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You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read

..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.

And yes, it did.

Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight.  As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.

It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last "amy welborn"few pages as to how it all came out.

It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.

Well, okay. Sort of.

I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life  – to let it go.

What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us.  We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.

And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in  the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.

Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.

The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:

If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.

It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.

The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:

There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.

I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.

The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”

There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

 

 

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— 1 —

The following will be rather mindless because I’ve just spend five hours at an academic competition (going on to nationals in June! Joy.) which stressed this introvert out, but I have work to finish up tomorrow morning, so I want to knock this out  tonight….

Yes, I’ve been doing some work this week, and it’s kind of odd and refreshing because the work isn’t a Big Project. It’s a small project that I should be able to knock off in a few days, and I will, but one that still stretches me just a bit because it is, indeed, small.

It’s more challenging to write succinctly and meaningfully than you might think. But it’s my favorite kind of challenge.

— 2 —

The  other project I’m working on involves seeing if  a collection of talks from a conference can be shaped into a book. We’ll see….

Speaking of talks…I have one! Now that everyone is getting older, I’ve started accepting speaking invitations again..the next one will be an inservice/retreat thingy for Catholic school teachers a couple of hours away, and I’m looking forward to it. Also, Ann Engelhart and I will be speaking up on Long Island somewhere in early June…more on that when they finish up the PR materials.

— 3—

Recent reads:

Tuesday night, I read the novel The Risen by Ron Rash. It was the most interesting-looking book on the “fiction new releases” shelf at the library. It was short – really, probably novella-length, and it was a good way to spend a couple of hours. The plot involved two brothers, and an incident that had happened almost fifty years before with a teenaged girl. I kept thinking of Rectify as I read, since a long-ago crime involving a teenage female victim is at the heart of that, too.

The fundamental issue at hand was….how can we even try to compensate for the wrong that we have done? What is the relationship between the wrong things and the good that we do with our lives later? Does one cancel out the other – in either direction? A knotty problem, indeed. Artfully written, yes, and it certainly held my attention for a couple of hours and moved me a bit in the end, but at the same time there was a mannered aspect about it that ultimately left me cold. Well, not cold, but cooler than I feel I should have been left.

— 4 —

Drifting about at the library the other day, I picked up a book of Maugham stories. Took it home, and read On the Internet that the one with the most startling titles, “The Hairless Mexican,” was considered one of Maugham’s best. So I read it, could see the “twist” about 2/3 of the way through, and then felt that the “twist” could have been handled much more subtly. As in…the hammer wasn’t necessary. So that was enough of that.

— 5 —.

This was on the “new releases” shelf, too,  so I had to grab it. As of this writing, I’m only about 60 pages in, but am thoroughly enjoying it, and not just Because Rome. I read a lot of social history and history of pop culture, and so far, this is one of the best. One of the flaws of modern writing on these matters is the authorial voice is usually way too intrusive, presuming that the reason we’re reading this book is that we’re super interested in the author’s relationship to the subject matter, when honestly guys, we’re not. This is free of that narcissism, and is quite enjoyable and briskly, yet solidly written. Full report next week.

— 6 —

Miss McKenzie! She found love! So exciting. Okay, not exciting. But a very satisfying read, even though none of her suitors, even the one she eventually accepted, were worthy of her. I’ve decided to immerse myself in Trollope for a time. What I find interesting and instructive is the forthrightness of the issues at hand – namely the restrictions and limitations in which the characters live, mostly financial in nature. We like to think that in our day, we make our choices freely, constrained only by our own lack of self-worth or society’s failure to accept us as we are. None of this in Trollope: your choices are limited, clearly, by how much money and property you have and by your gender. This is your life, as it is.  What will you make of it? Very thought-provoking.

— 7 —

Forgive me for repeating this Take from last week…but..it still pertains, don’t you think?

amy-welborn66Lent is coming! Here’s a post from yesterday with links to all my Lent-related material.

