Archive for February, 2013

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Chesterton‘s The Everlasting Man 3 – Ian Ker

February 28, 2013
Chesterton and wife Frances in 1922

Chesterton and wife Frances in 1922

Instead of the platitudes one associates with moralists, a person reading the Gospels for the first time “would find a number of strange claims…a number of very startling pieces of advice; a number of stunning rebukes; a number of strangely beautiful stories.” Instead of platitudes, for instance, about peace, such a reader would find several ideals of non-resistance, which taken as they stand would be rather too pacific for any pacifist.

But, on the other hand, our reader would not find a word of all that obvious rhetoric against war which has filled countless books. There is nothing that throws any particular light on Christ’s attitude towards organized warfare, except that he seems to have been rather fond of Roman soldiers.

Indeed it is another perplexity… that he seems to have got on much better with Romans than he did with Jew: truth is, Chesterton concludes, the Jesus of popular conception is ‘‘a made-up figure, a piece of artificial selection, like the merely evolutionary man’‘and impossible to reconcile with the real Jesus of the Gospels, ‘‘ a strolling carpenter’s apprentice’‘who ‘‘ said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: “Before Abraham was, I am.”

Chesterton gives examples of how it is the Church that explains the riddles of the Gospel. The assertion, for instance, that the meek inherit the earth was not at all “a meek statement’‘, but rather ‘‘a very violent statement; in the sense of doing violence to reason and probability.” But as a prophecy it would one day be fulfilled in monasticism: ‘‘The monasteries were the most practical and prosperous estates and experiments in reconstruction after the barbaric deluge; the meek did really inherit the earth.”

Again, the story of Martha and Mary found its fulfillment in ‘‘the mystics of the Christian contemplative life.” If the Gospels could be read as though they were ‘‘ as new as newspaper reports, they would puzzle and perhaps terrify us as much more than the same things as developed by historical Christianity:  “For instance, Christ after a clear allusion to the eunuchs of the eastern courts, said there would be eunuchs of the kingdom of heaven. If this does not mean the voluntary enthusiasm of virginity, it could only be made to mean something much more unnatural or uncouth.”

As an example of  “the originality of the Gospel.” Chesterton takes the “exaltation of childhood”, as strong and as startling as any. But the literary style itself of Jesus was also highly original: “It had among other things a singular air of piling tower upon tower by the use of the a, fortiori …”.  And above all, his speaking as though he were divine was absolutely unique: ‘‘ of no other prophet or philosopher of the same intellectual order, would it be even possible to pretend that he had made such a claim.

The case of Jesus Christ was unique: only a “monomaniac” could make such a claim, but no one thought that ‘‘ the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount was a horrible half-witted imbecile’‘. However, in spite of the Sermon on the Mount, there was a “quality running through all his teachings” that seemed to Chesterton  “to be neglected in most modern talk about them as teachings; and that is the persistent suggestion that he has not really to come to teach’‘– but rather “to die”.

And, when the moment came for him to die, it was “the supremely supernatural act, of all his miraculous life, that he did not vanish,” that he did not miraculously disappear. On that Good Friday, Chesterton notes that it is ‘‘the best things in the world that are at their worst, the priests of a true monotheism and the soldiers of an international civilization.”

Although ‘‘ Rome was almost another name for responsibility’‘, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate “stands for ever as a sort of rocking statue of the irresponsible:  “He who is enthroned to say what is justice can only ask, “What is truth?”

And the Jewish priests who were “proud that they alone could look upon the blinding sun of a single deity… did not know that they themselves had gone blind.” Of the crucifixion itself Chesterton refuses to speak — for

if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never undertand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.

Chesterton had in fact dared to speak of this terrible paradox in Orthodoxy.

When giving Peter authority over his Church, Christ used the two symbols of rock and keys. What he meant by saying that on the Peter he would build his Church was another example of something that  could only fully expand and explain itself afterwards, and even long afterwards.”. But the other image of the keys, Chesterton suggests, “has an exactitude that has hardly been exactly noticed.”

Its “peculiar aptness” lay in the fact that the early “Christian movement” claimed to possess that a key that could unlock the prison of the whole world; and let in the white daylight of liberty.” The Christian creed was like a key in three ways: a key is above all things a thing with a shape. It is a thing that depends entirely upon keeping its shape. The Christian creed is above all things the philosophy of shapes and the enemy of shapelessness.”

Chesterton presses home the analogy:  “A man told that his solitary latchkey had been melted down with a million others into a Buddhist unity would be annoyed. But a man told that his key was gradually growing and sprouting in his pocket and branching into new wards or complications, would not be more gratified.”

Secondly, the point about a key is that it either fits or does fit the lock. If it fits the lock, then it is pointless to ask for ‘‘ a simpler key that has a less ‘‘ fantastic shape’‘. And, thirdly, to complain about the key having the ‘‘elaborate pattern” that is necessary to open the lock is like complaining about Christianity ‘‘being so early complicated with theology’‘.

If Christianity had “faced the world only with the platitudes about peace and simplicity some moralists would confine it to, it would not have had the faintest effect on that luxurious and labyrinthine lunatic asylum’‘.  The creed was complicated, because the problem with the world was “a complicated problem.”

Although it did seem ‘‘ complex” like the key, there was ‘‘ one thing about it that was simple. It opened the door. “The truth was that the “purity” of the creed was “preserved by dogmatic definitions and exclusions.” “It could not possibly have been preserved by anything else.”

The enlightened modern liberals who deride the Athanasian dogma of Co-Eternity of the Divine Son’‘as “a dreadful example of barren dogma” are the same people who like to ‘‘ offer us as a piece of pure and simple Christianity, untroubled by doctrinal disputes … the single sentence, “God is Love”. “But the dogma is there to protect that very sentence.” The barren dogma is only the logical way of stating the beautiful sentiment. Never has the vital importance of defined doctrine been more compellingly expressed:

For if there be a being without beginning, existing before all things, was He loving when there was nothing to be loved? If through that unthinkable eternity He is lonely, what is the meaning of saying He is love? The only justification of such a mystery is the mystical conception that in His own nature there was something analogous to self-expression; something of what begets and beholds what it has begotten. Without some such idea, it is really illogical to complicate the ultimate essence of deity with an idea like love.

It was “the defiance of Athanasius to the cold compromise of the Arians that was the trumpet of true Christianity.”

It was emphatically he who really was fighting for a God of Love against a God of colorless and remote cosmic control; the God of the stoics and the agnostics…. He was fighting for that very balance of beautiful interdependence and intimacy, in the very Trinity of the Divine Nature, that draws our hearts to the Trinity of the Holy Family. His dogma, if the phrase be not misunderstood, turns even God into a Holy Family.

Islam, on the other hand, was ‘‘ a barbaric reaction against that very humane complexity… that idea of balance in the deity, as of balance in the family, that makes that creed a sort of sanity, and that sanity the soul of civilization.” For Islam was “a product of Christianity; even if it was a byproduct; even if it was a bad product.”

There was one thing that pagan mythology and philosophy had in common: “both were really sad. “Christianity brought hope into the world. And it was a dogmatic Christianity that did this because of its very liberality. Modem theological liberals cannot understand that “the only liberal part of their theology is really the dogmatic part.”

If dogma is incredible, it is because it is incredibly liberal. If it is irrational, it can only be in giving us more assurance of freedom than is justified by reason. “The doctrine of free will may seem irrational, but it is hardly liberality to deny personal freedom. Without the dogmas of dogmatic Christianity, monotheism turns into monism and consequently into despotism:

It is precisely the unknown God of the scientist, with his impenetrable purpose and his inevitable and unalterable law that reminds us of a Prussian autocrat making rigid plans in a remote tent and moving mankind like machinery. It is precisely the God of miracles and of answered prayers who reminds us of a liberal and popular prince, receiving petitions …

It is the Catholic, who has the feeling that his prayers do make a difference, when offered for the living and the dead, who also has the feeling of living like a free citizen in something almost like a constitutional commonwealth. It is the monist who lives under a single iron law who must have the feeling of living like a slave under a sultan.

