Archive for April, 2011


Annals of Homosexualism: The Blurring of Gender and Sex

April 28, 2011


No fixed borders for sexual identity, means no fixed rules for sexual expression.

The ostensible purpose of MASSBill H1728 in the state of Massachusetts, An Act Relative to Gender-Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes, or its Canadian counterpart, Bill C-389, is to extend legal protection to “sexual minorities.” Writing in First Things a few months ago, Douglas Farrow, professor of Christian Thought at McGill University in Montreal, described how the strategic intentions were something “a trifle more ambitious:”

Both the United States and Canada already provide extensive protection of human rights. The American Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” “Disability” and “age” were soon added to this list, and later (by judicial interpolation) “sexual orientation.” Hate-crimes legislation is spottier but guided by the same list. Canadian law, likewise, takes aim at actions “motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, color, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or any other similar factor.” The aforementioned bills propose now to add to the list of protected categories “gender identity and expression”; or, more expansively, “a gender-related identity, appearance, expression, or behavior of an individual.”

Farrow points out that first of all, “gender identity” and “gender expression” are not, as its human rights proponents claim, like most other terms in the lists of things that the law has sought to protect under the rubric of “human rights.” That is, they do not represent objective conditions determined either by biology (like sex or race) or by sociopolitical institutions (like nationality, marital status, or religion).

He reminds us, rather, they represent subjectively determined conditions — mere attitudes toward oneself, or attitudes combined with behaviors (cross-dressing, say) intended to express or alleviate those attitudes. Farrow quotes one rights-commission statementwhich puts it approvingly, [Gender identity] “is linked to an individual’s intrinsic sense of self.” Good law and sound public policy, he reminds us, cannot be built on the shifting sands of the subjective. Not that good law or sound public policy is ever going to emerge from this never-ending cultural food fight.

Farrow notes that his can of worms was opened when we added sexual orientation as an identity marker that is not anchored in the biological or the institutional. Until now we have stopped shy of markers that explicitly combine the subjective with the behavioral. We have not asked, for legal purposes, whether a Canadian behaves like a Canadian or a Catholic like a Catholic or a man like a man. Those are extra-legal questions belonging to civil society, and it is important that they remain such, lest law (as Solzhenitsyn worried) absorb us altogether. On the contrary these categories — gender identity and gender expression — are not actually positive or constructive additions to the prohibited grounds of discrimination. Rather, they constitute a deliberate attack on one of the existing grounds, sex:

The word “sex” in our codes specifies the natural division of the species into male and female, with a view to protecting the latter especially. The addition of “sexual orientation,” however, has effected a transformation in our thinking about human sexuality. Male and female have begun to give way to heterosexual and homosexual in the basic binary logic of sex. Hence the idea of same-sex marriage, with its air of legal inevitability. The proposed addition of “gender identity and expression” carries that transformation even further by suppressing the binary logic itself. Backers of these bills often make no attempt to disguise this. “One of the great myths of our culture,” insists the Canadian Labor Congress, “is that at birth each infant can be identified as distinctly ‘male’ or ‘female’ (biological sex), will grow up to have correspondingly ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ behavior (public gender), live as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ (social gender role), and marry a woman or a man (heterosexual affective orientation). This is not so.”

The standard notion of sex, then, must be replaced by the more malleable concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity. And I do mean must. In Quebec a recent government white paper promised to wipe society clean of both homophobia and heterosexism — that is, of any “affirmation of heterosexuality as a social norm or the highest form of sexual orientation [and of any] social practice that conceals the diversity of sexual orientations and identities.”

In short, sex will no longer serve as an effective legal marker for discrimination if its binary nature dissolves into fluid sexual subjectivities. And yet another thinly veiled but very telling contradiction here:

 “Trans” people, we are told — the people the bills are supposed to protect — are those who are uncomfortable with and to some extent reject the gender identities assigned to them at birth. Some are transsexual — namely, those who have a strong sense that they are “living in the wrong sex” — and some are transgender, identifying with neither sex but placing themselves here or there on a gender spectrum. The former seek a transition between the two sexes; the latter deny that there are merely two sexes. The former may regard their problem as “a medical concern, pure and simple,” to quote Corporal Natalie Murray of the Canadian Air Force, who made the transition. The latter often regard their problem as purely social, that is, as someone else’s problem, the problem of bigotry.

Farrow points out that neither of the Mass or Canadian bills is about medical concerns. Medical concerns are really covered by the term “disability,” which is already in the list of prohibitions to human rights. What we see here are  objections to “alleged bigotry.” Which is to say, they are more interested in taking the transgressive out of “transgender” than in guaranteeing the right to therapy for the transsexual.  Both goals are problematic.

Some years ago Dr. Paul McHugh (“Surgical Sex,” First Things, November 2004) described the process by which his psychiatric team at Johns Hopkins eventually put a stop to sex-reassignment therapy, having come to the conclusion that SRT was based on a faulty premise and did more harm than good; indeed, that it was “to collaborate with a mental disorder rather than to treat it.”

Proponents of the present bills, setting aside the medical evidence, choke and fume at such a claim. Ironically, however, they would agree with McHugh that “without any fixed position on what is given in human nature, any manipulation of it can be defended as legitimate.” And that is exactly what they want to achieve with this legislation. Gender fluidity is what they are after — meaning no fixed borders for sexual identity and no fixed rules for sexual self-expression.

Naturally this means all sorts of new rules for the general public, for businesses and schools, and for government. That is why interpretive institutions are springing up everywhere, like the GenderKompetenzCentrum at the University of Berlin.

But when all is said and done, the proponents of these bills are not interested in the difficulties of implementation. Nor are they troubled by the logical or juridical or social contradictions the bills generate. For these bills are Trojan horses, which on closer inspection are designed not to protect a threatened minority but to entrench in law the notion that gender is essentially a social construct, based not in the natural order but in more or less arbitrary acts of human self-interpretation.

To endorse such bills one must think as the neo-gnostic Hegelians taught us to think — that nature is there only to be sublated or overcome — and to go, boldly or obediently, where the Gender Mainstreaming (GM) strategists want us to go. “To adopt a gender perspective,” says one obedient United Nations publication, “is to distinguish between what is natural and biological and what is socially and culturally constructed, and in the process to renegotiate the boundaries between the natural — and hence relatively inflexible — and the social — and hence relatively transformable.”

Part of the idiotic “renegotiating the boundaries” also comes about by our inattention to language and its uses. I always understood sex to mean male and female while gender is masculine and feminine: the former refers to biological differences; chromosomes, hormonal profiles, internal and external sex organs and the latter describes the characteristics that a society or culture delineates as masculine or feminine.

While your sex as male or female is a biological fact in any culture, what that sex means in terms of your gender role as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ in society can be quite different cross culturally or in different countries. These ‘gender roles’ have an impact on the health of the individual. In sociological terms ‘gender role’ refers to the characteristics and behaviors that different cultures attribute to the sexes. What it means to be a ‘real man’ in any culture requires male sex plus what our various cultures define as masculine characteristics and behaviors, likewise a ‘real woman’ needs female sex and feminine characteristics. To summarize:

‘Man’ = male sex+ masculine social role, (a ‘real man’, ‘masculine’ or ‘manly’)

‘Woman’ = female sex + feminine social role, (a ‘real woman’, ‘feminine’ or ‘womanly’)

Now that should seem straightforward enough but has anyone else noticed that animals also have “gender” rather than “sex” these days?