The past two weeks, I’ve seen a spike in hits for  this post – and I’m glad to see it.

It’s a 2015 post on one of the most inexplicable post-Vatican II liturgical changes (and..there’s a lot of competition on that score) – the total obliteration of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays – the three Sundays preceding the First Sunday of Lent. So for those who celebrate the Extraordinary Form and some Anglicans, I understand, February 12 is Septuagesima Sunday. From a Dappled Things article I cite in the post:

In the chapter titled “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger added, “The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be the more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us, at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.”

 Also: tomorrow (February 11) is the celebration of Our Lady of Lourdes. Want to read more about Mary? How about this free book – Mary and the Christian Life.  And St. Bernadette? She’s in The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints. 
Oh and…did you get the mass email from EWTN tying into…the Feast of the Immaculate Conception? Oops.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Today is her memorial. If you don’t know her story, take a look at B16’s encyclical Spe Salvi – in which the pope uses St. Josephine as his very first example of “hope.” You really can’t find a better brief introduction:

Yet at this point a question arises: in what does this hope consist which, as hope, is “redemption”? The essence of the answer is given in the phrase from the Letter to the Ephesians quoted above: the Ephesians, before their encounter with Christ, were without hope because they were “without God in the world”. To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God.

The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life.

Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ.

bakhita5Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited.

What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”.

On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.

There is quite a bit of biographical material on St. Josephine Bakhita, including an Italian film that doesn’t look lame, based on the trailer.

Ignatius Press published a translation of an Italian biography called Bakhita: From Slave to Saint. You can read big chunks of it online via a Google Book search. There is quite a bit of interest, including the account of how she came to stay in Italy.

Bakhita, as recounted above, had been kidnapped by Muslim slave traders. After being bought and sold a few times, she was finally purchased – for the purpose of redemption – by an Italian consul. After a time, he took her and another African, a boy, to Genoa. She was taken into the home of one Augusto Michieli, where she eventually became the nanny to Michieli’s daughter. Turina Michieli, wife of Augusto, was a lapsed, probably agnostic Russian Orthodox, so religion was not a part of the family’s life.

It was via a fascinating fellow named Illuminato Chechinni, who managed some Michieli’s land, that Bakhita was exposed to Christianity. There came a point at which the Michielis were going to return to Africa, and so Bakhita and her young charge were housed in an Institute for catechumens in Venice for a time, until final arrangements were made. When those arrangements were, indeed made, and the time came for the whole family to return to Africa…Bakhita refused.

It was quite a tussle, that even came to involve the Patriarch of Venice, and the authorities eventually decided that since slavery was illegal in Italy, Bakhita was not a slave, had always been free since she landed on Italian shores, and was free to do what she liked.

Bakhita had dictated an autobiography to a fellow sister, and this is an excerpt about that time:

Nine months later Mrs. Turina returned to Venice to claim her rights over me. But I refused to follow her back to Africa, since my instruction for baptism had not yet been completed. I also knew that, if I had followed her after receiving baptism, I would not have had the opportunity to practise my new religion. That is why, I thought it better to remain with the Sisters.
She burst out into a fit of anger, calling me ungrateful in forcing her to return to Africa alone, after all she had done for me.
But I was firm in my decision. She had a hundred and one pleas to make, but I would not bend to any one of them. I felt greatly pained at seeing her so upset and angry, because I really loved her.
I am sure the Lord gave me strength at that moment, because He wanted me for Himself alone. Oh. the goodness of God!
The next day Mrs. Turina returned to the Institute, with another lady, and tried again, with even harsher threats to convince me to follow her. But to no avail. The two ladies left the Catechumenate very irritated.
The Superior of the House contacted His Eminence, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice informing him of the delicate situation. The Patriarch referred the matter to the King’s Procurator who replied that, in Italy. slavery was illegal. I was therefore a free person. Mrs. Turina too called on the King’s Procurator, hoping to obtain from him permission to force me to follow her, but she received the same answer.
On the third day, there she was again, at the Institute, accompanied by the same lady and by a brother-in-law who was an officer in the Army. Also present were the His Eminence Domenico Agostini, the Chairman of the Charity Association, the Superior of the Institute and some of the Sisters belonging to the Catechumenate. The Patriarch was the first to speak: a long  discussion ensued, which, fortunately, ended in my favour.
Mrs. Turina was in tears, tears of anger and disappointment. She snatched the child, who was clinging to me, unwilling to part, and forced her to follow her. I was so upset that I could scarcely  utter a word. Finally, I saw them leaving. I was in tears myself.
And yet, I felt happy that had not yielded. It was 29 November 1889.