Indeed I believe that the original use of the word suffragium, which we now use in politics for a vote was that employed in theology about a prayer. The dead in Purgatory were said to have the suffrages of the living. And in this sense, of a sort of right of petition to the supreme ruler, we may truly say that the whole of the Communion of Saints as well as the whole of the Church Militant, is founded on universal suffrage.

What theological liberals really mean is that “dogma is too good to be true ‘‘too liberal to be likely.”

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Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man 2 – Ian Ker

February 27, 2013
Chesterton explained that pagan mythology was “a search” that combined “a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt”. And yet there remained “an indestructible instinct, in the poet as represented by the pagan, that he is not entirely wrong in localizing his god”. It was all right to call these pagan myths “foreshadowings” so long as one remembered that “foreshadowings are shadows”: “And the metaphor of a shadow happens to hit very exactly the truth that is very vital here. For a shadow is a shape; a thing which reproduces shape but not texture. These things were something like the real thing; and to say that they were like is to say that they were different.”

Chesterton explained that pagan mythology was “a search” that combined “a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt”. And yet there remained “an indestructible instinct, in the poet as represented by the pagan, that he is not entirely wrong in localizing his god”. It was all right to call these pagan myths “foreshadowings” so long as one remembered that “foreshadowings are shadows”: “And the metaphor of a shadow happens to hit very exactly the truth that is very vital here. For a shadow is a shape; a thing which reproduces shape but not texture. These things were something like the real thing; and to say that they were like is to say that they were different.”

The pagan was not an unbeliever like an atheist, but neither was he a believer like a Christian. He felt “the presence of powers” about which he could only guess. His myths were never “a religion, in the sense that Christianity or even Islam is a religion”. Certainly, they satisfied “some of the needs satisfied by a religion; and notably the need for doing certain things at certain dates; the need of the twin ideas of festivity and formality”. But, although myths provided the pagan with “a calendar”, they did not “provide him with a creed”.

When St Paul was in Athens, he discovered that the Greeks had “one altar to an unknown godBut in truth all their gods were unknown gods.” It was only when St Paul told them who it was “they had ignorantly worshipped” that “the real break in history” came. Paganism, then, was “an attempt to reach the divine reality through the imagination alone” and without the restraints of reason. For reason was “something separate from religion, even in the most rational of these civilizations”. Mythology and philosophy ran “parallel” and did not “mingle till they met in the sea of Christendom”.

But nevertheless the pagan “found it natural to worship; even natural to worship unnatural things”. The pagan knew that when he worshipped he was “doing a worthy and virile thing”: he was “doing one of the things for which a man was made”. But the fact remained that it was an “imaginative experiment” that “began with imagination”, and therefore there was “something of mockery in it, and especially in the object of it”. This mockery became “the almost intolerable irony of Greek tragedy”.

It was not surprising that one “feels throughout the whole of paganism a curious double feeling of trust and distrust.” For pagan mythology was “a search” that combined “a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt.” And yet there remained “an indestructible instinct, in the poet as represented by the pagan, that he is not entirely wrong in localizing his god.”

It was all right to call these pagan myths “foreshadowings” so long as one remembered that “foreshadowings are shadows”: “And the metaphor of a shadow happens to hit very exactly the truth that is very vital here. For a shadow is a shape; a thing which reproduces shape but not texture. These things were something like the real thing; and to say that they were like is to say that they were different.”

For polytheism was “never a view of the universe satisfying all sides of life; a complete and complex truth with something to say about everything. It was only a satisfaction of one side of the soul of man, even if we call it the religious side; and I think it is truer to call it the imaginative side.” Precisely, then, because “mythology only satisfied one mood”, the pagan “turned in other moods to something totally different”.

But the mythology and the philosophy never collided and “really destroyed the other”, nor was there ever “any combination in which one was really reconciled with the other. They certainly did not work together; if anything the philosopher was a rival of the priest.”

Chesterton now begins his task of trying to make us see Christianity afresh as though for the first time, however grotesquely he has to depict it. And first of all he points out that the whole of Christianity rests on this “single paradox” — “that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.” Every Christmas proclaims an “association … between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars”.

And “this combination of ideas has emphatically… altered human nature.” “It would, be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast.”

Again, Christmas, that feast so important to Chesterton, “is in one sense simple thing”, but, like all the truths of Christianity, “it is in another sense a very complex thing. Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and drama.”

Christmas celebrates “the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills”, when “the rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicing in a fortress or an outlaw”s den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicings in a dug-out”. The “subterranean chamber” where Jesus was born was literally “a hiding-place from enemies”, enemies who “were already scouring the stony plain that lay above it like a sky”:

It is not only that the very horse-hoofs of Herod might in that sense have passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ. It is also that there is in that image a true idea of an outpost, of a piercing through the rock and an entrance in enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world, of  shaking the towers and palaces from below…

Jesus’ followers, too, were paradoxically both “despised and … feared”:

Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome with firebrand slanderers; but they were at least far nearer to the nature of Christianity those among the moderns who tell us that the Christians were a sort of ethical  society, being martyred in a languid fashion for telling men they had a duty to their neighbors, and only mildly disliked because they were meek and mild.

What Chesterton calls “the combination of ideas that make up the Christian and Catholic idea” was “already crystallized in the first Christmas story”. The “three distinct and commonly contrasted things.. . are nevertheless one thing; but this is the only thing which can make them one.”

The first is the human instinct for a heaven that shall be as literal and almost as local as a home. It is the idea pursued by all poets and pagans making myths; that a particular place must be the shrine of the god or the abode of the blest… The second element is a philosophy larger than that of Lucretius and infinitely larger than that of Herbert Spencer. It looks at the world through a hundred windows where the ancient stoic or the modern agnostic only looks through one.. And the third point is this; that while it is local enough for poetry and larger than any other philosophy, it is also a challenge and a fight. While it is deliberately broadened to embrace every aspect of truth, it is still stiffly embattled against every mode of error.

This trinity of truths” was symbolized … by the three types in the old Christmas story; the shepherds and the kings and that other king who warred upon the children”.

Chesterton now turns to the figure of Christ himself. And he begins by pointing out that there is the obvious difficulty that the New Testament is no longer the New Testament: It is not at all easy to realize the good news as new.” Challenging the usual stereotypes, Chesterton insists on us looking at the actual person we read about in the Gospels:

We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character.

This, Chesterton insists, is … very nearly the reverse of the truth”.

The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts.

But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. The popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God…. In any case there is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath.

But if we turn to the Gospels themselves, what do we find? Somebody reading them for the first time, suggests Chesterton, would find that “part of the interest” of the story would consist in its leaving a good deal to be guessed at or explained”: “It is full of sudden gestures evidently significant except that we hardly know what they signify; of enigmatic silences; of ironical replies. The outbreaks of wrath, like storms above our atmosphere, do not seem to break out exactly where we should expect them, but to follow some higher weather-chart of their own.”

Nor is there anything “meek and mild” about Jesus the exorcist: “It is much more like the tone of a very business-like lion-tamer or a strong-minded doctor dealing with a homicidal maniac.” Indeed, the real Christ of the Gospels is “actually more strange and terrible than the Christ of the Church”. Then there are the “puzzles” in “a very strange story”, like “that long stretch of silent life of Christ up to the age of thirty. It is of all silences the most immense and imaginatively impressive”.

