Sunday, September 22, 2013

"That forever empty."

Louis CK is crass and crude, and also one of the funniest and most brilliant comedians out there today. Here in a recent appearance on Conan O'Brien's show he rants against cell phones, noting that our tendency to texting and other forms of instant communication indicate our inability to be alone.

It's a rather monastic view of the world; the most difficult thing to do is to be alone in silence, apart from the distractions and obstacles to self-knowledge we place before us constantly. As Louis CK notes, we never come to know either true happiness or true sadness as a result, leaving us stunted in our growth.

It was reminiscent of this famous appearance he made years ago, making fun of our materialism and our sense of entitlement.

"Everything is amazing and nobody is happy" by Meowbay

It's no wonder I like him, and also that I pray for him to join the fold.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Ways in which toddlers are like alcoholics

I was at a friend's wedding over the weekend; there was a large number of families with young children in attendance at the reception. At one point, a three-year-old boy scampered across the dance floor without pants and knocked over a small, child-sized chair, falling down in the process. I turned to a friend and said, "Oh thank God I'm not the first person here to take off his pants and knock over the furniture!"

I then got to thinking and realized how similar are the behaviors of toddlers and drunks: talking loudly, poor motor skills, knocking over furniture, falling down, taking off clothes, grabbing crotches, throwing punches when irritated, falling asleep on the floor when tired. I stepped back and realized how grateful I was that God delivered from the old life, in which it's possible that I would have behaved like a toddler.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Things That Bring Me Joy

Small things contained within larger like things, such as matryoshkas:

source: Wikipedia

Things which signify their contents, like this bottle of maple syrup:

Friends who know me are aware of how these things delight my philosophical side. Upon further reflection, I have discovered a third thing, namely contemporary things restyled in an old style, such as the anachronistic reworkings of current pop hits by Postmodern Jukebox:

I found the Scott Bradlee/Postmodern Jukebox videos and got the sense that things like this were the telos of the Internet.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

"American Exceptionalism" and Foreign Intervention

In one of those Obama-era bizzaro-world episodes, Vladimir Putin writes an op-ed in the Sept 12 edition of The New York Times and sounds like a reasonable statesman in the process. Frank Weathers suggests that Putin has read Pope Paul VI's address to the UN in 1965. An especially striking moment of the Russian President's article is this:
I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
 I first need to say I take a rather cautious approach to Vladimir Putin; he writes and says things that appeal to many people who look for leadership in the world and find it wanting. In this piece, he rightfully points out the disastrous consequences of previous American actions in the region and he cautions against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially among nations who feel they have no other means of defense than to develop WMD. At the same time, it's good to remember that he's a former KGB colonel and someone who is skilled at power plays that help him to grow in influence. Putin has had a good week, helping Secretary Kerry and President Obama to look foolish and desperate to attack Syria in order to restore their credibility on the world stage; now, he is able to extend a bit of "friendly advice" in America's newspaper of record, reminding Americans that Obama is in over his head and that Putin is not.

To get to the point, let's look at the notion of "American exceptionalism" that Putin disparages. It's worth looking at because Putin is correct on this. The phrase "American exceptionalism" is, interestingly, one that seems to be thrown around in connection with an American plan to topple a foreign regime or to exercise force in the interest of "humanitarianism" or "democracy"; it seems to suggest that, rather than be exceptional, we must as a basic point of our foreign policy seek to make other places more like America.

In contrast, a properly ordered sense of "exceptionalism" is one that I suggest we embrace. When reading the work of thinkers such as Rusell Kirk, one comes to see that the American experiment in constitutional self-governance is born of a special set of cultural and historical circumstances: we are a product of Judeo-Christian morals and religion, Greek and Roman political ideals, and English language, literature, and common law. Kirk examines these influences in The Roots of American Order, while Orestes Brownson sees Divine Providence working itself out differently in different places and times in The American Republic. America is exceptional in that our system of constitutional republicanism ("government of the people, by the people, for the people," to use the words of the Gettysburg Address) can only work here, if at all; republican governance has not even taken root in England or Europe, much less in other parts of the world that do not have the philosophical and religious principles at their roots that we do.

And so to the question of intervention, at least that which seeks to effect regime change; how can it possibly work out for the better? Iraq and Afghanistan, despite a decade's worth of blood, treasure, and time spilled and invested remain places scarred by corruption and tribal infighting. In toppling or pushing aside pliable strongmen such as Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi, we have introduced new layers of instability, insurgency, and oppression to Egypt and Libya respectively. With our sites now turned on Syria and Bashar al-Assad, how can we expect anything different there based on these previous experiences?

Of particular note in relation to Syria, having now seen the horrific persecution by Sunni jihadists against Christians and other religious minorities throughout the region, is to ask, "Why would anyone who cares about the rights of Christians and other minority groups seek to assist murderous Al Qaeda thugs overthrow stable but despotic strongmen rulers? And yet we see, just today, that the CIA has commenced sending weapons to the Al Qaeda jihadists who are fighting against the government.