And so she stayed, was baptized, and eventually became a professed religious, serving her community and the surrounding people in various ways, giving mission talks, serving the wounded during World War II, and eventually dying in 1947 – canonized in 2000.

Today is, appropriately, a day of prayer and awareness against human trafficking. USCCB page here. 

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When I do manage to write something these days, I seem to keep returning my hobbyhorse of narratives.

Here’s another example.

First, the narrative(s):  we are regularly and forcefully told that if you are of a certain gender, ethnicity, race, class or from a certain region, you believe  X and are concerned with Y above all things. And so the stories about Life Today that are told, especially by the lazy, are created, not by listening and retelling what has been heard from real people, but by carrying one’s narrative out into the field (or onto the Internet – usually as far as it goes these days) and filling in the blanks with what fits, ignoring what doesn’t.

Here’s why your narratives suck.

Just a couple of hours ago, I was in the Dollar General store down the road, here in my area of town called Woodlawn.

I got to the checkout and there was a lively yet  friendly conversation happening between two middle-aged African American men who were both working there and a middle-aged, and definitely world-weary, wiry, mustachioed white customer.

I have no idea what the starting positions were, but as I approached, the white guy was going OFF on what he called the “Muslim Ban” saying (I paraphrase):

“They all want to kill us all anyway. And if they want to kill us, you can’t keep ‘em out. And the ones that are already here – and there’s a lot of em – are just going to get pissed off.”

The other men nodded, either out of politeness or because they agreed, who knows.

So he went out the door, resigned to his fate of being blown to smithereens, and the guy behind the counter said,

“The two best presidents of my lifetime were” – he scanned my Diet Coke – “Reagan and Clinton.”

The other man, who’d been stocking, added, “They were good, but I always liked Carter – they said he was weak, but I did pretty well under Carter.”

“Clinton’s where I made my money. I did good with Clinton.”

And they spent a couple of seconds talking, first about Billy Beer, and then about Amy Carter, who they said they felt sorry for, and who one of them said was like the Lucille Ball of the White House – which I couldn’t figure out for the life of me.

Not a word about Obama.

And then one of them wrapped it up.

“Here’s the thing about Trump,” he said. “He’s a rich guy. Rich guys say what they want and do what they want and no one says anything to them. He’s used to that.”

While I was pondering this, probably the wisest comment I’ve heard in three weeks, he continued,

“He’s got to get used to something new now and just settle down. He’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Call it Woodlawn Elegy. There you go. If we don’t get into any more wars and the economy improves so these guys can feel that their lives and incomes are getting better? Narrative, busted. Again.

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I am going to have another F de S post later, but not until tonight. Son had orthodontist appointment this morning, which put me behind. Must work on the book all afternoon until carline calls. 

First, in case you don’t make it to the end of this post, I’ll put this at the beginning: A page with a few of the many Lenten sermons he gave – the sermons themselves are on Word docs, which is annoying, but there you have it.

Bishop, evangelist, teacher, writer, spiritual director and friend.

Links to his works – start with the most familiar, Introduction to the Devout Life, and go on from there.  Don’t forget his correspondence with St. Jane de Chantal, either. 

From Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s General Audience presentation on Francis de Sales, back in 2011: 

In his harmonious youth, reflection on the thought of St Augustine and of St Thomas Aquinas led to a deep crisis. This prompted him to question his own eternal salvation and the predestination of God concerning himself; he suffered as a true spiritual drama the principal theological issues of his time. He prayed intensely but was so fiercely tormented by doubt that for a few weeks he could "amy welborn"barely eat or sleep.

At the climax of his trial, he went to the Dominicans’ church in Paris, opened his heart and prayed in these words: “Whatever happens, Lord, you who hold all things in your hand and whose ways are justice and truth; whatever you have ordained for me… you who are ever a just judge and a merciful Father, I will love you Lord…. I will love you here, O my God, and I will always hope in your mercy and will always repeat your praise…. O Lord Jesus you will always be my hope and my salvation in the land of the living” (I Proc. Canon., Vol. I, art. 4).

The 20-year-old Francis found peace in the radical and liberating love of God: loving him without asking anything in return and trusting in divine love; no longer asking what will God do with me: I simply love him, independently of all that he gives me or does not give me. Thus I find peace and the question of predestination — which was being discussed at that time — was resolved, because he no longer sought what he might receive from God; he simply loved God and abandoned himself to his goodness. And this was to be the secret of his life which would shine out in his main work: the The Treatise on the Love of God.

…..

As the Pastor of a poor and tormented diocese in a mountainous area whose harshness was as well known as its beauty, he wrote: “I found [God] sweet and gentle among our loftiest rugged mountains, where many simple souls love him and worship him in all truth and sincerity; and mountain goats and chamois leap here and there between the fearful frozen peaks to proclaim his praise” (Letter to Mother de Chantal, October 1606, in Oeuvres, éd. Mackey, t. XIII, p. 223).

Nevertheless the influence of his life and his teaching on Europe in that period and in the following centuries is immense. He was an apostle, preacher, writer, man of action and of prayer dedicated to implanting the ideals of the Council of Trent; he was involved in controversial issues dialogue with the Protestants, experiencing increasingly, over and above the necessary theological confrontation, the effectiveness of personal relationship and of charity; he was charged with diplomatic missions in Europe and with social duties of mediation and reconciliation.

….

In reading his book on the love of God and especially his many letters of spiritual direction and friendship one clearly perceives that St Francis was well acquainted with the human heart. He wrote to St Jane de Chantal: “… this is the rule of our obedience, which I write for you in capital letters: do all through love, nothing through constraint; love obedience more than you fear disobedience. I leave you the spirit of freedom, not that which excludes obedience, which is the freedom of the world, but that liberty that excludes violence, anxiety and scruples” (Letter of 14 October 1604).

It is not for nothing that we rediscover traces precisely of this teacher at the origin of many contemporary paths of pedagogy and spirituality; without him neither St John Bosco nor the heroic “Little Way” of St Thérèse of Lisieux would have have come into being.

Dear brothers and sisters, in an age such as ours that seeks freedom, even with violence and unrest, the timeliness of this great teacher of spirituality and peace who gave his followers the “spirit of freedom”, the true spirit.

St Francis de Sales is an exemplary witness of Christian humanism; with his familiar style, with words which at times have a poetic touch, he reminds us that human beings have planted in their innermost depths the longing for God and that in him alone can they find true joy and the most complete fulfilment.

MORE

One of the more interesting Francis de Sales-related books I have read over the past year are some of his letters “to persons in the world,” collected here in this book found at the Internet Archive. (I’m sure they are in more contemporary bound versions but this is online…and free).

It is well worth downloading and keeping on hand. So much pertinent, valuable, wise advice and insight. Perhaps begin with his 10/14/1604 letter to Jane de Chantal. It’s long and rich and contains, among other bits, tremendous insight on true liberty in Christ.