How is it that “he who of all humanity needed least preparation seems to have had most”? The truth is that the Gospel story is not “easy to get to the bottom of”. It is anything but the “simple Gospel” that people like to contrast with the Church: “Relatively speaking, it is the Gospel that has the mysticism and the Church that has the rationalism. As I should put it, of course, it is the Gospel that is the riddle and the Church that is the answer. But whatever be the answer, the Gospel as it stands is almost a book of riddles.”

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Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man 1 – Ian Ker

February 26, 2013
Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians `still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.

Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians `still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.

H. G. Wells’s best-selling The Outline of History had been published in serial paperback form in 1919 and then as a hardback in 1920. Wells’s `outline’ was quite simple: through the centuries man had evolved from a primitive animal form to the civilized man of the twentieth century who would finally establish world peace and prosperity. The book was a best-seller — although its view of history was certainly rather remarkable, given its publication only one year after the end of the horrors of the First World War and ten years before the Great Depression began with the Wall Street crash of 1929, only to be followed ten years later by the Second World War. Wells had naturally been dismissive of Christianity, attacking the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, published in September 1925, was at least in part a response to Wells.

Chesterton begins The Everlasting Man, one of the two or three greatest of his half-dozen or so major works, by pointing out that in a post-Christian age it is very difficult to see Christianity for what it is: post-Christians still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith. They are in a state of `reaction’: ‘They cannot be Christians and they cannot leave off being Anti-Christians. They are not `far enough away not to hate ‘Christianity, nor are they ‘near enough to love it’. And so, `while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian’.

But the `worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgments; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic … ‘. The `anti-clericalism’ of post-Christians `has become an atmosphere, an atmosphere of negation and hostility from which they cannot escape. Compared with that, it would be better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another continent, or to another planet.’ It is only when one is `impartial’ that one can `know why people are partial to it’. And Chesterton `seriously’ recommends `those in whom a mere reaction has thus become an obsession’ to imagine the Apostles as if they were pagans, `to try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages’.

Living in a country full of churches, post-Christians need `to walk past a church as if it were a pagoda’ rather than `to stand permanently in the porch, impotent either to go inside … or to go outside and forget’. Chesterton is quite candid about his apologetic method: to `invoke … the imagination that can see what is there’. For Christianity makes very serious claims that it would be absurd to dismiss with contempt. Consequently, `when its fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to recover the candor and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and objectivity of innocence’.

If that is not possible, then `we must try at least to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only by seeing it as unnatural. Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt.’ The `heavy bias of fatigue’ made it `almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar’.

If, for example, one has lost `the sane vision’ of who man is, then one `can only get it back by something very like a mad vision; that is, by seeing man as a strange animal and realizing how strange an animal he is’. In short, `it is exactly when we do regard man as an animal that we know he is not an animal’. Only then can we recover our sense of `wonder’ at the nature of man. And so, Chesterton’s avowed purpose is `to strike wherever possible this note of what is new and strange, and for that reason the style even on so serious a subject may sometimes be deliberately grotesque and fanciful’.

For his aim is `to help the reader to see Christendom from the outside in the sense of seeing it as a whole, against the background of other historic things; just as I desire him to see humanity as a whole against the background of natural things’. When both Christianity and humanity are `seen thus, they stand out from their background like supernatural things’.

After this introduction, Chesterton does indeed begin with man himself, about whom the `simplest truth. is that he is a very strange being; almost thing grows from a seed, or something smaller than itself. They seem to forget that every seed comes from a tree, or from something larger than itself.’ In the case of religion, it was much more likely that monotheism preceded polytheism, that `religion did not originally come from some detail that was forgotten, because it was too small to be traced’: `Much more probably it was an idea that was abandoned because it was too large to be managed.

There is very good reason to suppose many people did begin with the simple but overwhelming idea of one God who governs all; and fell away into such things as demon-worship almost as a secret dissipation.’ In paganism God `is something assumed and forgotten and remembered by accident’. He is `the higher deity’ who `is remembered in the higher moral grades and is a sort of mystery’.

What seemed clear to Chesterton was that `there was never any such thing as the Evolution of the Idea of God. The idea was concealed, was avoided, was almost forgotten, was even explained away; but it was never evolved.’ Polytheism itself seems often to have consisted of `the combination of several monotheisms’, while Confucianism seems to be `a rather vague theism’ in which `a simple truth’ seems to have `receded, until it was remote without ceasing to be true’.

The fact that there was `a strange silence’ about God certainly suggested `the absence of God’ — but not necessarily the `non-existence’ of God: there was `a void’ but not `a negation’. There was `an empty chair’ or rather `an empty throne’. And Chesterton invokes his favorite image of the back: `it was as if some immeasurable presence had turned its back on the world.’ There was `in a very real sense the presence of the absence of God’, which one could feel, for example, `in the unfathomable sadness of pagan poetry’.

There was the implication that the gods of the pagans were `ultimately related to something else, even when that Unknown God has faded into a Fate’. For `what was truly divine’ seemed `very distant, so distant that they dismissed it more and more from their minds’. But what was quite clear was that they knew there was something wrong with the world: `These men were conscious of the Fall, if they were conscious of nothing else…’. Still, God `really’ had been `sacrificed to the Gods; in a very literal sense of the flippant phrase, they have been too many for him’.

Chesterton rejects any glib notion of religious pluralism: `We are accustomed to see a table or catalogue of the world’s great religions in parallel columns, until we fancy they are really parallel.’ But these so-called religions — which `we choose to lump together’ — `do not really show any common character’. True, Islam followed Christianity and `was largely an imitation of Christianity.

But the other eastern religions; or what we call religions, not only do not resemble the Church but do not resemble each other.’ Indeed, Confucianism was not even a religion, and could no more be compared with Christianity than `a theist with an English squire’. Christianity was bound up with the idea of a Church, while Confucianism and Buddhism were `great things’ but could not be called ‘Churches’ – any more than the English and French peoples could be called `nomads’ although they were `great peoples’.

The truth was that, `humanly speaking’, `the world owes God to the Jews’. And the world also owed it to the Jews that they refused `to follow the enlightened course of Syncretism and the pooling of all the pagan traditions’: `It is obvious indeed that his [God's] followers were always sliding down this easy slope; and it required the almost demoniac energy of certain inspired demagogues, who testified to the divine unity in words that are still like winds of inspiration and ruin.’

While the rest of the world `melted’ into a `mass of confused mythology,’ this God of the Jews, `who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind’. It was the Jews who had enabled the world, which `would have been lost’ otherwise, `to return to that great original simplicity of a single  authority in all things’.

It was to this `secretive and restless nomadic people’ that the world owed `the supreme and serene blessing of a jealous God’. An example of the secretiveness of the Jews, who `stood apart and kept their tradition unshaken and unshared’, was the way they had `kept a thing like the Book ofJob out of the whole intellectual world of antiquity. It is as if the Egyptians had modestly concealed the Great Pyramid.’ And Chesterton cannot resist the ultimate paradox: `He [the God of the Jews] was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe.’

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A Catholic Anthropology vs. “Death with Dignity” – Derek Jeter

February 25, 2013

Death_of_Dignity_ColorWe live in a secular world that pulses at times with debates over euthanasia and “physician assisted suicide.” Accompanying social movements in favor of these options sometimes wrap themselves in the slogan “death with dignity,” one of those phrases that would seem to be brook no opposition.

Who would deny dignity to the dying, after all. Yes, you sir, you Catholic bastard! Your leader died hanging off a Roman Cross and you can’t generate the simple human compassion to let a fellow human end their own life of suffering. We’ll give you the pills, all you need is a little apple sauce, for Christ’s sake. That’s right, mix them right up and I’ll prop Granny up so she can have her last meal. You see, it’s a Eucharist of sorts. Can’t you see that, you blind ignorant fool. Hitchens was right, you religious are the bane of modernity.

