Monday, April 24, 2017

Snowflakes in Winter

When I was perhaps 11 and my sister was 9, our Dad would often take us skiing in the winter, driving the 4 hours out to Lake Tahoe, and letting us wander the resorts so long as we stuck in a pair. We were both fairly competent and would tackle the occasional Black Diamond run or two together.

On one particularly clear day, my little sister slipped while we were close to a dangerous near-vertical drop. She fell on her stomach, face towards me, and slowly slid towards her inevitable doom, reaching out her hands, crying out my name repeatedly, begging me to help her as she scrabbled desperately to gain some purchase on the icy incline.

I planted my ski poles, not five feet away from her, and laughed.

She was in no danger. I could see that she was sliding down a fairly gentle slope that ended in a wide flat ledge before the perilous drop really began. The contrast between her perceived and actual danger amused me.

As her small form slid further down and away, her eyes filled with horror and disbelief: her protector, her friend, her big sister, would not even stretch out a hand but simply stood back positively relishing her imminent demise. What sick cruel joke was this? 

It took her awhile to get over that, even once she understood that she'd been in no actual danger. It left such a lasting impression that she still sometimes brings it up.

If our reflex reaction is to laugh at others when they are scared because of perceived danger (real or imagined) that'll probably come back to haunt you later. Episodes like that have the potential of sticking with people more than rational argument - they only see a hideous laughing visage and the danger seems to become worse because you can't trust the people around you to act with compassion.

There is a huge amount of stupidity in the world. But we're fighting against principalities and powers - not against people. Stupidity doesn't need to be coddled because it's not a person and sometimes laughter might be a good response when someone says something incredibly obtuse. But it should be a measured and deliberate response to the stupidity versus a reflexive and default position that conflates person and position.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Suffering is Gross

"By following Jesus on the way of his Passion we not only see the Passion of Jesus, but we also see all the suffering in the world, and this is the profound intention of the prayer of the Way of the Cross:  to open our hearts and to help us to see with our heart...He was made man to give us a heart of flesh and to reawaken within us love for the suffering, for the destitute. "
-Benedict XVI, Way of the Cross

Suffering is an ugly thing: contorted trembling limbs, bodily fluids leaking from every whichwhere (gross!), wan faces with dulled over eyes - unpleasant to look at, uncomfortable to be near, hideous to experience.

The euthanasia movement is firmly established within U.S. - it used to be that if you asked someone about euthanasia they would, hesitantly, say they were against. The inverse is now true, at least in the SF Bay Area.

If someone is in excruciating pain or suffering from a terminal illness or from an illness that would slowly and agonizingly rip their mind or body away from them, why don't we allow them to die with some modicum of dignity - quietly slipping away into the dusky eternity?

We're so overcome at the idea of suffering that we hand someone a loaded gun and sentimentally sniffle into our handkerchiefs about it being a merciful thing to do.

Where were you when I needed a ride to the doctor?

Where were you when I was hungry and couldn't cook for myself or find the energy to even order delivery?

Where were you when I was crying and scared as the test results came back?

Were you there?

To have real compassion is not to allow people to think that their lives are worthless. The way to do that is to be with them in the darkness as bearers of Christ's light. When we feel loved by others, we want to stay with them even though we are in pain.

The Passion is not something to remotely contemplate once a year as a Gloriously Sorrowful Thing that opened the Gates of Heaven and aren't we all turrible sinners and whatnot -- and then be done with it because - BAM! EASTER! Rejoicing for 50 days!

The Passion is a template to follow in our daily lives: the example of Christ, of the women, and of Simon (reluctant though he was). Do not let others be alone. Christ came to us and "...was made flesh precisely to be able to suffer with us and to be with us in our suffering." And we, like Him, are to go out to others and be with them in theirs.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Friendship has benefits.

I wouldn't characterize myself as an adventurous person.

Sure, I moved abroad to take classes in a foreign language after only having studied it for one month (#yolo), threw my lot in with a Great Books program that lasted two years before imploding, go to improv classes, and am down to try pretty much any strange food or experience you throw at me. Bugs? Done. Animal nasty bits? Done. Horse? Yusss. Delicious. Tastes like Black Beauty. Toss me some o' that cheese you need to wear goggles with while eating lest the worms leap out at you - I'm down.

In some ways, I am the first to jump.

But when it comes to forming friendships, I am exceedingly cautious. Doubly so when it comes to forming friendships with men.

