Thursday, December 08, 2011

The 100%

While the various Occupy movements fade away with a whimper, what impact they might have had linger in phrases like “the 1%”. Lots of the chanting and debate sparked by the Occupy movements center around those sort of catchphrases.

It seems to me that the problem is that this sort of thinking restricts the debate to the economic and political sphere – a far too common fault of modern thinking. Supposedly “the 1%” exercise disproportionate control over a too-large amount of the world's wealth, and “the 99%” should have more of that control, and (presumably) that “the government” should do something about it. This is answered by questions about liberty, and legitimacy of government power, and free markets, and so on. But the whole debate ranges along economic and political lines, as if these were the only areas of human activity that really mattered.

In the midst of this discussion we find this almost unnoticed incident . Los Angeles County recently buried 1639 “unclaimed” bodies – people who had died for whom nobody ever showed up to attend to their burial. They lingered in the morgue or wherever they're kept until they were interred in a mass grave with a civil ceremony. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is to be commended for making this minimal sign of respect for their fellow humans, as are civil authorities everywhere to attend to such matters, but even they acknowledge that it was far short of what those people deserved.

Some would notice that some of the unfortunates were “poor or homeless”, and resume the 99% vs. 1% argument with renewed fervor. But I think this misses the point. It was not because of a shortage of money that these 1639 people died abandoned. Only “some” of them were poor – probably a good number had sufficient means to at least pay for a simple burial. The shortage that necessitated this mass burial was a shortage of love. Nobody loved them enough to bother providing a simple burial, so the responsibility devolved to the civic community.

We have no idea how this came to be. Perhaps some of them lost all their close relatives. Perhaps some had children who they'd lost through death or estrangement. Perhaps some had walked away from love offered to them to pursue abstractions like “independence” (I've seen it happen). Whatever the reason, these people died with nobody to love them enough to know about their death and do something about it.

That is the ultimate poverty.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta used to say that the world she served in, what wealthy Westerners referred to as “the Third World”, was poor in material goods but rich in love, while the West was rich in material goods but poor in love. This mass burial of unknown, unclaimed people could be Exhibit A of this. In one of the richest, most envied counties in the world,1639 nameless people were buried in a mass grave with no marker to record them and nobody to mourn their passing. This is an impoverishment of what matters most.

Ultimately, discussions about which percentage of the population controls which percentage of the wealth are meaningless. In the end, 100% of us are stripped of all economic goods. That's when we find out how much real wealth we have. Who cares enough about us to stay by our side through our final days on this earth? Who loves us enough to honor our memory and insure we're laid to rest with dignity and respect? Who remembers our names, and why? In short, what is the balance of our “love account”?

One of the classic works of mercy for Christians is burying the dead. This meant more than just cleaning the landscape of corpses – it meant expressing God's love to even those who no man loves. The reason it was a duty was not to remind us to do it for those we loved and respected.  Burying them comes easily. It so that we'd do it for those like these 1639 forgotten ones of Los Angeles County.

Because 100% of us die without earthly wealth. But thanks to what happened at Bethlehem, and Calvary, none of us should die unloved.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

My Father Was Half Right

I'm sorry for not having posted here for a bit.  Life has been happening at a good clip, and it still is, but I didn't want to totally neglect this small portion of it.

One of the kindest things my father ever said was me was, "Once you get outside your family, nobody gives a damn about you - they only care about what you can do for them."  He meant this in the kindest possible way (really!) with the intent of bracing me for what I could expect in the Big Wide World.  And indeed, that advice was very helpful in adjusting my expectations, and I have always kept it in the back of my mind, especially as an independent consultant.  People might be cordial and even kind, but I'd better deliver the value if I'm going to be handing them a bill at the end of the visit.

But as I've grown older, I've come to see that my father was only half-right on that point.  It was helpful counsel so far as it went, but taken straight is is overly pessimistic, almost to the point of being cynical.  It may usually be true that strangers, particularly employers, will not invest more in you than they can get out of you, but that does not mean that others will never invest in you.  In my personal history, it has sometimes been people I barely knew who invested in me out of sheer charity.  A high school teacher and football coach, who saw potential in an introverted sophomore that nobody else had spotted.  A second class petty officer saddled with a boot who'd never even been underway, who nonetheless took the time to instruct him in character and manhood.  There were others, and though it isn't a long list, it is long enough to prove that sometimes people do give a damn about strangers, and go out of their way to help them thrive and grow.

One irony about my dad's dictum was that he'd had experiences that proved that it was not universal.  One was in Colorado, on his way west to California, when his car broke down on a lonely mountain road.  A stranger driving by stopped to help, then drove my dad 20 miles back to the last town to get the requisite part, drove him back to his broken-down car, waited while he installed the part, and then followed him until he was safely to the next town. (Furthermore, that man was black, which was a real shock to my father, who'd been raised in a racist Missouri home.)  Another irony was that he tried to raise all of us children to be the sort of people who extended Christian charity to strangers - in short, to be the sort of people who'd defy this principle.

I've tried to keep dad's proverb in mind, particularly in the business environment.  But I've also learned that it's "more like a guideline", something to keep in mind when out in the world, but not something to assume is always applicable everywhere.  True love, charity toward another - even strangers - does exist.  Furthermore, we should stive to be people who spread it.  Granted, it's hard to deal with everyone at a level of intimate love.  Courtesy is possible and desirable, and we should always be on the lookout to do good, but we may be called to invest deeply in the lives of a few others - who may be strangers.

Of course, there have been a few who have attained to expressing deep charity toward everyone they encounter.  We call them saints, and we just celebrated them yesterday.  Wouldn't it be great to be that kind of person?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

More lessons of manhood from the Inklings

Continuing in with the theme of an earlier post, I wanted to share a few more principles of manhood I learned from the Inklings:

Wisdom matters
Edmund was a graver and quieter man than Peter, and great in council and judgment.” The Hunt for the White Stag, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
The might of Elrond is in wisdom not in weapons, it is said.” The Council of Elrond, The Fellowship of the Ring

The importance of wisdom is a theme that weaves throughout all the works of the Inklings, and it caught my eye from youth. Even as a lad I was enamored of the image of King Edmund the Just, wise in council, even more than with the High King as a leader or warrior. And in Tolkien's works, great figures such as Elrond and Gandalf and even Aragorn displayed the value of wisdom over raw force and power.
Of course, as I grew older I realized that there was more to gaining wisdom than growing a white beard and sitting around talking about deep things. The Wisdom Books of Scripture especially helped me to understand that wisdom changes you – that if you truly seek wisdom, you will return from the journey a different person than you were when you started out. This is one reason true wisdom is so hard to obtain, far more difficult than simply learning reams of facts or gaining technical skill. Again the examples from the Inklings lore helped me grasp this: the price Gandalf paid to learn the truth about what happened to the One Ring after Isildur's fall, or the price Ransom paid in Perelandra to learn what he did.
But I credit their imaginative vision with helping me to understand the value of wisdom – that it is worth striving for, and to be treasured when found. I think that has been part of my lifelong urge to understand things, rather than just learn how to manipulate them.

