Tonight is the Eve of the First Sunday of Advent, which is also my first Advent since entering the Catholic Church. It’s a time to reflect both on the ways that God has come into my life and on the ways in which I can open myself more fully to Him. Veni Veni Emmanuel.
I’ve been MIA on the blog for some time now (though, on the plus side, I have managed to finish my dissertation prospectus, and I’m halfway through a draft of chapter 1!). But while I’ve been neglecting my writing, I’ve not been neglecting my reading. Thought I’d use this Quick Takes to share with you a few of the quotes that have been most haunting me over the past couple of months. I leave it to you, dear Reader, to trace their connections and inhabit their tensions.
Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal is short (the text runs a little shy of 40 pages), but still completely worth purchasing because, like O’Connor’s short stories, it packs a big punch in a short space. The following is one of its most powerful moments:
Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.
I’m in the process of digitizing my entire filing cabinet (it’s amazing how many nonsense projects you devise when you’re trying to avoid writing your dissertation!) and I just found, filed away under “Catholicism,” the handwritten page that I’ve transcribed below. I don’t precisely remember when I wrote it, but I know I was in the process of becoming Catholic. As I’m now helping facilitate this year’s RCIA program at my school, it seems particularly appropriate that I’d come upon this letter from my former self.
It’s pretty obvious that I was already thinking about the connections that I’ve tried to trace in this blog, though I also realize—seeing it from the distance of about a year—that I’ve grown a lot in being able to, as the Jesuits say, “discern the spirits.” These days I can differentiate better—not perfectly, but better—between authentic contrition and a “guilt” that is really just a combination of shame and self-loathing. Nonetheless, the piece is raw and interesting and I thought it worth posting in all of its rawness. I wrote it very shortly after having a conversation with an acquaintance, an ex-Catholic, who had suggested that my conversion to Catholicism was really just an exercise in masochism:
Catholicism, my friends insist, is an exercise in masochism: repression, penance, and a twisted aesthetic of sacrifice. Well I’ve still got gash marks on my bicep from when the razor slipped—and so do you, I suspect—so don’t talk to me about masochism. I’m already there. I’ve crawled on my knees across dorm rooms at the behest of digital masters just to get off. I’ve been slapped up the head until I saw lights just to forget myself. I’ve drug myself through every secular ritual of penance and redemption that I could find. What, then, could be any worse about confessions, chastity, and obedience? We’ve never stopped punishing ourselves all our lives—we’ve run ourselves ragged with our guilt. Is it such madness to ask for something, at last, that can expiate that guilt even if it also heightens our awareness of it? Is it so much to long for those words that no fuck buddy, no reflection in the mirror, and no amount of blood trickling out of my body could ever pronounce: I absolve you?
A couple of weeks ago, I stopped running. I had made it through three of the four short running segments that were meant to make up that day’s run-walk; but, when I started the fourth one, I dropped almost immediately from a run into a walk. Since that day, the running has been going well—quite well—and I realized that my decision to stop actually represented the overleaping of a major hurdle. To explain why, I have to go back two years to the first time I decided to take up running.
In the first year of my PhD program, after years of a sedentary lifestyle and still in the shadow of pained memories of PE, I decided that I was going to run. I think I decided on running because I knew that any fitness activity that required me to go anywhere to do it was never going to happen—it was hard enough to get myself out the door. Thanks to all those sedentary years I was woefully out-of-shape and that, of course, was what the running was going to fix: I was going to be in shape. I was going to be thin. I was going to be desirable. I was, in short, no longer going to be the ugly, fat, and uncoordinated person that I thoroughly believed myself to be.
I can see the bottom of my bedroom closet floor! I realize that this is hardly news in the life of most folks, but I’m not most folks when it comes to cleaning. (I’ve written previously about my complicated relationship with squalor.) But after an entire week of schlepping a hamper full of laundry down to the ol’ laundry mat every day for a week, I finally dug myself out of a closet full of laundry—and produced four bags worth of clothes for the Salvation Army! I’m not sure if this newfound cleaning streak is the result of some late-20s crisis, procrastinating to avoid finishing the dissertation prospectus or what, but I hope it keeps up. I am much indebted to one of my commenter’s who pointed me towards “FlyLady”—I find the site’s penchant for self-help jargon to be cringeworthy, but I have to confess that the system does seem to work.