 

The effects of this liberty are a great suavity of
soul, a great gentleness and condescension in all that
is not sin or danger of sin ; a temper sweetly pliable to
the acts of every virtue and charity.

For example : interrupt a soul which is attached to
the exercise of meditation ; you will see it leave with
aunoyance, worried and surprised. A soul which has
true liberty will leave its exercise with an equal coun-
tenance, and a heart gracious towards the importunate
person who has inconvenienced her. For it is all one
to her whether she serve God by meditating, or serve
him by bearing with her neighbour : both are the will
of God, but the bearing with her neighbour is necessary
at that time.

The occasions of this liberty are all the things which
happen against our inclination ; for whoever is not
attached to his inclinations, is not impatient when they
are contradicted.

This liberty has two opposite vices, instability and
constraint, or dissolution and slavery. Instability, or
dissolution of spirit, is a certain excess of liberty, by
which we change our exercises, our state of life, with-
out proof or knowledge that such change is God’s
will. On the smallest occasion practices, plan, rule
ure changed; for every little occurrence we leave our
rule and laudable custom : and thus the heart is dissi-
pated and ruined, and is like an orchard open on all
sides, whose fruits are not for its owners, but for all
passers by.

Constraint or slavery is a certain want of liberty by
which the soul is overwhelmed with either disgust or
anger, when it cannot do what it has planned, though
still able to do better.

For example : I design to make my meditation every
day in the morning. If I have the spirit of insta-
bility, or dissolution, on the least occasion in the
world I shall put it off till the evening for a dog
which kept me from sleeping, for a letter I have to
write, of no urgency whatever. On the other hand,
if I have the spirit of constraint or servitude, I
shall not leave my meditation at that hour, even
if a sick person have great need of my help at the
time, even if I have a despatch which is of great
importance, and which cannot well be put off, and
so on.

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Many, many years ago, I found this image on the webpage of a small pro-life group that no longer exists, I guess. It’s still one of my favorites. It says it all, and 44 years after Roe is still pertinent.

Pertinent not just for our thinking and behavior toward the defenseless unborn, but also for our stance toward anyone who is dependent on us,  anyone whom we are called to love, for whom we are challenged to sacrifice.

Not the enemy. 

 

(Feel free to use the image.)

 

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How shall I say this?

I’m ….not upset that Donald Trump is being inaugurated as 45th president of the United States.

I’m a lot of things: bemused, still sort of incredulous, interested, entertained, wary…but…upset?

I’m sympathetic with those who are. Well, with some of those who are. Others I just want to swat away.

But I get it. I do. There are people who are deeply upset at this moment because they believe that his character is beyond poor and that his ascendancy empowers that kind of similar poor behavior and lousy attitudes. They are upset and feel the need to find each other and support each other because they think (I think) that if someone voted for Donald Trump that must mean that that same someone admires Trump as a person and thinks his personal character is worth emulating, and when you multiply that by the millions, that is an upsetting and distressing vision of the country you live in.

That doesn’t capture everything, but as I have listened and thought through this, that is what I’ve come to conclude. My instinct, though, upon running up against these views, as a person raised in an academic environment by two very tough people, is to wonder what the hell is wrong with people that they take things so personally and are so enmeshed in emotion and the feelz, and Good God, can these people just go to church or synagogue or something and find something transcendent to identify with…now?

Oh, sorry about that.

(Although many have objections to what they assume will be Trump policies, as well, that is not where the movement to #resist is rooted. It’s all in a reaction to his character. Which is, in a way, understandable, but in a way not, once you think through what politics and government are for. But I’ve talked about that before. Stop me before I repeat myself.)

So as I said, I get it. This odd, repulsive-to-you man is the president, you’re offended by him, afraid that his ascendancy signals that it’s okay to be a proud p…….-grabber, and of course, that is not okay. It’s terrible and it would be better if Donald Trump were not that way. Better for him, better for all of us.

Agreed.Now. Can I have a turn?