“The pet owner thought her two rabbits had the same gender–until they produced young.” (paraphrased from a Wall Street Journal article)

Isn’t that plain nutty? There is no such thing as ‘biological gender’. Gender is a grammatical term that refers to masculine, feminine, and neuter forms. Usage shifts over time, but the use of ‘gender’ to mean anything other than what it really means is an ignorant and reprehensible practice. Yet some (the proponents of the legislation Douglas Farrow writes about, for example) would have it that “masculine” and “feminine” refer to real qualities, of which “male” and “female” are imperfect and limited embodiments.

There are cross-dressing and transgenderism in GLBT subcultures. But in these attempts to rewrite human rights laws legislators and other decision makers are opening the doors to placing children in household situations which are not conducive to healthy development. There are a number of physical, emotional, and sexual risks for children when they grow up with no boundaries around gender, gender expression, and transsexuality and with numerous sexual orientations protected in law.

Consider the diverse sexual expressions, the multiple sexual partners, and the wider subcultures children are directly exposed to and impacted by already. Consider a Mom a transitioning male-to-female. Children are being sacrificed at the altar of Baal without consideration for the confusion and sheer nuttiness these laws will engender. Every child is being taught that diverse genders and sexual orientations are completely normal and natural, which is simply not true — some may be but certainly others are decidedly not. Children are also learning step-by-step instructions concerning transgender and sexual orientation topics during their vulnerable early gender development. What does this say about our stewardship of our society?

Our Lord spoke to us about stewardship: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
Luke 16:10-13

So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.
Luke 16:15-17


Five Poems On Wisdom & Experiencing The Other Person

April 27, 2011

First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene III [O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?] by William Shakespeare

The Clown, singing
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? 
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming 
That can sing both high and low; 
Trip no further, pretty sweeting, 
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—         
Every wise man’s son doth know.  

What is love? ’tis not hereafter; 
Present mirth hath present laughter; 
What’s to come is still unsure: 
In delay there lies no plenty,—         
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty, 
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Carpe Diem by Robert Frost

Age saw two quiet children
Go loving by at twilight,
He knew not whether homeward,
Or outward from the village,
Or (chimes were ringing) churchward,
He waited (they were strangers)
Till they were out of hearing
To bid them both be happy.
“Be happy, happy, happy,
And seize the day of pleasure.”
The age-long theme is Age’s.
‘Twas Age imposed on poems
Their gather-roses burden
To warn against the danger
That overtaken lovers
From being overflooded
With happiness should have it.
And yet not know they have it.
But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in the present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
Than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing—
Too present to imagine. 

Another Song [Are they shadows that we see?] by Samuel Daniel

Are they shadows that we see?
And can shadows pleasure give?
Pleasures only shadows be
Cast by bodies we conceive,
And are made the things we deem,
In those figures which they seem.

But these pleasures vanish fast,
Which by shadows are exprest:

Pleasures are not, if they last,
In their passing, is their best.
Glory is most bright and gay
In a flash, and so away.

Feed apace then greedy eyes
On the wonder you behold.

Take it sudden as it flies
Though you yake it not to hold:
When your eyes have done their part,
Thought must length it in the heart.

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl (443) by Emily Dickinson

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life’s little duties do—precisely—
As the very least 
Were infinite—to me—
I put new Blossoms in the Glass—
And throw the old—away—
I push a petal from my gown 
That anchored there—I weigh 
The time ’twill be till six o’clock 
I have so much to do—
And yet—Existence—some way back—
Stopped—struck—my tickling—through—
We cannot put Ourself away 
As a completed Man 
Or Woman—When the Errand’s done 
We came to Flesh—upon—
There may be—Miles on Miles of Nought—
Of Action—sicker far—
To simulate—is stinging work—
To cover what we are 
From Science—and from Surgery—
Too Telescopic Eyes 
To bear on us unshaded—
For their—sake—not for Ours—
Twould start them—
We—could tremble—
But since we got a Bomb—
And held it in our Bosom—
Nay—Hold it—it is calm—
Therefore—we do life’s labor—
Though life’s Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—


Sacred Trash and the Freedom to Think

April 26, 2011


Gabriel Josipovici

Recently in the WSJ Gabriel Josipovici reviewed Sacred Trash by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole which tells the story of how a treasure trove of papers and manuscripts detailing Eastern Mediterranean Jewish society in the early Middle Ages, what the authors refer to as “sacred trash,” came to find its way to England in 1898.  The tiny synagogue of Ben Ezra which stands next to the Coptic Church in the center of Old Cairo, housed the written material, thrown any old which way into a small room high up above the women’s gallery

The room that housed the material was known as a geniza, from the Persian ganj, meaning “hidden treasure.” In the Talmud, the word usually implies concealment: Any writing that seemed heretical should, it was felt, be ganuz, hidden away. Gradually that came to include manuscripts that time or human hand had rendered unfit for human use but that could not be thrown out due to their sacred content and so required removal to a safe place that would allow them to decay of their own accord. In Old Cairo, the habit extended even further. Soon any piece of writing thought to include the name of God, and finally anything in Hebrew, was thrown into the upstairs room, there gradually to expire.

And so it remained for the better part of a thousand years, as Cairo shifted northward, as the synagogue of Ben Ezra became a backwater and as Egypt lost its place as the center of a thriving Mediterranean culture. But in the 19th century, material that had lain hidden for centuries in the Geniza, preserved by the dry climate of the region, began to surface, and stray items started to be sold to Western buyers in the markets of the region.

That story begins in 1896 when Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson — widowed Scottish sisters resident in Cambridge and remarkable scholars of Arabic and Syriaic — bought a few such fragments on their way through Cairo. Back home they showed them to their friend Solomon Schechter, Cambridge’s Reader in Rabbinics, who at once grasped their significance.

What Schechter had in his hand was a Hebrew fragment of the apocryphal book known as Ecclesiasticus, or Ben Sira, which until then had been known only in Greek and Syriac versions. As it happened, Schechter was at that very moment engaged in a fierce controversy with his Oxford counterpart, D.S. Margoliouth, over whether the book was Jewish at all. The idea that he was actually holding in his hand something that proved he was right and his rival wrong was almost too much for him.

Schechter set off for Cairo in the autumn of 1897. Establishing himself there, he gained the goodwill of the Grand Rabbi and the heads of the Jewish community and was at last allowed into the Ben Ezra synagogue. Wading waist deep in paper, he began to sift and for four weeks worked in appalling conditions, but with growing excitement. The small room teemed with insects undisturbed for generations, while every movement raised clouds of dust — “Ich full of spots bin,” Schechter wrote to his wife in his charming bilingualism.

He let the printed matter alone and concentrated on the manuscripts and uncovered, often stuck together, fragments of letters, bills, contracts, poems, and biblical and Talmudic material. He filled four trunks, and since he felt he was beginning to arouse the suspicions of the Egyptian authorities, he decided it was enough. With the help of Lord Cromer, the de facto ruler of Egypt, Schechter shipped the trunks to Cambridge.

Although some like Oxford’s D.S. Margoliouth wrote that “the material contained in these repositories is almost always valueless, like the gods of the gentiles unable to do good or harm, and so neither worth preserving nor worth destroying,” history has proved him wrong. Schechter’s discoveries in the Geniza opened up an entire civilization and showed Cairo to have been the hub of a vibrant culture in which Jews and Arabs successfully intermingled for hundreds of years.

For more than a century, scores of extraordinary scholars, mainly Jewish, mainly Eastern European, but almost all working in London, Cambridge or New York, have given their days to deciphering, integrating and understanding what Schechter uncovered. Innumerable poems have been added to the corpus of early medieval Hebrew literature; philosophical and religious controversies of the period have been elucidated; and the multitude of letters, legal documents, memos and lists have enabled scholars like S.D. Goitein to build up a detailed picture of Eastern Mediterranean Jewish society in the early Middle Ages. “Sacred Trash” is a celebration of their labor.

