Tag Archives: culture

Masterpieces are Made by Many

He who has himself for a guide has a fool for a disciple.

art studio

I had a lapsed Catholic friend who expressed skepticism about our devotion to saints, because she had read that it originated in the worship of pagan gods. Well, if you walk into the Pantheon in Rome today, you will see that it is dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs. Christianity is the religion of the Incarnation; just as God elevates our human nature into His divine life through the life and death of Jesus Christ, so does Catholicism elevate non-Christian culture by receiving what is true, good and beautiful in it into the life of the Church. We do not worship saints, far from it – we honor them as masterpieces of God, frail humans just like us who derived their strength, courage and joy from the One God.

It is a really modern idea that for something to be good, or valid, or sound, it has to be one-of-a-kind, trademarked, patented, branded, a unique individual piece to be appreciated on its own merit. People are suspicious that copies are not genuine. But the world doesn’t work that way – creation is full of recycling: just look at the food chain! Human endeavors are built on the work of previous generations. It would be terribly inefficient to reinvent the wheel every time we embarked on a project.

The entire enterprise of education involves teachers handing down skills and knowledge from previous generations, and we are bound to trust this process to some degree, even though it is mediated through imperfect human beings. We are copies of our parents and our ancestors – we are at once unique, entirely new individuals from the moment of our conception, and also replicas of the people who have gone before us, a part of the vast community of humanity. God alone is the Original.

Christianity did not develop in a vacuum – Christ came in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), fulfilling not just Hebrew but also pagan prophecies;1 the time of His coming resulted in the early Church being able to synthesize Jewish tradition, Greek philosophy and Roman governance, creating a strong foundation for the rest of salvation history.2 With God, there are no accidents. Ancient texts like the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh echo the tale of Noah’s flood in Genesis; God is present and active throughout human history, though He has chosen to bind salvation to the Barque of Peter. As Aquinas says, grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.3 It takes a Jewish girl and, through her acceptance of God’s proposal, makes her Theotokos and Queen of Heaven;4 it takes up our offerings of bread and wine, transforming them into God’s own Self, the supersubstantial bread referred to in the Lord’s Prayer. God’s grace, His infinite mercy, takes our human lives and all of human history and transfigures everything, everything, taking it to Himself.

It was only with the Renaissance that composers began acknowledging authorship of their own work.5 Even so, they continued to borrow liberally from each other, as demonstrated by Mozart’s, I mean, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.6 From the humanism of the Renaissance came modern anthropocentricity, decried by gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his commencement address at Harvard.7

Mona Lisa has a twin, a painting “executed by an artist in Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop at the same time as the original. Probably it was created by Francesco Melzi, one of Leonardo’s favorite pupils.”8 Art, like architecture, used to be a craft with skills passed down from generation to generation, steadily developing but not departing from the mathematical principles of aesthetics. (Incidentally, there is a new online Masters of Sacred Art course where you can learn to create beautiful art in the tradition of Holy Mother Church). Art was taught in schools where pupils assisted the master craftsman with producing commissioned pieces. It was an organic and collaborative process, with the Church as principle patron and benefactor.

This too can be seen in the creation of the Biblical canon. The Bible is comprised of books which each have their own name, but scripture scholarship has taught us that many of the books have multiple authors, each with a unique, detectable voice. Other ancient texts like the Iliad and the Odyssey are also deemed to have had multiple authors, though these two are attributed to Homer; they were passed down in oral tradition before being written down, just as Holy Writ and British common laws were handed down. This does not detract from the truth, beauty or authority of the scriptures, through which God deigns to speak to us today. Like fertile riverbanks forming through gradual accretion of silt and being slowly molded by the flow of the river, so did the rich loamy soil of Scripture and Tradition develop naturally through the centuries, molded by the Holy Spirit.

The books of the Bible were not written under divine dictation, but with divine inspiration. In this, we can see how God respects the freedom of human creatures. He has endowed us with reason and faith, which enable us to collaborate in His work even through our imperfect lives. The process of deciding which books were canonical was also a collaborative exercise performed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, at the Council of Rome in AD 382.9

In the Church, we do not “go it alone”. We are not self-made men. On the contrary, we are members of the One Body of Christ, a communion of saints working in unison to proclaim the Good News, setting the world ablaze with the fire of God’s love, the love of the Holy Trinity. God is the perfect Union of Persons, a Communion of superabundant Love that pours Itself into all creation, making masterpieces out of messiness.

Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.
John of Salisbury, Metalogicon (1159)

Private prayer is like straw scattered here and there: If you set it on fire it makes a lot of little flames. But gather these straws into a bundle and light them, and you get a mighty fire, rising like a column into the sky; public prayer is like that.
St. Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney, Curé d’Ars

Our heart is built according to the Trinity; our love is built according to the trinitarian love; all nature has a trinitarian character.
Msgr. Leo Maasburg

…a threefold cord is not easily broken.
Ecclesiastes 4:12

Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys’ philosophies — these over-simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either.
—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Image: “The Evolution of the Artist’s Studio, From Renaissance Bottega to Assembly Line”, Artspace.


1 Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “The Only Person Ever Pre-Announced”, The Catholic Thing.

3 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1, 1:8.

4 Eric M. Johnston, “Grace Does Not ‘Build On’ Nature”, The Catholic Spiritual Life.

6 M. Klugewicz, “Did Mozart Actually Write the ‘Ode to Joy’?”, The Imaginative Conservative.

7 Joseph Pearce, “Alexander Solzhenitsyn: The Courage to be a Christian”, The Imaginative Conservative.

8 Zuzanna Stanska, “Meet Mona Lisa Twin (Shocking!)”, Daily Art Daily.

9No Church, No Bible”, Thanks to Catholicism.