Sometimes being a man means doing what needs to be done without calculation
Will you ride with me then, son of Arathorn? Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song – if any be left to sing of us hereafter.”
I will ride with you,” said Aragorn. Helm's Deep, The Two Towers
You may recognize this bit of dialog between King Théoden and Aragorn at Helm's Deep. The defenders were trammeled in by Saruman's orc hordes, and things were looking bleak. Théoden was proposing what looked like a suicide charge, for they had no knowledge of the help that was even then coming to aid them. Even so, Aragorn agrees to accompany him.
But anyone familiar with the story knows that in the Big Picture, the struggle between Rohan and Saruman was a side struggle. It certainly was part of the greater war against Sauron, but the Main Event was the showdown between Gondor and Mordor. That was Aragorn's ultimate goal, even from their departure from Rivendell and before. It was only by strange chance that he had gotten embroiled in this regional struggle.
In light of that, Aragorn's unhesitating agreement to ride with Théoden might seem reckless. Had he been prudent, had he pulled back and weighed his options, we wonder if he might have come to a different conclusion. The main war was in the east, which was also to be his kingdom if they came through this, and that was the price of his bride. That was an awful lot to risk on a death-or-glory charge in a backwater fortress. Perhaps better to lie low, perhaps slip away in the darkness and live to fight another day?
Aragorn's determination to do what was necessary displays what I think a vital aspect of true manhood. Wisdom and prudence are important (see point above), but sometimes one has to decide that the game is worth the candle and do what must be done, regardless of risk. Here wisdom comes to our aid, in helping us decide what causes are worth such risks.

Men don't leave dirty jobs for others
I have no help to send, therefore I must go myself.” Aragorn, The Passing of the Grey Company, The Return of the King
Another consistent theme in the works of the Inklings is that a mark of noble manhood is shouldering difficult burdens. This stands in stark contrast to the adolescent desire to avoid hard tasks, or find some way to “stick” someone else with them. Accepting difficulty without shirking is the way that character, and civilizations are built.

Men make it easier for those who follow
Pippin marveled at [Boromir's] strength, seeing the passage that he had already forced with no other tool than his great limbs. Even now, burdened as he was, he was widening the track for those who followed, thrusting the snow aside as he went. The Ring Goes South, The Fellowship of the Ring
Related to the point above is the idea that a man strives to ease the burden of those who follow him. This image, and many others throughout the works of the Inklings, has served as an ideal for me for years. The example of Boromir and many others has encouraged me to look beyond just discharging immediate task to see where and how I could help make the path easier for those who follow. I haven't always succeeded, but the ideal has been there for me to strive for.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The next 30 years

Yesterday Ellen and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.  In a way the celebration has been going on all month - last weekend we had a long visit with most of the kids and all the grandkids in celebration - but yesterday was The Day.  We had a quiet day away, just us two, running over to Frankenmuth to be "fudgies" for the day (something that Ellen pointed out we'd never done without little ones!)  It was subdued and low-budget, but all the more charming for that.  Lunch in the snack shop at Bronner's - where we took all the time we wished to browse around - and a dinner of sausages and cheese and veggies and wine at a little roadside park on the shores of Lake Huron.  Someday we may be able to do something more costly, like retrace our honeymoon route (not that that would be all that expensive), but this year a subdued celebration seemed more appropriate.

For some reason the 30th is making me stop and think more than, say, the 25th did, even though the 25th is supposed to be the more notable milestone.  Perhaps it's because our life circumstances are truly different now.  On our 25th we still had kids in school, and were in the thick of graduations and open houses and all.  We lived in the same house we'd lived in for 20 years, and things were pretty much as they'd been for most of our marriage.

Now, at 30 years, we live in a different house, are more or less empty nesters, and our focus is shifting from supporting our children to supporting our children's families.  Also, three decades is a long time - longer than some people's entire lives, and (sadly) longer than many marriages last.  It's the kind of span of time that causes one - or at least one like me - to meditate on the path traveled, and how well or poorly one has done along it.  I'm probably a poor judge standing at a poor vantage point, but I'm pondering more things.

If there's one thing 30 years has taught me it's the importance of love.  Not just romantic, "in-loveness" love, but sacrificial charity that gets up every morning and expends effort on behalf of others.  That's the love that bears fruit.  What we've achieved in 30 years of marriage has been due to that kind of love.  The feelings come and go and come again, and they're great in their way.  But the thing that matters, the thing I can build on, is that Ellen is always there, and will always love me.

That's why 30 years is, in a sense, a big deal, but in another sense it's not.  We didn't leap 30 years in a single jump, but in thousands of little jumps: each day we got up and by God's grace stayed true to the vows we'd taken to one another.  He promised to help us keep them, and He did.  That's why the next 30 aren't that intimidating: so long as they come at us one day at a time, we'll handle them the way we handled the first 30.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The things I learn from vinedressing

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, he will take away. And each one that does bear fruit, he will cleanse, so that it may bring forth more fruit." (John 15:1-2)
I think I've mentioned before that our new house came with a Great Big concord grape vine, which was a bit of a surprise find, because it had grown all through some adjacent shrubs. As I've learned to tend this vine, all manner of Scriptural metaphors that were opaque to me before have come alive with meaning.

Our first year's harvest was when the vine was still intertwined with the shrubs. Though I found a respectable amount of fruit considering how well the clusters were hiding, many of the grapes were inedible due to mold or fungus. So, that winter I cut down the other shrubs, extricated the vine, and strung it on a makeshift arbor. The vine survived my inexpert handling, and bore some fruit the second year, but the harvest was sparse. I'm not sure how much this might have been due to trauma from all the handling and how much was because it was just a bad year for grapes, but there were few grapes, and they still had mold problems.

So I started reading up on the care and tending of concord vines. I had a friend come over to show me how to do the mid-winter pruning, where the last season's growth is cut back to optimize the vine to bear in the new year. But I read something else interesting: about the mid-season cleaning of the vines.