In the grand scheme of things Sacred Trash shows us how literature is essential for an “understanding between individuals and peoples, and for the discovery of common ground.” I would further note that the literary and sociological theories of a Rene Girard undergird the OT and the NT as well as demonstrate themselves in Christian anthropology and thought. The notion of personhood shows up continually in poetry and drama – we are moved precisely because they are derived from the human person. That is our “common ground.”

I do not wish my remarks confused with the horrible and degrading heresy that our minds are merely manufactured by accidental conditions, and therefore have no ultimate relation to truth at all. With all possible apologies to the free-thinkers, I still propose to hold myself free to think. And anybody who will think for two minutes will see that this thought is the end of all thinking. It is useless to argue at all, if all our conclusions are warped by our conditions. Nobody can correct anybody’s bias, if all mind is all bias.
The Autobiography — G.K. Chesterton

Gabriel Josipovici, the reviewer of Sacred Trash above, is also author of Everything Passes and Goldberg: Variations, homages to a composer and a particular piece of music. In a recent work After, he deals with memory and the mirage of origins. Here we find him in interview speaking to “a sense of quickening at some elusive shape or rhythm” that I would suggest is the unconscious recognition or delight in our common (yet uncommonly divine) personhood.

Interviewer:  Last year, in an interview you had with Mark Thwaite of Ready Steady Book, you mentioned two themes that are consistently present in your work: the idea of art as a toy and the sense that we are creatures in time. Do these themes appear as the result of conscious effort, or do you find that you are simply drawn to them?

GJ: No, it’s never conscious. I realise when I read something that thrills me or see a work of art that makes me tingle, it’s usually because it partakes of one or other (or both) of these themes. But the realization has been recent, whereas the effects have been produced since I began to read and look and listen to art. In my own work I never start with an abstract theme, always with a sense of quickening at some elusive shape or rhythm that sometimes, much later, ends up as a story or a novel or a play. It’s only looking back, under pressure of the interviewer’s questions, that I realized those two elements had been fairly constant in my work.  But I may well be wrong.
Cruelest Month


Archaic Torso of Apollo

April 25, 2011

Archaic Torso, The Louvre

Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

One of the things that derailed the presidency of Jimmy Carter occurred when he confessed publicly that he had looked at women with lust and, therefore, according to Jesus, had committed “adultery in the heart.” People thought he was being a Jesus freak and he was roundly derided by Playboy magazine and other liberal bastions of sexual openness, but he was actually pointing to a deep religious truth.

Lorenzo Albacete writes in his essay “The Face of the Other”that to “look at someone with lust” is to look at that person only as a potential object of sexual pleasure, as a sexually attractive body. A “lustful” look separates a person from his or her body, or reduces that person to an attractive object. In doing so, the sexual body’s participation in the Eternal is suppressed.

But are we asking too much of ourselves not to treat others as objects? Can we ever really see other people as totally “other” — that is, can we see others as independent of our desires and intentions? If that is possible, how do we do it?

Albacete writes that to avoid treating others as objects, we must examine what occurs at the very first moment of contact with another person. He compares this mysterious beginning moment of contact to the “primordial time” of traditional creation myths (think”in the beginning” as   “In the beginning God created heaven and earth,” or “In the beginning was the Word.” At this beginning Albacete says, prior to any thought, we can’t misrepresent the other in our mind, since no idea or concept of the other has yet been formulated. Prior to thought we cannot objectify another.

For example, let’s say you walk outside and you see something you’ve never seen before: an animal with two heads and three tails. What do you do first? You simply look! At that moment you are letting the thing be what it is without physically, mentally, or emotionally interfering with it. It is only at that moment that you really have come into contact with its total otherness. Of course, that moment is just a moment, because a second afterward your mind goes to work and begins to categorize: ah, two heads, three tails, and so on. But that first moment, the moment before objectification is a crucial one, whether with a mythical creature or a human being.

The initial contact with another human being — a reality different from us — is a “happening,” not simply in the sense of “something that happens” but also in the 1960s sense of something big. The encounter takes place in space and time in an unforeseen way. It is experienced precisely as coming from outside of us. Its defining characteristics are its singularity (nothing else is like this)) and novelty (this has not occurred before). As such, our posture before it is one of surprise, wonder, marvel, amazement (before the mind begins to work on it and otherwise destroy it). The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls this an experience of “enjoyment,” fulfillment, satisfaction, and interior “nourishment” prior to any particular intention or previous desire. The other is discovered as something totally respond to it. It is like the experience of a weight upon me that was not there before, a presence that demands that I go “out of myself” toward it.
Lorenzo Albacete, God At the Ritz

Did you notice in your reading of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” that is precisely what is occurring? It is a poem about a sculpture of Apollo’s torso. After grasping it without any preconceptions, grasping it as a reality that is just overwhelmingly there, Rilke writes, it “bursts forth from all its contours like a star, for there is no place that does not see you.” Rilke then exclaims, “You must change your life.”

This experience of meeting another alters, so to speak, my experience of subjectivity and of identity. From that moment on, my self is experienced as tied to this “reaching out” toward the other. Subjectivity is experienced as inter-subjectivity.

Think about this: nothing is more intimate, more “personal,” more incommunicable than subjectivity. And yet, the word “subject” itself is also used to mean “tied to” or “dependent on” external realities, as in the phrases “being subject to another,” “subject to another’s approval,” and “subject to the weather.” In his book Otherwise Than Being, Levinas puts it bluntly: “Subjectivity is being a hostage.”

It is important to remember that all of this occurs at the very point of encounter, the very beginning of my experience of another. It occurs before there is any conscious mental awareness of the person or this process. The experience of the other for whom and to whom I absent from my prior experience. I become aware of not being fulfilled before by what now fulfills me. If I try to absorb into myself what I have encountered, to live off its enjoyment permanently, it is as if the other were to push me back, to resist being consumed by my enjoyment. Remember, I have yet to formulate an idea of the other; I do not yet have mental knowledge of it. I experience the other as radically “not me”; the other is not an object for my possession.

This experience is therefore also an experience of vulnerability, of suddenly being faced by and exposed to the unexpected. It is as if something suddenly appears that demands my concern, something that I cannot avoid. As such, I experience myself as tied from now on to this new reality. It changes my life. It “faces” me and I “face” it as radically different from me. And so I must am responsible, the one whom I cannot “consume” as an object of my enjoyment but must respect and care for precisely as other – this “primordial experience” takes place in and through the body: my body and the body of the other.

The body mediates the “otherness” of the other, his or her uniqueness, unrepeatability, novelty, transcendence, and “mystery.” Indeed, the moment concepts and ideas are formulated to serve as the basis for my response to others, the body loses its reality as symbol or mediator of transcendence and begins to be considered as an obstacle to it. Thus begins the tragic path to the rock around the genitals, or beyond religion — to the secular inability to grasp the presence of mystery in the body.

Gender differentiation, and thus human sexuality, is part of the body’s mediation of otherness, and thus of transcendence and mystery. In our relationality, our being subject to and with one another, we strive to reach and meet the Eternal.
Lorenzo Albacete, God At the Ritz

This is why looking at art and reading poetry is so important. It gives us a kind of practice in experiencing the sheer otherness of our fellow humans. Many of us enter museums anticipating these kind of encounters. Perhaps it is one of the reasons we visit them in the first place. Yet I wonder how many of us bring that same kind of consciousness when we greet someone new for the first time. “Intimacy demands the acceptance of the other’s personal subjectivity and all that it implies: that is, the acceptance of the person in his entirety, and the offer of a space in which he can be himself, in the totality of his identity.”