It was only after two months of knowing some college-mates that I started drinking when going out to party with them on windy San Francisco beaches, sitting by a bonfire, sucking down cheap beer. In shock, they said: "But... You don't drink!" I'd waited until I was dead certain they were the sort of people who took care of their friends IF they drank too much and needed help staggering home. It was only after knowing one person for ten years that he actually started to feel like we were good friends. Usually, people see me as background, devoid of personality.

I don't expose much of me in person to relative strangers, faccia a faccia - what if someone discovers my Achilles' heel and hurt me or I them? What if they get the wrong idea? What if I reveal myself and am rejected?

One of the effects of the Fall was to break bonds between man and creation, between man and woman, between self and other. We still cover ourselves with fig leaves. But man is a social animal. Most of us, even we introverts, have a strong desire to be among others and give of ourselves to them as we are capable. This desire is checked against our knowledge that sometimes people will deliberately hurt us after we open up to them and that the people we're closest to have the greatest power to effect such hurt. Dante puts the treacherous into the deepest circle of hell - they are the most inhuman who turn their back on friends, family, and God. Backstabbing no-goodniks.

Forming friendships comes easily for some, harder for others depending on...many, many things.

Forming friendships with the opposite sex is naturally a bit more delicate since affection/intimacy is present and there's the whole concupiscence and "T'EH SEX" (!?!?!?) thing. But human nature is not broken to the point where we are incapable of having a pure friendship with a member of the opposite sex. To say otherwise would be the equivalent of asserting reason cannot hold sway over our passions, that we are primarily bestial and secondarily rational -- or to assert that having friendships with the opposite sex are meaningless unless they exist or terminate in some familial bond.

R.H. Benson wrote:
[Friendship] is not a manifestation of sex, for David can cry to Jonathan "Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women"; it is not a sympathy arising from common interests, for the sage and the fool can form a friendship at least as strong as any between two sages or two fools; it is not a relationship based on the exchange of ideas, for the deepest friendships thrive better in silence than in speech. "No man is truly my friend," says Maeterlinck, "until we have each learned to be silent in one another's company."


The essence of a perfect friendship is that each friend reveals himself utterly to the other, flings aside his reserves, and shows himself for what he truly is...It is tolerably true to say that the difference between our behaviour respectively to an acquaintance and to a friend, is that in the first case we seek to conceal ourselves, to present an agreeable or a convenient image of our own character, to use language as a disguise, to use conversation as we might use counters; and in the second case that we put aside conventions and makeshifts, and seek to express ourselves as we are, and not as we would have our friend to think us to be.
-The Friendship of Christ
In our imperfect world, we rub off on each other until we're smooth like polished stone.We benefit both from revealing ourselves and having others reveal themselves to us. Our rough edges get worn away as we support, encourage, and bear burdens for each other. Friendships do not simply reveal who we are, but also allow us to be in a different way, to make real what was only potential before in our characters. We may choose to be courageous and patiently be with others in times of distress, or we may fade away when things get difficult or they make too many demands of our time and energy. Each friendship is an opportunity to love more and to love in manifestly different ways.

Human friendships are like Divine Friendship. When we become friends with Christ, then our human friendships are centered in the bosom of the Trinity. Our final end is seen and we want out friends to meet Him and He is:
...the one Friend who cannot fail. This is the one Friendship for whose sake we cannot humiliate ourselves too much, cannot expose ourselves too much, cannot give too intimate confidences or offer too great sacrifices. It is in the cause of this one Friend only and of His Friendship that the words of one of His intimates are completely justified in which he tells us that for His sake it is good to "count all things to be but loss" -- "and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ."
-The Friendship of Christ
C.S. Lewis put it aptly in one of his lesser-read novels Till We Have Faces:
When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

Sunday, April 02, 2017

We await in joyful hope!

Stop with the anger cultivation

It's easy to be a people of anger - especially if we can pawn it off to ourselves as righteous anger. We seek out news that confirms our suspicions regarding the depravity of mankind, we meditate on injustices done to us or our loved ones or innocent one, we work ourselves into frothing-at-the-mouth-stage and then say things like "I cannot WAIT until the Good Lord comes and ends all this! Can't happen soon enough!!!"

That - stop that.

We await in joyful hope, not angry despair.

Yes, we are sinners. Yes, we deserve damnation. And, yes, the world seems like a pretty bleak place at times. But it's not all bad news. Y'know?

Cultivating our anger until it becomes a predominant bent in our character does not bring us closer to Christ. At the right time, place, for the right reasons, etc., it's virtuous, sure. And who doesn't like to dash off a good screed, powered by pure rage? I know *I* simply adore to huff into a chair and take a shot of whiskey before furiously typing on the keyboard while emitting screams of rage (well, perhaps not quite that far). But it's not good for us a default state of being.