This is the vine early in the year.
Lots of leaves!
The vines start leafing out in springtime, throwing out big leaves and swift-growing tendrils that wrap around stems and fences. It's very impressive growth. Then the buds and flowers come, though it's easy to miss the flowering stage. The flowers are little tiny things that don't look like much - little six-stemmed stars just a few millimeters across. You have to look very deliberately to find them.
Grape flowers

Once the flowers are gone and the fruit starts to develop, there comes a point you have to cut away the leaves around the clusters. This is what I didn't do the second year, but the experts say is vital. Grape vines put out an immense amount of foliage, often large leaves that shade the entire area under the vine. But being shaded isn't good for the grapes. They need to be exposed to the light, and able to have air circulate freely around them. If they aren't, the clusters will remain damp from dew and rain, and mold and fungus will grow (this was the problem the first year when the grapes were growing all through the shrubs - they were too shaded, which was why so many were lost to mold.)
These clusters are too shaded.
They'll be prone to mold and fungus

So earlier this week I took my secateurs and went out to trim back the leaves and expose the clusters to the light and air. It turned out to be a tremendous task - far more than just trimming a leaf or two here and there. Once you get in among the vines, you find that nearly all the clusters are shrouded by leaves that need to be trimmed away mercilessly if the clusters are to see the sun and feel the air.

As I was doing this, I was pondering Jesus words in John 15:1-2. Most translations I've read say that the Father will "prune" the vines that they may produce more fruit, but I can't help but wonder if this translation (Catholic Public Domain Version) might have the more accurate nuance. Pruning is typically done off-season, during winter or some other time when the plant is not bearing fruit. Grapes are the only fruit I've heard of that calls for actually dressing the vines in the middle of the season to help the fruit along. People in that agrarian culture would surely have understood the need for and purpose of such "cleansing", and some of Jesus' disciples may have actually done it.

With that in mind, I found myself wondering in what way the leaves and clusters correspond to elements of our spiritual life, and how the Father's "cleansing" would help the fruit along. I came up with an analogy, which will break down at some point as analogies do, but it seemed to have some useful correspondence. What if the grapes themselves correspond to the "good fruit" our lives are supposed to bear - charitable deeds done for the good of others and glory of God, Christlike attitudes, humility, and the like? What if the leaves are pious practices of the type that can be observed: prayers, Mass attendance, Scripture reading, and so forth? By this I don't mean empty external actions, but truly well intended practices that are intended to form us into Christ's image.

Presuming that rough correspondence, how does that help us understand Jesus' promise that the Father would "cleanse" the "vine" of our lives, that we might bear more fruit?

One obvious point is that leaves are necessary, and always come first. Were one to strip all the leaves from a vine, it would die. Likewise if we were to strip from our lives all the external spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, worship, and the like, our spiritual life would quickly end.

But the point of the leaves is the fruit. A big, leafy vine may look like it's Really Something, but if it's not bearing fruit, it's meaningless. By the same token, a vine full of fruit but with no leaves will never ripen, because the leaves are needed to make the sugar that goes into the fruit. So it's not a leaves-or-fruit question, because the fruit needs the leaves, but the point of the vine, including the leaves, is to bear fruit.
These clusters have had the
shading leaves trimmed away,
so that sun and air can reach
them.  They should ripen well!

But, just as too many leaves around the clusters can hinder the growth of the fruit, likewise the fruit of our lives needs the "light and air" of accountability and public examination to stay free of "mold" like self-delusion and pride. To use a historical example, St. Francis of Assisi started his movement as a group of men committed to a way of life living according to certain rules. But he submitted his rules to the authority of the Church, who investigated the movement and ruled upon it. Some of the original rules which Francis proposed for his Order were denied by Church authorities - they were "pruned away". St. Francis accepted this, and the Franciscan Order was born. Had he not accepted the pruning, his movement might have remained a small, local activity that might have just dwindled away, or degerated into rebellion or heresy.

On a personal level, sometimes we have to accept cutting back of things which seem like great spiritual practices in order to bear good fruit. When I first discovered the Liturgy of the Hours, I dreamed of finding time to say all the offices through the day. Eventually I had to settle for Lauds and Vespers, because my vocation as a father and breadwinner didn't permit me to take breaks for all that praying. If it's a question between fruit and leaves, the fruit will win every time.

Sometimes the "pruning" in our lives can seem severe, even brutal. It's like this with grapes, too, but it doesn't mean the plant is being killed. It doesn't take many leaves to keep a vine going - in fact, grape vines are always throwing out new leaves all through the season. Unlike deciduous trees, which grow a crop of leaves at the start of the season and that's all they get for the year, grape vines are sprouting new leaves all the time. Come to think of it, it's kind of like that in our spiritual lives as well. If the new baby or the new job means I can't attend daily Mass like I used to, maybe the Lord will cause a new avenue of blessing to "sprout" in my life. Just because a familiar set of "leaves" was trimmed back doesn't mean all is lost, it just means that the Father was trimming back to make me more fruitful.

Another thing I learned with my pruning is that you can never tell where the fruit might be. As I started cleaning away thick foliage, I found grape clusters in the strangest places. Totally hidden by leaves and stems, they awaited the pruning back of the leaves to be revealed. Had I not trimmed back the leaves, I never would have found them. In similar manner, sometimes the Lord has to trim back parts of our lives that seem healthy and impressive in order to bring forth some hidden fruit that even we might not have known was there.
A pruned-back vine, with plenty of leaves
and developing fruit.  Hopefully it will yield a rich harvest!

I think I've taken this comparison as far as it'll go, at least for now. I hope I remember some of these lessons the next time the Father starts to take His divine "pruning shears" to my life.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Staying alive - a lesson from yeast

Last Sunday's Gospel reading from Matthew 13 contained the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (to use the older reference) as well as the brief metaphors of the Kingdom being like the mustard seed and the yeast mixed into the flour. (Matt 13:24-43) I've always been able to grasp the Wheat and Tares parable, and the mustard seed comparison (somewhat), but the one about yeast always befuddled me a bit - until I started baking a lot of bread.

I'm a renowned bread baker - at least in the circles I travel. I don't do much, but what I do, I do well. My basic white bread has been called by some the Best Bread in the World. (Credit for that has to go to the late James Beard - it's his recipe.) The ingredients are simple: flour, water, a little salt, yeast, and some sugar to feed the yeast. Yet for all its simplicity, I've had many people ask me for help, because they "can't make bread".

Turns out the most common problem is dead yeast. Three tablespoons isn't a very big portion of nine pounds of dough, but it makes all the difference. If the yeast is fresh and vigorous, the dough rises swiftly and evenly, transforming all that wet flour into high, light loaves. But if the yeast is dead (as most grocery store yeast is), the dough just sits there - a flat, heavy, unappetizing lump. Without good yeast to leaven it, bread is just flour that's been saturated and then dried in the oven.

My experience with yeast dough has helped me understand a little of Jesus' brief metaphor. For one thing, I read somewhere recently that the "three measures" of flour was quite a bit - the same measure stipulated by Abraham in Genesis 18:6, which would have been about three bushels in today's measures. Three bushels! Also, the "yeast" (or "leaven", depending on your translation) would not have been the dry powdery material we typically use today, but a living culture more like a sourdough starter. So even if the woman mixed in three cups of starter, that would have been a lot of dough to rise.