As per usual, what interests me about the current moment is how people are talking about it and how people are talking to each other.

As I have said before, and those who have been with my on the Internets for a long time know, I have really lessened the amount of issue-related blogging that I’ve done over the past few years. I have explained in the past why that is so, but perhaps it bears repeating.

First, I don’t have an adult in my house or close in my life who can balance out the insanity of engaging in issue-talk on the Internet, whether that be blogs or social media.  I just didn’t want to be deeply engaged in online discussion with people I really don’t know all day, and have no one to be there when I closed the computer who will say, “Don’t worry. You’re sane. This is real life, right here.”

That’s very important.

Secondly, it’s a time suck. We all know that.

Third – and this is right up there with #1 – I have not been able to manage jumping into the rhetorical flow that has taken over public conversation on political, social and church issues over the past decade. I long ago identified what I think the problem is, and discerned that I didn’t want to waste my time engage in “discussions” on that level.

And what is that level?

It is the level in which narrative and tribalism are the paradigm.  We don’t discuss issues on their own merit. We toss out labels and dare you to be associated with that label.

It’s a paradigm which dominates conversations, such as they are, about the Francis pontificate. If you don’t like a decision or question a statement (or lack thereof) you are a (deep breathe) Francis-hater/Trad/sedevacantist/doctrinaire/right-winger. And you probably hate poor people too.

Sad!

Way too much of the issue-related material that comes out of American bishops, either individually or as a group, is framed in terms of narrative instead of actual information and data. “We have to welcome migrants and refugees.”  Well, yes, but what does that mean? “Health care is a basic human right?” Well, okay, but what does that mean in terms of policy, economics and access, realistically speaking? Food and shelter are basic human rights, too. So?  Of course, we all know that “health care is a basic human right”  doesn’t mean that Catholic institutions lead the way in providing inexpensive and free medical care or pick up the total cost for health insurance for their employees any more than the bishop’s “concern” for economic issues means that Catholic institutions pay any employee and actual living wage beyond well-compensated hospital and university administrators. Nah.

Narrative. All narrative and virtue signaling. Because it’s easy, that’s why.

And it frames most political discourse, as well, on all sides. In a way, of course, there is absolutely new about this, since labeling and boxing up is quick and convenient and easier to sloganize.  Always has been.

But there is something about the rapidity of communication now that leads more and more people to fall into the trap and if anything is worth #resisting, that is.

Let me illustrate by offering a (totally) imaginative dialogue:

“I think Tom Price is an interesting  choice for HHS secretary. I’ve read what he said about – ”

“Ah….so you’re a Trumpkin. Sweet. Did you see what Trump tweeted last night about Twizzlers? I mean..how can you defend that??”

“Well, I’m not..I was talking about Tom Price for HHS. His ideas about the exchanges…”

“How can you justify having such an undisciplined poser as president? He’s going to tweet our way into war.. “

“Okay, yeah, I wish he would get off Twitter, but you know even that is interesting, because when it’s an effective way of going over the media gatekeepers and directly..”

“Yup. Fascist. I hope you and your other Trump fans are happy when he tries to sue the New York Times out of existence…”

“Wait. I’m not a “fan.” I don’t have to defend everything he is or does. I was just talking about this one area of policy.  I mean, I didn’t support him or even vote for him, but he is the president now and..”

“#NOTMYPRESIDENT!”

Look. If you can predict, right now, the night before the inauguration, that you are going to be deeply opposed to every single policy position that a Trump administration proposes, go ahead and #resist. I guess.

But as you do, try to make your opposition about the policy and based on data and your philosophical position not about the fact that IT’S TRUMP and my tribe is #RESIST and my other tribe is #NEVERTRUMP and my narrative is TRUMPLAND IS EVIL.