Our passions affect our perception and experience of reality. When we've watched a horror film late at night and are by our lonesome selves in a huuge house, fear can overpower us: we turn on ALL THE LIGHTS or slip uneasily into bed imagining a figure with long hair...watching us from the shadows. Our behavior is not quite under control of reason.

Anger is similar. We begin to overreact to reality, always see some provocation, and ARE ALWAYS SHOUTING rather than taking some reasonable approach. And if we're always shouting, always focusing on what's going wrong with the world (the bad and the ugly), then how on earth do you propose to bring the Good News to those who are parched for it? How can you tell people about Christ with the same lips, the same breath, with which you obliquely are hoping that it all ends now hell with it?

Praying the psalms, I never get that sense of "end it all now!" I experience an intense sense of longing and sadness coupled with a turning towards joy where people dance and play melodies.
We want ALL THE PEOPLE to get to heaven. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to become saints and to help people become one. Thank God for these opportunities to bring more people to joy and hope!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Budweiser and other Brews

My parents made sure that my siblings and I were exposed to ballet, opera, plays, a monster truck rally, robo-wars, and bullfights (which are totes legal in California - matadors from Spain and South America come to California to train in bloodless bullfights and they are AMAZING). Catholics are a "yes, gimmie that...and that...and OH HELL YES, ABSOLUTELY THAT!!!" kinda culture. We're highly inclusive; we engorge ourselves on being.

Evil is when something that should be lackless has some lack. It follows that anything truly human is truly Catholic, since to be authentically human is to be more what we were created to be (Imago Dei).

But there is a tension between the high-brow and low-brow forms of enjoyment - a conflation that the closer you are to God the more refined your tastes (particularly in art) should be on earth. The more otherwordly and dispassionate, the better (except for The Passion - that's ok)!

Thus it is, for example, that pious religious art drivel is put out and an implicit claim is made that such fare is better for us than movies with no religion in them and characters who do naughty things and perhaps (quelle horreur) show naughty bits.

It is true that man is a rational animal our excellence is acting in accord with right reason, i.e. in loving God and all that naturally flows from that.

It is not true that this entails that it is wrong to desire and enjoy lesser goods.

It is also not true that something which treats of refined/heavenly/rational things imbues it with a certain excellence or necessary priority.

It is, further, not true that a lack of refinement/explicit religious sentiment makes for wickedness.

If I want to kick back with a Budweiser and turn on a mindless anime series, where is the harm in that? There are better things I could be doing - better things I could be enjoying - but that is not the measure by which we measure. The eager convert who jumps straight into seminary is positively salivating for a higher good -- but is it good *for him* and *at that time*?

Life can still be full low-brow stuff like this or high-brow stuff like this. Or a whole range of things in between!

We're affective corporeal creatures with a shared destiny. We don't have to pretend that we like only explicitly-religious things or that we don't have passions that wax and wane and occasionally cause us to explode in a puffball of expletives that stand in contradistinction to the virtue-types proffered by religious films. There is some virtue in madness if it's at the right time, place, etc. It's good to be riled up about some things (abortion, death penalty, euthanasia, unjust wars, etc.) and to express that through various mediums (da solo, in a group, in art, etc.). We also don't need to ignore that there are aspects of human actions that are unsavory, bawdy, or vulgar -- and that sometimes such things are funny (*cough* Chaucer's Wife of Bath *cough*).

If a movie, if a play, if a book, if an event, if a thing leads us closer to understanding those aspects of human nature in its myriad of expressions and motivations - and if our enjoyment of that does not contravene God's laws - then we are better equipped to penetrate deeper into reality, into truth, into being. At least, so I'd contend (with a healthy quantity of caveats and conditions as regards the particular individual and object of their appetite).

We should not despise things that are low-brow or not explicitly Catholic -- or instances where we experience and express human passions -- it might have some worth to it, some goodness, some being. It might be Catholic, just not in name.

As Catholics, we want ALL THE THINGS that are good and we want ALL THE PEOPLE to get to heaven. Budweiser and top-shelf booze are both welcome.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

World Poetry Day - A Poem for Today

Interior, by Dorothy Parker

Her mind lives in a quiet room,
A narrow room, and tall,
With pretty lamps to quench the gloom
And mottoes on the wall.

There all the things are waxen neat,
And set in decorous lines,
And there are posies, round and sweet,
And little, straightened vines.