Yet yeast, being the stubborn little beasties that they are, would've done the job given enough time (especially in the warm Mediterranean climate.) I think part of Jesus' point was that it doesn't take much to have a dramatic effect. Just as a few tablespoons of yeast can turn nine pounds of wet flour into bread people will drive miles to get (especially fresh from the oven), so just a few children of the Kingdom can make a big difference in a culture. However - and I think this was another point that Jesus' audience would not have missed - the yeast has to be alive. Yeast isn't like baking soda or vinegar. It's a microbe that is only effective when it's living. Dead yeast is worse than useless - it just smells, and you have to throw it away. But if it's living, it's very effective.

Something for us to keep in mind: if we're to have the "leavening" effect that Jesus desires, we have to be alive in Him. If we are, then we can have a dramatic effect on the world around us, transforming it dramatically. If we don't stay alive, the "dough" of our culture will not be leavened, but remain a soggy, heavy, useless lump. It'll be good for nothing but to be thrown out - and us with it.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Weight of Love

One of my daughters recently gave birth to twins. Though a few weeks premature (not unusual with twins), they arrived healthy and without complications. After a couple weeks of observation in the infant care section of the hospital – which was stressful in its way but could have been a lot worse – the twins were brought home, and the fun truly began. At first the impact was buffered by the presence of some extra help. One of my other daughters stayed and helped for a couple of weeks, and then my wife for a couple more weeks. But eventually all the helpers went home, leaving mom and dad with “four under five”.

My poor daughter has been feeling the weight of this, as everyone expected she would. My son-in-law is a superb husband and father, and does everything he can to lighten the burden, but having even one newborn added to a home that already had a four-year-old and a two-year-old would be a tremendous burden. Two newborns seems unbearable; and indeed, my daughter's online posts both short and long indicate that the incessant demands of the babies are stretching her and her family to the limit.

And yet, deep down, even my stressed daughter and her husband understand that it isn't really the babies that are the burden. They “weigh” nothing at all. What is so heavy is the love. They love so deeply and so truly that they will give nothing less than everything they have to all of their children. It is that compulsion, that intensity of love, that is the real burden.

This is a burden they have taken up voluntarily, and take up again every time one of their children needs care. They lay down their immediate preferences, die to themselves a little more, and shoulder the burden of love and service. It is the love that is the burden, not the babies.

Of course, they don't have to shoulder this burden. They could simply not respond to the need, or give it cursory attention. They could love their children less, and spare themselves some effort. But they will not take that route, for even the thought of that weighs much more heavily than any task. They could not bear to think of their children being less-than-completely loved.

Parenthood is an extreme example of this principle, but it is what comes into play every time we care for others. The burden is always the love. It is not the cry of our child from the next room, or the late-night phone call from the distressed friend, or the sleepless spouse sitting in the darkened living room with a burdened heart, that is so hard to bear. It is the love, or it is nothing. We can always pull the pillow over our head, or let the call roll to voice mail, or pretend we don't notice the empty bed. But if our love is great enough, those options will not even occur to us, and we will again shoulder the burden of love.

We were warned of this. The One who loved so much the He left perfection to come down to shoulder the burden personally was crushed to the ground (thrice, according to legend) before He was broken for love. He told us that following Him meant shouldering the burden of love every day. He also assured us that we would have help with that burden, because it was His burden, and He would help carry it.

But we won't get that help unless we step up and agree to take on the weight of love. Perhaps it will help if we remember what's so heavy: it isn't the baby, or the friend, or the spouse, or whoever. It's the love we have for them that weighs so much, that drives us to expend our scarce personal resources for another. And let us pray for one another (particularly my daughter, her husband, and their children!), that we can share the burden of the weight of love.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Much of what I learned of manhood, I learned from the Inklings

For a variety of reasons, I didn't have a lot of instruction in manhood from other men while I was growing up. My own father never had good instruction from his father, so he had only so much he could pass along. He led by word and example as best he could, and I'm tremendously grateful for that, but it was limited. We lived far from any relatives and didn't have many families we were close to, so I didn't have grandfathers or uncles or surrogate uncles to do the kind of mentoring that can form lads into men.

But the Lord has many tools in His toolbox, so He arranged for me to learn critical things about manhood from other sources. One of them happened to be the Inklings – primarily C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Now, don't go looking for a book or essay on “Manhood 101” from either of those authors, because there isn't one. What they have to teach is scattered through their works. In my case, it was mostly through their fiction, which was very formative in the development of my moral imagination. I grew up with the Chronicles of Narnia from elementary school days, discovering the Lord of the Rings and Lewis' Space Trilogy in my high school years. I cannot count the number of times I walked across Ettinsmoor with Puddleglum, or crossed the Midgewater Marshes with Strider and the hobbits, or looked on while Tirian gave Eustace lessons in knighthood. Though these were literary figures alive “only” in my imagination, they were real, formative, and very valuable.

So, I'd like to pass along a few of these lessons, and what they've meant to me. These aren't just nice theories and maxims – these lessons have helped me at critical points in my life, and have guided my decisions great and small since I was 10 years old. I'm afraid that understanding them will require a reasonable working knowledge of the works quoted – I haven't the space or skill to synopsize them in blog posts.

So, I present: the manly wisdom of the Inklings:

“[Shasta] had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.” (from The Horse and His Boy)

The young traveler Shasta had only intended to escape a harsh and bitter life in Calormen. He would have considered himself fortunate to simply succeed at that, but one circumstance after another kept complicating his journey. The hardships kept piling up, and he always bore the brunt of them. In the end he was forced to do dangerous and heroic things in circumstances he could have never foreseen. He didn't choose these struggles; they were just handed to him and he was expected to overcome them.

Except – he did choose them, in the sense that he did not walk away, as he could have done. With the immediate future of Archenland and the ultimate future of Narnia in the balance, he could have just thrown up his hands and sat down on the grass, letting the Great and Powerful decide the outcome rather than a ragged, runaway peasant boy. But he and his companions just couldn't do that, so he kept at the tasks, even when the cost kept going up. The hurdles were the cost of getting to Narnia, to the freedom he had dreamt of his entire life, so he kept his eye on the goal and kept at the increasingly difficult tasks.

Lewis tosses this principle into the narrative almost as an afterthought, but it is a pivotal one that has helped me many times in my life. It's only human nature to look for some kind of reward or at least recognition for a job well done, especially when in service of a noble ideal. The reality is far different, especially with service to Christ's Kingdom, and doubly so with less glamorous tasks like pro-life work. Often when I'm feeling disappointed or getting discouraged or tending to self-pity with the never-ending-ness of it all, I remember the “Shasta principle”. I should not be surprised when the reward for doing a good deed is being set to do a harder and better one. Expecting that, living with that, is a critical part of true manhood.