Each person, it is claimed by homosexualist gender theories, must develop his own psychosocial sexual identity without being coerced by social or moral prejudices. In this way, biological gender is seen as a purely neutral element that may be shaped in different ways, has no relevance to the gender of the individual, and is susceptible to different modalities of orientation at the relational level.

This approach then results in a decisive conclusion: the assumption of personal identity is not just a simple given that follows a biological template: it also emerges from one’s personal history. Just as a child must accept his parents, his skin color, or certain capacities and limits, and just as this acceptance is decisive for his own identity as an agent within a drama that is composed of multiple actors, so each person must construct his own psycho-social sexual identity, a process that normally occurs without major problems, but that in certain circumstances can result in difficulty and serious conflict. Its contributions notwithstanding, the gender-theory approach obscures the core problem.
Fr. José Noriega Homosexuality: The Semblance Of Intimacy 

Fr. José Noriega, Vice-Chancellor of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome specializes in sexual ethics and is a professor of moral theology. His very dense writing on the false intimacy of homosexualism sheds light on what Monsignor Albacete is getting to when he writes of the secular inability to grasp the presence of mystery in the body.


Easter 2011

April 24, 2011

The Resurrection by Michelangelo

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,  and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;  for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
John 20:1-9

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Mark 16:1-8

My favorite priest, Fr. Robert Barron, speaks to the Easter Resurrection: keep this in your heart of hearts. God bless you all!

THE RESURRECTION is the be-all and end-all of Christian faith. It is the still point around which everything Christian turns. It is the great non-negotiable at the heart of our system of beliefs and practices. The four Gospels, the epistles of Paul and John, the writings of Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom, the poetry of Dante, the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, Chartres Cathedral, the sermons of John Henry Newman, the mysticism of Teresa of Avila, the radical witness of Mother Teresa of Calcutta — all of it flows from the event of the resurrection, and without the resurrection, none of it makes a bit of sense. Paul stated this truth as succinctly and clearly as you could wish: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain.” The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the Gospel, the euvangelion, the Good News. Everything else is commentary.

But what precisely do Christians mean when we speak of Christ’s resurrection? Let me get at it indirectly, by specifying what we don’t mean. Despite the suggestions of far too many theologians in recent years, we don’t mean that “resurrection” is a literary conceit, a symbolic way of expressing the truth that Jesus’ “spirit” or “cause” survives his physical demise. It was Flannery O’Connor who at a dinner party in New York City had listened respectfully to her hostess explaining how the Resurrection was meant to be interpreted as a “symbol,” had quietly replied “Well, if it’s just a symbol, I say to hell with it.”

She later wrote to a friend: “I suppose what bothers us so much about writing about the return of modern people to a sense of the Holy Spirit is that the religious sense seems to be bred out of them in the kind of society we’ve lived in since the 19th century.  And it’s bred out of them double quick now by the religious substitutes for religion. There’s nowhere to latch on to, in the characters, or the audience. If there were in the public just a slight sense of ordinary theology (much less crisis theology), if they only believed at least that God has the power to do certain things.

There is no sense of the power of God that could produce the Incarnation and the Resurrection. They are so busy explaining away the virgin birth and such things, reducing everything to human proportions that in time they lose even the sense of the human itself, what they were aiming to reduce everything to. As for fiction, the meaning of a piece of fiction only begins where everything psychological and sociological has been explained.”

In the 1970s, Edward Schillebeeckx speculated that, after Jesus’ terrible death, his disciples gathered together in their fear and pain for mutual support. What they discovered in time, largely through the suggestions of Peter, was that, despite their cowardly abandonment of Jesus at his hour of need, they “felt forgiven” by their departed Lord. They expressed this subjective experience through evocative narratives about an empty tomb and appearances of the risen Jesus. Only naïve readers, then and now, would take such stories as straightforward history, Schillebeeckx concluded.

We find something very similar in the recent Christology proposed by Roger Haight. Haight speculates that the disciples came together after the death of Jesus and recalled, over time, his words, deeds, and gestures, and how Jesus had been for them a privileged symbol of the presence of God. This survival of the provocative memory of Jesus in their midst they expressed in the pictorial language of the biblical resurrection stories. If that’s all the church means by the resurrection of Jesus, I say, “Why bother?”

Now none of the gospels make any sense were it not for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If Jesus had not returned from the realm of abandonment and death, he would be, as Albert Schweizer memorably put it, but one more person ground under by the wheel of history. And if that were true, then everything he announced and embodied would be falsified and the sinful take on the world simply confirmed. If this great servant of God was simply abandoned and forgotten in death, then God is indeed, at best, a distant and arbitrary force, the one to be either mastered or avoided. The fact that, two millennia after the event, we still meditate theologically on the horrible death of a first-century religious reformer is itself an indication that something else happened here.

The first Christians were formed, galvanized, defined by their conviction that the one whom “they” hung on a tree has not been forgotten but instead raised up by God. They claim, first and foremost, not a beautiful ethic or a reconfiguration of the social/political situation or a new spiritual path, but rather that Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, is alive through the power of the divine. And because of this, God and humanity have to be radically reconsidered.

This essay is too brief to adequately engage such a reductive mode of interpretation. But suffice it to say that were this approach correct, the language of resurrection from the dead could be applied, with equal validity, to practically any great religious or spiritual figure in history. Didn’t the followers of the Buddha fondly remember him and his cause after his death? Couldn’t the disciples of Confucius have sat in a memory circle and recalled how he had radically changed their lives? Couldn’t the friends of Zoroaster have felt forgiven by him after he had passed from the scene? Indeed, couldn’t the members of the Abraham Lincoln Society manage to generate many of the convictions and feelings about Lincoln that Schillebeeckx and Haight claim the apostles generated about Jesus?

And would any of these demythologizing explanations begin to make sense of that excitement, that sense of novelty, surprise, and eschatological breakthrough that runs right through the four Gospels, through every one of the epistles, to the book of Revelation? Can we really imagine St. Paul tearing into Corinth with the earth-shaking message that a dead man was found to be quite inspiring? Can we really imagine St. Peter enduring his upside-down crucifixion because he and the other disciples had “felt forgiven?” More to it, these painfully reductive readings of the resurrection stories actually betray a thin and unsophisticated grasp of the biblical authors.

Here the magisterial work of the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright is particularly illuminating. Wright says that the composers of the New Testament were aware of a whole range of options in regard to the status of those who had died. From their Jewish heritage, they knew of the shadowy realm of Sheol and the sad figures that dwell therein. They knew further that people could return from Sheol in ghostly form. (Think of the prophet Samuel called up from the dead by the witch of Endor in the first book of Samuel.)

They even had a sense of reincarnation, evident in widespread convictions about the return of Elijah in advance of the Messiah or in the popular report that Jesus himself was John the Baptist or one of the prophets returned from death. From the Hellenistic and Roman cultural matrix, furthermore, the New Testament authors would have inherited the Platonic theory that the soul at death escapes from the body as from a prison in order to move into a higher spiritual arena.

They also were aware of a perspective, combining both Greek and Hebrew elements, according to which the souls of the dead abide for a time with God in a quasi-disembodied state, while they await the general resurrection at the eschaton.  This view is on clear display in the famous passage from the book of Wisdom that says, “The souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment shall touch them.” Finally, they knew all about hallucinations, illusions, and projections (though they wouldn’t have used those terms), as is clear from the first reactions of the disciples upon hearing the reports of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.