And in the midst of it all, a cunning KGB colonel is there warning us, in light of our own recent history, that "Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”" Maybe it's time we study our own history and abandon the pattern of foreign intervention that seeks only to cause more instability.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"Small talk exists simply to cannibalize silence"

Matt Walsh has had enough of your noise.

While reading Mr. Walsh's piece, particularly his delicious broadside against small talk, I was reminded of my own introversion, of my need for silence and solitude, and also of the things I found most moving about my time away at the monastery. - I'm considering monastic life because I like people, but not that much.

My favorite time of the day was the long period of time after vigils and before lauds - 4 AM to 6:30 AM - that was reserved for private prayer and lectio divina in cell; I would leave the chapel after vigils, go down the corridor to the refectory, have a piece of toast with peanut butter, a bowl of raisin bran, and a cup of weak coffee and consume all those in silence. Then I would go up the three floors to my cell to do my private prayers, readings, and devotions: I'd start with my Angelic Warfare Confraternity prayers, imploring God's assistance against the mercilessly unchaste thoughts and memories that beset me every day; then I would say a rosary, lying on my back in a cruciform posture; after that, I would set about my reading, usually passages form the epistles, as well as works by a variety of writers such as Bede the Venerable, John of Forde, St. Bernard, Caryll Houselander, and others. I tried reading Gertrude the Great, but found her too girly for my tastes; I settled into some of Newman's Plain and Parochial Sermons and one point, and into a biography of St. Hugh of Lincoln. I was smitten with English saints.

But I digress. It happens, though; the monastery was a place where the imagination could wander, where I could sit still long enough to give Jesus a chance to be heard over the noise within. And it is noisy in there; that's the thing that terrifies us so about silence: only in the silence and solitude are we forced to confront our true selves in any meaningful way. I believe that is why our world is so noisy; we do not want to confront ourselves in our weakness, our regrets, in our crushing desires and insatiable appetites. We would rather have those things numbed, dulled, dampened by a constant onslaught of sight and sound. That confrontation was one of the most difficult and painful things I've ever experienced, and yet it was also beautifully transformative.

 It is my hope that I can carry that message to the world, to let people know that there is nothing to fear in silence and solitude, that to confront God's love there is something that will change you forever, for the better. I want people to know that there is more out there than the noise, that we are meant for more than it.

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Saturday, September 07, 2013

"The Prayer that Rises Among the Drums of War"

A community of Trappistine nuns join Pope Francis in his call for peace in Syria, noting that prayer and fasting remain the weapons par excellence in the battle against powers and principalities, just as Jesus teaches us in the Gospel. This community last week wrote a scathing letter in response to the Obama administration's plans to involve itself in the Syrian war, writing, "There is something wrong, and it is something very serious…because the consequences will be wrought on the lives of an entire population…it is in the blood that fills our streets, our eyes, our hearts."

To side with the Al Qaeda jihadists fighting the Syrian regime is to make war on the religious minorities in that war-torn nation, particularly the Christians who have been there since the days of the early Church. The nuns know this, and yet our own leadership is blind to it.

Please join in prayer and fasting today that peace prevail in Syria and that we not involve ourselves in yet another disastrous conflict in the region.

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Friday, September 06, 2013

Pray & Fast for Peace in Syria

While celebrities, leftist journalists, and Bush-era anti-war protesters either hide out or do what they can to run interference on behalf of their beloved Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, Pope Francis has taken the lead in the war against powers and principalities by calling upon all the faithful to pray and fast on September 7 for peace in Syria.

The Holy Father himself will preside over a prayer vigil at the Vatican, and he calls upon all of us, Catholic, non-Catholic, non-Christian, and nonbeliever alike to pursue peace:
All men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursuing peace. I make a forceful and urgent call to the entire Catholic Church, and also to every Christian of other confessions, as well as to followers of every religion and to those brothers and sisters who do not believe: peace is a good which overcomes every barrier, because it belongs all of humanity!
Let us pray that our Congress defeats the proposed resolution to authorize the use of American force against the Syrian government; let us pray for a peaceful resolution to the war; let us pray for the preservation of the Church in Syria, brutally persecuted by Al Qaeda jihadists.

Let us pester our Congressmen and Senators and demand a "No" vote from them on the resolution, and let us not lose sight of the reality that Christ is victorious in the midst of tribulation.

Image from Ignatius Press facebook page

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Once again, BuzzFeed left the internets unlocked overnight and Ace of Spades coblogger John Ekdahl sneaked in to post "14 Principled Anti-War Celebrities We Fear May Have Been Kidnapped."


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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The High-Water Mark

On Saturday I took advantage of the long holiday weekend and visited the Gettysburg National Military Park for the first time with a dear friend who is entering the Hawthorne Dominicans next month. She has visited Gettysburg on numerous occasions with her family, but she wanted to visit again before she enters the convent.