Fully Human: Body and Soul United

the soul soaks the body like a strong savour, and does not merely inhabit it like a hat in a hat-box.
—G. K. Chesterton, “The Moral Collapse of Modern Germany” (February 17, 1917)

I believe … in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
The Apostles’ Creed

An anti-racism video came up on my newsfeed:

See, when I drive my car, no one would ever confuse the car for me. Well, when I drive my body, why do you confuse me for my body? It’s my body. Get it. Not me.

Let me break it down. See, our bodies are just cars that we operate and drive around. The dealership we call society decided to label mine the “black edition.” Yours the “Irish” or “white edition.” And with no money down, 0% APR, and no test drive, we were forced to own these cars for the rest of our lives.

Forgive me, but I fail to see the logic or pride in defining myself or judging another by the cars we drive, because who we truly are is found inside.

Prince Ea, “I Am NOT Black, You are NOT White.

A nice sentiment, but simply untrue.*

It reminded me of the Carolyn Arends song, I Am a Soul:

“I have a body, but I am a soul

I see a fraction, it’s not the whole

I cannot prove it, but still I know

I have a body… I am a soul.”

This Cartesian dualism can seem really appealing, but it is a rather dangerous wrong-headed neo-Gnostic concept that ultimately denies the beautiful gift of our human nature.
For Biblical people, the body can never be construed as a prison for the soul, nor as an object for the soul’s manipulation. Moreover, the mind or will is not the “true self” standing over and against the body; rather, the body, with its distinctive form, intelligibility, and finality, is an essential constituent of the true self.
Bishop Robert Barron, “Bruce Jenner, the ‘Shadow Council,’ and St. Irenaeus

Christians need to be mindful… that they are embodied creatures with the promise of an embodied resurrection. Jesus incarnated in a body and resurrected with a body, so Christians should be careful about minimizing their own.
Hannah Peckham, “‘You Don’t Have a Soul’: C.S. Lewis Never Said It

We Are Enfleshed Souls

Why do people who struggle with anorexia, transgenderism or body dysmorphic disorder long so much to modify their bodies to sync with their thoughts and feelings? The body is not simply an expression of oneself, but an integral part of one’s self.

Erroneous dualist thinking has also crept into how people treat their bodies and view the gift of sex. A cousin of mine defended the practice of cohabiting, saying that people ought to be able to “test-drive the car before marriage.” Would you like your beloved to treat you like a car? It is downright insulting and abusive to treat people as objects to be used instead of persons to be loved.

As Ryan Kraeger wrote recently,

…of all the creatures in the universe, we are the only ones who can worship God freely by physical actions. This is why the Church places so much store in physical morality, over and against the Manichean heresies that claimed that what the body does did not matter, because it was mere matter and the spirit was separate from it.

When we die, our bodies are treated with respect because they are part of our selves. They’re not empty vessels to be casually tossed aside or used as fertilizer. They are marvels of Creation, formed carefully in the womb with unique, unrepeatable DNA and ensouled from the moment of conception. They are made by Love and for Love, and will be resurrected in glory.

If humans were really only souls, why do people get so creeped out by ghosts? Just as we know that a body without its soul is incomplete, so do we sense that souls without bodies are lacking. They’re just not right.

Returning to Prince Ea’s contention: racism isn’t combated by pretending our bodies are mere accidents which can be ignored. That cheapens our view of humanity. No—racism is defeated when we are able to love everyone deeply and completely, body and soul united, seeing the goodness and humanity in each particular person as a whole being.

Incarnating Christ in Every Race and CultureMatteo Ricci, SJ

Jesus Christ chose a particular human body and culture in which to be incarnated, humbly undergoing Jewish practices like circumcision, and choosing to be baptized. By humbling Himself to become man, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity not only restored but transfigured human nature, universal and particular. St. Athanasius said, “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.” We are each called to manifest Christ to the world, without losing our individuality, but rather, performing the paradox of truly fulfilling it while completely identifying with others.

The saints have incarnated Christ in every culture, not brushing aside their visible characteristics as superficial, but incorporating these physical traits into their ministry. Mother Teresa, born Macedonian-Albanian, chose to clothe herself and her order in saris, the cultural dress of the Indians they served in Calcutta. Matteo Ricci and his fellow Jesuit mathematicians and scientists dressed as mandarins when they went to China in the 16th century, having thoroughly studied Chinese philosophy and culture.

Modern-day folk may decry this as cultural appropriation. But cultural appropriation involves taking a tradition and using it without respecting its original meaning and context, like secular celebrations of Christmas, Hallowe’en, and St. Valentine’s Day (or Protestants taking the Bible without caring about its liturgical origins). Cultural appropriation impoverishes a tradition, hollowing and distorting it into a wretched shadow of itself.

Inculturation, on the other hand, is a harmonious blend of previously separate cultures, as in Peranakan culture, where Chinese in the Malay archipelago have combined Chinese, Malay and European customs to form a unique and rich culture of their own. It is not an artificial mix, but a genuine fusion that has developed over time, and continues to develop anew. One now thinks of sipping tea as very British, but it was a Chinese beverage initially frowned upon in England. Through inculturation, traditions are mutually enriched in a happy marriage which creates wonderful offspring. (We Chinese never used to put milk in tea! And now, thanks to Taiwan, there’s boba/bubble tea.)

So let us love everything good in this physical world, neither dismissing it as superficial nor clinging to it as an idol but appreciating all things in their proper place, facets of the glorious Kingdom of God.