The point is that they used none of these categories when speaking of the resurrection of Jesus. They didn’t say that Jesus had gone to Sheol and was languishing there; nor did they claim that he had returned from that realm à la Samuel. They certainly did not think that Jesus’ soul had escaped from his body or that he was vaguely “with God” like any other of the righteous dead. They did not think that the general resurrection of the dead had taken place. And most certainly, they did not think that the resurrection was a symbolic way of talking about something that had happened to them.

Again and again, they emphasize how discouraged, worn down, and confused they were after the crucifixion. That this dejected band would spontaneously generate the faith that would send them careering around the world with the message of resurrection strains credulity.

What is undeniably clear is that something had happened to Jesus — something so strange that those who witnessed it had no category apt to describe it. Perhaps we would get closest to it if we were to say that what was expected of all of the righteous dead at the eschaton — bodily resurrection  –  had come true in time for this one man, Jesus of Nazareth, the same Jesus whom they knew, with whom they had shared meals and fellowship.

This Jesus, who had died and had been buried, appeared alive to them, bodily present, though transformed, no longer conditioned by the limitations of space and time. This is what rendered them speechless at first and then, especially after the event of Pentecost, prepared to go to the ends of the earth, enduring every hardship even to the point of martyrdom, in order to proclaim the Good News.

The women came to the tomb early on Easter Sunday morning in order to anoint the body of Jesus and pay their respects. As they made their way to the sepulcher, they probably shared stories of Jesus and repeated his words, recalling to one another how profoundly he had influenced them. They undoubtedly expected to linger at the tomb after their task was completed, continuing to reflect wistfully and sadly on this great man. This is, more or less, what any mourners would do at the tomb of a fondly remembered friend.

But there is nothing peaceful about the tomb of Jesus. When the women arrived, they noticed that the stone had been rolled away. Suspecting that someone had broken in and stolen the body, they approached the open grave, only — to their infinite surprise — to spy a man in a white garment who said “the one you seek is not here.” It is at that moment that they began to suspect that someone, in fact, had broken out of the tomb. So overwhelmed, so disoriented were they that they ran from the spot — “frightened,” Mark tells us, “out of their wits.” Gathered round the tomb of a friend or hero, one might feel nostalgic, sad, inspired, but one would not, I suggest, be frightened out of one’s mind. The point is this: something so new happened at Easter that the tame category of wistful remembrance is ludicrously inadequate as an explanation.

Jesus is risen; it is true. And that makes all the difference.


The Unbearable Lightness of Co-Suffering

April 23, 2011

Lorenzo Albacete

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, the Puerto Rican physicist/priest has written that Jean Paul Sartre, Germaine Greer and (my own volunteer here) Dostoevsky’s passionate intellectual creation, Ivan Karamazov, qualify as creative sufferers in that their personal authenticity creates a kind of solidarity among those who suffer because it opens us up to others who are suffering:

To suffer together means to walk together toward transcendence. This solidarity is the proper human response to suffering. This doesn’t mean that we “share the pain” of those who suffer. While this phrase is used quite often, I don’t think this is possible. Nothing is more intimately personal than the pain of suffering. It is, after all, a wound in our personal identity, and personal identity cannot be shared. Each person is unique and unrepeatable. What we share is the questioning, and thus we suffer with the one who suffers. We “co-suffer” with that person.
Lorenzo Albacete, God At The Ritz

Albacete tells us that suffering reflects the transcendence of the human person. Since it points to a Mystery that is the author of the drama of human life, we cannot really use suffering to deny the existence of God as many of these atheist examples have done. Instead, it is because there is a God that suffering exists as human beings experience it. The suffering of human beings is a sign of God. What this God is like, the good monsignor notes, is another question.

Albacete reminds us of C. S. Lewis’s autobiographical A Grief Observed. Lewis wrote about his suffering as a result of his wife’s death (and her suffering in the struggle against it, especially when her hopes, raised by what appeared to be miraculous interventions, were dashed by a worsening of her illness).

This suffering did not make him doubt God’s existence, but God’s goodness. If the meaning of suffering cannot be grasped, this response in the face of unbearable suffering is understandable. It is no surprise that according to some scripture scholars, the Gospel of John presents Jesus’ suffering as a trial in which God is the accused, Satan is the accuser, and we are the jury. To co-suffer is to be willing to serve on the jury in the trial of God and to risk our own faith by identifying with those who suffer in their questioning of God. Even if the one who suffers can no longer articulate or express the experience of suffering, we must put that unutterable question into words for those who suffer. We must establish that solidarity, risk our own faith and identity, make a human connection with the sufferer, and cry out to God together. Authentic suffering, then, is a dialogue, not only with God but also among humans. To co-suffer is to share the question “why,” to be a companion, and to walk together toward transcendence.
Lorenzo Albacete, God At The Ritz

In fact, if you think of it, the only adequate response when confronted with another person’s suffering is co-suffering. It is the only way to respect the suffering of another. Co-suffering affirms the wounded personal identity of the sufferer through our willingness to expose our identity to the questioning provoked by the sufferer’s pain. This willingness to share suffering is an act of love. Co-suffering is the way we love the one who suffers.

In our relationship with the one who suffers, we as co-sufferers can impose nothing on the other person. We can only help the other to ask the question “why” by asking it together — that is, by praying together. Praying together with the one who suffers is the just response to the suffering.

The cruelest response to suffering is the attempt to explain it away or to interpret it to the one who suffers: “This is why this is happening. I’m sorry that you can’t see the answer, but it’s clear to me.” When the apostles saw a man born blind, for example, they asked Jesus whether it was due to his sins or his parents’ sins. This is the modern “functional mentality” that explains everything in terms of past causes. This does not do justice to the one who suffers. We secularize the suffering by eliminating its link with transcendence. Jesus rejected this explanation: he does not suffer because of his sins or his parents’ sins; he suffers to manifest God’s glory.

I recently went through several PTSD therapy sessions concerning things that happened to me in Vietnam. I found myself confronting a secular therapist (ostensibly Catholic) who insisted on “interpreting” my suffering for me. I had hoped to find a good Catholic listener, I found a secular monster and so there was no prayer together nor anything that would lead us to that moment.  

Job’s friends sought to explain the origins of Job’s suffering by looking to his past, but Job bitterly protested and repeatedly rejected these explanations as, at the end of the book, did God. Mystery’s answer to suffering is always grace — a free grace that comes to us without conditions, without rationalizations, without explanations. Suffering can be relieved by the co-sufferer only when the co-sufferer can bring the suffering person into contact with grace and into the experience of being loved. The answer to suffering will always be an experience of grace and love.

For Job’s so-called friends, Job’s suffering was an occasion to construct their theology rather than an opportunity to express their love. They would not walk with him, co-suffer with him, pray with him for grace. Instead, they fit Job’s suffering into a theological system that explained everything away. True friends would have acknowledged the horror he was going through, stood by him in his pain and refrained from offering an answer to or a reason for his suffering. Since suffering is experienced as a destruction that renders life meaningless, simplistic explanations trivialize the suffering. It’s like saying those who suffer lose their right to full life because of something they did and now they have to pay the price. Job understood that he could not accept an explanation for his suffering; to do so would have devalued his own life and experience.

With grace, we suddenly experience the goodness of our (and others’) existence, which has infinite value for its own sake. At the end of the book of Job, God asks Job to consider his origins, to realize that he was created without any claim to existence, that he is not his own maker. His existence is sheer grace. Job discovers himself as he is asked by God to consider the mystery of his human identity. By asking questions of Job, God joins, so to speak, Job’s questioning. In a way, God co-suffers with Job.

