by the comment that the revelation of the Trinity–the most fundamental doctrine of our faith, and the highest in the “hierarchy” of doctrine–was not complete until the mission of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  This led me to the following thought:

The giving of revelation constitutes its recipient, the Church, while the growth of the recipient makes possible the giving of revelation:  the two go together.  To spell out the consequences of this idea: as long as revelation is incomplete one should expect the Church to be growing and changing in fundamental shape; and as long as the Church is growing and changing in its fundamental shape, one should expect new revelation.  So it was not incidental the the fundamental doctrine of our faith was revealed completely when the Church was in a way completed.  Or to put it the other way around, anyone who claims to receive new public revelation is implicitly claiming that the Church is still developing toward its fundamental shape.

This led me to a further thought, which extends and qualifies the above:

The Church could not attain its entire fundamental shape before the apostles had exercised their ministry.  For example, there could not be a hierarchy in the Church before there were enough converts to have multiple congregations, and Peter had to get to Rome before the Pope could be the bishop of Rome, and somebody had to get sick before the Apostles could administer last rites, and so on and so forth.  So as long as the apostles were still active, the Church was still in some way in formation and new revelation was to be expected; with the completion of the apostles’ ministry, the Church had its entire fundamental shape and so no more revelation was to be expected.

Share Button

The Gifts of the Spirit

Sorting through old boxes of junk, I found this hand-written poem titled “The Gifts of the Spirit,” from my early graduate school days:

The Angelic Doctor self-described
was a “bat in the sunlight”;
Oh, to feel the warmth of the sun!

I am a bat in a blizzard,
fighting every gust of wind
– but who knows where the wind blows,
whence it comes, and whither it goes?
Perhaps to somewhere good.

God send right wind!

That was scrawled quickly during the last week of the semester, as I slapped together the dismal last in a series of required essays.  Five teachers waited until only four weeks were left in the semester to assign their ten-page papers; knowing that it took me one week to write a good ten-page essay, I saw right away that I would turn in four good papers and one stinker.  The above poem was written as I churned out the stinker.  It was a hard time in other ways as well.

The funny thing is, all these years later I still resonate with the message of that poem.  Life still sends things to all-at-once, I still don’t know where it all goes or where it comes from.  God send right wind!

Share Button

Music and Morality, part 2

Picking up the theme of music and morality, I want to jot down a few thoughts about how to talk to people about a morality of music when they lack the self-awareness needed in general for conversation about ethics, or when they lack the self-awareness in this particular area for an Ignatian discernment of spirits.

Lacking interior, subjective evidence, one must point to objective, sensible data.  And the first of these is that people get angry if you call their music bad—very angry.  People don’t blow a stack if you hate the seafood they love, or if you hate their favorite baseball team—most people, that is—but if you say you hate their music, those are fighting words.  Their anger shows that they identify their own person with the music; the music is an outward sign of what kind of person they are, so that an attack on the music is an attack on the person.  (Paradoxically, my conversation partners have proceeded from anger to the assertion that music is morally indifferent, a mere matter of taste.)

But it is probably not a good strategy to attack a man’s music, let him get angry, and then point to his anger as a sign that he is wrong.  No, better to point far away, to others whom he sees as very, very other.

So a second datum is the fact that extremes in music create recognizable populations:  heavy metal fans dress and walk alike and are often pale and thin; huge belt buckles and hats pick out the serious country music buffs; rap consumers fit a stereotype; and on it goes.  Along with the visible similarities go internal resemblance:  heavy metal folks are brooding and angry, rap people are bouncy but irascible, country music people are cheerful and loyal, and so on.

Few things create visible populations the way music does:  drugs do, jobs can, religious vocations do.  Sports don’t, foods don’t—you can’t pick out baseball fans from hockey fans in a crowd, or lovers of Italian cuisine as opposed to French cooking.  Living in a certain region can produce a particular “look,” but the effects of music will override regional differences.

The fact that extremes in music create visible populations of people who morally resemble one another indicates that less extreme musical forms—light jazz, pop, classical music, and so on—are also forming populations in less visible ways.  After all, if factor X produces an extreme difference when applied heavily, wouldn’t factor X produce some difference if applied more lightly?  If extreme musical forms like heavy metal produce extreme visible and moral differences, then wouldn’t jazz or Baroque music produce real but less extreme moral differences in men?  Certainly, the hypothesis that music is morally indifferent doesn’t predict the observed results of the extremes.

In fact, the observed facts say that music is a powerful moral force:  it is used in ecstatic cults for a reason!

Share Button

Music and Morality

Music has loomed larger in life of late for the Mrs. and me, as a result of our visits to Norcia and Vienna.  Its increased role in our life has to do, I hope, with our moral life, so I’d like to set down a few thoughts that have developed over the years about music and morality.

The initial challenge is to persuade people that music has anything to do with morality, that is, with right and wrong in action.   Music is as subjective as anything could be:  what music I like depends entirely on how I feel at the moment and on how the music makes me feel—it’s all about my feelings.  On the other hand, morality has exactly to do with how I feel about things:  an evil man will feel good about bad things, while a good man will feel bad about bad things, and this is precisely because the one man is morally good and the other morally bad.  But it is hard to make this point manifest.

The source of the difficulty seems to be a lack of self-knowledge:  Talk about morality requires a certain minimum level of awareness of what goes inside of us.  The Office of Readings for the feast of St. Ignatius recently brought this back to my attention.  While recovering from war wounds in a hospital, Ignatius would sometimes think on worldly things and romantic novels he had read before, and sometimes he would think about the lives of the saints and of Christ such as he was reading in the hospital:

But there was a difference. When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy. And this was the first time he applied a process of reasoning to his religious experience.

I had a similar experience with music.  At some point in college I realized that after listening to some kinds of music I had a hard time praying or focusing on homework, while after listening to other kinds of music I prayed better and focused better.  That, to paraphrase the life of Ignatius, was the first time I applied a process of reasoning to my musical tastes.

Years before that, I began to notice that some music makes me want to move this way while other music makes me want to move that way.  It’s a real difference in the music, but I only noticed the difference when I began performing it or dancing to it.  If I just listened, I didn’t notice the impulses created in me by the music; they only made themselves known when I acted on them.  From this perspective, musicians and dancers are in a better position than most to talk about the morality of music.

But if someone lacks the self-awareness necessary for an Ignatian discernment of spirits then it is hard, if not impossible, to have a conversation about music and morality.  There are some things one can say—but more on that next time.

Share Button

Paul’s favorite ism.

I found a neat instance of how punctuation or the lector’s reading can change the meaning of a biblical text.  The Nova Vulgata of 1Tim 5:21 can say:

Testificor…ut haec custodias sine praeiudicio, nihil faciens in aliquam partem declinando.  (“I adjure you that you keep these things without prejudice, doing nothing by favoring one side.”)

Or it could say:

Testificor…ut haec custiodias, sine praeiudicio nihil faciens, in aliquam partem declinando.  (“I adjure you that you keep these things, doing nothing without prejudice, by favoring one side.”)

So you get to pick which one Paul said!  But you should probably read Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana first….

Share Button

Having a ball

I recently picked up a copy of BXVI’s Caritas in Veritate in Latin.  Paragraph 5 states that “societas” today “universaliter conglobatur”.  Literally, that means that society today is everywhere turned into a ball—it’s all balled up.  But I take it as a way of referring to the phenomon of “globalization”.

Speaking of which, I’d be happy to publically honor and applaud the reader who can define “globalization” succinctly and intelligibly.

Share Button