A true man takes responsibility, even at great personal cost.

“And since it seemed fit that Isildur's heir should labour to repair Isildur's fault, I went with Gandalf on the long and hopeless search.” Aragorn son of Arathorn at the Council of Elrond, The Fellowship of the Ring

The character of Aragorn is a lesson in nobility and true manhood, and this statement is a good example of why. Gandalf needs Aragorn's help in a difficult and dangerous task: finding Gollum to learn the truth about the Ring he held for many years. That the Ring was not destroyed when it should have been was due to Isildur's fascination with it. Centuries later, Aragorn remembers this fault of his forefather, and undertakes the brutal hunt of the lost Gollum in partial reparation. He takes responsibility for something that happened centuries before he was born, to which he is only tenuously connected.

The cultural phenomenon of adolescence was all but invented for my generation, the Baby Boomers. Part of the definition of adolescence is claiming adult privileges while avoiding adult responsibility. When I was a young man, I saw most of my peers place an almost unquestioned value on avoiding responsibility. The idea was to get as much as you could while giving as little as you could get away with, especially as little personal commitment. This was what engendered men living with their parents well into their 20's, and participating in “relationships” that sometimes lasted longer than a decade without moving closer to marriage.

Over against this insipid model stands the inspiring figure of Aragorn, who accepts responsibility for something for which no reasonable person would consider him in the least culpable. This has inspired me all my adult life not to fear responsibility, but to step up and accept it. I've been far from perfect at it, but the example of Aragorn has always been there, calling me on.

What must be done takes precedence over what you feel like doing

“Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell.”

“...may I not now spend my life as I will?”
“Few may do that with honor.”

Conversation between Aragorn and Éowyn, “The Passing of the Grey Company”, The Return of the King

One of the highest value in our culture is self-fulfillment. Every day through hundreds of channels we are told that we, and only we, should define ourselves and lay out our own paths. We should go where we want to go and do what we feel like doing. Nothing should stand in the way of self-fulfillment – not duty, not honor, not responsibility. “I just had to be true to myself” is the mantra that trumps every claim on us and justifies any treachery, any abandonment, any shirking. It is even taught that to deny yourself pursuit of what you wish is to be false to yourself, to betray your own identity.

Again the manly figure of Aragorn stands in stark opposition to this lie. Duty and responsibility drive him to do what must be done. He knows what he wants, and longs for it deeply, but first he must attend to his tasks. Others are counting on him to come through, and he must not let them down. His own desires and wishes can wait – he has a job to do. To Aragorn, being a man means being one who puts responsibility and duty before his own wishes and preferences.

Aragorn's example has helped me frequently through the years, especially when the sirens of our culture have sung to me about placing my own identity and fulfillment ahead of my responsibilities. I will not find my identity by abandoning my duties and chasing after what seems fulfilling at the moment. I will find my identity by seeing my responsibilities through to their completion – because that's what men do.

I'll have a few more examples of Inkling manhood in my next post.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

T.M. Doran's /Toward the Gleam/

I have on my shelf The Mammoth Book of Jacobean Whodunits, an anthology of short stories set in England's post-Elizabethan era. The stories draw in a surprising number of period characters. Shakespeare, Pocahontas, Henry Hudson, and even King James are among the notables written into the tales. This seems to reflect an emerging tendency to people fictional stories with well-known characters from other contexts. These days, everyone from Beau Brummell to Fitzwilliam Darcy are showing up as characters in mystery novels, suspense stories – even horror tales.

I bring this up to prime readers for what to expect from T.M. Doran's Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011). I purchased the book partly from shameless self-interest in encouraging Ignatius to publish more fiction, and certainly out of interest in the contents (besides – who can resist a book with a trailer?) But even as I ordered it, I was unclear exactly what type of story it was. I know it had something to do with the Inklings, but the synopses and even the trailer left me wondering: what is this story about? There were hints of a primeval threat and the darkest years of the 20th century, but even as I began reading, I didn't know what to expect.

It turns out that Toward the Gleam is a modern suspense/intrigue novel peopled with well-known historical characters. The protagonist, John, is transparently J.R.R. Tolkien himself, even down to his wife and children's names. The premise of the story is that the saga which became Middle Earth was not imagined but discovered in the form of a carefully hidden book, sealed in a metal box of wondrous make and hidden deeply in a nondescript cave in the English countryside. (There are even hints that it may be the Red Book of Westmarch itself, but that's never made clear.) The mysterious book is written in runes which John, with his philological training, eventually able to translate, and the story of the Great Ring comes to light.

The main tension of the story comes about when John, casting about for scholarly assistance in his efforts to understand his discovery, draws in a mysterious character named Alambert who embodies the ruthlessness of that time in Europe. This antagonist is wealthy, intelligent, and obsessed with any hints of primeval civilization, which he ties to Atlantis. But where John seeks to present the story as a source of wisdom and caution, Alambert seeks the ancient knowledge as a source of power and control. John is very circumspect about his treasure, never even admitting that he has found anything. But the cunning Alambert discerns that John is hiding something rare and – dare we say? - precious, and attempts every means to acquire it.

Thus the story unfolds, the retiring Oxford don matching wits with the unscrupulous rogue. Through its pages wander Chesterton (who warns John against ever contacting Alambert – advice he ignores to his regret), Churchill, Agatha Christie – even Conan Doyle gets an honorable mention. Of course the Inklings are there (without Charles Williams – the body of the tale takes place in the mid-30s), ensconced at the Bird and Baby. It is a classic mystery/intrigue story, with visits to exotic European locales, assassination attempts (which Dolan uses as partial explanation of Tolkien's dread of spiders), a seductress, and even a one-eyed pirate.

Those concerned that Doran may have turned the beloved but retiring Tolkien into a cloak-and-dagger figure can rest easy. Though the plot takes John into some unusual circumstances, it never stretches believability beyond the breaking point. John remains “in character”, responding as one would expect him to. Perhaps the climactic final encounter with the villain is a touch melodramatic, but not so much to spoil the story. Doran is clearly working hard to cast the characters into his plot as the people they were, and render their behaviour accordingly.

Overall, Doran tells a good tale, keeping it reasonably believable (even the Famous Personages), well plotted, and moving along briskly. It might disappoint anyone expecting mythopoeic fiction, but as a suspense/intrigue tale it is worth picking up - though I do wish they'd published a paperback version.

One thing I must admit that mystified me a little, though perhaps this is just me being dense: even as I finished the book, it was never quite sure just what "the gleam" was, and who or what was moving toward it. Maybe Doran could have been a bit more clear about that.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Luminous Times

Those were luminous days.