And, perhaps, acknowledge that those who are not suffering from the Sadz tonight, not posting statuses saying that they’re ready to bravely endure the next four years because they will always have Art, and who are  relieved that the Obama presidency is coming to an end and are even more relieved that we’re not going to see the Clintons up there on that dais tomorrow, not because we’re misogynists, but because they’re criminals…yes try – just try to acknowledge the fact – yes, the fact– that those of us who feel that way are not necessarily Trump “fans,” may not be able to watch him in action without cringing, may not have even voted for the guy, and are interested in issues, not because they promote a narrative or tribe or reflect well on Donald Trump, if they do,  but because they seem to us to be better for the country, and if a Trump administration is proposing something we agree with, we’ll agree with it, and if we disagree, we’ll do that too.

And it’s fine.

It’s perfectly tenable to hold the following positions. I’m saying that because I hold them, of course:

  • Barack Obama seems to be a good role model as a husband and a father.
  • Barak Obama’s presidency was marked by overreach, excess by the executive branch, authoritarianism, politicizing the mechanism of government, and a personality cult.
  • Donald Trump is one strange guy. Probably not a good personal role model. YMMV, but not in my house.
  • Donald Trump was not a candidate I supported at any point in the election of 2016.
  • I didn’t agree with some of Donald Trump’s expressed positions and found him politically inscrutable and incoherent.
  • My now-twelve year old spent a lot of the year before the election reading Bloom County and then much of the election year very puzzled.
  • I wasn’t upset when Donald Trump won the election.
  • I am not “proud” or “ashamed” that Donald Trump is the president. I’ve not been “proud” of a president, ever, in my  life. He’s the head of the executive branch, not my relative or an expression of my inner hopes and dreams.
  • Although I find Donald Trump strange and cringeworthy (I mean…why is his 35-year old son-in-law going to bring peace to the Middle East? Because he’s Jewish??)  I also am not quite sure of my judgment. I suspect there is an element of performance art happening here, partly as a method of staking out positions, but also partly as a way of causing distraction by shiny things and squirrels over there while real business is happening over here. When you observe his actions with that assumption, rather than simply assuming he is a narcissistic poser, things get interesting. I’m not saying I’m right. I’m just saying.
  • I am interested in the policy prescriptions that are in the wind regarding health care, education, immigration, and the size and role of government in general. I don’t know what Donald Trump actually thinks about any of this, but the direction that his administration is going in at this point interests me, and I find most of the conversations, as I have dipped into the confirmation hearings, well-grounded.
  • I was never worried about Trump being any kind of fascist or authoritarian or being able to bully his way through the presidency, except to the extent that he made use of mechanisms to that end created under the Bush and Obama administrations, the latter of whom perfected their use.  I was not bothered because, honestly, even though those might be his instincts, he would be limited by the fact that everyone seemed to hate him. The press hated him, Democrats hated him, a big chunk of Republicans hated him. (They  still do even as they glad-hand) That would hem him in, even though he seems unfazed by negative reactions and even energized by it. But balance of powers, checks and balances – especially from members of his own party? It would work.
  • But who knows? It’s all an enigma at this point (Thursday night). I’m not particularly nervous about undue and inappropriate influence in government because after 8 years of hibernation, the press is clearly well-rested and is on it. Even if it has to make stuff up more or less constantly, it’s on it. #brave
  • There should be constant fact-checking and digging and reporting and holding to account. There always should be. There should be during every presidency. Welcome back, guys.
  • It’s all pretty entertaining.

 

 

Someone wrote on Facebook to someone they knew that even though that other person had voted for Trump, they knew that they were better than that. They had to be.

Someone else I know (not me!) is taking tomorrow as a day of celebration – keeping the kids out of school, watching the inauguration together, and so on. Why? Is it because this family thinks of Trump as some sort of hero and DJT in particular as a role model for their kids? Or because they believe every word he has written or spoken is true? Not at all. It’s because they are a small business family whose business has been hammered by the costs associated with ACA and other regulation. Perhaps, with Trump, they have a chance, not just for themselves, but for the customers they serve and future employees.In their judgment, they didn’t have a chance with a Clinton presidency. They made a decision about policy, not about the meaning of life and masculinity.