Suffering is an expression of human personhood, human transcendence. God’s response to our suffering, a suffering with us, respects our identity as individuals. Likewise, the most intimate encounter between human beings is through shared suffering. The communion of life born through shared suffering is the strongest interpersonal communion in the world, breaking down all barriers among human beings, and bringing us together through a bond with transcendence, with “something always greater than us.”
Lorenzo Albacete, God At The Ritz


Thomas Aquinas’ Ecce Panis Angelorum And Panis angelicus

April 18, 2011


St. Thomas Aquinas from by Carlo Crivelli, 1476

1. Ecce Panis Angelorum,
Factus cibus viatorum
Vere panis filiorum,
Non mittendus canibus.
2. In figuris praesignatur,
Cum Isaac immolatur,
Agnus Paschae deputatur,
Datur manna patribus.
3. Bone pastor, panis vere,
Jesu, nostri miserere:
Tu nos pasce, nos tuere,
Tu nos bona fac videre
In terra viventium.
4. Tu qui cuncta scis et vales,
Qui nos pascis hic mortales:
Tuos ibi commensales,
Coheredes et sodales
Fac sanctorum civium.
1. Behold the Bread of Angels,
made the Food of wayfarers,
Truly the bread of children,
not to be given to the dogs.
2. Presignified by figure,
When Isaac was immolated,
the Paschal Lamb was commanded,
Manna was given to the fathers.
3. Good shepherd, true Bread,
Jesus, have mercy on us:
Feed us, protect us,
Make us to see good things
in the land of the living.
4. Thou who knowest and willest all things,
Who feeds us mortals by This:
Make thine own to be partakers of,
coheirs and citizens in
that holy City of Saints.

 The Ecce Panis Angelorum is pure Catholic teaching. Nothing like modern hymns, many which only talk about love and could be used in references to human spouses or lovers. It discusses the establishment of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, how we receive Jesus whole and entire under either species of bread or wine. It is sung every year in the Corpus Christi procession and verse 17 contains “The good receive It as do the bad, but the result is anything but the same; life for the one and destruction for the other.” As many as receive Him, He is not utterly consumed, but lives forever. A beautiful hymn, worthy of the great Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Common Doctor of the Church.

A straightforward rendition here for the parish choir to aspire to:

Panis angelicus
Panis angelicus is the penultimate strophe of the hymn Sacris solemniis written by Saint Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi as part of a complete liturgy of the Feast including prayers for the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours.

The strophe of Sacris solemniis that begins with the words Panis angelicus (bread of angels) has often been set to music separately from the rest of the hymn. Most famously, in 1872 César Franck set this strophe for voice (tenor), harp, cello, and organ, and incorporated it into his Messe à trois voix Opus 12.

The phenomenon whereby the strophe of Sacris solemniis that begins with the words “Panis angelicus” is often treated as a separate hymn has occurred also with other hymns that Thomas Aquinas wrote for Corpus Christi: Verbum supernum prodiens (the last two strophes begin with O salutaris Hostia) and Pange lingua gloriosi (the last two strophes begin with Tantum ergo, in which case the word ergo ["therefore"] makes evident that this part is the continuation of a longer hymn).

Panis angelicus
fit panis hominum;
Dat panis coelicus
figuris terminum:
O res mirabilis!
Manducat Dominum
Pauper, servus et humilis.
Te trina Deitas
unaque poscimus:
Sic nos tu visita,
sicut te colimus;
Per tuas semitas
duc nos quo tendimus,
Ad lucem quam inhabitas.
The angelic bread
becomes the bread of men;
The heavenly bread
ends all prefigurations:
What wonder!
The Lord is eaten
by a poor and humble servant.
Triune God,
We beg of you:
visit us,
just as we worship you.
By your ways,
lead us where we are heading,
to the light in which you dwell.

The César Franck hymn sung by the incomparable Renee Fleming.


Thomas Aquinas’ Great Poem: The Pange lingua

April 14, 2011

Anton Bruckner

From yesterday’s post:
“Indeed, because he serves reason so lovingly, St. Thomas actually becomes a poet, and, if we believe a disinterested judge, the greatest Latin poet of the Middle Ages. Now it is remarkable that the lofty beauty of the works attributed to this poet of the Eucharist depend almost entirely on the aptness and concentration of his expressions. Poems like the Oro to devote and Ecce pans angelorum can almost be called little theological treatises and they have supplied generations of faithful Christians with inspiration and devotion.

Perhaps the most distinctive of all his poems is the Pange lingua which inspired Remy de Gourmont to say, in words matching, almost, the flawless beauty of the style he was attempting to describe: “The inspiration of St. Thomas is fired by an unwavering genius, a genius at once strong, sure, confident and exact. What he wants to say, he speaks out boldly, and in words so lovely that even doubt grows fearful and takes to flight.”

And here is that Pange lingua:

Pange, lingua, gloriosi
Corporis mysterium,
Sanguinisque pretiosi,
quem in mundi pretium
fructus ventris generosi
Rex effudit Gentium.
Nobis datus, nobis natus
ex intacta Virgine,
et in mundo conversatus,
sparso verbi semine,
sui moras incolatus
miro clausit ordine.
In supremae nocte coenae
recumbens cum fratribus
observata lege plene
cibis in legalibus,
cibum turbae duodenae
se dat suis manibus.
Verbum caro, panem verum
verbo carnem efficit:
fitque sanguis Christi merum,
et si sensus deficit,
ad firmandum cor sincerum
sola fides sufficit.
Tantum ergo Sacramentum
veneremur cernui:
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui:
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui.
Genitori, Genitoque
laus et jubilatio,
salus, honor, virtus quoque
sit et benedictio:
Procedenti ab utroque
compar sit laudatio.
Amen. Alleluja.  
Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory,
of His flesh the mystery sing;
of the Blood, all price exceeding,
shed by our immortal King,
destined, for the world’s redemption,
from a noble womb to spring.
Of a pure and spotless Virgin
born for us on earth below,
He, as Man, with man conversing,
stayed, the seeds of truth to sow;
then He closed in solemn order
wondrously His life of woe.
On the night of that Last Supper,
seated with His chosen band,
He the Pascal victim eating,
first fulfills the Law’s command;
then as Food to His Apostles
gives Himself with His own hand.
Word-made-Flesh, the bread of nature
by His word to Flesh He turns;
wine into His Blood He changes;
what though sense no change discerns?
Only be the heart in earnest,
faith her lesson quickly learns.
Down in adoration falling,
This great Sacrament we hail,
Over ancient forms of worship
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith will tell us Christ is present,
When our human senses fail.
To the everlasting Father,
And the Son who made us free
And the Spirit, God proceeding
From them Each eternally,
Be salvation, honor, blessing,
Might and endless majesty.
Amen. Alleluia.

 The great Austrian composer Anton Bruckner used the prayer for this hymn chorus:    


Problem And Mystery In Thomism – Etienne Gilson

April 13, 2011

St. Thomas Aquinas from by Carlo Crivelli, 1476


It has been rightly insisted that we must distinguish whatever separates the problem from the mystery, and upon the need for the metaphysician to pass beyond the first plane into the second. But neither is to be sacrificed for the sake of the other. When philosophy abandons the problem in order to immerse itself in the mystery, it ceases to be philosophy and becomes mysticism. Whether we like it or not, the problem is the very stuff out of which philosophy is fashioned. To think is to know by concepts. Yet as soon as we begin to interpret the real in terms of quidditative concepts we are right into the problem. We are here face to face with the inescapable, and even those who tend most strongly to escape from it must perforce recognize it. “What cannot be problematized, cannot be examined nor objectified and this by definition.” 26

If philosophizing is a kind of examining of the real, philosophy can only deal with the real to the extent that the real can be problematized. The philosopher can only get to God by way of the problem of His existence, which the problem of His nature follows hard upon. He is then confronted with the problem of God’s action and of God’s government in the world. There are as many problems as there are mysteries, and they are not only met when philosophy talks about God. Man’s science is alive with mysteries, as knowledge and liberty so eloquently testify.