Glowing smiles and shining rings,

Six yellow-clad girls wandering down a long aisle.

A tiny kitchen bathed in morning light,

Breakfasts at a table only big enough for two.

A living room just large enough to turn round in,

A tub too small even for that.

Bookshelves full of books all mixed together,

A crib full of a smiling little turtle.
Those were luminous days.

Those were luminous weeks.

Mine measured by classes, and projects,

and long days away; a college rhythm.

Your forty (again! surprise!) measured by drives

to Algonac, with stops at McDonald's.

Two whole bedrooms, and a living room!

With a front window overlooking a parking lot.

A contraband Christmas tree festooned with lights,

A hobbit in the doorway and another fuzzy head to love.
Those were luminous weeks.

Those were luminous months.

A house of our own and a blue station wagon,

Summer sun streaming across the front lawn.

My first real job, long early commutes,

So many adopted aunts to share our home.

Drives to Richmond, classes beneath the grain elevators,

A walk to the corner in a blizzard.

Peepers, and Bulldogs, and Squiggys,

And one you wouldn't mind if he was the last.
Those were luminous months.

Those were luminous years.

Flashing past, season by season,

Almost too quickly to track.

A giant van with a funny name,

And great passenger miles per gallon.

Halftime shows and quiz bowl meets and dance recitals,

Lean years and rich years and “Cago-Mento” years.

Star fields in the front window and

A peppermint from the ceiling.
Those were luminous years.

Those were luminous decades.

A familiar white house, living now only in memory,

An upstairs hall lit by summer sunsets.

A deck in the morning breeze,

Counting down months to a midwinter retreat.

Nestlings making nests of their own,

A homestead under the shadow of loss.

A surprise find; grapes among the bushes,

An Advent sacrificed and a house remade.
Those were luminous decades.

Yes, there were shadows.

The ones we never got to hold,

The family lost and friends who followed.

The encroaching fear, the misunderstandings and conflicts,

Some days heavier than lead.

But looking back at the clouds and brightness,

A Glorious Face emerges,

And the shadows are enveloped

By the light.
Indeed, there were shadows.

Now we live.

In a house full of light,

Rich, warm wood and fresh-painted walls.

Bush surrounded, bird beset,

The kind of place your dad would have chosen.

Filled with quiet and calm,

and peace, except when

It is filled with laughter and clutter

and peace.
Now we live.

These are luminous times.

30 years, 360 months, 1565 weeks,

10957 days.

Illuminated by Radiance

Not of this world.

If what is to come is half as blessed

As what has been.

Then the time shall pass joyfully at your side,

And the days will be light.
These are luminous times.

On August 15th of this year, I will celebrate 30 years of marriage with my wonderful bride Ellen. This is for her.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

A Mother's Day tribute

My poor wife hasn't had a proper Mother's Day in decades.

You know, one where dad & kids get up early, make breakfast to bring to her in bed with a little vase on the tray and cards tucked under the plate.  One where she didn't have to lift a finger to cook or clean all day because her appreciative family took care of all that for her.  She can't remember the last time she had one of those, if she ever has.

It wasn't that the kids and I didn't love her and want her to have a good Mother's Day.  The main reason was that our local right to life chapter offered roses at local parishes on Mother's Day as a fundraiser.  This meant setting up on Saturday afternoon, staffing the tables for the vigil Mass and all the morning Masses, and then packing up, bringing the remnants home, and packing them away.  Typically we wouldn't all be done until 2:30 or 3:00, at which point all of us wanted to do nothing more than rest.  Thus for years my dedicated wife sacrificed her Mother's Days to the pro-life cause.

This year was supposed to be different.  I was rallying a few KofC members to help with the tables, and our youngest son was home from college.  She was going to be singing at two Masses anyway, but she wasn't planning on staffing tables, at least.  She might not get the breakfast in bed, but she wouldn't have to shoulder much of the burden of the fundraiser.

Then the phone rang last Thursday.  Our eldest daughter, who is well along with twins, was having hard, regular contractions at 33 weeks - not a catastrophe, but worrisome enough.  She was being admitted for observation, and Ellen was needed to watch the little ones and run the house while daughter and husband were at the hospital.  This wasn't completely unexpected, so Ellen packed up and headed down.  Fortunately, things didn't go so far as premature delivery: rest and a few appropriate medications slowed the contractions down to the point that my daughter was sent home from the hospital today with a prescription for strict bed rest. 

For Ellen, that means what we expected it would mean when this pregnancy got near this stage: she's managing our daughter's home for the remainder of the pregnancy (which will probably be no more than a couple of weeks at best.) She'll tend to dinners and kiddos and laundry and diapers and all the other things that will need tending while my daughter is restricted to bed for the sake of the babies she bears.  Ellen will have the help of sisters who live in the area, and Arwen's helpful husband (when he's not at work), but the brunt of the household management will fall on her.

Just in time for Mother's Day.

Which means, once again, my longsuffering wife is giving up her Mother's Day for the sake of unborn children.  This time it happens to be her own grandchildren, who she'll be able to hold before very long, but it's still a sacrifice.  In years past I've assured her that the Lord will make up to her all these Mother's Days she gave up for the sake of others.  And, given what He's asked her to do over the decades, I'm sure it'll be quite a reward.

It can't come a moment too soon.

Happy Mother's Day, precious wife.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Trusting Rightly