So here we are again, the target of a mass movement with another powerful social message boiled into a catchy slogan that elides over some real critical Catholic anthropological issues that affect the human community. Give that gentleman with the “Death with Dignity” sign a seat next the lady with “A Woman’s Right to Choose” placard and that young couple distributing those “Equality of Marriage” pamphlets, if you would be so kind.

So why can’t we end life purposefully when it no longer seems worth its cost in suffering? Why not use some extrinsic standard as away to calculate a life’s worth? What’s so wrong with that?

The value of life is measured based on the quality of experiences it supports, its pains and pleasures, the degree to which it promises “happiness,” “contentment,” “well-being” and so forth. But the implications of this calculation are clear. Life constitutes a platform for various kinds of experiences, both desirable and otherwise. Hence, it is a relative good in relation to the experiences it both makes possible and imposes. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II criticizes this very sort of relativization, to which he attached the lapidary [vocab: Marked by conciseness, precision, or refinement of expression] phrase “culture of death.”
David Crawford, The Gospel Of Life And The Integrity Of Death

It’s not all relativization, however. Hand in hand with that is the absolutizing of life that manifests itself in obsessive attempts to prevent suffering and death, whatever the ethical cost and by whatever technical means. If doctors are sometimes asked to take positive steps to help end life, they are also sometimes asked to take every measure, however extraordinary, to maintain it. Think of the travails of the legendary Karen Ann Quinlan.

The relativizing and absolutizing tendencies therefore go hand in hand. From this point of view, the relativizing side is predominant with respect to life itself. Only the underlying experiences life supports are conceived of as absolute goods or evils. Hence, life and health are to be managed as instrumental goods by means of medical science and technology, and the same impulse that leads to the indefinite extension of life underlies the desire to manage death by means of clinically procured suicide.
David Crawford, The Gospel Of Life And The Integrity Of Death

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is to “manage death.” That’s what our good modern secular biotechnicians are after, not doctors pursuing wisdom but managers of medical science and technology instruments taking every measure, oblivious to any and all ethical consequences however extraordinary the measure, to maintain life.

 “These practices turn death into an object of production. By becoming a product, death is supposed to vanish as a question mark about the nature of being human, a more-than-technological enquiry. The issue of euthanasia is becoming increasingly important because people wish to avoid death as something which happens to me, and replace it with a technical cessation of function…” Ratzinger goes on to say that this “dehumanizing” of death results in the dehumanizing of life: “When human sickness and dying are reduced to the level of technological activity, so is man himself.
[Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life]

When life and health are to managed as instrumental goods by means of medical science and technology, what appears to be the same impulse manifests itself in two separate actions: the first that leads to the indefinite extension of life underlies the desire of the second to manage death by means of clinically procured suicide. Scratch one, tickle the other – it’s all the same. The same nitwits who watched Karen Ann Quinlan waste away on feeding tubes and breathing machines would want to slip her an apple sauce desert laced with a high dose of barbiturates.

The Catholic Impulse
So what is the Church’s teaching on these matters? What is the wisdom of her finest minds? What does DJ say? Ah, but I repeat myself…

The impulse to dominate life and death departs radically from the idea of life as a gift and death as perhaps its most defining moment. It departs from the primordial wisdom contained in the thought we are “given” birth. That we are given birth stands for the larger proposition that our radical and continuing ontological dependency means that life can only follow the structure and logic of its original giftedness in every moment right up to the last

The same logic governs death. Even if “life is tantamount to some form of activity,” “death is, by contrast, pure passivity, the `night, in which no one can work’ (John 9:4),” as Robert Spaemann puts it. This is why physician assisted suicide, as the name implies, cannot be an act of death but only an act of killing. Spaemann continues, “since we are aware of death and can suffer death in a conscious anticipation, we are able to transform the pure suffering into an actus humanus.” ['Robert Spaemann, Death -- Suicide -- Euthanasia]What can be a human act, then, is preparation for death, which can be a primary shaping force for life.
David Crawford, The Gospel Of Life And The Integrity Of Death

The above begins to inform us of the true meaning of compassion. Passion has long been taken over by its erotic meanings and lost its underlying truth of suffering, as in “the passion of the Christ.”  Evangelium Vitae makes the argument that authentic compassion — as the word itself implies — means a “suffering with,” rather than the elimination of suffering at whatever ethical or moral cost.

Genuine compassion can never be reduced to what alleviates suffering, nor to the sentiments that come from such acts. True compassion is an education in dying for both the sufferer and the one who gives compassion for that suffering. “She is sleeping. Why don’t you go back and get some sleep?” “No, I want to be here when she wakes up.” Death with dignity is a death in Christ, accompanied by acts of compassion, not the uninformed feverish activities of managers of medical science and technology.

Now before we get much further here I know I will have to deal with one of those managers asking how a good Catholic death of the middle ages is in anyway different from a good Catholic death in the 21st century. The answer is no different at all in many ways although the previous ages gave us many more deaths that could have been prevented and deaths that may have been much more painful. I am not against alleviating pain and suffering. I am against suspending the dying process and controlling it so that it does not progress naturally.

Some in the Death with Dignity crowd seek to dispel the notion that self-destruction in such circumstances is an act of despair. They try to spin it as an act of transcendence, a radical act of freedom:

It is a question of refusing to submit to the diminished capacity and dignity that come with suffering, illness and dying. It is the refusal, the No that is important here. The act of will itself therefore seems to be the only possible point of transcendence. This final (and yes, desperate) assertion of the subject belies a more primitive impulse than the desire to escape from unbearable suffering. It manifests the yearning in the face of seeming helplessness to take life — by seizing control of death — into one’s own hands.

From this odd point of view — if this point of transcendence can be understood as an ersatz surmounting of death — the absolutizing tendency reemerges…. Both the idea of self-destruction as self-preservation and the technical pursuit of deathlessness are ploys to achieve forgetfulness. The terror nevertheless remains because at some point death must be faced. Paradoxically, then, the effect of these movements is to increase terror while all the time making it difficult to think very seriously about either life or death.
David Crawford, The Gospel Of Life And The Integrity Of Death

So what is thinking more seriously about life and death? Obviously in the secular world this kind of thinking hasn’t taken place and to begin it by viewing the life and death of Jesus would probably be the proverbial non-starter. Or would it? Circumstances seem to provoke a willingness to listen to Jesus. Flying a plane into a building where thousands are working is one I can think of.

Our life and the goodness of life is not a set of experiences we can use to justify the extension of life by any and all means possible. One of the reasons I can say this is because claiming “Life is a good” because it supports a set of experiences, however desirable, cannot possibly account for the fullness of life’s goodness however. This is because we cannot think of our lives as merely a set of experiences.

Like every other earthly organism, life for the human constitutes a constant struggle to remain in existence but man is at the same time, different from the rest of cosmic reality. If all organisms possess a “nature” that encloses their “growth, maturity, decline, and death,” it is not the same for man. His existence is “not the unfolding and fulfillment of `nature,’ but the enactment of a `history.” [Romano Guardini, The Last Things: Concerning Death Purification after Death, Resurrection,Judgment, and Eternity] Organisms cannot be said to have a history, yet the human person’s life is only intelligible as such. Aristotle reminds us of the ironic saying that we should count no one happy so long as he is still living.