Now that I’ve actually got the closet empty-ish, I’m faced with those eternal questions that arise around clothes. Do I give away beloved clothes that are just a bit too tight, especially while I still nurse dreams of dropping a couple of dress sizes? What about the thing that’s just slightly too large, especially since that seems to be the direction that the weight generally likes to march? And am I obligated to keep clothes given as gifts? (Actually, this question always haunts me regardless of what I’m decluttering: can you give away gifts? I’ve generally answered in the negative, but I’m starting to change my tune out of sheer necessity.)
In other apartment news, my renewed decision this summer to stick it out and not buy an air conditioner has, at last, been rewarded by temperate weather. The midatlantic heat wave finally broke and now it’s so temperate that I don’t even have to run a fan. I’m pretty sure that my delight at this situation is magnified ten-fold in my very fluffy long-haired cat who, at the height of the heat wave, took up near-permanent residence under my bed.
In news outside of my four walls, it’s World Youth Day! You might have picked up some of the oft-ill-reported buzz around World Youth Day, social media, and indulgences. James Martin, S.J. does a good job of separating the facts from the hype over at CNN with a blog post entitled “Sorry, retweeting the Pope won’t get you out of hell.”
This picture of Pope Francis in Brazil needs no commentary because it’s already perfect. However, I did much enjoy Elizabeth Scalia’s description of Francis, based on this photo, as a “big brass band of a pope.”
Andrew Sullivan just posted some recent research that suggests that the stereotype of the “dogmatic, belligerent” atheist is largely false. A study from the University of Tennessee found that the largest group of atheists fit into the category that researchers “call ‘academic’ or ‘intellectual atheists’: people who are well-educated, interested in religion, informed about it, but not themselves believers” and these are nearly twice as large of a group as the more militant “anti-theist” group associated with prominent atheist figures like Bill Maher. None of this comes as a big surprise to me, since most of the atheists I know would probably fit into the “academic atheist” grouping. Just as most Christians aren’t the raving fundamentalists who seem to pop up in the news, so also most atheists aren’t chomping at the bit to end religious belief.
What was most interesting to me in the story, however, was that their place in or out of the “anti-theist” grouping had little effect on the degree to which atheism affected the study participant’s daily lives. Sullivan quotes Amanda Marcotte at Salon:
Only 15 percent of non-believers [...] fit in the category of those who actively seek out religious people to argue with, and the subset that are dogmatic about it are probably even smaller than that. But that doesn’t mean that the majority of non-believers are just sitting around, twiddling their thumbs and not letting atheism affect their worldview. On the contrary, researchers found that the majority of non-believers take some kind of action in the world to promote humanism, atheism or secularism.
In short, it seems like most atheists face the same conundrum that most religious people do: how do you live out your beliefs authentically without simply turning into a jerk? I’ve posted recently on how tired I am of an academic setting in which no one seems to care enough about ideas to really and truly assert them; instead, it feels like a long, extended exercise in “I’m okay, you’re okay.” So, I’m all for open, serious, and thoughtful engagement with one’s own beliefs—which sometimes involves directly disagreeing with others about theirs. But how to do this without becoming a raving pundit (the only alternative our culture seems to offer to bland indifference)? And must commitment to one’s own ideas always take the dubious form of “seeking out people to argue with”?
First and foremost: ironists rejoice! For students of literature—and all pedants everywhere—someone has finally fixed Alanis Morissette’s totally un-ironic song “Ironic.” If you haven’t already encountered it bouncing about the interwebs, here it is:
If you’re not already aware of Leah Libresco’s “Ideological Turing Test” series, you should check it out—the most current iteration is happening on her blog right now. A “Turing test,” as you might recall, is a test to see if a computer can fool people into thinking that they’re talking to a human when they’re, in fact, chatting with a computer. The concept of an “Ideological Turing Test” was developed by economist Bryan Caplan; in the test, participants try to successfully pass off the positions of their ideological opponents as their own. It’s basically a way to check how well you really understanding the viewpoint of those you’re arguing with.