I've been meditating quite a bit recently on placing trust – specifically, in what or whom I place my trust. What piqued my interest was an account I read of Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. She recounted how some sister in her convent had misunderstood something she'd said or done. Rather than attempting to correct the sister's understanding, or to “clear her name”, St. Thérèse let the matter pass, reasoning that on Judgement Day, when all things would be made known, the true account of the incident would come out.
This impressed me greatly. Such an attitude reflected a deep faith and a long vision. Even if this outlook had not come easily to St. Thérèse, and even if she did not execute it perfectly on every occasion, it still displayed powerful trust and profound insight. It is certainly leagues beyond my attitude. I'm so preoccupied with what others think of me that even the possibility that someone is misunderstanding me keeps me awake at night. I want everyone to understand how upright and reasonable my motives are, and am willing to expend tremendous effort explaining myself so that I am perfectly understood. Unlike the Little Flower, I don't trust God to vindicate me eventually – I want to submit evidence of my innocence immediately, to be judged by whoever I fear is misunderstanding me. I want them to judge in my favor.
Simply put, I'm placing my trust in others. I crave the good opinion of men, to the point that I get nearly frantic if I think that good opinion is endangered. I'll scurry and fret and draft letters and rehearse explanations and arrange meetings, all out of dread. Oh, I'll rationalize my efforts as an attempt to insure “the truth” is known, but I know my heart. It is only about 3% concerned with “the truth”, and 97% concerned with retaining the good opinions of others.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with others having a good opinion of you. I'm sure many had good opinions of St. Thérèse even while she lived. But she did not center her importance on those opinions. Neither did she disdain them out of pride (“Who cares what she thinks?”) She kept her focus in the right place – on the hands of her all-knowing and all-just Father – and the judgements of men fall where they may. She trusted that the day would come when all circumstances and motives would be laid bare, and her actions would be vindicated – or condemned – according to the criteria that mattered to Him.
All of which brings me to Psalm 118. It seems to me that this psalm stretches over all Holy Week. The cries of the crowd on Palm Sunday - “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” - were drawn from Psalm 118. Jesus quoted it to the Pharisees after the damning parable of the wicked tenants (Matt 20:9-18). It is the last portion of the Great Hallel, the hymn sung by Jesus and the apostles just before they left for Gethsemane (Mk 14:26). And eventually St. Peter quotes it when proclaiming Jesus' Resurrection before the very Council that condemned Him. (Acts 4:11)
And what is the theme of this psalm? Trusting in God rather than in men. Looking to the Lord with complete abandon (v.6), not trusting in men (v. 8 & 9), and leaving the final outcome in God's hands (v. 7 & 22). Surely Jesus demonstrated what this kind of trust looked like in practice. When accused before the Sanhedrin, He did not start explaining Himself, “Look, guys, you've got it all wrong. The Kingdom I'm founding isn't a political entity – it won't threaten your rule of Jerusalem in the least.” Even before Pilate, when He easily could have laid bare the machinations of the chief priests and secured His freedom, He did not. His attitude was, “My Father will know the right of it” - even if that vindication lay on the far side of being tortured to death. (That's trust!)
Jesus was not worried about being misunderstood. What others thought about Him, said about Him, and ultimately did to Him did not matter as much as obeying His Father, and trusting in His final vindication. From this example, saints and martyrs down through history have been able to follow, fixing their eyes upon Him, trusting Him to vindicate them regardless of what men did. Even the little trials offered by St. Thérèse's sisters in the convent afforded an opportunity to trust and surrender.
This is the challenge to me this Holy Week and beyond. I've never been reviled, slandered, and verbally attacked. I've certainly never been physically abused. But considering how agitated I get when I'm merely misunderstood, I've got a long way to go before I even meet the standards set by the Little Flower, much less Christ Himself. But the first step is to recognize where I'm failing, and it is here: at the point of my trust. May I grow in this trust during this Holy Week, this Easter Season, and through the rest of my life.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.' When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
1 Pet 2:21-23

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Losing Battle

Catholic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is divorced, and making no secret about living with his (also divorced) girlfriend Sandra Lee. Though the people of New York don't consider this an impediment to his serving as governor, the Canon Law of the Catholic Church considers this an impediment to receiving Holy Communion (Canon 915). But it seems that Cuomo's bishop, Howard Hubbard, didn't get the memo, and served both Governor Cuomo and Ms. Lee communion at Mass recently. (Full details can be found in this CNS News article.)

When Canon Lawyer Edward Peters publicly stated the simple fact that under Catholic sacramental law, Governor Cuomo should not have been given communion, there was a great public outcry - against Dr. Peters. Everybody and his brother felt the need to reply, including the Bishop, Governor Cuomo, and then cast of the View. These responses were predictable, from the "this is a delicate pastoral situation blah, blah, blah" issued by the Bishop to the blatant Catholic-bashing of the usual suspects like Whoopi Goldberg. The tenor in the public square, reinforced by the Bishop's limp-spined response, was that Dr. Peters was being the extremist, and Governor Cuomo the persecuted party.

In my parish, our pastor is gravely concerned about how few people attend Confession. "I must have a parish full of saints!" he exclaims at Mass. "Hardly anyone lining up for Confession, yet every Sunday, everyone coming up for Communion!" He and many of us are equally concerned about vast numbers of fallen away Catholics, some of whom have gone to other churches but most of whom just stay at home, figuring they're doing well enough without the grace of the Sacraments. We're brainstorming about how to reach these people, get them to understand that the stakes are as high as they can get, and help them back into communion with God.

But as long as stuff like this Cuomo business goes on, we're fighting a losing battle.

Look at it: nobody is more responsible for the souls in his care than a bishop. Governor Cuomo makes no bones about the fact that he is living in public concubinage with a woman, which is a mortal sin, which means that according to the Scriptures and Church teaching he "eats and drinks judgement on himself" (1 Cor 11:29) every time he takes Communion. Simply put, he's damning himself further every time he does it. Yet his Bishop just stands there and enables it.

Furthermore, everyone sees this happening. So let's say my pastor is counselling a man who is living in public concubinage about returning to the Church and resuming Communion. My pastor would explain that the man needed to cease sexual union with his girlfriend, go to Confession, and begin moving toward sacramental marriage before he could come up for Communion. Unfortunately, all the man would have to do is point to Governor Cuomo and his Bishop. How could my pastor respond? Or what if a divorced man wants to get remarried and continue going to Communion? Why bother with the time and fuss of an annulment? Governor Cuomo sets the example: just move in together. Not only can you keep going to Communion, you might get a bishop to serve you!

Sadly, we had a similar situation in our Archdiocese some years ago. Our state's governor was Catholic, but was also fiercely pro-abortion. She vetoed every pro-life bill that crossed her desk, and worked to stymie pro-life efforts in the legislature. Yet at the same time, she faithfully attended her parish church, even serving as a Eucharistic Minister from time to time. The past Archbishop never made any kind of comment about this, and though our new Archbishop is much more publicly pro-life, he hasn't done anything about this public scandal, either.

The Catholic Church in America desperately needs renewal. Yet as long as public accommodation of sin by the powerful and well-known persists, we will not see it. We might see small progress here and there, but there will be no serious renewal until Church leaders have the courage to stand for holiness, no matter how upset Whoopi Goldberg or the Detroit Free Press gets about it. The Scriptures speak scornfully of those who wouldn't stand up for Jesus because they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. So long as that is the hallmark of the leadership of the Catholic Church in America, we will continue to lose ground in the war for the souls of our nation's citizens – including our own children.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The price of the gods

One of the lesser noticed aspects of ancient myths and legends is the price that gods, demigods, and spirits sometimes demanded for providing goods or services to humans: their children. This can still be seen in folk tales such as Rumpelstiltskin, and such a legend is alluded to in Kristin Lavaransdatter, where Odin assists a woman in brewing then demands for payment “what was between her and the vat” - i.e. the child she carried in her womb1.

This harsh levy is downplayed in most modern renditions of the legends, but students who study the original tales know that a consistent theme throughout them is the hunger lesser gods and spirits have for human children. This is harsh to modern ears, for we value our children so highly that we shudder at the very thought of turning them over to some god in return for a service provided.