“So constitutive for [human] life is the possibility of not-being that its very being is essentially a hovering over this abyss, a skirting of its brink thus being itself has become a constant possibility rather than a given state, ever anew to be laid hold of in opposition to its ever-present contrary, not-being, which will inevitably engulf it in the end.”
Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology

Like history in general, personal history cannot possibly be “one damn thing after another” until the last thing. Form is necessary for a whole, and being a whole is necessary for personal history. The quest to manage life and death implies a rejection of this final and defining form. The endless ability to redo things or start again would guarantee this. In the end, technical deathlessness, were it actually possible, would drain life and action of their drama and importance rather than extend or heighten them. Horizontal deathlessness would therefore not in fact be human deathlessness. It would be more like death by ennui.
David Crawford, The Gospel Of Life And The Integrity Of Death

In the Catholic anthropology, man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God:

The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence. It is a process which, unexpectedly and undeservedly, is enlightened by the promise and renewed by the gift of divine life, which will reach its full realization in eternity (cf. 1 John 3:1-2).

At the same time, it is precisely this supernatural calling which highlights the relative character of each individual’s earthly life. After all, life on earth is not an “ultimate” but a “penultimate” reality; even so, it remains a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters.
Evangelium Vitae

As a Catholic, I demand a death that allows me to contribute to the history of my life. My death as part of my life in Christ.

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Tobit — Mark Giszczak

February 22, 2013
Tobit shows the importance of prayer and strong family relationships.

Tobit shows the importance of prayer and strong family relationships.

Author: Unknown
Date Written: 300-200 BC
Date of Narrative: c. 700 BC

Tobit is one of the deuterocanonical books which means it is included in the Catholic canon, but some Christians dispute its canonicity. Tobit is a story like one of Jesus’ parables. The characters may be fictional, but the message or moral of the story is true.

Tobit was only known in one Greek edition until the 1844 discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus. Sinaiticus contained a longer and older Greek edition of Tobit, which is used in modern translations. Five fragments of Tobit were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls: one in Hebrew, four in Aramaic. The fragments confirm the Sinaiticus edition and suggest an Aramaic original.

The story takes place a few years after the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel (722 BC). The Assyrians exiled the Israelite tribes and encouraged them to intermarry with surrounding people groups. Tobit is an Israelite living in Assyrian Ninevah. He is faithful to covenantal worship and charitable works. The Lord rewards his faithfulness with wealth and a good position in the king’s government. Yet a series of unfortunate circumstances leave Tobit poor, depressed and blind. He prays for death (3:2ff):

Then with much grief and anguish of heart I wept, and with groaning began to pray:

‘You are righteous, O Lord,
and all your deeds are just;
all your ways are mercy and truth;
you judge the world.*
And now, O Lord, remember me
and look favorably upon me.
Do not punish me for my sins
and for my unwitting offences
and those that my ancestors committed before you.
They sinned against you,
and disobeyed your commandments.
So you gave us over to plunder, exile, and death,
to become the talk, the byword, and an object of reproach,
among all the nations among whom you have dispersed us.
And now your many judgements are true
in exacting penalty from me for my sins.
For we have not kept your commandments
and have not walked in accordance with truth before you.
So now deal with me as you will;
command my spirit to be taken from me,
so that I may be released from the face of the earth and become dust.
For it is better for me to die than to live,
because I have had to listen to undeserved insults,
and great is the sorrow within me.
Command, O Lord, that I be released from this distress;
release me to go to the eternal home,
and do not, O Lord, turn your face away from me.
For it is better for me to die
than to see so much distress in my life
and to listen to insults.’

Simultaneously, an young Israelite woman named Sarah prays for death (3:11ff). She has been married seven times but a demon killed each of her husbands before the marriage could be consummated (3:8):

On the same day, at Ecbatana in Media, it also happened that Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, was reproached by one of her father’s maids. For she had been married to seven husbands, and the wicked demon Asmodeus had killed each of them before they had been with her as is customary for wives. So the maid said to her, ‘You are the one who kills your husbands! See, you have already been married to seven husbands and have not borne the name of a single one of them. Why do you beat us? Because your husbands are dead? Go with them! May we never see a son or daughter of yours!’

Sarah’s Prayer for Death
 On that day she was grieved in spirit and wept. When she had gone up to her father’s upper room, she intended to hang herself. But she thought it over and said, ‘Never shall they reproach my father, saying to him, “You had only one beloved daughter but she hanged herself because of her distress.” And I shall bring my father in his old age down in sorrow to Hades. It is better for me not to hang myself, but to pray the Lord that I may die and not listen to these reproaches any more.’ At that same time, with hands outstretched towards the window, she prayed and said,

‘Blessed are you, merciful God!
Blessed is your name for ever;
let all your works praise you for ever.
And now, Lord,* I turn my face to you,
and raise my eyes towards you.
Command that I be released from the earth
and not listen to such reproaches any more.
You know, O Master, that I am innocent
of any defilement with a man,
and that I have not disgraced my name
or the name of my father in the land of my exile.
I am my father’s only child;
he has no other child to be his heir;
and he has no close relative or other kindred
for whom I should keep myself as wife.
Already seven husbands of mine have died.
Why should I still live?
But if it is not pleasing to you, O Lord, to take my life,
hear me in my disgrace.’

The Lord hears the prayers of Tobit and Sarah. When Tobit asks his son Tobiah to go and recover a large sum of money he had deposited many years prior with his relative, the Lord sends the angel Raphael to help. Raphael joins Tobiah on the journey disguised as an Israelite named Azariah.

As the pair make their way to Tobit’s relative, they catch a fish whose innards have healing properties (6:5). Then they stop at the house of Raguel, Sarah’s father. Raphael convinces Tobiah to marry Sarah, despite her track record of dead husbands. Tobiah asks for her hand and they marry immediately (7:9). Tobiah uses parts of the fish to ward off the murderous demon and he survives the wedding night (8:2). Raphael retrieves the money and the two arrive safely back at Tobit’s house in Ninevah with Tobiah’s new bride. Finally, Tobiah uses the fish’s gall to cure Tobit’s blindness (11:11).

The book includes Tobit and Sarah’s prayers for death (3:2-6; 3:11-15; see above), Tobiah and Sarah’s prayer for protection on their wedding night (8:5-7), a short prayer from Raguel (8:15-17) and a lengthy song of praise by Tobit (13:1-18). At the end of the book, Tobiah moves from Ninevah to Media because of the Lord’s impending judgment prophesied by Nahum (14:4, 12).

The story draws on themes from a few Mesopotamian myths from the same time period, but it is replete with Old Testament themes: divine retribution, theology of God, familial ties, marriage, prayer and angels. There are several sections that are very similar to the Old Testament wisdom literature (e.g. 4:3-19; 12:6-10).

Like Ruth, Tobit is a family story. It illustrates how God cares for those who love him. It shows him rewarding human faithfulness with his faithful deliverance. Yet the characters must undergo trials in order to experience deliverance. Tobit, Sarah and Tobiah suffer, but God delivers them in the end. In fact, Raphael says he was sent to test and heal Tobit and Sarah (12:14). Yet Tobit is very different from most biblical books because of its fictional character. It is not a suspenseful story, since the reader knows the outcome early on (6:6-8), but we can see through it we see how God brings his deliverance, how he helps those in need. Tobit also shows the importance of prayer and strong family relationships.

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A Universal Prayer – Pope Clement XI

February 21, 2013
Praying hands also known as Study of the Hands of an Apostle, is a famous Pen-and-ink drawing by the German printmaker, painter and theorist Albrecht Dürer made circa 1508. The artwork is stored at Albertina museum  --  Graphische Sammlung in Vienna, Austria. Dürer used white heightening technique and black ink on (self-made) blue colored paper. The drawing shows two male hands palm to palm praying, the body to the right (not seen). Also, the partly up-folded sleeves of the prayer are seen. The drawing is a sketch (study) for an apostles' hand who was planned to be in the center panel of the triptych for the Heller altar. On the same paper is a sketch of the apostle's head, but the sheet has been divided from it. Overall, Dürer made 18 sketches for the altarpiece. Dürer painted the Heller altarpiece, a triptych, between 1507 and 1509 together with Matthias Grünewald. The artwork was named after Jakob Heller who ordered it. Dürer painted the interior, Grünewald the exterior.The hand sketch is realized on the triptych in the inside center panel on the right in similarity, although in smaller size. The painting was destroyed by a fire in 1729. The famous Dürer copyist Jobst Harrich painted a duplicate in the 17th century. The central panel is also called große Taffel von unser lieben Frauen Himmelfahrt mit den zwölf Aposteln. The first public recognition of the artwork was in 1871 when it was exhibited in Vienna. The image depicts probably the master's own hands.