Nor does mystery dwell only in the world of matter. Reason has for centuries been challenged by such obscure facts as efficient causality and the presence of quality. To renounce the problematizing of mysteries would be to renounce philosophizing. This is not the way to seek the solution of the crisis confronting philosophy today. But if we must not leave the problem alone, neither ought we to leave the mystery alone either. The real danger begins where the problem is confronted by the mystery and pretends to be sufficient to itself and to lay claim to an autonomy which it does not actually possess.

The moment a philosophy makes this mistake it is victimized by its own combinations of abstract concepts and enters a game which will never finish. It moves into the realm of the antinomies of pure reason. Kant was not wrong when he said that escape was impossible. We need only add that everything invites philosophic reason not to enter, because such reason ought not to be discussion of pure problems or flight from mystery. It ought to be a perpetually renewed effort to treat every problem as though it were bound up in a mystery. It ought to problematize the mystery by examining it with the help of the concept.

There is a mystery which can be called the object par excellence of philosophy, since metaphysics presupposes it, namely, the act-of-being. The philosophy of St. Thomas locates this mystery in the heart of the real and so insures itself against the risk, so fatal to metaphysical thought, of growing sterile in the very purity of abstraction. To a certain point, Aristotle had already walked in this way. His reformation had been to give philosophy an object which was not the ideal essence conceived by thought but was real being as it is and as it behaves. With Aristotle, the ouaia reality, is no longer the Idea, it is the substance properly so designated. In order to measure the scope of this revolution we have only to compare the solutions to the problem of the first principle of all things proposed by Aristotle and Plato. When Plato takes up the problem, he sets out from an analysis of the real which disengages the intelligible element from it and then proceeds back from one intelligible condition to another until he comes to the first condition.

It is the Good in itself; an Idea, that is, an hypostasized abstraction. Aristotle sets out from the concrete substance given in sensible experience, that is, he sets out from the existant. Then, contrary to Plato, he begins by bringing into evidence the active principle of its being and of its operations. Then he proceeds back from one ontological condition to another until he comes to the first condition. Thus pure Act becomes the highest reality because it alone fully deserves the name of being. On it everything else depends because everything else imitates it in an eternally recommenced effort to imitate in time its immovable actuality.

The peculiar work of St. Thomas has been to carry on into the interior of being itself. He has pushed back as far as the secret principle which establishes, not the actuality of being as substance, but the actuality of being as being. To the age-old question (even Aristotle referred to it as old) What is being? St. Thomas replied: it is that which has actual existence. An ontology like this sacrifices nothing of the intelligible reality accessible to man under the form of concepts. Like Aristotle’s, it never grows tired of analyzing, classifying, defining. But it always remembers that in what is most intimate to itself, the real object it is struggling to define is incapable of definition. It is not an abstraction; it is not even a thing. It is not even merely the formal act which makes it to be such and such a thing. It is the act which locates it as a real being in existence, which actualizes the very form that makes it intelligible.

A philosophy like this is at grips with the secret energy which causes its object. It finds in the direction of its limitations the principles of its very fertility. It will never believe that it has come to the end of its inquiry because its end is beyond what it can enclose within the bounds of a definition.

We are not dealing now with a philosophy which leans against existence and consequently cannot see it. Rather we have to do with a philosophy which stands in front of existence and never stops staring it in the face. Of course we cannot see existence, but we know it is there and we can at least locate it, by an act of judgment, as the hidden root of what we can see and of what we can attempt to define. This is also why Thomistic ontology refuses to be limited to what the human mind knew about being in the thirteenth century. It even refuses to allow itself to be checked by what we know about it in the twenty-first. It invites us to look beyond present-day science toward that primitive energy from which both knowing subject and object known arise.

If all beings “are” in virtue of their own act-of-being, each one of them breaks through the enclosing frame of its own definition. Better, perhaps, it has no proper definition: individuum est ineffabile. Yes, the individual is ineffable, but because it is too big rather than because it is too little. St. Thomas’s universe is peopled with living essences sprung from a source as secret and rich as their very life. His world, by a filiation more profound than so many superficial dissimilarities might indicate, projects into Pascal’s world rather than into Descartes’.

In Pascal’s world, the imagination is more likely to grow weary of producing concepts than nature to tire of providing them. There “all things hide a mystery; all things are veils hiding God.”  Is not this what St. Thomas had already said with a simplicity no less striking than Pascal’s: God is in all things, and that intimately — Deus est in omnibus rebus, et intime? For of such a universe two things can be said at the same time. Everything in it possesses its own act-of-being, distinct from that of all others. Yet, deep within each of them there lies hidden the same Act-of-Being, which is God.

If we want to recapture the true meaning of Thomism we have to go beyond the tightly-woven fabric of its philosophical doctrines into its soul or spirit. What lies back of the ideas is a deep religious life, the interior warmth of a soul in search of God. There have in the recent past been prolonged and subtle disputes as to whether, according to St. Thomas, men experience a natural desire for their supernatural end. Theologians must ultimately decide such questions. They have to reach some kind of agreement about expressions and formulas which concern God’s transcendence and still do not allow man to be separated from Him. The historian can at least say that St. Thomas leaves questions only partially settled, like the projecting stones of an unfinished wall awaiting the hand of a second builder. The very gaps in St. Thomas’s work suggest that nature awaits the finishing touches of grace.

At the basis of this philosophy, as at the basis of all Christian philosophy, there is a deep awareness of wretchedness and need for a comforter who can only be God: “Natural reason tells man that he is subject to a higher being because of the defects he discerns in himself, defects for which he requires help and direction from some higher being. Whatever this being may be, it is commonly spoken of as God.” 

This is the natural feeling which grace excites in the Christian soul and which the perfection of charity brings to fulfillment when this soul is the soul of a saint. The burning desire of God which in a John of the Cross overflows into lyric poems is here transcribed into the language of pure ideas. Their impersonal formulation must not make us forget that they are nourished on the desire for God and that their end is the satisfaction of this desire.

There is no point in seeking, as some appear to do, an interior life underlying Thomism which is specifically and essentially different from Thomism itself. We ought not to think that the learned arrangement of the Summa Theologiae and the unbroken advance of reason constructing stone by stone this mighty edifice was for St. Thomas but the fruit of a superficial activity beneath which there moved deeper, richer and more religious thinking. The interior life of St. Thomas, insofar as the hidden stirrings of so powerful a personality can be revealed, seems to have been just what it should have been to be expressed in such a doctrine. Nothing could be more desirable, nothing more indicative of an ardent will than his demonstrations fashioned from clearly defined ideas, presented in perfectly precise statements, and placed in a carefully balanced arrangement.

Only a complete giving of himself can explain his mastery of expression and organization of philosophic ideas. Thus his Summa Theologiae with its abstract clarity, its impersonal transparency, crystallizes before our very eyes and for all eternity his interior life. If we would recapture the deep and intense spirit of this interior life, there is nothing more useful than to re-assemble for ourselves, but in terms of the order he gave them, the various elements that go to make up his remarkable Summa. We should study its internal structure and strive to arouse in ourselves the conviction of its necessity. Only that will to understand, shared between ourselves and St. Thomas the philosopher, will serve to make us see that this tremendous work is but the outward glow of an invisible fire, and that there is to be found behind the order of its ideas that powerful impulse which gathered them together.