Or do we?

The “gods” of our culture provide many things for us, one of the more prominent being copious entertainment. Thanks to radio, television, movies, and now the nearly-ubiquitous Internet, very few in Western culture lack for something to amuse or distract them. America is renowned world-wide for our movies and programs, and the happenings on popular shows can actually be reported on news programs. Televisions are so common that a home without one is so unusual as to be freakish.

But what price do these cultural gods demand for this service of nonstop entertainment of nearly infinite variety? I thought of that this past week, as the furor over the new MTV series Skins erupted across the news media. Especially telling was this commentary by a secular commentator on a secular station. He argued compellingly that once this kind of content is broadcast and known about, it doesn't matter what controls parents might attempt to impose on their children: they will be able to access the program some way or another.

Suddenly, ubiquitous access to all forms of entertainment doesn't look so inviting. The problem is, the horse has left the barn. Parents who have opened their homes to the cultural gods in order to be entertained have usually accomplished a few things. One is setting an example that if something is appealing, it should be watched. The other is letting time they could have spent parenting be displaced by something else. Every hour they spent being passively entertained was one less hour spent interacting with their children and forming their characters. Another common occurrence in modern homes, where televisions are found scattered around the house including in bedrooms, is that of total individual choice. If someone doesn't like what's playing in the family room, they can go in the den or their room and watch something else. These factors converge when children get to an age when shows like Skins attract them – and suddenly parents find they have no way of controlling what their children watch.

The gods of the culture have provided their service of nonstop, enthralling entertainment. Their price: the children.

Our entertainment culture doesn't walk in the door announcing its intent. Like the gods in the old stories, it offer the allure first – the help with the difficult task, or acquiring the desired item, or providing the enticing entertainment. Only afterwards is the terrible price revealed, but at that point it's too late to deny the god his price. The deed is done, and the price must be paid. I wonder how many parents lapped up the entertainment services of the gods of our culture, only to realize to their dismay that one consequence of this was the loss of their children to values they never taught – but the children learned regardless?

I wish I could say that Ellen and I were prescient enough to see this coming when we decided not to have a television in our home while raising our children. We weren't. All we knew was that we wanted to have tight control over what formed their thoughts and imaginations. We wanted it to be good books, Christian teaching, and our family values. It's only looking back over the results of our decision, and watching the anguish of parents who find their children slipping away, that it's become clear what has happened.

The ancient legends contain a subtle lesson: beware who you speak to casually, and which dells or glens you wander into. Above all, watch out who you let into your house, no matter what kind of aid or service they offer. You may get something you really desire, but at a price too terrible to consider.

The lessons are just as valid these days, they just need to be applied a little differently.

1The Bridal Wreath, Part 3, Chapter 7

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Geographic gods

Long ago, people entertained the oddest notions about gods. They thought of gods in terms of geographic regions, as if they were tied to or centered around a physical location. The god's power was greatest in his “home” territory, and diminished beyond his boundaries. Physical place, even actual earth, was deemed important to the worship of a god. This explains Naaman's desire to take home with him a couple mule-loads of Israelite dirt (2 Kings 5:17): he wanted to worship Israel's God on Israel's soil, even if that soil had to be taken to the “land” of another god.

It is true that the Israelites also thought this way – after all, God promised them a land of their own, and even set aside a special place within that land, Mount Zion, as the center for His worship. He probably had many reasons for this, one of them being accommodating the preconceived notions of His people, but another thing became more clear as time went by: the God of Israel was truly god of the whole earth, not just the land occupied by Israel. Furthermore, He was no respecter of places when it came to being obeyed. When the Israelites didn't obey His laws, He did not hesitate to deport them from the land, starting with the nation of Israel in the north and ending with Judah in the south. He even gave hints through His prophets that He could be worshiped anywhere on earth, because all lands (and, ultimately, all people) were His.

These days we consider such notions as geographic gods to be quaint and simplistic. As if God had a jurisdiction, like a secular authority, that you could get on a plane and escape! As if the authority and power of God Almighty could be delimited by something as arbitrary as geographic boundaries! We might smile knowingly when we read accounts like Naaman's, thankful that we're sophisticated enough to have moved beyond such elementary views of God's nature.

Or have we?

The older I get, the more I wonder if maybe we post-moderns don't have our own twist on the regional god mentality. Though we may not think in terms of “the god of Oakland County” (or whatever), we nonetheless tend to partition our outlook on the world into “regions”, and behave as if different “gods” reigned over these conceptual regions. For instance, I know businessmen who are Catholic, but whose business practices are indistinguishable from those of their totally worldly colleagues. If you were to ask one of them whether his workplace attitudes conformed to the teachings of his faith, you'd draw a blank look. Teachings of the faith? Those were for Sunday at Mass times – what did they have to do with closing out this month's sales?

See what I mean? Virtual regions – mental areas where people assume other gods have sway. Oh, someone with such an attitude might acknowledge in the abstract that the One True God has authority over everything, but at the day-to-day level, he would behave as if the workplace was controlled by different gods than the one he thought about at Mass on Sunday. He wouldn't call them gods – he'd call them marketing principles, or business precepts, or whatever – but he would certainly consider them to be more influential in his work environment than God Himself. It isn't that he'd think God impotent, it's that he'd consider Him irrelevant.

Here's another one: entertainment. If you were to ask the average person what God thought of what they did to entertain themselves, you'd probably get another blank stare. Why would God care what television shows I watch? Outside of glaring extremes such as pornography (which is increasingly being seen as a matter of taste, not morals,) most people would wonder why you'd mention God and entertainment in the same context. God has no relevance to their entertainment choices – another “region” where other gods hold sway.

You could find plenty more examples: investment, childrearing, education, health and fitness, and so forth. We Westerners tend to have very compartmentalized lives, whether we profess a religious affiliation or not, and over time we tend to see these compartments as being influenced by different forces. This is simply the idea of regional gods in different guise.

This is one thing I think most Evangelicals do better than most Catholics, at least in this day and age: make a conscious, deliberate effort to make Jesus the Lord of every aspect of their lives. This is often presented as a caricature – e.g. the coworker who punctuates every conversation with “Hallelujah!” and “Praise the Lord!” – but the reality is an important one. Certainly we behave differently in the workplace than we do in worship, and differently again at the ball game, but God Almighty is our Lord wherever we are and whatever we're doing. Sure, He's interested in how we comport ourselves at worship, but He's also interested in what influences us as we draw up that contract or make that repair, albeit in different ways. God doesn't recognize any regions over which He has no control, no matter what we think. He will be Lord over every aspect of our lives. We can cooperate with that or not, but there's one thing we can't do: run anywhere, geographically or in our minds, where He is not Lord.

There is no such place.