Praying hands also known as Study of the Hands of an Apostle, is a famous Pen-and-ink drawing by the German printmaker, painter and theorist Albrecht Dürer made circa 1508. The artwork is stored at Albertina museum — Graphische Sammlung in Vienna, Austria. Dürer used white heightening technique and black ink on (self-made) blue colored paper. The drawing shows two male hands palm to palm praying, the body to the right (not seen). Also, the partly up-folded sleeves of the prayer are seen. The drawing is a sketch (study) for an apostles’ hand who was planned to be in the center panel of the triptych for the Heller altar. On the same paper is a sketch of the apostle’s head, but the sheet has been divided from it. Overall, Dürer made 18 sketches for the altarpiece. Dürer painted the Heller altarpiece, a triptych, between 1507 and 1509 together with Matthias Grünewald. The artwork was named after Jakob Heller who ordered it. Dürer painted the interior, Grünewald the exterior.The hand sketch is realized on the triptych in the inside center panel on the right in similarity, although in smaller size. The painting was destroyed by a fire in 1729. The famous Dürer copyist Jobst Harrich painted a duplicate in the 17th century. The central panel is also called große Taffel von unser lieben Frauen Himmelfahrt mit den zwölf Aposteln. The first public recognition of the artwork was in 1871 when it was exhibited in Vienna. The image depicts probably the master’s own hands.

Lord, I believe in you: increase my faith.
I trust in you: strengthen my trust.
I love you: let me love you more and more.
I am sorry for my sins: deepen my sorrow.

I worship you as my first beginning,
I long for you as my last end,
I praise you as my constant helper,
And call on you as my loving protector.

Guide me by your wisdom,
Correct me with your justice,
Comfort me with your mercy,
Protect me with your power.

I offer you, Lord, my thoughts: to be fixed on you;
My words: to have you for their theme;
My actions: to reflect my love for you;
My sufferings: to be endured for your greater glory.

I want to do what you ask of me:
In the way you ask,
For as long as you ask,
Because you ask it.

Lord, enlighten my understanding,
Strengthen my will,
Purify my heart,
and make me holy.

Help me to repent of my past sins
And to resist temptation in the future.
Help me to rise above my human weaknesses
And to grow stronger as a Christian.

Let me love you, my Lord and my God,
And see myself as I really am:
A pilgrim in this world,
A Christian called to respect and love
All whose lives I touch,
Those under my authority,
My friends and my enemies.

Help me to conquer anger with gentleness,
Greed by generosity,
Apathy by fervor.
Help me to forget myself
And reach out toward others.

Make me prudent in planning,
Courageous in taking risks.
Make me patient in suffering, unassuming in prosperity.

Keep me, Lord, attentive at prayer,
Temperate in food and drink,
Diligent in my work,
Firm in my good intentions.

Let my conscience be clear,
My conduct without fault,
My speech blameless,
My life well-ordered.

Put me on guard against my human weaknesses.
Let me cherish your love for me,
Keep your law,
And come at last to your salvation.

Teach me to realize that this world is passing,
That my true future is the happiness of heaven,
That life on earth is short,
And the life to come eternal.

Help me to prepare for death
With a proper fear of judgment,
But a greater trust in your goodness.
Lead me safely through death
To the endless joy of heaven.

Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Sinners and Saints By Bruce Boucher

February 20, 2013
According to a legend popular in Caravaggio's time, after Christ's death his faithful female disciple Mary of Magdala moved to southern France, where she lived as a hermit in a cave at Sainte-Beune near Aix-en-Provence. There she was transported seven times a day by angels into the presence of God, "where she heard, with her bodily ears, the delightful harmonies of the celestial choirs." Earlier artists had depicted Mary ascending into the divine presence through multicoloured clouds accompanied by angels; Caravaggio made the supernatural an entirely interior experience, with the Magdalen alone against a featureless dark background, caught in a ray of intense light, her head lolling back and eyes stained with tears. This revolutionary naturalistic interpretation of the legend also allowed him to capture the ambiguous parallel between mystical and erotic love, in Mary's semi-reclining posture and bared shoulder. The painting was immensely influential for future treatment of the theme by artists such as Rubens and Simon Vouet (who adopted Carvaggio's earth-bound Magdalen but reintroduced the angels), and of course Bernini and his celebrated Ecstasy of St Theresa

According to a legend popular in Caravaggio’s time, after Christ’s death his faithful female disciple Mary of Magdala moved to southern France, where she lived as a hermit in a cave at Sainte-Beune near Aix-en-Provence. There she was transported seven times a day by angels into the presence of God, “where she heard, with her bodily ears, the delightful harmonies of the celestial choirs.” Earlier artists had depicted Mary ascending into the divine presence through multicoloured clouds accompanied by angels; Caravaggio made the supernatural an entirely interior experience, with the Magdalen alone against a featureless dark background, caught in a ray of intense light, her head lolling back and eyes stained with tears. This revolutionary naturalistic interpretation of the legend also allowed him to capture the ambiguous parallel between mystical and erotic love, in Mary’s semi-reclining posture and bared shoulder. The painting was immensely influential for future treatment of the theme by artists such as Rubens and Simon Vouet (who adopted Carvaggio’s earth-bound Magdalen but reintroduced the angels), and of course Bernini and his celebrated Ecstasy of St Theresa

A biography and an analysis of the Italian painter who used the outcast as models for his religious works. Caravaggio A Life by Helen Langdon.

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One memorable scene in Derek Jarman’s film ”Caravaggio” [a poor film, mostly unwatchable: dj]shows the painter struggling for inspiration as he composes his masterpiece, ”The Marytrdom of St. Matthew”: models and hangers-on fill an improbably large studio while Caravaggio barks orders like a film director. It is a clever if simplistic metaphor of artistic creation, reflecting the criticisms leveled at the painter during his life, for Caravaggio was commonly held to paint only what he saw, invoking nature as his guide.

Like all cliches, Jarman’s interpretation contained a nugget of truth: Caravaggio did undermine the conventional hierarchies of art, glorying in an earthy naturalism too strong for his politer contemporaries. Yet this rebel was also courted by connoisseurs and prelates; he hungered after the status of a gentleman and was as much concerned with his rapier as his brush. Dead at 39, Caravaggio transformed painting while losing himself in a legend even more outlandish than his own life.

Helen Langdon’s ”Caravaggio: A Life” disinters the man and artist from romantic fantasies spun around him and retells his stormy career from impoverished obscurity to celebrated notoriety. Her readings of his paintings are informed by an intimate knowledge of the period; deftly interweaving artifact and milieu, she re-creates the demimonde so lovingly depicted by him and reaffirms his achievement by placing it in a new and more objective context.

Langdon employs a familiar though risky strategy, if only because what is known of Caravaggio’s life would scarcely fill a dozen pages, and her book is occasionally overwhelmed by extended discussions of prostitution or Counter-Reformation piety. Yet, given such a tale of gambling, murder and flight, no one could seriously complain. Langdon’s narrative reads like a chapter from Manzoni’s classic novel, ”The Betrothed,” depicting a society in which violence was never far from the surface.

