Monday, May 30, 2011

Remembering Sacrifices

“It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”
--Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pope in Carbonite?

"Oh, they've encased him in carbonite. He should be quite well protected.  If he survived the freezing process, that is."

  (Image Source)

On the left, the cover art from the Spring 2011 Ignatius Press Catalog. On the right, something rather familiar.  I wonder if the artist is a Star Wars fan?  The resemblance is too funny.

Update: Looks like I'm not the only person to find this little art piece amusing.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

What Draws the Young to Old Things?

Vintage is in.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it never went out.

Many people under 35 are currently fascinated with everything from the vintage to the ancient. Why?  Aren't young people supposed to be wholly preoccupied with the latest and greatest?

This is not just true for thrift store shoppers and fashion bloggers. Within the Catholic Church there are many young people gravitating toward traditional liturgy and practices that, to some of our elders of the baby-boomer generation, seem a little antiquated and possibly somewhat baffling. Most of the women I see in veils at mass each week appear to be under 35.  The religious orders that are getting high numbers of vocations from the young are those with the most traditional attitudes

Oddly enough, we can turn to an antique book for an explanation of this youthful preference for tradition. As usual, G.K. Chesterton can shed some light on the matter in a single paragraph:
"To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power--the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean--an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great--a great war or a love-story. And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire--of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected." (The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 1904)

St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

On Sin and the Opression of Women

John Paul II wrote the following in his encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women):

Jesus enters into the concrete and historical situation of women, a situation which is weighed down by the inheritance of sin. One of the ways in which this inheritance is expressed is habitual discrimination against women in favour of men. This inheritance is rooted within women too. From this point of view the episode of the woman "caught in adultery" (cf. Jn 8:3-11) is particularly eloquent. In the end Jesus says to her: "Do not sin again", but first he evokes an awareness of sin in the men who accuse her in order to stone her, thereby revealing his profound capacity to see human consciences and actions in their true light. Jesus seems to say to the accusers: Is not this woman, for all her sin, above all a confirmation of your own transgressions, of your "male" injustice, your misdeeds?

This truth is valid for the whole human race. The episode recorded in the Gospel of John is repeated in countless similar situations in every period of history. A woman is left alone, exposed to public opinion with "her sin", while behind "her" sin there lurks a man - a sinner, guilty "of the other's sin", indeed equally responsible for it. And yet his sin escapes notice, it is passed over in silence: he does not appear to be responsible for "the others's sin"! Sometimes, forgetting his own sin, he even makes himself the accuser, as in the case described. How often, in a similar way, the woman pays for her own sin (maybe it is she, in some cases, who is guilty of the "others's sin" - the sin of the man), but she alone pays and she pays all alone! How often is she abandoned with her pregnancy, when the man, the child's father, is unwilling to accept responsibility for it? And besides the many "unwed mothers" in our society, we also must consider all those who, as a result of various pressures, even on the part of the guilty man, very often "get rid of" the child before it is born. "They get rid of it": but at what price? Public opinion today tries in various ways to "abolish" the evil of this sin. Normally a woman's conscience does not let her forget that she has taken the life of her own child, for she cannot destroy that readiness to accept life which marks her "ethos" from the "beginning".

Early feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft called for a higher moral standard for men, knowing that to do so would not only improve life for women, but also elevate the entire human race.  They too opposed the contraceptive mentality that made women the playthings of immoral men, and the pattern of exploitation and abandonment that left women bearing the weight not only of their own sins, but those of men who used them.  They believed rightly that this pattern must be broken.   Here, Bl. Pope John Paul II offers us the same challenge, this time woven into the great tapestry of Biblical theology.

It is worthwhile to note his explicit linking of the fallenness of humanity with the phenomenon of gender-based oppression. This is a connection largely missed by the more recent incarnations of the feminist movement, which have instead suggested that women must be just like men (including adopting their supposedly congenital sexual depravity) in order to be "equal".  In short, they have themselves bought into a lie that has its roots in our very fallenness as human beings: a lie invented by men (or passed to them by the Father of Lies) in order to "keep women in their place".

What is this lie?  That anything uniquely female is also inherently inferior, and that only male behavior and male-defined success, and male power is real and legitimate.

G.K. Chesterton addressed that lie in What's Wrong with the World:
The shortest way of summarizing the position is to say that woman stands for the idea of Sanity; that intellectual home to which the mind must return after every excursion on extravagance. The mind that finds its way to wild places is the poet's; but the mind that never finds its way back is the lunatic's. There must in every machine be a part that moves and a part that stands still; there must be in everything that changes a part that is unchangeable. And many of the phenomena which moderns hastily condemn are really parts of this position of the woman as the center and pillar of health. Much of what is called her subservience, and even her pliability, is merely the subservience and pliability of a universal remedy; she varies as medicines vary, with the disease. She has to be an optimist to the morbid husband, a salutary pessimist to the happy-go-lucky husband. She has to prevent the Quixote from being put upon, and the bully from putting upon others. ...