Maybe they’ve been had. Maybe the price of trusting what you believe is a good cause to Donald Trump’s stewardship will be higher than they expect. But what was the alternative? Honestly?

Perhaps you can judge their support of Trump as a candidate for president as a mistake, but caricature it by saying that it must be racist and misogynist hero-worship, a moral  failure and a betrayal of all the women you know to boot is small-minded and lacks empathy.

And even more so to say that if, now that it’s done, if you don’t reflexively hate Trump and everything Trumpian, it must be that you  love him and have bought into the bombastic Messiah cult, and you will be called on to defend every word he utters and if you can’t or won’t, that proves….

….something. 

I was just watching Tucker Carlson – another change in my life – I haven’t watched any kind of television news for probably fifteen years, but I’m recording his show and watching much of it every night – and he was talking to Robert Reich, who served as Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary.

Carlson gave him two very Trumpian quotes about trade, and said, “Who said this?”

Of course, Robert Reich himself had said them. And Carlson proceeded to grill him on why, if he was, as he admitted, closer to Trump on trade issues than he was to Hilary Clinton, why hadn’t he supported him? Why couldn’t he support him now?

Reich averred that he wished Trump well and hoped that his policies resulted in better economic climate for middle class and poor Americans, and who knows, they might, and yes, he admitted, he had disagreed with Clinton on these matters, and had actually supported Bernie Sanders. He told of being at book signings in the Midwest last year and often running into people who were weighing their support between Trump and Sanders, which is not surprising to me at all. But, he said, Sanders was a progressive populist and in his view, Trump was an authoritarian populist, and that was scary. His public behavior reveals him to be vindictive and small-minded, and that worries Reich.

“But,” he said, “if he can get above that, great! Let’s hope for the best.”

Carlson’s answer:

“What if both are true? What if he’s vindictive and small-minded but he stops TPP? (chortles) I hope you’ll come back, we’re out of time – but meditate on that. “

And there you go. Meditate on that. We can keep grumbling or shouting our chosen narrative for the next four years, and trying to play gotcha with those we deem members of the enemy tribe, or we can be thinking adults and have conversations about real programs, policies, decisions on their merits, not based on who proposes them or what blog is for them and how they impact real people, call out wrongdoing and dishonesty, celebrate the good, grapple with ambiguity and unintended consequences, and admit limitations – first and foremost, our own.

This. Yes. 

People are perfectly capable of holding seemingly contradictory opinions about a person as a president and a person as an individual.

Also, Michael Brendan Dougherty

My hope is that entrusted with power, Trump follows his more dovish foreign policy instincts. The unipolar moment in world history was always going to end, and ending it without an aspiring or revanchist great power rising to dethrone the United States militarily is the best possible ending, just as the British Empire’s mostly peaceful transfer of power to Washington over two World Wars was the best possible outcome for that empire’s end.

I concede that it’s on foreign policy where my hope is clutching the thinnest reed. The last two presidents ran as peace candidates and each pursued wars of choice, in part because the president is given almost unconstrained latitude to do so. But perhaps Trump, being suspicious of experts, will ignore the universal advice of American apparatchiks who believe in the omnicompetence of the American military to salve every irritation across the globe.

Lastly, I hope Trump’s administration ends the cult of sophomoric wonks, ideologues, consultants, and even experienced politicians. Most Washington “experts” hold forth with confidence to prove to themselves the value of their expensive educations, even though they skipped most of the reading assignments. They crashed the economy, they wasted and marooned American military might across the Middle East, they balkanized the American nation, and paid each other handsomely for the tender service, while saying Trump could never win. If an impulsive, self-aggrandizing dolt ends this cult, it would be a fitting judgment.

 

 

 

 

 

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