Caravaggio, who was born in 1571, first learned his craft in provincial Lombardy among artists struggling to convey naturalism and directness at a time when Rome and Florence were dominated by artistic fashions more idealized and self-referential. His training proved a saving grace when he reached Rome in 1592; he brought to his work a talent for simplicity and close observation that contrasted with the high art of the day. He later said a still life required as much skill as figurative painting, and his work was often so vivid as to make critics believe he always had a model before him.

An early painting of the penitent Mary Magdalene seemed so lifelike that it was once believed to have been a simple study of a girl drying her hair, only retrospectively dignified with a religious title. Under the patronage of the influential Francesco Maria Cardinal Del Monte, Caravaggio experimented with highly colored genre paintings of cardsharps, musicians and gypsies, works that reminded contemporaries of the Venetian painter Giorgione.

When given the opportunity to demonstrate his skill on a larger scale, Caravaggio elevated the commonplace through his revolutionary canvases on the life of St. Matthew. Rejecting the ideal art of Raphael and Michelangelo, he placed the saint among the tricksters and rogues of his own day, even displacing Christ to the far corner of the canvas. A hard, cold light streams down on Matthew and renders his conversion all the more powerful by his isolation among the indifferent crowd. As Langdon reminds us, Caravaggio created a highly personal view of biblical times, couched in the fashions of contemporary Rome, thus transforming the present into an echo of biblical truth and simultaneously opening a debate about the role of naturalism in history painting.

The St. Matthew cycle brought him success, which proved as difficult to handle as failure. A subsequent altarpiece of the death of the Virgin was rejected as lascivious and shocking, for his model was reputed to be ”a dirty old whore” from the Roman slums. Caravaggio’s ”deviant” art was matched by mood swings and violence, and in one sense his early biographers were right when they drew an analogy between his somber paintings and his character.

Contemporaries observed that he was ”proud and satirical . . . always ready to argue or fight”; he brawled with allies and adversaries alike. As major commissions began to elude him, his life spiraled out of control. Finally he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, a longtime adversary, during a murky street fight. Not lingering for justice, Caravaggio fled Rome and began a four-year exile, during which, as a later biographer wrote, ”fear haunted him from place to place.”

His last years were spent on the run in Naples, Malta and Sicily, where he produced a clutch of masterpieces whose themes dealt with persecution and death — an extension, perhaps, of his troubled state of mind. His late painting ”The Resurrection of Lazarus,” in Messina, seems like a reprise of his earlier altarpieces, pared to bleak essentials and with its protagonists caught in a harrowing struggle between light and dark.

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A Pope for the ‘New Evangelization’ — George Weigel

February 19, 2013
Lightning flashes over St. Peter's Basilica Monday, the day Pope Benedict XVI announced he will step down. Got your attention yet?

Lightning flashes over St. Peter’s Basilica Monday, the day Pope Benedict XVI announced he will step down. Got your attention yet?

The next pontiff must nurture Catholicism where it is growing and revive it where it is not. Mr. Weigel is the author of “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church,” just published by Basic Books. Recently in the WSJ and rebroadcast here. Reviews of Mr. Weigel’s new book:

Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York
“This sparkling read puts all the old Church-labels — liberal vs. conservative, progressive vs. traditionalist, pre- vs. post-Vatican II — in the shredder. Now there is only one valid adjective for all of us: evangelical! Simply put, this means we take our baptismal promises with the utmost seriousness. Like the Samaritan woman, we’ve met a man — Jesus — who has changed our lives.”

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Philadelphia
“George Weigel has been the leading diarist of authentic Catholic renewal — its progress, detours, personalities, and hopes — for 30 years. In Evangelical Catholicism he turns his extraordinary skills to the needs of the Church in the coming decades, calling us back to the missionary vocation we received at baptism and offering us a road map to faithful, vigorous Church reform. Rich in its vision, engaging in style, on target in its counsel and invaluable for anyone trying to understand the Church and her challenges in the 21st Century, this book should not be missed.”

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The challenges facing the successor of Pope Benedict XVI come into sharper focus when we widen the historical lens through which we view this papal transition. Benedict XVI will be the last pope to have participated in the Second Vatican Council, the most important Catholic event since the 16th century. An ecclesiastical era is ending. What was its character, and to what future has Benedict XVI led Catholicism?

Vatican II, which met from 1962 to 1965, accelerated a process of deep reform in the Catholic Church that began in 1878 when the newly elected Pope Leo XIII made the historic decision to quietly bury the rejectionist stand his predecessors had adopted toward cultural and political modernity and to explore the possibilities of a critical Catholic engagement with the contemporary world. That reform process, which was not without difficulties, reached a high point of ecclesiastical drama at Vatican II, which has now been given an authoritative interpretation by two men of genius, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both influential figures at the Council. According to that interpretation, the church must rediscover and embrace its vocation as a missionary enterprise.

Evangelical Catholicism — or what John Paul II and Benedict XVI dubbed the “New Evangelization” — is the new form of the Catholic Church being born today. The church is now being challenged to understand that it doesn’t just have a mission, as if “mission” were one of a dozen things the church does. The church is a mission. At the center of that mission is the proclamation of the Gospel and the offer of friendship with Jesus Christ. Everyone and everything in the church must be measured by mission-effectiveness. And at the forefront of that mission — which now takes place in increasingly hostile cultural circumstances — is the pope, who embodies the Catholic proposal to the world in a unique way.

So at this hinge moment, when the door is closing on the Counter-Reformation church in which every Catholic over 50 was raised, and as the door opens to the evangelical Catholicism of the future, what are the challenges facing the new pope?

Catholicism is dying in its historic heartland, Europe. The new pope must fan the frail flames of renewal that are present in European Catholicism. But he must also challenge Euro-Catholics to understand that only a robust, unapologetic proclamation of the Gospel can meet the challenge of a Christophobic public culture that increasingly regards biblical morality as irrational bigotry.

The new pope must be a vigorous defender of religious freedom throughout the world. Catholicism is under assault by the forces of jihadist Islam in a band of confrontation that runs across the globe from the west coast of Senegal to the eastern islands of Indonesia.

Christian communities in the Holy Land are under constant, often violent, pressure. In the West, religious freedom is being reduced to a mere “freedom of worship,” with results like the ObamaCare Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate.

Thus the new pope must be a champion of religious freedom for all, insisting with John Paul II and Benedict XVI that there can be neither true freedom nor true democracy without religious freedom in full. That means the right of both individuals of conscience and religious communities to live their lives according to their most deeply held convictions, and the right to bring those convictions into public life without civil penalty or cultural ostracism.

This defense of religious freedom will be one string in the bow of the new pope’s responsibility to nurture the rapidly growing Catholic communities in Africa, calling them to a new maturity of faith. It should also frame the new pope’s approach to the People’s Republic of China, where persecution of Christians is widespread. When China finally opens itself fully to the world, it will be the greatest field of Christian mission since the Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere.

Like his two immediate predecessors, the new pope should recognize that the church’s future mission in China will be imperiled by any premature deal-making with the Chinese Communist regime, which would also involve an evangelical betrayal of those Chinese Christians who are making daily sacrifices for fidelity to Jesus Christ.

The ambient public culture of the West will demand that the new pope embrace some form of Catholic Lite. But that counsel of cultural conformism will have to reckon with two hard facts: Wherever Catholic Lite has been embraced in the past 40 years, as in Western Europe, the church has withered and is now dying. The liveliest parts of the Catholic world, within the United States and elsewhere, are those that have embraced the Catholic symphony of truth in full. In responding to demands that he change the unchangeable, however, the new pope will have to demonstrate that every time the Catholic Church says “No” to something — such as abortion or same-sex marriage — that “No” is based on a prior “Yes” to the truths about human dignity the church learns from the Gospel and from reason.

