Friday, February 24, 2017

Quiet Desperation

Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Lately, I’ve been reminded of that in several ways. I’ve seen the desperation in other people, a desperation that feels all too familiar.

It’s no revelation that we all struggle and that we all mask our struggles. We pretend that we’re alright, that we’re functioning adults. Part of growing up is learning that adults don’t know it all. Adults don’t have it all together. We’re still scared little children, just with more scars. We pretend that we know what we’re doing, because otherwise, society would cease to function. We put out a stiff upper lip, put on a mask, and get on with it.

And then we get home at the end of the day, and the insincerity, doubt, unfulfilled dreams, and regrets creep back in. When drowning in your own struggles, it’s difficult to see that everyone else is struggling too. But that isolation only makes it all worse.

Recently a friend said, “Some days it feels like I’m alone in the desert and some days it feels like everybody is here.” I found it a comforting statement. There are others struggling too. My fear, loneliness, and desperation do not make me weird; they make me human. Is there anything more reassuring than hearing, “I understand. Me too.”?

Connecting to someone at a real level, where you take off the mask and reveal your weaknesses, is one of the best ways to fight evil. You see the child of God behind the adult. You see that your struggle need not be a solitary one. Your souls delight in the reminder that you are not alone. C. S. Lewis said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”

With Lent beginning, it’s important to remember that we are called to the desert, but we don’t have to go alone. We are part of a community. We are all suffering. We are all working toward the same goal. The journey will be less desperate if we can just look one another in the eye and say, “Me too.”

Friday, February 17, 2017

Cours de Rien

When I was in school, I never considered the meaning of education. I valued the humanities, but mainly because I liked them and I vaguely thought that the humanities made people better. It wasn’t until grad school that I began to see just how much one’s educational model shapes one’s worldview. I realized how much I was not taught philosophy or ethics or rhetoric. My education did not aim to make me a good citizen but a good labor source.

I had some really great teachers. They cared about me and challenged me to do my best and let me stretch my intellectual chops even when that meant roaming off curriculum. It’s just that I didn’t realize how much unspoken assumptions are taught within the educational model. And I didn’t realize what was missing. The West has a rich tradition of logic and philosophy, but in high school I only received passing mentions of Plato, Aristotle, Erasmus, and Kant, and that was only because I was a nerd who took Latin and Great Books. In college there was Plato’s cave and Nietzsche’s superman, but still never an all-encompassing curriculum of the foundations of Western thought.

I still feel like my understanding of philosophy is piecemeal. I read a philosopher, get lost, realize I need to read someone earlier to understand this one, and wind up with a growing reading list and no follow-through. And Christian apologetics are so philosophical. One has to understand Western thought to understand Western explanations of the divine. 

Transubstantiation is so much easier to swallow (heh) with an understanding of substance theory. Augustine relied on Plato’s “incorporeal truth” to understand spiritual matters in a physical world. The Logos of John 1, the “unmoved mover,” and omni-benevolence all stem from Greek thought. How different would my conception of God be without these? How different would my conception of God be if I better understood them? 

If education continues to only be labor training and not actually mold minds and build up citizens, then people will become more and more distant from the rich philosophies that study and shape the world. They will only know what it set before their eyes—the shallow, literal, unexplored meanings. That all that matters is quantifiable matter. That the only time is the present. That natural philosophy is the only philosophy, and it’s not even philosophy at all. We’ll be so set in the narrow confines of empiricism that we’ll miss out on the beauty of the earth, the meaning of life, and the truth of God. Classes of nothing will result in souls of nothing. There is a desperate need for in-depth neoclassical education—the medieval trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. But more, there is need for the desire to study, to learn, to grow as humans, regardless how much it will increase earning-potential. We should seek knowledge for the sake of truth.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

St. Josephine Bakhita

Josephine Bakhita was born in 1869 in a small village in Darfur. Her uncle was a tribal chief of the Daju people and from all accounts, she had a relatively prosperous early childhood. In February 1877, she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders and forced to walk 600 miles to a slave market. For the next 12 years, she was bought and sold several times. She was often beaten and tortured. Through the trauma, she forgot her name. At some point she was forcibly converted to Islam. 

In 1883, she was sold to the Italian Vice Consul. He took her back to Italy, where she was given to another family to serve as a nanny. When the family traveled, Josephine was placed in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. The Canossians were founded just a few decades earlier, and they had done mission work in Hong Kong, Macau, and other parts of East Asia. 