The hylomorphic understanding of human nature is founded on the observation that human nature is essentially of a different order from that of a living animal or a non-living thing.
Hylomorphic metaphysics contends that, to account for freedom and rationality, there must be a principle for human activity, a form transcending the physical and having a non-material source. As only the acting person is the agent, this principle does not constitute a separate substance; it is therefore a functional principle of being and acting, bestowing unity and of personhood in which the mental and the physical are perfectly integrated.
Aristotle named this principle of activity as ‘the rational principle’ or ‘the soul.’
—Andrew Mullins, The Battle to Reclaim Free Will

How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints!
—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

When Fr. Michael Sweeney first came to our parish, a young and brilliant Thomist who was full of ideas and ready to talk High Theology, he came to Fr. Fulton’s room and was going to impress him with something Big Thoughts about Ecclesiology. Before he could get a word out, Fr. Fulton said, “My dear boy, what do you think about cats?” Fr. Michael was flummoxed. Years later, at his funeral, Fr. Michael remarked that he himself had been focused on abstractions, but Fr. Fulton was focused on real things: cats, for instance. And this was the heart of Thomism, the belief that God made and redeemed a real and concrete world though making the Word flesh.
—Mark Shea, Getting broken has been strangely good


* boyinaband takes apart Prince Ea’s videos.

Image: Jesuit Resource Page

Sacramental Vision: Seeing God’s Handiwork in Everything

There is so much in the world for us all if we only have the eyes to see it, and the heart to love it, and the hand to gather it to ourselves – so much in men and women, so much in art and literature, so much everywhere in which to delight, and for which to be thankful.
– Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of the Island


Did you know that the ladybug (or ladybird) is named for Our Lady? In German, it’s Marienkäfer; in Dutch, it’s Lieveheersbeestje, “Dear Lord’s little bug”. Did you know tempura has its etymology in Quatour Tempora and was invented by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries in Nagasaki?1 Or that La Macarena is Our Lady of Hope, and Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes is Our Lady of Ransom?2 And that “goodbye” means “God be with you”?3

God made Creation, and saw that it was good (Genesis 1). As Catholics, we are not Gnostics, who thought that the world of matter is bad, and we must be liberated from it into the realm of pure spirit. No – we affirm that Creation is good. Christ truly took on human flesh and He has sanctified it. Eric Johnston wrote on the Solemnity of the Assumption: “Jesus did not have to take Mary’s body into heaven. But in doing so, he proclaims that our whole selves fit into heaven. Our body is not the obstacle. Sin is not about our bodies; holiness is not about being less bodily, or less human. Jesus (the Word through whom all things were made) created us in the beginning in His image and likeness; He created us so that we, in the fullness of our humanity, can ascend to the presence of God.4

Nor are Catholics pantheists. We know that God the Creator is transcendent; we do not confuse His omnipresence as Him being a deity wholly immanent in Creation.5 We love Creation as a gift from Him and exercise stewardship over it, just as Adam did in the Garden of Eden.

Anthony Esolen writes: “When, in Genesis 2:19, the Lord God brings the animals to Adam, the man exercises a godlike authority in granting them names, not, we are to suppose, based upon the dictates of his willful pleasure, but upon his insight into what they really are.6 Similarly, Catholics down the ages – monks, missionaries and scientists – have taken the responsibility of naming animals, plants (Passionfruit, I’m looking at you), stars, lunar craters, diseases, places (Munich, San Francisco and the Whitsundays, anyone? We’ve got Novena in Singapore), food, beverages, you name it, we’ve got it.

I once read an article reflecting that in naming the animals, Adam formed a type of relationship with them; you don’t name things you don’t care about. Last July, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane gave a talk on mission, saying, “God wants us to cooperate with Him in His ongoing work of creation and salvation. He asked Adam to name the animals. God could have named the animals Himself, but He wants us, as the Body of Christ, to help Him in creating order out of chaos.”

So, the next time a ladybug alights on your arm, a Saint Bernard gambols up to you, or you drink some passionfruit juice while munching on a Filet-O-Fish, give thanks to God for His wondrous deeds, and take delight in the pure beauty of existence.

Our Lord had a divine sense of humor, because He revealed that the universe was sacramental… A spoken word is a kind of sacrament, because there is something material or audible about it; there is also something spiritual about it, namely, its meaning… In a world without a divine sense of humor, architecture loses decoration and people lose courtesy in their relationships with one another.
– Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, “These Are the Sacraments

And now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and formed thee, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed thee, and called thee by thy name: thou art mine.
Isaiah 43:1

Image: Thanks to Catholicism.


1 Michael P. Foley, Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything, pp. 31-32.

3Good-bye”, American Heritage Dictionary.

4 Eric M. Johnston, “The Assumption: Our Feast”, The Catholic Spiritual Life.

5 Mark Brumley, “Why God is Father and not Mother”, EWTN.

6 Anthony Esolen, “The Lovely Dragon of Choice: The Freedom Not to Be Free”, The Imaginative Conservative.

The Hipster Nativity Set

As a child, one of my favorite things about Christmas was the Nativity scenes. From the teeny-tiny one on my family’s home altar to the life-sized diorama at the Church of St. Alphonsus, carvings of the Holy Family brought the story of the Incarnation to life.

This morning I awoke to the sight of a “Hipster Nativity” on my newsfeed.

hipster nativity

It’s pretty darn clever. I mean, the three wise men on Segways bearing gifts from Amazon!? Too perfect. One of these generic “individuals” even has a waxed mustache. Nice detail.

And Mary. Mary holding a cup of Starbucks next to baby Jesus while making a pursed-lip duck face for their selfie…

— Tara McGinley, “Sweet Jesus: There’s a ‘hipster’ nativity scene you can buy”, Dangerous Minds

There was the attendant Catholic outcry on Facebook about blasphemy and sacrilege. A friend commented: “Good grief… Maybe this is just a comment on the already unbearable commercialization of Christmas.”

One of my favorite comments came from Stephen Duffy in the Catholic Discussions Facebook group:

Well the thing that stands out about the traditional nativity scene is that Mary and Joseph have NOTHING. They manage to find a water trough and some straw to make a bed for their baby. All the people who have stuff, are too busy partying at the local hotels. Now [here’s] a bunch of guys who want to take selfies at the nativity scene with their luxury devices. [It’s] cool to be involved in the nativity scene. Do you think these people would [have] sat round a dirty old stable seeing the baby of a couple of skinflints when they could be having fun with all cool people? If such people were to see the nativity happen right in their face they would call social services immediately and would perish the thought that there was something magical going on.

Personally, I saw it as an indictment of modern “culture”. Instead of Joseph and Mary focusing on Jesus in profound adoration, here the parents are taking a selfie. Isn’t that true of so many parents today, who even set up Facebook fan pages for their children? Instead of paying attention to God, people are driven by modern technology and social mores to seek attention for themselves. One can take away a chastening spiritual lesson from this Nativity scene.

If the birth of Jesus took place today, it would be a far cry from the historical tale as yesterday’s youth knows it. There’d be a Nav system to guide the Wise Men to Bethlehem, the actual birth would be “live” on Facebook and Tweets from the manger would be posted hourly…

The Hipster Nativity Set makes perfect sense for today’s Millennials. They can relate to a Man-bunned Joseph taking a selfie and a Starbucks-toting Mary.

— Laura, “A Hipster Nativity Set So The Millennials Can Relate”, if it’s hip, it’s here

There is something really crude about modern-day attention-seeking. It feels as if the populace has been infantilized, with rampant neediness and the draining demand to “Look at me! Look at me!”. One is tempted to stick up a cynical nose à la Holden Caulfield and deride all the “phonies”. Or to mock how contrived others’ selfies are, with hilarious parodies, as Chris Martin did with his daughter’s Instagram photos, and Australian comedienne Celeste Barber with celebrities’ sultry images. One also laments the accidental destruction of magnificent art in stupid quests for a selfie, as with the woefully broken statues in Lisbon (St. Michael and Dom Sebastião), and tragic deaths.

But underneath all this is a hunger for love: a deep, aching yearning for fulfilling communion, a communion that makes you feel accepted, wanted, and completely beloved.

That’s what Christmas is about. God loving us so much that He sent His only Son to become one of us, an ordinary-looking babe born to an ordinary-looking couple. Infinite Beauty and Divine Love deigning to be bound in the finitude of a human body with a human will. That’s true love. Look at Him! Contemplate Him, and you will then understand your true worth as an adopted child of God, a marvelous creation needing no selfies or human approbation for everlasting fulfillment.

In the Hipster Nativity, the parents have turned away from their child, rupturing the loving communion of quiet togetherness in a self-seeking lust for outward approval. In a traditional Nativity, Joseph and Mary are transfixed by the wonder of Almighty God lying helpless in the manger, offering Himself as Living Bread for the world, and depending on humans to carry out His will.


God makes Himself vulnerable to us, in order to heal our vulnerability, our wounds, and receive us into His heart. When we look at Him, solemnly gazing up at us from the manger, we begin to understand the first intimations of this wellspring of Love that will pour Itself out on Calvary. We begin to learn how to love ourselves, and to love others, seeing Christ in their faces hungry for the Living Bread born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread. By loving others, we reveal their true nature to themselves as icons of Christ, bearing the stamp of divine Love by virtue of their humanity. True Love gives profound attention to a person, binding their wounds and helping them flourish. This Advent season, let us not be distracted by the junk food of facile attention, but go deeper, partaking of and giving the nourishment which is God’s Love.

“Needing attention is a p-p-powerful force in the world, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely. Most people would think of it as a very natural need. Almost a right.”
“By ‘natural’ you mean ‘m-m-morally neutral’?”
“Without God, people find it very hard to know who they are or why they exist. But if others pay attention to them, praise them, write about them, discuss them, they think they’ve found the answers to both questions.”
“If they don’t believe in God, you can’t blame them.”
“True, dear. But it still makes for an empty, unhappy person.”

“Are you saying, Father Joe, that in the matter of motives, or even morally, there’s not ultimately much difference between me and my targets?”
“I’m afraid not, dear. If the result is that you only have a personality other people shape. If you really exist only in other people’s minds.”
“I think you’ve just described celebrity.”
“I’ve just described pride, dear.”
― Tony Hendra, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul

By His own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: He was absolutely helpless; He could go nowhere but where she chose to take Him; He could not speak; her breathing was His breath; His heart beat in the beating of her heart.

To-day Christ is dependent upon men. In the Host He is literally put into a man’s hands. A man must carry Him to the dying, must take Him into the prisons, work-houses, and hospitals, must carry Him in a tiny pyx over the heart on to the field of battle, must give Him to little children and “lay Him by” in His “leaflight” house of gold.

The modern world’s feverish struggle for unbridled, often unlicensed, freedom is answered by the bound, enclosed helplessness and dependence of Christ — Christ in the womb, Christ in the Host, Christ in the tomb.

This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. During this tender time of Advent we must carry Him in our hearts to wherever He wants to go, and there are many places to which He may never go unless we take Him to them.

— Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God, p. 31 [Christian Classics]

Images: Dangerous Minds; Hallowedground

Formation in Faery

Imagination is twofold, retentive (reproductive) and creative (productive). The object of the first is a sensible reality, which we have previously perceived as such. The creative forms its object by combining elements which were separately perceived. The analysis of the creative imagination is of considerable importance for the psychology of invention, and of artistic and intellectual initiative.
— “Imagination”, New Advent

The lesson for us, as parents, in this analysis of Tolkien’s Catholic imagination, is that our child’s formed imagination influences how he pictures reality. The Catholic character of their lives, the inclusion of the good, the true, and the beautiful in their environment, is going to have a profound effect on how they imagine what they imagine.
— Laura Berquist, “The Importance of the Imagination”, Catholic Culture

Man’s soul is rational, and that means he has both an intellect and will. The intellect desires truth; the will desires the good. But the imagination is something other. The imagination serves as a database of mental images stored by sensory experiences, and therefore, the intellect recalls images from the imagination which present it to the will as something to be desired. For this reason, it’s important to flood the imagination with the “good, true, and beautiful”, as St. Paul says in Philippians.
— Bryan Gonzalez, “Why We Must Form the Imagination of Our Children”, Those Catholic Men
Edmund Dulac - Cinderella
“Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother” by Edmund Dulac, in Picture Book for the Red Cross

As a child in sunny Singapore, I was brought up on a rich diet of Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Perrault, Joseph Jacobs, Robert Louis Stevenson, Philippa Pearce, Oscar Wilde, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and many other authors and transmitters of fantasy and mystery. I eagerly imbibed these tales of old (and not so old) which furnished the chambers of my mind, charging the world around me with wonder and beauty. When I wasn’t reading, I was watching Mother Goose videos and Shakespearean stop motion films.

One day, speaking with good friends in school, I realised that not everybody had been taught the nursery rhymes which I took for granted, the rhymes which had formed the foundation of my lifelong addiction to reading and poetry.

Later on, in Australia, I met homeschoolers whose strict parents had eliminated fairytales from their childhoods. One had no idea who Rumpelstiltskin was, and thought Pinocchio was just a character in Shrek. Another had avoided Enid Blyton, thinking her books were just for girls. These homeschoolers had been thoroughly schooled in Catholic teachings, but they struggled to see the point of some lessons in our liberal arts degree, like the philosophical exploration of possible worlds, and the latter woke me up at 3 a.m. one All Saints Day having a meltdown over his Philosophy essay.

I found echoes of this deprivation in an atheist mathematician whom I met admiring the gothic majesty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As we walked the streets of Melbourne, I inquired as to his favorite stories. He had somehow laid his hands on Dante and Crime and Punishment in his teens, but he never had fairytales in childhood. He said, “I read books about things like jellyfish and dinosaurs.” In high school, he chose to study science and mathematics, because he could not see the point in the humanities. He scoffed at Shakespeare and Chaucer.

I found these young people spiritually malnourished. They lacked a balanced educational diet. On one end, the Catholics had drunk the milk of Christian doctrine; on the other, the atheist had fed well on the meat of hard science and mathematics. But they both had not tasted of the sweet fruits of literature, the leafy vegetables of fairyland (Rapunzel, anyone?), the nourishing mythic roots of their own civilization. They turned their noses up at what they had never been taught to appreciate.

Why are fairytales so important? Many European fairytales have gruesome origins, but over the centuries they have been embedded with Christian virtues, as with Cinderella and Snow White. Even without the Christian content, these stories are important in teaching children basic morals and lessons about the perennial human struggle to triumph over selfishness, cruelty and misfortune. They provide basic human formation, building empathy, rewarding courage, affirming sacrificial love in the face of death. They broaden the mind, enlarging it to admit mysteries and other points of view. When you can place yourself in the shoes of a lowly kitchen maid or a young stowaway, you can begin to appreciate the value in every human life.

Far from useless trifles or evil explorations, fairytales are necessary in training a child to love the true, the good and the beautiful. They open our eyes to see with a sacramental vision, beholding with wonder the magic and mystery in God’s creation, which should not be reduced to mere scientific facts or cast aside with Puritan coldness. The way of faery is the way of virtue, learning how to love ourselves and others as co-pilgrims on the rocky road to the Heavenly City, where we may one day meet the Prince of peace and be welcomed as co-heirs to His Father’s kingdom.

In attempting to understand why intelligent young men and women were occasionally unable to grasp the significant human experiences treated by the Great Books, an American professor by the name of John Senior, who jointly founded and taught in a hugely successful Integrated Humanities Program based on the Great Books, concluded that a man cannot truly comprehend the 100 Great Books if he has not first had the soil of his imagination prepared and nourished by the thousand good books. Only in a mind enriched by the good books, Senior believed, can the significant experiences and truths of the great books take root and grow.
By the “good books”, Senior had in mind everything from the rhymes of Mother Goose, the Fables of Aesop and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, to works such as Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, Wuthering Heights and The Virginian. Senior recognised that just as in the spiritual life we must become as little children before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven, so it is in the intellectual life.
— “Dr Stephen McInerney: fairy dust needed if Great Books are ever to take root”, The Catholic Weekly

“We need to keep being told fairy tales because we need to keep being reminded that fairy tales are always true — more true than mere fact because were this story merely factual, it would apply to one person at one time. But because it is fiction it applies to all of us, all throughout history, before and beyond.”
— Ross Lawhead, “The Truth of Fairy Tales: Gaiman’s Ocean and Chesterton’s Giant”, ABC Religion and Ethics

The most charming fairy tales spring out of the common events of everyday life.
— Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Elder-Tree Mother

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
— Roald Dahl

Life After an Election

“Put not your trust in princes,” we are warned (Psalm 146:3). During the last eight years, excepting possibly during the midterm elections, most faithful Catholics have heeded this warning. Let us not forsake it based solely on the fact that the lesser evil won this round of elections.

pinestrawThe US elections are over, though I would say that the fallout from them has only just begun to settle. The election fatigue set in long ago for some of us, perhaps even before the primaries were ended. We were given a choice between a cad (or at least a man who plays one on TV) and a crook (albeit one who never quite seems to be indicted), and have elected the former.[1] If he may be said to be the lesser of two evils, then we must remember that the lesser evil is still an evil.

We Christians—fundamentalists, evangelicals, Baptists, Catholics, “conservative” Christians of all stripes—collectively elected Donald J. Trump to be the next president.[2] We now have the duty to do what we can to facilitate the implementation of his good policies and to mitigate his bad ones.

However, I see that neither I nor (presumably) my readership are in particular positions of power or influence: we can’t have much in the way of direct effect on any of this. We might finally dare to believe that federal government’s culture-shaping and moral-corrupting edicts will cease or at least relent for a time, that we may be at the very least left alone. Whether we will, in fact, have a respite from the outgoing administration’s attempts at social engineering is speculation at this point. The media is temporarily cowed, but it is not thoroughly repentant; and social media will probably persist in its propaganda campaigns, thereby further polarizing the nation. Indeed, I suspect that both will return to their natural states with a vengeance long before the presidential inauguration (witness, for one, the many bitter recriminations broadcast by both in the immediate wake of election night).

man-matures-problems-politicsWe must remember that all politics are local, which is I suppose a sort of outline of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. We cannot determine the actions of this or any other president—but we can determine our own, at least in part. In another election-related column, Mr. Ryan Kraeger offered a few ideas about how we ourselves can work to make the world a better place, to some extent regardless of the outcome of the elections [3]:

I think politics, especially National politics, is really a distractor for a lot of people. We get all wrapped around the axle and bent out of shape over these huge things that really don’t concern us. Worse, the fact of getting engrossed in them distracts us from the good we should be doing.

The government does not adequately take care of the poor in America. So? How does that prevent me from taking care of them?

The president has not solved homelessness and poverty. Does that prevent me from donating to my local homeless shelter, or volunteering my time, talent and treasure?

Abortion is legal in America. This is a tragedy, but it is not the greatest tragedy. The root of that tragedy is selfishness. It is selfishness that makes it so that babies are unwanted, that mothers feel like they have no other option, and that some so-called doctors do not care about human life. I can do foster care, or adopt, or sponsor an unwed mother, or engage in conversation with my fellow medical care providers. The government does not and cannot prevent me from doing so.

The president has not provided free healthcare for everyone. So? Why can’t I provide free healthcare, or reduced cost healthcare for patients who can’t afford it (once I get my PA certification, that is?)

The president has not stopped pollution, or saved the planet. So what? How does that prevent me from living simply, reducing my own trash and exercising stewardship of the environment?

Of course, the outcome of the elections may decide whether our virtuous actions are punishable by law. Elections do have consequences, and so for example we have spent time, energy, and even political and social capital battling over whether Catholics should be forced to pay for others’ contraceptives or abortions, and whether or not our young daughters should have to share the public locker room or bathroom with adult men. In both cases, we are fighting the good fight, but again, I can’t help but think: what a waste. To pick one more example which is keeping more in line with Mr. Kraeger’s suggestions—it becomes difficult to choose to feed the poor when doing so is punishable by law on account of not having taken the proper bureaucratic steps in obtaining a food handler’s license, a license to operate a food truck, and the right to peddle wares (even for free) on any public street corner. These are not fights we should even have to be considering; they should be non-issues, but our government has decided to make them issues. Nor can we back down here.

cs-lewis-error-in-pairsNevertheless, making the world—or our own country—better all begins with making our own small corner of the world better, perhaps only our own household. If Hillary Clinton is the epitome of what is wrong with our politics, and Donald Trump is the summation of what is wrong with our culture, we have to remember that neither is formed in a vacuum. Our society is put together from the building blocks of our own families, and these we can and do have some influence upon.

We can look at president-elect Donald Trump’s words and behavior in public and be aghast at his lack of modesty or decorum. Do we stop to ask whether we comport ourselves with modesty or decorum at all times in public? This goes for how we speak, how we act, even how we dress.[3] We may be rightly aghast at the possibility that our president elect is a racist or a bigot—I think that these charges are overblown to some extent, and that the media certainly has done its best to paint him in the worst light possible, but not all of the charges can be easily dismissed as merely more media manipulation.[4] It is certainly easier to be outraged at this prospect than to examine our own behavior in public and online: are we kind to others, do we give them the benefit of the doubt (every so often, let alone always)? Do we allow for the possibility that a disagreement may be honest and purely motivated [5], or do we assume that there is some malice afoot, that it is rooted in racism or bigotry or even simple selfishness?

We should remember above all that our political and cultural and even religious adversaries are still human, too. They should be treated with some level of respect and dignity, and above all with charity. Anything less and we are undermining whatever short-term progress we may make.


[1] There are in addition some also-rans, some of whom may even have been better choices… but none of them were going to actually win this election. Still, a vote for the third party/write-ins is not a wasted vote: had they received a more substantial share of the popular vote, it might even have signaled dissatisfaction with the two major candidates.

[2] I say this recognizing that not all of the members of any of these voted. Full disclosure: while I suspect that Trump is the lesser evil, and that much of his TV persona is a large act, I still wrote in my vote.

[3] Though this latter point is not something with which I can generally fault Mr. Trump, or any other prominent politician. At worst, we can complain about how lavishly they dress in buying very expensive clothing, or getting expensive haircuts, etc. For my part, I have never complained about this because even buying expensive clothes is helping to keep someone somewhere employed.

[4] The Left in general and the media in particular are always quick to blame any disagreement on either a mental defect or some form of bigotry (or both). Hence, the narrative is that Trump won because of stupid, poor, angry white men. I didn’t know there were so many more stupid poor angry white men than all other demographics in America. Apparently neither did Mr. Trump’s electorate.

[5] Confession: I sometimes have to work on this too. Admonishment: so, dear reader, do you.

Hallowmas Day

Supermarkets in Australia have been full of Hallowe’en décor since early September. One could join in the laments about how Christmas decorations appear unseasonably early in October, hot cross buns are available in the middle of Lent, plus Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the great Apostles to the Slavs, keep being so impolitely overlooked in the annual St. Valentine’s Day mêlée (I can just imagine them sending prank soppy cards to St. Valentine in Glagolitic, the precursor of Cyrillic).

Sixty years of advertising broke two millenia of Christian practice. Halloween has now become the closest thing we have to an Advent season. Advent is now a four-week long Christmas season, and Christmas season is now Purgatory.
—Steve Kellmeyer, “Nailing Christ to the Cross

However, one could also contemplate how ingrained Christianity is in Western culture, although deformed by marketing and Mammon. Just as you can never lose the indelible mark of baptism on your soul, configuring you to Christ, and how Gollum still had the nature of a hobbit, albeit a horrendously deformed one, Western civilisation can never lose its intrinsically Christian character.

If you join the Taliban, you will merely be regarded as a bad Catholic.
Dara O’Briain

So, what exactly is Hallowe’en all about? Why do we dress up in strange costumes and go trick-or-treating? As a Yahoo Answers questioner asked, “Why is Halloween a thing?”

It is the eve of All Saints’ Day, when vigil Masses were celebrated in honor of the feast.

Not a particularly revelatory fact for Catholics – but when people have appropriated our culture, our high holy days, it’s high time to take them back.

Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic
Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic; cf. Marc Barnes, “Death Metal Ain’t Got Nothing on Us

Hurrah! History to the Rescue!

Here are some historical facts to give out with your Hallowe’en treats next year – of course, it all began with blood and gore:

In the persecution of Diocletian the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each. But the Church, feeling that every martyr should be venerated, appointed a common day for all. The first trace of this we find in Antioch on the Sunday after Pentecost. We also find mention of a common day in a sermon of St. Ephrem the Syrian (373), and in the 74th homily of St. John Chrysostom (407)… The vigil seems to have been held as early as the feast itself.
—“All Saints’ Day”, New Advent

The origin of the festival of All Saints as celebrated in the West dates to May 13, 609 or 610, when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs; the feast of the dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres has been celebrated at Rome ever since.

The feast of All Saints, on its current date, is traced to the foundation by Pope Gregory III (731–741) of an oratory in St. Peter’s for the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world”, with the day moved to November 1.
—“All Saints’ Day”, Wikipedia

In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in Southern France, added a celebration on Nov. 2. This was a day of prayer for “the souls of all the faithful departed.” This feast, called All Souls’ Day, spread from France to the rest of Europe.

That took care of Heaven and Purgatory. The Irish, being the Irish, thought it unfair to leave the souls in Hell out. So on Hallowe’en they would bang pots and pans to let the souls in Hell know they were not forgotten. However, the Feast of All Damned never caught on, for fairly obvious theological reasons. The Irish, however, had another day for partying.

After the Black Death, All Souls Day became more important, and a popular motif was the Danse Macabre (Dance of Death). It usually showed the devil “leading a daisy chain of people — popes, kings, ladies, knights, monks, peasants, lepers, etc. — into the tomb.” Sometimes the dance was presented on All Souls’ Day itself as a living tableau with people dressed up in the garb of various walks of life.

“But the French dressed up on All Souls, not Hallowe’en; and the Irish, who had Hallowe’en, did not dress up.” During the 1700s the Irish and French Catholics began to bump into one another in British North America and the two traditions mingled. The Irish focus on hell gave the French masquerades an even more macabre twist.
Mike Flynn, “A Miscellany of Saints”, The Auld Blogge

Allhallowtide, Hallowtide, Allsaintstide, or the Hallowmas season, is the triduum encompassing the Western Christian observances of All Saints’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’) and All Souls’ Day, which last from October 31 to November 2 annually. Allhallowtide is a “time to remember the dead, including martyrs, saints, and all faithful departed Christians.”
—“Allhallowtide”, Wikipedia

On the trick-or-treating point, stay tuned for tomorrow’s article on Soulmas.

Fra Angelico

What Does it Mean to be a Saint?

Ok, now we’ve got that sorted, what is a saint? What does it mean to be holy? Do I have to change into someone I’m not? Will I have to give up all my human predilections, my favourite hobbies? Aren’t pious people boring? What an unnatural way to live! Why do they never shut up about this Jesus dude?

FIRST, some autobiographical insight. When I was in law school, it just about killed my soul. Spending hours sifting through cases and legislation was not my thing. It felt meaningless to me, a treadmill of paperwork going nowhere.

I spent my entire final semester in early 2012 obsessing about becoming a nun and dedicating my life in a completely meaningful way, bringing the kingdom of God to birth. Between final exams and graduation in Brisbane, I snuck off to Perth for a heavenly nine days in a convent.

On the fifth day of working in a Singaporean law firm, I quit, booked a one-way ticket to Perth, and ran away to join the Franciscans of the Immaculate (my mother, being a lawyer, was dead set on me becoming a lawyer). Yes, yes, I know, just like St. Clare, sans wedding gown. I spent a few days saying goodbye to my friends forever, and on the Feast of St. Mary of the Angels, I left Singapore for good, or so I thought.

Two weeks in, I was in trouble.