The final fact which fixes this is a sufficiently plain one. Supposing it to be conceded that humanity has acted at least not unnaturally in dividing itself into two halves, respectively typifying the ideals of special talent and of general sanity (since they are genuinely difficult to combine completely in one mind), it is not difficult to see why the line of cleavage has followed the line of sex, or why the female became the emblem of the universal and the male of the special and superior. Two gigantic facts of nature fixed it thus: first, that the woman who frequently fulfilled her functions literally could not be specially prominent in experiment and adventure; and second, that the same natural operation surrounded her with very young children, who require to be taught not so much anything as everything. Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

Chesterton recognized the vast and profound importance of women, especially in their role as mothers.  He does not, as many people suppose Christian men do, view us as mere incubators, as playthings, or as servants.  We are the center of the most important place in the world: the home, the fundamental unit of society, and as such may be said to be, in a sense, the center of the human universe!  One may contribute to society in the workplace, but one creates society in the home.

Instead of using gender differences as a bludgeon to keep women down,  as an excuse to deprive one half of the population of education and social power, Catholic teaching and common sense challenge us to elevate women without diminishing our uniqueness, leaving us free to influence the world around us as God meant us to do.   As a culture we must "keep women in their place", not as slaves to men, but as partners.


Related reading:
Psychology Today: Why Do So Many Women Experience The "Impostor Syndrome"?

Happy Mother's Day!

"Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children..."
--William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848)

(Photo by LobotomizedGoat. Used with permission)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Movie Recommendation: "Vision"

"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to contemplation of the truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know Himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."
--Blessed Pope John Paul II

There are many who would be surprised to find faith and reason united in the life of an abbess living in the middle ages.  Such people cannot be familiar with the life of Hildegard of Bingen. She wrote books, music, and mystery plays, and also taught and practiced medicine. For an introduction to her, I highly recommend the recent film Vision.

After seeing a highly favorable review over at Tea at Trianon, I discovered that Vision was available for instant play on Netflix, so I naturally had to add it to my queue.

Elena Maria Vidal writes:

Resisting the temptation to make the film into a piece of feminist propaganda, Vision portrays Hildegard as an obedient daughter of the Church. Her obedience is by no means mere childish acquiescence, as the vow of obedience is too often misconstrued, but an expression of a vibrant faith. St. Hildegard is not afraid to take a firm but charitable stand against injustice. She will brook no infractions of the Rule which protects the serene and disciplined life of her nuns. She is a true mother ready to fight to the death for her spiritual children. (Read the rest.)

That sounded good to me!

I was never terribly familiar with her work before I saw this film, but I have to say that it has sparked my interest, particularly in her morality plays, one of which is shown in the film, and her hauntingly beautiful music, which is used extensively in the soundtrack. Here is an example of one of her compositions:

The film as a whole manages to show the beauty of monastic life alongside the inevitable human realities of internal politics.  It allows the story to tell itself, without excessive glorification of the heroine, or unnecessary demonization of the Church.  Barbara Sukowa's performance portrays a strong woman dedicated to the truth and beauty of her faith with a kind of radical orthodoxy that challenges those around her. She takes delight in the created world, and passes that on to the nuns in her care. At the same time, she is still a human being with human weakness who has to struggle to reach high ideals.  She is, like the rest of us, completely dependent on God for whatever abilities, strengths, or successes she has.

This film was, in short, a breath of fresh air.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

It's About Time

You may recall that the University of Notre Dame was the center of a much publicized scandal some time back.  Much to the chagrin of every serious Catholic associated with the institution and the outrage of many other serious Catholics who are not,  they invited President Obama to speak a their 2009 commencement, despite the fact that his positions on many fundamental social issues are directly contrary to Church teachings. (See the video below or read the Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics for more on which issues these are and why they are important.)

It could be argued that a Catholic university could legitimately invite a public figure who disagrees with church teaching to speak in a debate on issues of life and family. But, to invite President Obama to be a commencement speaker, and to award him an honorary degree while he was there, was a strange gesture for a Catholic university to make, to say the least. This is especially so when one considers the USCCB's 2004 statement on "Catholics in Political Life" which says:

"The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

Not surprisingly, Obama's remarks on the occasion, while full of words like "common ground", essentially asked Catholics and others with traditional Judeo-Christian values to set aside their consciences and follow his own moral views. (My response to his speech here.)  Genuinlely conciliatory? I think not.

Protestors who came to speak out against this scandalous invitation were arrested for trespassing.

Those charges have now, two years later, been dropped, thanks to the efforts of the Thomas More Society, the president of which happens to be a Notre Dame graduate.


Thomas More Society’s Relentless Legal Pursuit Wins Justice for Pro-Life Activists at Notre Dame
WDNU News: Charges Dropped in Notre Dame Protest Charges Dropped Against Notre Dame-Obama Speech Protestors

Tip of the Schoolmarm Ruler to: Joseph Bottum at

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

They call him "The Prince of Music" for a reason.

I'm not talking about the guy in purple.

Long before there was a King of Rock and Roll or an artist formerly known as anything, there was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, a gifted 16th century composer, whose work can still be heard in the liturgy as well as in concert halls.

His Sicut Cervus is one of the first pieces of renaissance polyphony I ever heard. It continues to be a particular favorite of mine.  One need not understand the Latin text to appreciate the beauty and meaning in this piece, though it helps:

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum
ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus.

"As the deer longs for streams of water,
so my soul longs for you, O God."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

On Victories

St. George and The Dragon (Raphael)
"War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend..."

--Faramir in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers