Friday, August 31, 2007

Vehige: Shared Items

When we changed templates, we lost our blogroll. This happened because we went from one sidebar to two sidebars. Even though Thursday Night Gumbo has been up since January, I've been blogging for almost a year now, and, frankly, I find blogrolls to be virtually useless. Only when I first started blogging did I work my way through other blogger's blogrolls. Nowadays I eschew blogrolls completely and follow the links provided in a blogger's "Shared Items." If I blogger doesn't have Shared Items, I happily ignore his blogroll. Since I cannot believe I'm the only one who does this, I finally got off my keister (it helps, too, that I'm loaded up with good coffee and a the energy of a good movie), signed up for Google Reader, and have stared my own Shared Items list. Hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Woodward: Atheism and Psychology

I offer this purely as a philosophical curiosity and invite free-wheeling speculation from any reader who cares to indulge in it. (See my two questions at the end.)

The current installment of the Washington Post's "On Faith" feature, which I have posted about before, invites participants to weigh in on the impending publication of letters by Bl. Mother Teresa which reveal her 50-year struggle with religious doubt and long periods of spiritual desolation. Vehige and I have had our say on this story and the ruckus it has raised -- or is alleged to have raised -- among people of faith.

What catches my interest today is the reaction to the story from "On Faith's" resident atheists -- Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Susan Jacoby. There is nothing very surprising in what these three have to say, other than my ongoing surprise at the intellectually shallow and facile arguments against the existence of God that are put forward by thinkers like Dennett and Harris, putatively two of atheism's brightest lights. (Just as an example: Harris renews his charge that the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence, which makes Catholics "a cult of crazy cannibals," has been defended down through the centuries only by "some very strenuous and unconvincing theology." Would anyone care to wager on the outcome of a debate between Harris and any of the great proponents of that "unconvincing theology" -- Thomas Aquinas, say, or John Henry Newman, or even Scott Hahn? If it's unconvincing, Mr. Harris, then go ahead -- unconvince us. You're not going to get anywhere just calling us names.

Yet it is precisely name-calling, not always quite as ham-handed as referring to Catholics as a "cult of crazy cannibals," that characterizes the principal argument the Washington Post's atheists have with Mother Teresa. Consider these three excerpts -- one each from Jacoby, Dennett, and Harris -- and note the ad hominem strategy being employed in all three.

"[The letters] also reveal a woman who was surely suffering from run-of-the-mill depression, though even secular commentators have begun to politely dress this fact in the colors of the saints and martyrs." -- Sam Harris

"Perhaps it was her guilt at being unable to convert herself that drove her to work so hard to convert others to take her place among the believers." -- Daniel Dennett

"Dr. Richard Gottlieb, of the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute, said of Teresa's doubt, 'What is remarkable is that she integrates it in a way that enabled her to make it the ongoing center of her personality, the beacon for her ongoing spiritual life.' As a psychiatrist should know, all sorts of disturbed people are adept at making dubious premises and outright delusions the organizing centers of their personalities." -- Susan Jacoby

Notice what these observations have in common? All three are exercises in dilettantish pop psychology by people whose credentials in clinical psychology are...well...roughly as impressive as their credentials in theology. (Not that actual credentials in clinical psychology would make their assessments of Mother Teresa's faith or lack thereof any more worth our attention.) Sam Harris can diagnose depression just by reading the "patient's" letters. Susan Jacoby feels qualified to instruct a psychiatrist in what a psychiatrist should know. And Daniel Dennett has put his finger on the mysterious origins of Mother Teresa's vocation -- an old-fashioned guilt complex.

Two questions:

(1) What is there about contemporary atheism that encourages its more zealous adherents to practice amateur psychoanalysis in the pages of the Washington Post?


(2) Is this really the sad future of religious debate? "There is no God, and anybody who says differently is either a liar or a nutjob"?

Where is Bertrand Russell when atheism needs him?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Vehige: Under Construction

Well, as you can see . . . we've changed our look. This is pretty much it, but some things will be changing over the next few days. With two sidebars, we're each going to have our own. So now you'll be able to see just exactly what Woodward likes and what I like.

So our good and faithful readers, whaddaya think?

Update 1: Changed the color on the sides from a dark green to a light green. We live in Texas, after all, not the Black Forest.

Update 2: I don't think this is the final version, but Woodward's banner is much better than the one I put it. When I asked Woodward in an email what he thought of it, he didn't reply -- always a bad sign. I may be the one-man IT department, but Woodward is the one-man art department.

Woodward: The Feast of St. Monica

[NOTE: I tried to post this yesterday but ran afoul of some stubborn HTML codes that made Matthew Arnold look like e e cummings. Vehige -- the blog's one-man IT department -- just fixed it for me. So here it is, not quite on St. Monica's feast day but on the feast of her son. I suspect she doesn't mind.]

In honor of the day, here's a poem I have always liked. It proves how expressive the life and example of a saint can be, even to a man who seems to have had no religious faith at all.

by Matthew Arnold

"Oh could thy grave at home, at Carthage, be" --
Care not for that, and lay me where I fall.
Everywhere heard will be the judgment-call.
But at God's altar, oh! remember me.

Thus Monica, and died in Italy.
Yet fervent had her longing been, through all
Her course, for home at last, and burial
With her own husband, by the Libyan sea.

Had been; but at the end, to her pure soul
All tie with all beside seem'd vain and cheap,
And union before God the only care.

Creeds pass, rites change, no altar standeth whole;
Yet we her memory, as she pray'd, will keep,
Keep by this:
Life in God, and union there!

Judging by St. Augustine's own account, Arnold gives us a very accurate portrayal of St. Monica's state of mind at the end of her life. I wonder whether she could have had any inkling of the manner in which she would be "remembered at God's altar" sixteen centuries after her death.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Vehige: Emotions vs. Reason

Woodward wrote a very fine post on the recent hullabaloo regarding Mother Teresa's so-called lack of faith. It occurred to me during Mass this morning (when I normally think about blogging) that there's a practical lesson here.

It's true that many saints suffered through what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. What does St. John mean by this?

The dark night of the soul is the second purgation of the spiritual life -- the one we must pass through before we achieve that mystical union with God described by more than a few saints.

The first purgation of the spiritual life is called the dark night of the senses. This means we need to prune ourselves of those things that give us physical pleasure so that we are able to focus more intently on God. Abstinence and fasting from food are the two primary ways of engaging in the dark night of the senses, but we can expand this to all sorts of things: T.V., movies, secular learning, sex, and an assortment of physical comforts such as a bed, a pillow, and the kinds of shoes we choose to wear. (Read enough lives of the saints, and you’ll quickly be overwhelmed by the many and various ways they chose to mortify themselves.)

If I understand St. John’s teaching, the first purgation -- the dark night of the senses -- is something we can actively engage in. We can choose when to start denying ourselves creaturely comforts. There is a point when God, the master vinedresser, comes in and prunes away those things that are holding us back from him. But for the most part, the dark night of the senses is our job.

The dark night of the soul is radically different. We have no power over whether God makes his presence known to us. We may, at times, feel deep consolation, while, at other times, feel vast dryness. This is God’s choosing. We have no say in any of this.

Now here’s the point: just as the dark night of the senses purges us of our intemperate desire for creature comforts, the dark night of the senses purges us of those interior delights we so often love more than God. If we love the gift more than the Giver, where does that leave us?

Since the soul has different powers (intellect, will, emotions, imagination, etc.) each of these powers will undergo a darkness, a purgation, in order that our love of God is purified. So sometimes our faith will be tested, and other times our ability to pray, and other times our desire to do the good. There’s no rhyme or reason -- at least not from out viewpoint.

The point I’ve been working toward is this: The lesson for us ordinary Christians is that when it comes to the spiritual life, it is unwise to trust our emotions. I rarely feel close to Jesus during Mass, but what does this feeling mean when I receive the Eucharist? Provided I’ve done nothing to cut myself off from Christ, it means absolutely nothing. My feelings tell me one thing, but my reason that’s been informed by faith tells me something different. Which one am I going to base my actions on? Will I continue going to Mass despite that I don’t feel close to Jesus, or will I leave the Church and find some other community where I feel close to God?

This battle of emotion versus reason is true for all parts of the spiritual life. If through prayer and discernment you believe God is calling you to an apostolate you feel deeply about -- say, youth ministry -- don’t be surprised if once engaged in the apostolate you don’t feel as passionate about it any longer. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but the ultimate reason is that God is stripping you of consolations and is asking the only question that matters: “Are you doing this for you, or are you doing this for Me?”

What I’ve come to believe is that for most of us, God wants us to see if we’re true to Him. This is the test of Abraham in miniature. If we promise to pray a full Rosary once a week, we will be tested. It won’t be fun. The twenty or so minutes will seem like six-and-a-half hours. Or if we promise to read the Bible daily, the words will suddenly seem as vacant and trivial as the classified ads. The question is always the same: “Are you doing this for you -- for your own personal satisfaction, for your own personal glory -- or are you doing this because you long for Me?”

It's a question about our motives, and the only way God can ask it is by stripping us of the warm-fuzzy emotions we think we deserve and sending us into the desert.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Woodward: A Defense of Catholicism...

...from the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Okay, not exactly.

The particular issue is Protestant clergy living in a homosexual relationship, and while I have no particular right to an opinion as to how Protestants run their ecclesial communities, I agree with Dr. Albert Mohler on the impropriety of such relationships. But we'll let that go for now.

The point is that I also agree with Dr. Mohler (not that he cares or would even, perhaps, welcome my agreement) at a deeper level. Dr. Mohler clearly recognizes what this deeper level is:

"Long before these churches faced controversies over sexuality, they had already allowed the doctrinal foundations of their churches to be eroded and compromised."

Well, yes. These churches -- Dr. Mohler is discussing specifically the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church USA -- have their origins in men who were convinced that they, rather than the Catholic Church, correctly understood the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Now a group of theological liberals within those churches claim that they are in fact the ones who correctly understand the Gospel message as it concerns the morality of homosexual relationships. They are building their challenge to orthodox Protestantism, in other words, on a purely orthodox Protestant foundation -- biblical authority. (They simply find greater authority in a different set of scriptural passages.)

Dr. Mohler would like to frame his opposition to his adversaries in ecclesiological terms rather than as a matter of biblical interpretation. But he can't. No Protestant can. In his assertion that

when a bishop or presbytery or congregation fails [to maintain the doctrines and standards of the church] the whole church suffers,

Dr. Mohler is attacking his own church at its very root, because Protestantism was born out of congregations failing to maintain the doctrines and standards of the Church of which they were then a part.

Dr. Mohler is still free to debate the morality of homosexuality solely as a scriptural issue. (He would have the high ground in that argument.) But when he diagnoses the problem as a particular church's failure to safeguard doctrinal integrity, he is defining the issue in terms that can only cut the rhetorical ground out from under him, or any Protestant.

Dr. Mohler laments that "the conservatives are losing." In fact, the conservatives will always lose, in one sense. With respect to the truth, there are only two fundamental options: adhere to it, or abandon it. Once in possession of the truth, we cannot win anything else; we can only lose by being false to what we have been given. In the defense of Christian truth, the conservatives have been losing since 1517. If Dr. Mohler would like to join the cause of doctrinal -- and ecclesiological -- integrity, we'd be delighted to welcome him.

Woodward: The Spiritual Aridity of the Saints

"There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church—which is, of course, quite a different thing."

Hatred of Catholicism -- except perhaps in the Academy -- is not as much of an issue nowadays as it was in 1938, when (then) Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen wrote those words. Misunderstanding of Catholicism, on the other hand, seems to be flourishing about as much as ever. From time to time, something happens that exposes the depth and breadth of that misunderstanding, such as the news -- reported yesterday -- that Bl. Mother Teresa experienced prolonged periods of religious doubt and spiritual desolation.

Reuters dutifully reports that publication of the letters in which Mother Teresa describes these dark periods is "likely to create a stir." Perhaps so. I'm not much interested in the stir. But I am curious about the people among whom a stir could be created by such "news." What do these people understand religious faith to be?

To its credit, Reuters -- which sometimes betrays either a staggering ignorance of religion or a consuming antipathy toward it -- explains in the same story that "church history is dotted with saints who have been tormented about their faith." That would make saints...what? More or less like the rest of the human race?

Stop the presses.

As a child in vacation Bible school, I learned to sing that I had

"...the peace that passes understanding down in my heart,
Down in my heart to stay."

But for all the gusto with which I used to sing that song, I did not actually find the peace that passes understanding until a good many years later, and even then I discovered that while it was indeed "down in my heart," it was not necessarily there "to stay." It came and went. It comes and goes.

I was bothered by this for a while, because it made me think that what I was calling my "faith" was perhaps nothing of the kind -- and certainly nothing like the faith of the great saints. And in important ways, my faith is still nothing like that of the great saints. (You won't hear a lot of canonization talk among my friends.) But in one way my faith is like that of the saints, and every other Christian -- i.e., it is not constantly a source of comfort and peace to me. Turns out that Mother Teresa's was not to her either. Neither was St. John of the Cross's to him. Or St. Teresa of Avila's to her. Or St. Therese of Lisieux's to her. Those saints made no secret of their conflicts. There is no reason for such things to surprise us.

A couple of other points, which probably do not need to be made to anyone reading this blog but which I wish could be made to all the people who will be shocked or troubled by the news of Mother Teresa's long dark night of the soul. Feeling estranged from God, feeling his absence, is not the same thing as ceasing to believe in him. Nor does such a feeling, when it comes, typically lead Christians to start acting as if they no longer believed at all.

In one of the letters in which Mother Teresa describes to her spiritual adviser the feeling of having been abandoned by God, she is nonetheless able to say to him, "Jesus has a very special love for you." Lack of Christian zeal does not necessarily lead to confusion about Christian truth.

Nor does it necessarily lead to a loss of Christian love. Mother Teresa's periods of religious crisis seem to have had no impact at all on her devotion to caring in Jesus' name for the poor and dying. Reuters comments that "Mother Teresa's letters stand in marked contrast to her public image as a selfless and tireless minister for the poor who was driven by faith." It's hard to tell here whether Reuters is expressing simple bewilderment at the source of Mother Teresa's commitment, or hinting at hypocrisy. Putting aside for the moment the fact that Mother Teresa's "public image" is much more a concern of Reuters than it was of hers, the statement stands as an almost perfect illustration of the world's misunderstanding of the Gospel, the "foolishness of God." We are called to love one another whether it makes us feel good or not, whether our religious convictions make it easy to do so or not. In a moment of spiritual ecstasy, anybody can be holy. If you're still holy after the ecstasy subsides, then perhaps you're a saint.

As he does on an almost annoyingly large number of topics, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange has something valuable to say about the fact that many heroic Christians have been afflicted with periods of religious torment.

All that we have said shows what profit we should reap from the trials which the Lord sends us, particularly in this prolonged period of spiritual aridity of which we are speaking. If we bear it generously, many defects, which arrest the growth of the divine life in us, will be uprooted forever. Conquered self-love will then give place to the true love of God, to zeal for His glory and the salvation of souls.

Surely, now that we know a bit more of the particular trials that God sent Mother Teresa, we can see her even more clearly as an example of self-love that gave place to the true love of God. Let Christopher Hitchens argue with that.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Vehige: Maclin Horton's Sixty-Forty Ratio

If you haven't read this post, then I suggest you do. Here's an excerpt:

Of all religions and philosophies, Christianity provides the most thorough and complete explanation of the facts of the human condition, and is simultaneously the answer that most satisfies my sense of the fitness and order that ought to be. My pessimistic temperament says that it is probably not true. But my ability even to have such a concept as truth must arise from the existence of a real external world and my consciousness of a possible gap between what I believe about it and what is in fact the case. I’m certain that truth exists; why not Truth? And must not the explanation that best accounts for the facts be true, or at least more true than others? Christianity, then, the most wildly improbable of systems, remains, paradoxically, the most reasonable, and (therefore) the one that commands my assent.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Vehige: Children's Literature

It never fails to happen. About every six or eight months, my reading tastes change drastically. During those six months, I can't seem to get enough of the kind of book I crave. Around the fifth or sixth month, I start to feel a kind of mental indigestion -- like I do after I really gorge myself on pizza or Oreo cookies. The sign is that every novel and story the genre that has consumed my life for half a year is now suddenly as boring as watching paint dry. I've found that the best thing is to dismiss completely my view of the books I read during this waning period. Unfortunately, those books are tainted for me for several years.

The last time this reading shift happened was last February when I read Keith Strohm’s Tomb of Horrors. It had been well over a year since I’d been a chronic reader of fantasy and sf, and Strohm’s novel awoken in my just how much I loved it. Before that, I’d spent almost ten months reading nothing except theology and spirituality. Before that, it had been crime fiction.

Though I didn’t realize it until this past weekend, two weeks ago this shift happened again. I suppose I wasn’t aware of it because the story that did it was Harry Potter. The last three Harry Potter novels are close enough to adult-level fantasy and sf that I didn’t realize what was happening until after I finished. Suddenly, nothing on my sf bookshelf looked interesting. Then I read Dragons of Autumn Twilight -- a novel I’d loved as a kid. I picked up a few other sf and fantasy novels, but I didn’t find them intriguing.

Then I started to read Brian Jacques’ Redwall -- a children’s novel. Then I picked up Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped; whether or not this is a children’s novel, I don’t know (whaddaya think, Woodward?), but I’ve seen it on children’s reading lists. Then, at the library yesterday, I decided to get two more children’s novels, one I remember reading as a kid -- Bill Wallace’s Trapped in Death Cave -- and another one I’ve seen recommended several places -- John Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Finally, I printed out a couple of children’s literature reading lists (which you can find here and here). All of this tells me that my reading tastes have changed. Children’s literature it is.

If this trend continues, it will be completely new for me. I don’t remember reading too much children’s literature as a kid. By the time I was 11, I was reading and rereading Stephen King on a regular basis. Yet, I’m not going to shun it. As a home schooler, the more I know about the bookshelves my kids will one day be perusing, the better I’ll be able to help them develop the habit of reading.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Vehige: Characters

From “Character: Casting Shadows,” by Brandi Reissenweber in Writing Fiction, edited by Alexander Steele.

When I taught creative writing on a pediatrics ward at a hospital I met a long-term patient, a thirteen-year-old girl who had been in and out of this hospital since she was two years old. She was sharp and witty but rarely ever wanted to write with me, no matter how enticing the writing project. She eyed me from the corner of the hospital playroom as I wrote with other young people, but every time I’d approach her she would send me away, telling me that, after all, the hospital wasn’t school.

One day, I found her reading a book in her room. I sat down and asked if she would read to me, which she did. That afternoon, I learned that she loved to read books, so we talked about some of our favorite stories. I asked her, thinking it was a simple question: “Why do you enjoy reading?”

She looked at me, scratched her shortly cropped hair, and then opened her book again. I thought she was through with me as her eyes began to follow the lines on the pages. After a few minutes she looked up at me and said: “Because I get to meet lots of different people.

We eventually wrote a story together. It was fantastical and full of the kinds of people she wanted to be around: those who could fly, aliens who would befriend her, people who were outrageous, graceful, and courageous, just like her. But what stuck with me most was her response to my question -- that she read to meet people. That answer to what I thought was a simple inquiry lies at the heart of good storytelling.

When you read fiction, you are, first and foremost, meeting people. Characters are the core of a story and interact with or influence every other element of fiction. Characters are what drive a story, carrying the reader from the first to the last page, making readers care.

I’ve come across this idea from different writers in different books on writing, but never really took it very seriously. Being a long-time reader of fantasy and science fiction, it’s easy to overlook the characters for the setting and ideas in a story. But having finished the Harry Potter novels a few weeks ago, and having started rereading the Dragonlance Chronicles, a longtime favorite trilogy, I began to wonder: What exactly riveted me by Harry Potter that I read all seven books in two weeks, and what exactly is it about the Dragonlance world that compels me to reread these novels every four or five years? It’s not their literary quality, to be sure. And it’s not their magical worlds; both Harry’s world as well as the Dragonlance universe are richly imagined, but not exactly original. It occurred to me after reading Ms. Reissenweber that perhaps the reason these books grabbed me they way they have (yes, I fully intend to reread the Harry Potter books in a few years) was because somewhere along the line I fell in love with the characters and cared what happened to them.

So I decided to make a list of all the fictional characters that still haunt my imagination -- the ones I can see vividly, that I feel I know. Surprisingly, these are the characters of some of my all-time favorite novels:

1. T. S. Garp (The World According to Garp by John Irving)
2. Raskolinkov (Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky)
3. Pip (Great Expectations by Charles Dickens)
4. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
5. Ender Wiggen (Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card)
6. Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien)
7. Severus Snape (Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling)
8. Raistlin (Dragonlance by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman)
9. Achilles (Iliad by Homer)
10. Mowgli (The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling)
11.The Whiskey Priest (The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene)

There are more, but I think you get my point. Most importantly, I see what has been missing from all of my own fiction -- “lots of different people.”

Friday, August 17, 2007

Vehige: Library Things

Decided to get fancy and use Library Things to highlight the five most recent books that have graced my bookshelf. Scroll down and check it out.

Update: Changed it from my"five most recent books" to what I'm actively reading.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Woodward: Say Hey

Vehige and I seem to be having our differences lately, but anybody who understands that Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player who ever lived will always be a friend of mine.

Vehige: Contra Barry Bonds, or A Small Tribute to the Greatest Baseball Player of All-Time

From Ken Burn's Baseball:

Part 1

Part 2

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Vehige: What Catholics Should Read and Woodward's Insanity

Mr. Woodward writes: "For the rest of the list, Vehige and I part ways. He is a trained student of theology and understandably thinks that every Catholic should read some theology. I'm not so sure." He makes it sound that I expect every Catholic to be rigorously trained as a theologian, and that somehow his own list is more accessible to the general reader. Let's examine this insinuation.

First, let's take a look at Woodward's list.

1. This Tremendous Lover**
2. The Lord**
3. The Confessions**
4. The Way of Perfection
5. Abandonment to Divine Providence
6. Journal of a Soul
7. The Waters of Siloe
8. Theology and Sanity
9. Kristen Lavransdatter
10. Love and Responsibility

Of these ten books, the first three -- the one with the double asterisks -- I also recommended. So, excluding those three, here's my list of the last seven books. Yes, I know I recommended authors, not books, but let's limit it to seven books.

4. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas
5. Greene, Brighton Rock
6. Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture Lubac, Catholicism
8. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
9. Maritain, Art and Scholasticism
10. O'Connor, The Habit of Being

Of these seven books, two (2) are novels. How many novels does Woodward recommend? That's right -- one, Kristen Lavrensdatter, which is a terribly difficult novel at that. (You see, Woodward is trained in literary studies and understandably thinks everyone should read high-quality literature all the time.)

Woodward also recommends a work of popular theology -- Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed. Well, so do I: Chesterton's Saint Thomas Aquians . . . which, by the way, is about three-hundred (300) pages shorter than Sheed's book.

Woodward also recommends a diary of a Pope, Journal of a Soul. I only recommend some letters by a fiction writer, The Habit of Being. Now, be truthful, which one do you think will be easier to read?

Here's where we're at:

Woodwards list:

4. The Way of Perfection
5. Abandonment to Divine Providence
6. Journal of a Soul
7. The Waters of Siloe
8. Theology and Sanity
9. Kristen Lavransdatter
10. Love and Responsibility

My list:

4. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas
5. Greene, Brighton Rock
6. Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture Lubac, Catholicism
8. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
9. Maritain, Art and Scholasticism
10. O'Connor, The Habit of Being

We can put Catholicism and Love and Responsibility into the graduate-level reading category. Both of these are heavy-weight books. But in the ring, Love and Responsibility will knock out Catholicism faster than Mike Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks.

Of Woodward's three remaining picks (The Way of Perfection, Abandonment to Divine Providence, The Waters of Siloe) and my two picks (Leisure: The Basis of Culture and Art and Scholasticism), I'd say it's pretty even.

Where does that leave us?

My two moderately difficult novels (Brighton Rock, Lord of the Rings) to Woodward's supremely difficult novel (Kristen Lavransdatter). My short book of popular theology (Saint Thomas Aquinas) to Woodward's long book (Theology and Sanity). And my difficult book of serious theology (Catholicism) to Woodward's undisputed champion of difficult books (Love and Responsibility).

So I'll let you decided who's list is more daunting . . . to decide whose list would be easier for every Catholic to read.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Woodward: 10 Books Every Catholic Should Read

Vehige beat me to this one, so I'll begin with the choices of his that I agree with.

1. This Tremendous Lover, by Eugene Boylan, O. Cist.R.
2. The Lord, by Romano Guardini
3. The Confessions, by St. Augustine

These, I think, are the three greatest and most accessible works of Catholic spirituality. It's amazing, in a way, and encouraging that two of the three were written within the last century.

For the rest of the list, Vehige and I part ways. He is a trained student of theology and understandably thinks that every Catholic should read some theology. I'm not so sure. There's nothing wrong with getting your theology second-hand, if it's from a reliable and entertaining source. After all, this is a list of books that every Catholic should read.

So my list from here on out may strike Vehige as lowbrow. I think it will strike most people as readable.

4. The Way of Perfection, by St. Teresa of Avila

This great work would rank with the first three on the list if, like them, it were written for a general audience. St. Teresa wrote it primarily with her sister Carmelite nuns in mind, and some of it is a bit severe for lay people. Still, it is a wonderfully written no-nonsense guide to holiness.

5. Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J.

The God who made and loves you is the ruler of the Universe. Meditate on that fact for a while and see what conclusions you can draw from it. Fr. de Caussade draws some fascinating ones.

6. Journal of a Soul, by Bl. John XXIII

The most compelling documentary evidence for the cause of John XXIII's canonization may well be his journal, which he began when he was 14 and continued writing through his years as Pope. There is no stronger case to be made for the beauty, simplicity, charm -- and fun -- of holiness than this book.

7. The Waters of Siloe, by Thomas Merton

This book helped me to understand and value monasticism as part of the Church's corporate life -- something, to be honest, that I had been unable to do before I read it.

8. Theology and Sanity, by F. J. Sheed

Okay, it's theology. But Frank Sheed is one of those "reliable and entertaining sources" I mentioned above. He's as clear and unintimidating a writer as C. S. Lewis, and Catholic to boot.

9. Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset

The greatest Catholic novel. But wait till you have some free time to devote to it. It's long.

10. Love and Responsibility, by Karol Wojtyla.

The most thoroughly worked-out presentation of Pope John Paul II's theology of the body. It will help you understand the Church's teaching on marriage and sexuality -- and it will make you proud of it.

Woodward: Phil Rizzuto, R.I.P.

I don't actually remember him as a player. (I'm not quite that old, although he was runner-up for American League MVP the year I was born and won it the next year.) But I listened to him announce many Yankees games -- as a boy, as a teenager, as a college student, an adult, and into my own middle age. There is nobody like him any more. We live now in a time of programmed, politically paranoid, plasticized media personalities who will never say anything insensitive or embarrassing or uncalculated -- and hardly ever anything interesting.

He wasn't the greatest shortstop who ever played the game, although he was pretty darn good. He once summarized his strengths as a player this way: “I hustled and got on base and made the double play. That’s all the Yankees needed in those days.” That's all most teams need, even today.

I wasn't listening to the Yankees game on August 6, 1978. I was at Riverfront Stadium, watching the Cincinnati Reds play the San Diego Padres. So I didn't get to hear one of the classic "Scooterisms" of all time -- Phil Rizzuto's comment when, just after the Yankees had finished beating the Baltimore Orioles and he was handed a wire report of the death of Pope Paul VI, he ad-libbed, "Well, that kind of puts a damper even on a Yankees win."

He had his priorities right.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Woodward: A Blogger's Prerogative

Actually, blogging is nothing but prerogatives, isn't it? So I guess I'm being redundant.

I promise that I am not turning Thursday Night Gumbo into one of those blogs that consist largely of reports on how the blogger is feeling and pictures of his pets. But, here is a picture of our newest pet. And I feel like posting it.

We have dogs and guinea pigs and tropical fish, too. So our taste in pets is not (quite) as unconventional as it looks. But we did recently acquire two specimens of Tenodera aridifolia sinensis -- Chinese mantises. (To be accurate, we acquired a couple of hundred specimens, as they hatched from an egg case, but we released all but a couple into the backyard.)

They've been fun to watch growing up, if somewhat expensive to support. As hatchlings, they eat fruit flies, which, ounce for ounce, cost about the same as caviar. Now, blessedly, they're big enough to like houseflies and moths, of which we have an adequate free supply.

They're engaging little creatures. They can turn their heads -- the only insects with the ability to do so, I'm told -- which gives them something like a personality. And they're providing the Woodward children with an object lesson in the heartless efficiency of fallen nature. Whatever these praying mantises are praying for, it's not charity.

Woodward: Vacation

One of the secrets of a happy life -- and one that far too few people know -- is arranging to have in-laws who live in a really nice place.

My in-laws live in Amarillo, Texas, which is a perfectly okay place. (No, honestly.) But they also have a vacation house in Angel Fire, New Mexico -- which is a really nice place. We just returned from a brief visit, which provided me with an unexpected ecclesiological insight (in addition to scenic beauty, some wonderful food, and the chance to see my wife and children genuinely happy and carefree for an extended period of time). Let me explain the ecclesiological part.

When we're in Angel Fire, we go to Mass over the mountains in Taos, at San Francisco de Asis, a very old church made famous by Georgia O'Keeffe:

and Ansel Adams:

and now the subject of my own poor efforts:

Hispanic culture in the Southwest in considerably older than the Anglo-Saxon saga that dominates the American history books. There are Catholic churches in Texas and California older than any of the celebrated landmarks in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. And it's almost certain that the first North American Christian "thanksgiving" celebration took place not in New England but in Palo Duro Canyon, in the Texas panhandle, in 1541, fully 80 years before the Pilgrims and Squanto and Samoset and all that Plymouth Colony business. But I digress.

My family and I went to Mass Sunday before last at San Francisco de Asis, and once again noticed with pleasure the thick adobe walls, the beautiful 18th-century altar paintings framed in colorful restored folk-art frescoes, the disturbingly graphic Spanish colonial crucifix that dominates the sanctuary, and even (though it's not my liturgical cup of tea) the Mexican guitar ensemble that provided the music. By the time the processional hymn was over and the celebrant, deacon, and altar servers had taken their places around the altar, my very non-Hispanic family and I were immersed in the sort of pleasant culture shock that vacations are supposed to provide. Then the priest began: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit...."

The accent was what one might have expected in County Cork. I'm not sure where in Ireland the priest was from, but he and Barry Fitzgerald had obviously been separated at birth. If, instead of preaching a homily, he had started singing "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral," I would not have been surprised.

It was the pleasantest sort of multicultural experience we could have had. The priest was (I'm guessing) in his 70s, clearly not a native New Mexican but just as clearly at home in the very non-Celtic setting in which he now found himself. As I listened to the homily, I realized that I was anticipating the words I would say just a few minutes later: "We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." To see a son of Erin celebrating Mass before a Spanish baroque altarpiece in an adobe church in the Rocky Mountains made the "one" and "catholic" parts of the Creed jump to life for me in a way they never had before.

Maybe we're not so far after all from the day when Christ will truly be "all in all."

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Vehige: Bullet-Proof Backpacks

You've got to be kidding me! Make sure you watch the video!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Vehige: Do You Reread Your Favorite Novels?

A few weeks ago, Woodward and I had a conversation about whether or not we reread our favorite novels. It really wasn't much of a conversation -- neither of us are big rereaders.

For me, so far, there are only two stories (four novels) that I reread ever four or five years. The first is a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy trilogy -- The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I read these novels (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning) when I was in the seventh grade. As I mentioned before, I was something of a D&D wannabe when I was in junior high -- I had the books and the dice but not a group to play with. So the first few D&D novels really captured my imagination, and, strangely, I can still read them with immense enjoyment. They're pure mind candy, but I love them. In fact, I just started rereading the trilogy a few days ago.

The other novel I can reread with immense delight is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. This might be my all-time favorite novel; it's at least in the top five. I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories (which may be the reason why I liked the Harry Potter novels so much), and Mockingbird is the ultimate coming-of-age story (though I have to admit I've yet to read David Copperfield).

But other than these, I generally don't reread novels. There are too many good books out there to spend time reading the ones I've already read.

So the question is: Which novels, if any, do you reread? Why?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Vehige: 10 Authors All Catholics Should Read

A reader of this blog (our only one?) asked if Woodward and I would list the 10 or so books/authors we think Catholics should read. I haven't told Woodward about this; he'd then post before I would, and that would make my job all the more difficult.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are the 10 authors I think all Catholics should read. (Sorry there aren't any links; don't have that much time.)

1. G. K. Chesterton. Given that one of his greatest works, Orthodoxy, will be 100 years old next year, one could ask, "Why Chesterton?" Chesterton has a common sense that's to be admired, a a common sense that took on the modernistic ideas that are still in vogue, a common sense that is desperately needed today. Especially recommended: Orthodoxy, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and The Everlasting Man.

2. Eugene Boylan. A chemist, priest, and Cistercian monk, Boylan penned what I think is the greatest spiritual book for the layperson: This Tremendous Lover. It's sane, it's practical, and it shows you that holiness is so difficult only because it's so easy.

3. Romano Guardini. One of the thinkers that influenced Pope Benedict XVI, Guardini has a way of penetrating his subject matter that genuinely gives new perspective. Especially recommended: The Lord, The Rosary of Our Lady, and The End of the Modern World.

4. Graham Greene. He's not a philosophical novelists like Walker Percy, nor an ironic storyteller like Flannery O'Connor. Greene was a popular novelist who allowed the Catholic faith to penetrate his most basic entertainments (as he called them) as well as his more serious work. Especially recommended: Brighton Rock and The Power and the Glory.

5. Josef Pieper. A German Catholic philosopher trained in Thomistic philosophy, Pieper's value lies in the fact that he's able to show the value of the ordinary. After reading In Tune With the World, I've never celebrated my birthday or Christmas the same. Especially recommended: Leisure: the Basis of Culture, In Tune With the World, Happiness and Contemplation, and Abuse of Language--Abuse of Power.

6. Henri de Lubac. A French Catholic theologian, de Lubac is a master at taking the writings of the Church Fathers and their medieval disciples and showing the richness of their theology. Especially recommended: Catholicism, The Splendor of the Church, and Motherhood of the Church.

7. Saint Augustine. The greatest of the Fathers of the Church who wrote the greatest book of all time--The Confessions.

8. J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien has gained a lot of popularity since Peter Jackson's movies came out, and rightly so. And Catholic rarely forget to mention that Tolkien was a devout Catholic. It's hard to miss the Catholic symbolism within The Lord of the Rings, but to me what makes that book so essential for Catholic readers is Tolkien's vision of the vice of despair and the virtue of hope.

9. Jacques Maritain. This French Catholic philosopher is a heavyweight intellectual among heavyweight intellectuals. That being said, you can learn more from Maritian than you can from three or four lesser talents combined. Maritain is a philosopher in the truest sense of the word in that no subject goes untouched. Especially recommended: Art and Scholasticism and The Degrees of Knowledge.

10. Flannery O'Connor. No, not her short fiction--though it is quite good. Rather, I recommend her collection of letters called The Habit of Being. What starts out as simply letters to various literary agents and other literary figures ends up being a rather powerful account of what it means to live one's faith in the secular world.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Woodward: St. Ignatius Loyola

I missed blogging yesterday, so permit me to observe belatedly the feast of one of the Church's greatest saints, Inigo Lopez de Loyola – St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus.

When you can win the grudging praise of someone who hates your guts, you have done well in this life. The English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay managed, at one time or another, to peddle virtually every standard anti-Catholic stereotype known in his time. (How anyone who could write that magnificently could think that shoddily is still one of the great mysteries of life to me.) In any event, Macaulay's famous essay on Ranke's History of the Popes contains the following description of the work of the Jesuits in the early years of their order. Macaulay manages to take a couple of swipes at Christian ends justifying “jesuitical” means, but he can't quite bring himself not to admire St. Ignatius and his brothers just a bit.

"With what vehemence, with what policy, with what exact discipline, with what dauntless courage, with what self-denial, with what forgetfulness of the dearest private ties, with what intense and stubborn devotion to a single end, with what unscrupulous laxity and versatility in the choice of means, the Jesuits fought the battle of their Church, is written in every page of the annals of Europe during several generations.

In the order of Jesus was concentrated the quintessence of the Catholic spirit; and the history of the order of Jesus is the history of the great Catholic reaction [i.e., the Counter-Reformation]. That order possessed itself at once of all the strongholds which command the public mind, of the pulpit, of the press, of the confessional, of the academies. Wherever the Jesuit preached, the church was too small for the audience. The name of Jesuit on a title-page secured the circulation of a book. It was in the ears of the Jesuit that the powerful, the noble, and the beautiful, breathed the secret history of their lives. It was at the feet of the Jesuit that the youth of the higher and middle classes were brought up from childhood to manhood, from the first rudiments to the courses of rhetoric and philosophy. Literature and science, lately associated with infidelity or with heresy, now became the allies of orthodoxy. Dominant in the South of Europe, the great order soon went forth conquering and to conquer. In spite of oceans and deserts, of hunger and pestilence, of spies and penal laws, of dungeons and racks, of gibbets and quartering-blocks, Jesuits were to be found under every disguise, and in every country;

scholars, physicians, merchants, serving-men; in the hostile Court of
Sweden, in the old manor-houses of Cheshire, among the hovels of Connaught; arguing, instructing, consoling, stealing away the hearts of the young, animating the courage of the timid, holding up the crucifix before the eyes of the dying."

Well done, St. Ignatius. Pray for us.