I was struck by how deeply moved by the experience I was; to be on the battlefield and to see monument after monument detailing the actions and casualties of regiments, individual men, and in at least one case, a dog, is to experience such a compression of time that the 150 years between those three days in July and now seem almost to disappear. The story of the battle was brought to life for us by Gabor Boritt's superb audio auto tour The Gettysburg Story, which includes a booklet with maps, photos and biographical information of the major participants at each station along the tour; music, sound effects, and dramatized readings of diaries and letters bring an immediacy and human dimension to the tour.

Some of the highlights were: the statue of Fr. William Corby, C.S.C. atop the very boulder on which he stood when he gave general absolution to the Catholic soldiers of the Union Irish Brigade on the second day, July 2; the monument of the Pennsylvania 11th Infantry, on which is a likeness of the regimental dog Sallie, who was thought missing or killed in action on the chaotic first day, but who in fact had stayed behind and was found after the battle guarding the wounded and fallen men of the 11th; the monument to the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, whose 262 men rushed into a hole in the middle of the Union line on day 2, likely saving the Union Army that day while suffering 215 casualties in the process. As a Minnesota native, this was a particularly powerful place on the field, and I was deeply moved to see the monument with the statue of the soldier running with his bayonet forward.

 Bas-relief depicting the charge of the 1st Minnesota Volunteers near Plum Run, on July 2, 1863

Depiction of regimental dog "Sallie",  11th Pennsylvania Infantry monument on Oak Ridge

Fr. William Corby, C.S.C. depicted giving absolution and blessing to Union troops

The most powerful moment came near the end, however, at the penultimate station on the long tour: the "High-Water Mark of the Confederacy", the spot on Cemetery Ridge where Confederate forces briefly breached the Union lines on July 3 after the long march across a broad swath of open field known as "Pickett's Charge".  Looking across the nearly one-mile stretch of land toward the woods on Seminary Ridge and the glistening white Virginia monument with its likeness of a mounted Gen. Robert E. Lee atop his horse "Traveller", I tried to imagine the fear, excitement, and horror of that day. I wept at the thought of the carnage, and I marveled at how close it all was; the first day was a Confederate rout, while the second was a near-disaster for the Union on both flanks as well as in the middle where the Minnesotans saved the day, and the third day was one in which the Confederates drew up just short again.

I'm a child of the North, which means that my early education pertaining to the, um, "Late Unpleasantness Between the States" was unabashedly pro-Union without looking at the complexity of the underlying issues. This past winter I read Orestes Brownson's The American Republic (written very shortly after the conclusion of the war in 1865) and came to agree with him that union is one of the essential aspects of our nation; as such, I came to see why preservation of the Union was such an important endeavor that it was worth fighting for.

This is prologue to the questions that came to my mind as I looked out over that grim field and pondered our current administration's ambitions to get involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Al Qaeda rebels who seek to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad: how much differently would Gettysburg have turned out had Great Britain been providing military aid to the "freedom fighters" of the Confederacy? What would have happened if the Union were broken in part through the intervention of foreign powers? Why have we as a nation, with our historical memory of civil war, taken it upon ourselves to help stir up unrest, not only in Iraq, but also in Libya, Egypt, and now in Syria on behalf of the same people who attacked us twelve years ago?

To the last question, I have no answers, other than to join in our Holy Father Francis's call to pray and fast this Saturday, September 7, for peace in Syria and throughout the world.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Hanson, Cyrus, and Syria

Victor Davis Hanson, the neo-Stoic classicist and prophet of American decline, hears echoes of the Satyricon of Petronius in Miley Cyrus, our politics, and in our general cultural collapse. Fortunately, he has the capacity to see the positive in even the bleakest of situations, reminding us "just as Petronius’s world went on for another 400 years, ours may too."

Upon reading his piece, I was reminded that Hanson is one of the people on my fictional "dinner party" list: there is a parlor game in which you put together a guest list of famous people whom you would want to attend a dinner party, believing that they would be interesting conversationalists. I have narrowed the rules for my list to living Anglophones: Hanson is one of mine, as is Camille Paglia, Helen Alvaré, Anthony Esolen, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. As "honorable mentions" I would have Robert D. Kaplan, Brad Birzer, Roger Scruton, and Robbie George.


I have no intention of delving into the threadbare discussion of Miley Cyrus's "twerking" performance at the MTV Music Video Awards, other than to say it's a damn shame she's doing that instead of the sorts of lovely things I did not know she was capable of until a friend called my attention to this:


Rather than watch MTV or the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, I have been transfixed by the horrifying possibility of American military action in Syria, and particularly at what this could mean for our Christian brothers and sisters there.

Our administration has been babbling threats and painting itself into corners, and, despite David Cameron's failure to get Parliament to support an attack on Assad, Obama indicates that he is willing to singlehandedly carry out strikes on Syria. All this, it seems, to appease the fragile ego of a President far outside his league:
One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity "just muscular enough not to get mocked" but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.
Pray for our country, for peace in Syria and throughout the region, and most of all for the Church suffering mightily there and in Egypt.

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