Only thus does Thomism appear in all its beauty. It is a philosophy which creates excitement by means of pure ideas, and does so by sheer faith in the value of proofs and denials based on reason. This will become more evident to those who are disturbed by the very real difficulties encountered in the beginning, if they consider what St. Thomas’s spirituality really was. If it were true that his philosophy were inspired by one spirit, his spirituality by another, the difference would become apparent by comparing his manner of thinking with his manner of praying. But a study of the prayers of St. Thomas which have been preserved and which are so satisfying that the Church has placed them in the Roman breviary, shows that they are not characterized by the note of rapture or emotion or spiritual relish common enough in many forms of prayer.

St. Thomas’s fervor is completely expressed in the loving petitioning of God for what He should be asked for, and in becoming manner. His phrases tend to be rather rigid because the rhythms are so balanced and regular. But his fervor is genuine, deep and readily recognizable and reflects the careful rhythms of his thought: “I pray Thee, that this holy Communion may be to me, not guilt for punishment, but a saving intercession for pardon. Let it be to me an armor of faith and a shield of good-will. Let it be to me a casting out of vices; a driving away of all evil desires and fleshly lusts; an increase of charity, patience, humility, obedience, and all virtues; a firm defense against the plots of all my enemies, both seen and unseen; a perfect quieting of all motions of sin, both in my flesh and in my spirit; a firm cleaving unto Thee, the only and true God, and a happy ending of my life.”

Spirituality like this is more eager for light than for taste. The rhythm of his phrases, the pleasing sonority of his Latin words never modifies the perfect order of his ideas. But the discriminating taste can always perceive, beneath the balanced cadence of his expression, a religious emotion that is almost poetic.

Indeed, because he serves reason so lovingly, St. Thomas actually becomes a poet, and, if we believe a disinterested judge, the greatest Latin poet of the Middle Ages. Now it is remarkable that the lofty beauty of the works attributed to this poet of the Eucharist depend almost entirely on the aptness and concentration of his expressions. Poems like the Oro to devote and Ecce pans angelorum can almost be called little theological treatises and they have supplied generations of faithful Christians with inspiration and devotion.

Perhaps the most distinctive of all his poems is the Pange lingua which inspired Remy de Gourmont to say, in words matching, almost, the flawless beauty of the style he was attempting to describe: “The inspiration of St. Thomas is fired by an unwavering genius, a genius at once strong, sure, confident and exact. What he wants to say, he speaks out boldly, and in words so lovely that even doubt grows fearful and takes to flight.”

Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium
Sanguinisque pretiosi quem in mundi pretium
Fructus ventris generosi Rex efudit gentium.

Nobis datus, nobis natus ex intacta Virgine
Et in mundo conversatus, sparso verbi semine
Sui moras incolatus miro clausit ordine.

We pass from St. Thomas’s philosophy to his prayer,  and from his prayer to his poetry without becoming aware of any change of level. And indeed there is no change. His philosophy is as rich in beauty as his poetry is laden with thought. Of both Summa Theologiae and Pange lingua we can say that his is an unwavering genius, strong, sure, confident and exact. What he wants to say, he speaks out boldly and with a firmness of thought that doubt itself grows fearful and takes to flight.

Nowhere else, perhaps, does so demanding a reason respond to the call of so religious a heart. St. Thomas regards man as marvelously equipped for the knowledge of phenomena; but he does not think that the most adequate human knowledge is the most useful and most beautiful to which man can aspire. He sets up man’s reason in its own kingdom, the sensible. But to equip it for exploring and conquering this kingdom, he invites it to prefer another which is not merely the kingdom of man but of the children of God. Such is the thinking of St. Thomas. If we grant that a philosophy is not to be defined from the elements it borrows but from the spirit which quickens it, we shall see here neither Platonism nor Aristotelianism but, above all, Christianity. It is a philosophy that sets out to express in rational language the total destiny of the Christian man. But it has constantly to remind him that here below he travels the paths of exile where there is no light and no horizon. Yet it never ceases to guide his steps toward that distant height from which can be seen, far off in the mists, the borders of the Promised Land.


Woods by Wendell Berry

April 12, 2011

Woods by Wendell Berry

I part the out thrusting branches
and come in beneath
the blessed and the blessing trees.
Though I am silent
there is singing around me.
Though I am dark
there is vision around me.
Though I am heavy
there is flight around me.

In the final chapter of Remembering, “The Hilltop,” the main character, Andy, has returned home. Flora is not home, and so he leaves her a note, “Can you forgive me? I pray that you will forgive me,” before going out for a walk on his land. This is in fact the third journey related in the novel, the first being his walk in San Francisco and the second being his flight home. If we follow the allusions to Dante, the first two journeys correspond to the Inferno and Purgatorio respectively. The themes of transgression and repentance in these two journeys seem to bear the interpretation. This final journey would then correspond to Dante’s Paradiso. Here again the parallel fits, for Andy is granted here a mystical vision of something like heaven.

Andy walks through the woods on his property, which lead to a high place overlooking Port William. While in the woods, he stops to rest and falls into a sleep reminiscent of the “deep sleep” of Adam, for it is like death: “He has entered the dark, and it is such darkness as he has never known. All that is around him and all that lie is has disappeared into it. He sees nothing, remembers nothing, knows nothing except a hopeless longing for something he does not know, for which he does not know a name.” He is awakened by a man, “dark as shadow,” touching his shoulder, and arises to find himself in the same place, which, “though it is familiar to him, is changed.” Somehow he recognizes the man as his guide, and he begins to follow this dark Virgil through the woods, which are now filled with a mysterious, singing light. Andy recognizes that “he has entered the eternal place in which we live in time” and would like to stay, but the man leads him on to the top of the hill overlooking Port William.

Andy looks and sees the town and the fields around it, Port William and its countryside as he never saw or dreamed them, the signs everywhere upon them of the care of a longer love than any who have lived there ever imagined. . And in the fields and the town, walking, standing, or sitting under trees, resting and talking together in the peace of a sabbath profound and bright, are people of such beauty that he weeps to see them. He sees that these are the membership of one another and of the place and of the song or light in which they live and move.

He sees that they are dead, and they are alive. He sees that he lives in eternity as he lives in time, and nothing is lost.

In Andy’s vision of a redeemed Port William, one cannot help recalling the verse of Revelation 21:2: “And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The communion of persons in marriage is not man’s highest end. It is only a sacrament, a visible and efficacious sign, of the higher, more lasting, and more real communion of persons in Christ. It is our participation in this final “membership” that ultimately makes us whole, a fact beautifully expressed in the final lines of the novel, in terms softly evocative of Psalm 137:

He has come into the presence of these living by a change of sight, by which he has parted from them as they were and from himself as he was and is.
Now he prepares to leave them. Their names singing in his mind, he lifts toward them the restored right hand of his joy.

In Remembering Wendell Berry helps to heal the hidden wound of our fallen nature. He reveals in a powerful way the latent tendencies in our fallen nature and in our culture more generally toward Romanticism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and every other form of dualism that rejects the gift of Creation and the body. He also shows the terrifying costs of this great rejection. Moreover, by making detailed what is spare in the myth of the fall, and making concrete what is abstract in the Theology of the Body, Remembering brings us tangibly in touch with the primordial memory of wholeness that slumbers in every human heart. Above all, Remembering imprints a “beautifying awareness of the meaning of the body” (Theology, 30 January 1980, 69) into our own memory, giving us hope as we groan with all of creation for the redemption of our bodies.
Healing The Hidden Wound:The Theology Of The Body In Wendell Berry’s Remembering By Nathan Schlueter


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