Her mind lives tidily, apart
From cold and noise and pain,
And bolts the door against her heart,
Out wailing in the rain.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Be Not Afraid

Nietzsche once wrote, "To have joy in anything, one must approve everything." While Nietzsche was a rather sad and disconsolate figure in the annals of history (really, the poor sod never struck me as being happy; if what you do doesn't lead to happiness then what even is the point?), he was going in the right direction with that bit. We should not be afraid to embrace the unfamiliar if it is good, to take delight in it however preposterous or foreign it might seem -- to cast out into the deep unknown waters.

For deep calls unto deep.

We are always on guard against the snares and wickedness of the devil. And rightly so - it's not like, pffffffffft, there's eternal beatitude or damnation at stake, right?! Yet, sometimes we are so much on guard that not even goodness slips past our watchful gaze. If something new presents itself, we dredge up a list of criteria it must meet in order to be considered a legitimate good and worrisomely tick off every pass or fail as we gnaw critically on a pencil. Our first concern is not whether the object is good of itself but whether it meets our notions of good.

Younger children, if they get a chance, will often harshly impose rules of right and wrong on even smaller children. Maybe it's because they are finally in a position to tell rather than be told -- or perhaps it's because we are creature of habit, structure, and laws. The unknown makes us uncomfortable; if something doesn't fit our notions, how should it be categorized? It's easiest to err on the side of caution and stricture.

St. Francis would strip naked and roll around in the snow - I'm pretty sure that if I saw something like that going down I'd give it some serious side eye. But what seems like a violation of modesty in human eyes is a challenge to a deeper understanding of purity. *cough* Abraham and Isaac, anyone? *cough*

God is not encompassed by our notions of good. He constantly pushes, stretches, and opens us up to new vistas if we allow Him to. Our notions are shattered, remade, then shattered again as we see what is good, stagger after it, and realize that all along we've been holding only a few pieces of something so big that not even all the hands in the world could grasp it.

We should not be hasty to judge negatively or be fearful when something new presents itself. We should be eager to cast out into the deep. That doesn't mean being dumb and heading out without an analogical life vest on, setting aside what we know of good. But it does mean that we should not immediately assume something unknown is from de divil.  Evil preys upon good, not the other way round. We are told to assume the best of people - and that same assumption should extend to other aspects of life.

Sometimes, the object is bad either for us or of itself. But if it is good then it can enrich our experiences and give us a few more glimpses of a reality that refuses to fit into our own categorizations.

And that is why I really enjoy things like the clip below (ohhh, segue, didn't see that coming!), where there is a joyful affirmation of different forms of dance, without any begrudgement, by artists from very different understandings of movement and tradition. The classic and the new are encompassed by a reality with space for both.

Really, this post is just an excuse to share this wonderful video as an example of old and accepted territories versus new and what some people would dismiss immediately as a lesser or stupid dance:

Montreal Swing Riot 2016 - Vintage vs Modern Street Dancers - Part 1 of the Invitational Battle from Alain Wong on Vimeo.

Friday, March 17, 2017

From the Corporeal to the Spiritual

A consecrated virgin friend of mine sent me a sweet email about how she fondly remembers that one time I hid a can of Guinness under my coat and discreetly passed it off to her at the Angelicum - amidst all the priests, sisters, and seminarians. I have no memory of this - smuggling beer to religious people is apparently not enough out of the ordinary for me to even note.

Food is one of the many ways in which I express my love. If I like you, I will feed you. If I don't like you, I will take those last few curly fries and make intense and uncomfortable eye-contact with you as I eat them - the sort of eye-contact babies make with you when they poop their diapers.

A friend was recently over, sad and in need of comfort. Instead of hugging her, I listed off every single food item I had that she could conceivably eat, racking my mind to suggest something that might tempt her appetite. Then I hugged her. Then I suggested she talk to a priest.

When we're very sad, we tend to abstain from food because our taste for life and all it entails is dulled. Eating becomes mechanical rather than sensual; there is no joy. This is mirrored in our spiritual lives when we go to Mass and receive the Eucharist - it's like some huge fist has flattened out the entirety of our experiences so that even the most profound one possible to man agitates no response.

The urge to feed someone isn't misplaced. We need physical and spiritual food; you only become more energized when you have energy to spend and you only get energy through eating. Even though what we receive may seem unbearably and unpalatably dry, it's necessary for recovery. Eventually, things might (might!) begin to taste good again and we can lift up our drooping heads and laugh.