I’ve found that the “Ideological Turing Test” also makes a great teaching tool. I’ve done classroom experiments in which students were asked to write a paragraph defending a thesis they agreed with and the opposing thesis and their classmates then had to vote about which answer they thought was the “real” one. Freshman are terribly prone to strawmanning, and this is a nice way to get them break out of it.
On Leah’s blog, Christians and Atheists—whose true identities will be revealed at the end of the series—are composing both a “real” and a “fake” response to questions about the ethics of polyamory and euthanasia. Readers have the opportunity to vote on whether they believe each entry to be a true representation of the person’s position or not.
I’m nearly convinced that G.K. Chesterton went to grad school in the humanities in the 21st century because his introduction to Heretics diagnoses it so effectively:
It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period. General theories are everywhere contemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man. Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations. Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view in a perfect epigram: “The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.” We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters—except everything.
Examples are scarcely needed of this total levity on the subject of cosmic philosophy. Examples are scarcely needed to show that, whatever else we think of as affecting practical affairs, we do not think it matters whether a man is a pessimist or an optimist, a Cartesian or a Hegelian, a materialist or a spiritualist. Let me, however, take a random instance. At any innocent tea-table we may easily hear a man say, “Life is not worth living.” We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day; nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man or on the world. And yet if that utterance were really believed, the world would stand on its head. Murderers would be given medals for saving men from life; firemen would be denounced for keeping men from death; poisons would be used as medicines; doctors would be called in when people were well; the Royal Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins. Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimist will strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convinced that theories do not matter.
I should note that even though I sigh at the state of things in academe, I am still very much a child of my age. I am—and I believe justly—immediately put on edge by meta-narratives and Grand Theories of Everything. I know their dangers and their limitations, their tendency to gain their coherence only via the marginalization of what doesn’t fit inside them.
But, that being said, I do miss the days when people still gave a shit about whether a belief was correct or not. Heck, as recently as the nineties there were knock-down, drag-out fights about the canon, the liberating (or nefarious, depending on who you asked) power of deconstructive discourses, and—well—just about everything else. Nowadays, though, true methodological believers are few and far between and those who remain seem to have negotiated a truce. Alexander Beecroft recently suggested, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that the culture wars—so long blamed for harming the standing of the humanities—might have actually been good for them, at least in terms of enrollment:
I should start, I suppose, by apologizing for my frightfully long radio silence here. I’ve been bouncing about the US—from Virginia to Georgia to California and, at last, back home—which hardly proved conducive to blog writing. Right before settling back in to the major work of this summer—writing my dissertation proposal—I was blessed to have an opportunity to visit Mt. Saviour Monastery, a Benedictine monastery in upstate New York, for five days.
After all my wanderings, it was nice to be properly settled for awhile. But, as I suspected, the silence and stability of the monastery was no simple tranquility—a retreat is not (or at least should not be) a slightly spiritualized version of a beach-sitting, margarita-drinking Bahamas vacation. It was a journey all its own and, for me, a lesson in how to journey.
Within a day of relative silence and solitude, I found not peace but an inner restlessness. It’s always been there—and perhaps always will be—it’s driven me in my academic pursuits and in my drug abuse, at my best and at my worst. And it was certainly what drove me to the Church. But I always found the famous quote from St. Augustine—”O Lord, our hearts are restless until the rest in You”—to be more of a torment than a comfort, a prickly accusation that I was not resting in God because my heart was still so damned restless.
The only real difference between my restlessness at the monastery and my restlessness elsewhere was that at the monastery I couldn’t cover it up. I’d intentionally left behind my cellphone, my laptop, and even most of my books (except a Bible, Augustine’s Confessions, and Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude). It is doubtlessly a testament to my restlessness that in slightly more than two days I’d assembled two 500 piece jigsaw puzzles that had been left in the room. Eventually, though, I had no choice: I just had to sit and be with my restlessness. In a rocking chair in the corner of the room, facing a window that overlooked the monastery’s apple orchard, I rocked my unquiet heart like it was a colicky child.