With the sisters, Josephine learned more about God and devoted her life to him. When her owners returned to Italy, she refused to leave the sisters. The sisters petitioned the court on Josephine’s behalf, and the Italian court determined that Josephine was not a slave (slavery had already been outlawed in Sudan when she was first kidnapped), and she was free to live her own life.

In 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and took the name Josephine Margaret Fortunata (Fortunata is the Latin translation of the Arabic name Bakhita). The bishop who gave her the sacraments was the future Pope Pius X. Josephine joined the Canossian Daughters of Charity and worked as a cook and doorkeeper. She also prepared missionary sisters for work in Africa.

Josephine was known for being cheerful and agreeable. It’s hard to imagine how one could find happiness after a life of such pain and dehumanization. It was said that “her mind was always on God, and her heart in Africa.” A book on her life published in the 1930s made her popular in Italy. When she died in 1947, thousands came to pay their respects. Her story has a happy ending, but it still feels bitter, because I know so many of her people never found their freedom.

St. Josephine Bakhita’s feast day is February 8. She is the patron of Sudan.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Tuesday's Child is Full of Grace

Recently I read Benedict XVI’s Last Testament (which is wonderful). He talks a lot about his childhood. He mentions that he was born on Holy Saturday, and how that must have shaped the course of his life. As I was reading it, I got the haunting sense that Lent just might have started the week I was born. I looked it up, and sure enough, I was born on Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras is the culmination of Carnival, the feasting between Epiphany and Lent; it is the last day of eating rich, fatty food before the great ritual fasting begins. So what does it mean to be born that day; does it play a role in my life? I don’t actually think the day of my birth shapes my destiny, but it interesting to reflect upon. I certainly have a predilection for fatty food; if I had been born 15 minutes later, would I fast more?

But Mardi Gras isn’t just about indulgence; it’s about preparation, clearing out the cabinets for the fast to come. It’s digging dig into the present, because the future is coming, whether you want it to or not. Birthdays often make people think of the passing of time, how quickly it all flies by. A birthday is an annual reminder to make the present count; the future is on its way no matter what. 

Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, is on the precipice of a deeply spiritual time. The word “shrove” means “absolve.” In old England, during the week before Lent started, people would go to confession and “be shriven.” Stomachs and souls would prepare for the Lenten season.
In German Switzerland and Alsace, Mardi Gras was called Fastnacht (Fasting Night), Veilchendienstag (Violet Tuesday), or Schmotziger Donnerstag (Greasy Tuesday). The carnivals would include characters such as jesters, witches, animals, and local legends. It was a mix of feasting and storytelling, marking the dramatic difference between feast and fast, the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom, sin and redemption.

So perhaps I was born at a precipice, stuck somewhere between places and meanings. I use storytelling to explain the spiritual realities raging around me. I stay distracted in the present but acutely aware that the future is looming, that preparation is needed, that change is coming, a change that will be painful but ultimately good.

Furthermore, I was baptized on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Of course, my Presbyterian church and family didn’t know that at the time. Still, my entry into the Christian faith was on a very Catholic holiday. I now attend a church in the name of the Sacred Heart. Did the date of my baptism play a role in my faith journey? When I joined the Church, I had friends tell me that it made sense, that I always seemed suited for Catholicism. Was I marked for the Church?

The Feast of the Sacred Heart was first celebrated in 1670. It became universal in the Church in 1856. Although relatively new in the Church, the devotion is rooted in medieval mysticism. Devotion of the Sacred Heart focuses on Christ’s love, compassion, and continued suffering for humanity, as demonstration by his heart aflame, pierced by lances, and crowned in thorns. St. Bonaventure said, “Who is there who would not love this wounded heart? Who would not love in return Him, who loves so much?” While I wouldn’t call myself mystical, I have always been interested by such things. And I do have a recent soft spot for the seventeenth century.

I’ll end this with some of the promises Christ gave Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque (who had the vision of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) in hopes that by nature of the date of my rebirth, they will come to have significant meaning for me.
1.  I will give them all the graces necessary for their state of life.
3.  I will console them in all their troubles.
4.  I will be their refuge in life and especially in death.
5.  I will abundantly bless all their undertakings.
7.  Tepid souls shall become fervent.
8.  Fervent souls shall rise speedily to great perfection.

[Incidentally, Holy Saturday on my birth year fell on March 25, the date mostly commonly associated with Easter, the conception of Christ, and the creation of the world.]