Perhaps the order should be a hug, then food, then a good spiritual talk. One thing that I admittedly need to work on is being more demonstrative in my emotions - they run too deep to have an easy outlet. But without external signs, how are people to know that you even care?

For now, I will simply keep trying to feed the people I care for - it is a sign that I know how to give -  and work my way up to expressing human empathy in a way that's more relatable.

But Jesus did ask Peter to feed His sheep - perhaps a little bit of Guinness can lead to God.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Soeur Christine and I used to eat our lunches together in the garden of the Angelicum. We'd sit there on the garden benches, birds chirping in the bushes, Dominican brothers lazily taking their post-lunch strolls - and we'd quietly discuss mundane bits life, switching between French and English, talking about classes.

Through it all, we very rarely discussed God. God was there embracing the garden, penetrating our friendship, breathing life and grace into simple joys. To talk about God would have been redundant.

Flannery O'Connor wrote "I distrust pious phrases, especially when they issue from my mouth. I try militantly never to be affected by the pious language of the faithful but it is always coming out when you least expect it."

When I hear people perpetually bringing things back to a spiritual context, or being overly dramatic about life's connections to God, or speaking casually about spiritual things (particularly if they're 'trying to discern God's will' -- that line deserves to die a thousand deaths), I find myself instinctually becoming unsettled. At first, it seemed that maybe my spirituality was lacking in some respect. These people HELLA went to Church and Holy Hour and Bible Study and Praise and Worship and then TALKED ABOUT IT ALL THE TIME afterwards. Holy Hotcakes! Then it seemed like such people couldn't possibly keep that up ALL the time. Where was human-time? Did they human? Then it turned into active mistrust.

With all their thoughts fixed above, they forgot how to bring it down on earth. Faith and works are the PB&J of Catholicism. These people were so caught up in seeing God that they couldn't see God's visage in man. Often enough, I've found myself injured in some way by individuals like the above who rationalize away a lack of compassion and empathy, minimizing your pain by giving it some spiritual spin - either to themselves or when presenting it to you.

The roommate could justify showing an appalling disregard for your personal belongings or comfort because she was doing *good things*! This man could be callous because he's discerned something and, guess what, homie - you're not part of that so scoot because God's will! Oh. Did you think he'd TELL you that? Hah. No. You were supposed to figure that out on your own! This woman could practice her flagrant spirituality during Mass, even though it's distracting and affects those around her, because That's How She Worships.

In all of these instances, the individual places themselves not in the service of others but in service to their own inclinations, wrapping them in a cloak of holiness, sitting back happily content that they did nothing wrong. The poor people in the pews are simply not holy enough to see how this loud spirituality doesn't hurt them! The poor woman dropped like a hot potato was insignificant since she no longer figures in the grand scheme of things for this individual. She'll be ok because God has other plans for her!!! The poor roommate comes home to find her belongings haphazardly shoved into a little cupboard because some priests were coming over for dinner - and did you know priests are coming over for dinner!? Sorry, did you have to study and wouldn't appreciate that? Do you hate God or something?

The priest at my local parish just held a healing Mass. He looked out over his congregation and began to cry at seeing our pain: he was with us, he was compassionate, we were not insignificant. And he had only a few simple words for us - that it was good, Lord, that we were here. No telling us that suffering was good for us because heaven and stuff. He simply affirmed our reality, our brokenness.

Pious language just stinks to high heaven of rationalization to me. People are there, people are breakable, and people deserve the most human response you can possibly give to what they're going through or might go through because of your actions: a Christ-like response. Love is what actualizes us - our very beings are ontologically oriented towards Love Itself. We must act in love - we must live the truth if we are to be human.

Josef Pieper wrote:
"Reality is the foundation of ethics. The good is that which is in accord with reality. He who wishes to know and to do the good must turn his gaze upon the objective world of being. Not upon his own 'ideas', not upon his 'conscience', not upon 'values', not upon arbitrarily established 'ideals' and 'models'. He must turn away from his own act and fix his eyes upon reality."
-Living the Truth
That is why I distrust people who regularly use pious language - because it makes me fear that the proper order is subverted and I am flinching in anticipation of the possible people who will fall victim by the wayside. Except that not all people who fall will have a Good Samaritan in their lives to help them up and put them back together.

Don't justify things first by appeal to ultimate ends. That's consequentialism. Justify things because in there *here* and the *now* it is the Christ-like human thing to do in relation to the final end, because it is the thing that is best for both you and others.

And, even though I constantly violate this (I'm pretty sure I will not let someone merge on my commute today...even though it would be better to...), it's still something to strive for.