And that suggests a final challenge for Gregory XVII, Leo XIV, John XXIV, Clement XV, or whoever the new pope turns out to be: He must help an increasingly deracinated world — in which there may be your truth and my truth, but nothing recognizable as the truth — rediscover the linkage between faith and reason, between Jerusalem and Athens, two of the pillars of Western civilization. When those two pillars crumble, the third pillar — Rome, the Western commitment to the rule of law — crumbles as well. And the result is what Benedict XVI aptly styled the dictatorship of relativism.

What kind of man can meet these challenges? A radically converted Christian disciple who believes that Jesus Christ really is the answer to the question that is every human life. An experienced pastor with the courage to be Catholic and the winsomeness to make robust orthodoxy exciting. A leader who is not afraid to straighten out the disastrous condition of the Roman Curia, so that the Vatican bureaucracy becomes an instrument of the New Evangelization, not an impediment to it.

The shoes of the fisherman are large shoes to fill.

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Protected: Nobody Gets Too Much Heaven — Derek Jeter

February 18, 2013

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The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac By James Campbell

February 15, 2013
Jack Kerouac at Columbia University

Jack Kerouac at Columbia University

James Campbell is an editor at The Times Literary Supplement. His books include a biography of James Baldwin, “Talking at the Gates,” and a collection of essays, “Syncopation.” This is a review of The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson.

There is something that I always resisted when a much younger me came to reading the Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et. al.) Reading these sordid tales of their existence, I have to confess to a no-wonder realization all these years later. I still don’t understand how shitheads produce great art…

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IN January 1949, Jack Kerouac failed to appear for an afternoon date with a woman called Pauline. He had told Allen Ginsberg he planned to marry her the finest woman I’ll ever know” — once she had unshackled herself from her truck-driver husband, who, according to Joyce Johnson, was accustomed to “slapping her around to keep her in line.” In the meantime, Kerouac began an affair with Adele Morales (later to become the second Mrs. Norman Mailer).

His failure to keep the rendezvous with Pauline, however, had nothing to do with affection for Adele; rather, he had overslept after a night of sex games with Luanne Henderson, whom Jack’s muse Neal Cassady had married when she was 15, and who, according to their friend Hal Chase, was “quite easy to get … into bed.” The tryst had been engineered by Cassady, who was hoping to watch, Johnson says, to show Luanne, by then 18, “how little she meant to him.”

Two days later, Kerouac called on Ginsberg and found Luanne “covered with bruises from a beating Neal had given her.” Johnson describes Kerouac as “shocked” by the sight; nevertheless, “they all went out to hear bebop,” partly financed by money stolen by Cassady. In response to being jilted, Pauline confessed her affair to her husband, who tried to burn her on the stove. Kerouac described her in his journal as a “whore.” All the while, Ginsberg can be heard in the background: “How did we get here, angels?”

This is an everyday story of the Beat Generation in late-1940s New York, a tale of crazy mixed-up kids who took a lot of drugs, dabbled in criminality — with, two homicides among the statistics — lapsed into madness, were fond of identifying one another as “saints, saints,” but often had the barest notion of what it means to respect the individuality of other human beings. Yet three members of the inner circle, Kerouac, Ginsberg and William Burroughs, created experimental literary works of remarkable originality — in particular, “On the Road,” “Kaddish” and “Naked Lunch” — which read as freshly today as they did 50 years ago; perhaps, in an instance of that trick that the best art sometimes plays on us, more so.

Kerouac certainly makes a good subject, but there already exist about a dozen biographies (by Ann Charters, Barry Miles, Gerald Nicosia, among others), not to mention memoirs, an oral history – the excellent “Jack’s Book” (1978) — and wider surveys of the Beat Generation. In “Minor Characters” (1983), Johnson wrote about her affair with Kerouac at the time of publication of “On the Road.” She now steps back to a period of Kerouac’s life with which she has no direct acquaintance, tracing the story from his origins in a French Canadian family in Lowell, Mass., to New York in 1951, where the book ends with a rare citation from Kerouac’s journals: “I’m lost, but my work is found.”

Johnson justifies the retelling of what is in outline a familiar tale by the fact of having gained access to the vast Kerouac archive, “deposited in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library in 2002.” So far, so good. No large-scale Kerouac biography, so far as I am aware (“The Voice Is All” lacks a bibliography), has appeared since that date. Unfortunately, Johnson was apparently refused permission to quote at length from the journals and working drafts among Kerouac’s papers. The result is a life in paraphrase.

The method gives rise to frustration. In 1945, for example, Kerouac began writing a novel called “I Wish I Were You,” a reworking of the story of the killing of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr in 1944. Together, Kerouac and Burroughs had previously written “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,” a collaboration on the same subject that eventually saw the light of day in 2008. According to Johnson, “I Wish I Were You” is a different beast: “In two successive drafts of the first 100 pages, Jack put in all the textural detail that had been left out of `Hippos’ and even returned with renewed confidence to the lyricism he had abandoned just the year before.. It was really quite brilliant, the best prose he had written so far.”

A single paragraph from the manuscript, and from some of the many others in the Berg, would have helped breathe life into these sentences. Puzzlingly, however, Johnson observes a similar reticence with respect to works by Kerouac and others in the public domain.

“The Voice Is All” devotes more attention to Kerouac’s French Canadian background than most biographies. Johnson’s account of the unhappy household, in which Jack felt himself a guilty survivor after his brother, Gerard, died at the age of 9 (Jack was 4), is the best part of the book. The family’s frequent moves, combined with a burdensome dual heritage, left Kerouac with a lifelong feeling of rootlessness, which contributed to his reluctance to give or accept romantic love, and undermined every promise of domestic stability. His domineering mother emerges from these pages with no more appeal than from any other history.

Johnson makes strong claims for the force of French influence in Kerouac’s work. Quoting the famous passage from “On the Road” — “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad’ to live, mad to talk;’ etc. – she says, “It was a voice that would seem to his future readers as American as apple pie, but it had been born in French.” Part of the justification for the assertion derives from a 57-page manuscript with the title “Les Travaux de Michel Bretagne” in which Kerouac attempted the “experiment” of writing in French. Johnson states that he wished to try out “the language of blunt, plain-spoken people who were not given to nuance or imagery the sort he had grown up with in Lowell.

This has the potential of a new departure in Kerouac biography. Johnson believes the switch produced “some of the most eloquent prose he had ever written. His French voice was plainer than the more fluidly associative one he’d used in his letters to Neal.” But we are offered so minute a glimpse of the manuscript that it is difficult to gain any sense of how far the experiment went, just as it is hard to identify French- rhythms in the prose. I counted a total of 17 words quoted from “Les Travaux,” not counting the title, eight of which are in — English.

Johnson cites a letter from Kerouac to Yvonne Le Maitre, who had written a critical review of his first.novel, “The Town and the City.” Kerouac introduced himself by saying, “I have no proficiency at all in my native language, and that is the lame truth:’ I know this because the letter is printed in “Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956; edited by Ann Charters. In “The Voice Is All,” it is paraphrased, as usual. Some deeper discussion would have been welcome.

Similar confusion lingers with the information that “in one month alone, he had read Burroughs’s entire bookshelf of Symbolist -poets, all of whom wrote in classical French.” It would subtly alter our view of the Beats to learn that Burroughs had a substantial collection of works by Baudelaire, Mallarme and Rimbaud in the original, and- that –Kerouac was capable of making his way through them. Or were they in translation? Once again, the reader is left in the dark. (How long is an “entire bookshelf” anyway?)

Johnson seems -to have conducted no interviews for”The Voice Is All”  and has found it necessary to set aside only half a page for acknowledgments. When a biographer authorized by the Kerouac estate is enabled to quote freely from the archives, the questions posed by those “really quite brilliant” manuscripts might be answered: if not by the biographer, then by that most competent of all judges, the reader.

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