First and foremost, happy Feast of the Visitation! I particularly love this feast day because the mass reading includes the Magnificat, one of the most wondrous and beautiful of all the passages in the Bible. And if you haven’t heard (or haven’t heard lately!) Bach’s setting of the Magnificat, now’s the time:
While we’re on the topic of beauty, this week’s America magazine reprints a fine quote from Pope Francis on the very topic. In April, the Holy Father urged his audience to reject the thinking of ideologues in part because they cannot recognize beauty: “The ideologues falsify the gospel. Every ideological interpretation, wherever it comes from—from (whatever side)—is a falsification of the Gospel. And these ideologues, as we have seen in the history of the Church, end up being intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness—and let us not so much as mention beauty, of which they know nothing.” On this Feast day, when we can’t help but be floored by the sheer beauty of Mary’s joy, let us remember that we need beauty. For at the moment that we are not allowed to speak of the beautiful, the moment in which we cannot think in aesthetic as well as moral and philosophical terms, then we are left with a regime of thought that is ultimately cold and sterile.
Beauty has the power to arrest us, if we let it. I’m not a huge fan of Norman Rockwell, but the Pope’s comments reminded me of one Rockwell painting that I’ve always loved, one that seems to capture how the hustle and bustle of work and of thought, if it cannot see beyond itself, misses the point. Lift Up Thine Eyes [follow the link to see the painting; I'm not reprinting here since it's not in the public domain] depicts St. Thomas’s Church in NYC—crowds of pedestrians, sketchy and flat, wander through the streets staring at the sidewalk as a church worker finishes setting the letters on the church sign. The title of the day’s sermon is, ironically, “Lift Up Thine Eyes.”
I had my own “arresting” moment of beauty this week. I often pu Classical music on in the background while I’m doing academic working. This was the case a couple of days ago; however, when Samuel Barber’s indescribably gorgeous setting of the Agnus Dei came on (if you’ve heard Barber’s Adagio for Strings then you’ll recognize the melody). At a certain point I couldn’t let it be background anymore—I had to stop and had to “lift up my ears” as it were. To let its beauty be both marginalized and instrumentalized into “background music” felt downright wrong.
I wrote in a previous Quick Takes about hoping to get my campus’s Catholic grad student reading group on board with Brideshead Revisited as our summer book. Well, Brideshead didn’t win, but another one of my recommendations—G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy—did and, frankly, I’m pleased as a peach. Heck, everyone ought to read Chesterton at some point! Meanwhile, Brideshead has officially become part of my own summer reading list.
Speaking of Chesterton, his 137th birthday was this past Wednesday. In celebration, here’s one of my favorite anecdotes about a conversation between (the heavyset) Chesterton and his friend (the rail-like) George Bernard Shaw. Chesterton says to Shaw: “To look at you, anyone would think that a famine had struck England.” To which Shaw retorts: “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it.”
I’ve always much admired the friendship of Chesterton and Shaw. In an age of ever-tightening ideological bubbles, it’s nice to remember that there was—and perhaps can be again—a time where people who harbor deep differences in their intellectual and spiritual commitments can nonetheless build lifelong friendships. And perhaps the “nonetheless” is unnecessary; perhaps it is the ability to disagree—to care about one’s ideas and the ideas of another enough to dispute with them—that builds those friendships in the first place.
In other literary news (albeit news that’s about 200 years old), I discovered today just how much Samuel Taylor Coleridge hated light reading and light readers. As part of my research, I’ve been reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and I just discovered, in one of Coleridge’s footnotes, this little gem of a rant about “circulating libraries” (whose readers would pool resources to buy and share books, usually popular fiction):
…as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole material and imagery of the doze is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of a hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. We should therefore transfer this species of amusement [...] from the genus, reading, to that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely indulgence of sloth and hatred of vacancy.
I can’t imagine that Coleridge approves of the things I’m reading when I’m not reading Coleridge . . .
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