Firstly, I missed books. Yes, there was plenty of splendid spiritual reading to be had, and I took copious notes which I’ve carried around to this day. But my favourite genres are fantasy, adventure, and mystery. I love fiction, and without it, I felt that I was missing an important chunk of humanity.

Secondly, I missed non-Catholics. I had the blessing of studying in great authentically Catholic schools from kindergarten to junior college, plus the tremendous grace of a vibrant Latin Mass community in Brisbane during my university days, but many of my best friends were not Catholic. In the convent, I received four letters – two were from Anglicans, and one was from a Presbyterian. (Mother Superior had to read the mail before giving it to me – I don’t think so many Protestants had written before!)

Thirdly, I missed male companionship. I have only one sibling, a big brother, and I am close to my father. Several of my closest friends are male. Although I had been to all-girls’ schools for a decade of my life, and my junior college class had only three males in it (Arts class, what do you expect?), I really missed that dimension of human interaction.

My fellow aspirant reflected that Our Lady sometimes calls people to the convent or friary for a lifetime, and other times she calls us for a particular time of formation, which we are then able to use in later life to help form other people. My time in the convent was a marvellous grace, not just for what I received, but also for what I didn’t receive.

It was devastating giving up that dream, but in the convent, I remembered that two years before, I had wanted to transfer to a liberal arts college after reading its prospectus, because its courses looked right up my alley! Now that my mother understood my deep aversion to law, she agreed that I could pursue the liberal arts, even though she was afraid it wouldn’t help me land a good job.

Enough of that – back to saints! So, what is being a saint? It is being yourself, the best possible version of your true self.

be who you are

If you wish to be a saint, do not imitate past saints in their uniqueness. Rather, imitate them in their commitment. Francis was nothing more than Francis. Augustine was only Augustine. Therese, Therese and Aquinas, Aquinas. All they ever did was play the part assigned to them extremely well.
On Sainthood“, The Stained Glass Buffalo

Did a Magdalene, a Paul, a Constantine, an Augustine become mountains of ice after their conversion? Quite the contrary. We should never have had these prodigies of conversion and marvellous holiness if they had not changed the flames of human passion into volcanoes of immense love of God.
—St. Frances Cabrini

There are only two kinds of people: saints, who know they are sinners, and sinners, who think they are saints.
—Blaise Pascal

We might even say that the one thing which separates a saint from ordinary men is his readiness to be one with ordinary men.
—G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas

The saying goes that the hypocrite looks upon the sinner and thanks God that he is not like them. The saint looks upon the sinner and thanks God because he is like them. The saint knows that without grace, sin would be his lot. No amount of effort, no amount of hard work can keep us from sin. Try as we may, without grace, sin and its consequences would be all we know. An unearned gift, grace is that help for which, too often in our pride, we do not ask. No amount of effort, no matter how well intentioned, can restore that which is lost through sin. Only God can do that. And here is the crazy thing, He has.
—Pat Archbold, “Graceland“, National Catholic Register

Sanctity is holiness, authentic wholeness. We have been born into a broken world marred by sin; the Good News is that in spite of all the pain, loss and evil in the world, we can still become whole, we can be truly fulfilled. My favourite Bible verse is John 10:10, where Jesus tells us, “I have come to bring life, and life to the full.” (emphasis mine)

Gloria Dei est vivens homo; vita hominis visio Dei:
The glory of God is man fully alive; the life of man is the vision of God.
—St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, Book 4 Ch. 20

How are we fulfilled as humans? By Love. What is Love? It is God. God alone is all-holy, perfect, unchanging, life-giving. The scandal of the Cross is that our transcendent God lowered Himself to be corrupted by the sins of mankind. The triumph of the Cross is that sin and death did not have the last word, because God destroyed them by taking them into Himself. Great story, huh? Yes. It is the greatest and truest Story ever told. And that story is meant to be lived out in my life, in your life, in every human life. That is sainthood. This is why we celebrate the saints – because they are living icons of Christ.

It is good to venerate the crucifix. But even better than images of wood or stone are living images, souls formed in the image of Christ.
—Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)

We should imitate the virtues of the saints just as they imitated Christ, for in their virtues there shines forth under different aspects the splendor of Jesus Christ.
—Pope Pius XII

If the friendship of saints living in this world fills us with love for God, how much more then shall we gain by considering the Saints in glory, by invoking them, and taking them for our protectors!
—St. John Vianney

Clearly, if we venerate [the memory of the saints], it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning. Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company.
—St. Bernard

Why Do We Pray to Saints?

To prevent this article from extending to an insane length, please refer to this note, in particular the article “Catholic Devotion to the Saints, in the light of Jewish Scripture and Tradition”.

I shall leave you with more quotes from the communion of saints on Earth and in Heaven. Blessed Allhallowmas Day!

To call someone a saint is to describe the fullness of the presence of Christ within the soul of that individual. So to honor a saint really isn’t to glorify the saintly individual but rather Christ within them, and any soul so closely bound to the Lord is glorified by the glory of God of which they are vessels of and which we ourselves should seek to be vessels of.
C. Martin, Catholic Splash

Those in the Catholic Church, whom some rebuke for praying to Saints and going on pilgrimages, do not seek any Saint as their saviour. Instead, they seek Saints as those whom their Saviour loves, and whose intercession and prayer for the seeker He will be content to hear. For His Own sake, He would have those He loves honoured. And when they are thus honoured for His sake, then the honour that is given them for His sake overflows especially to Himself.
—St. Thomas More

You say you see no reason why we should pray to the Saints since God can hear us and help us just as well, and will do so gladly, as any Saint in Heaven. Well, then, what need, I ask, do you have to ask any physician to help your fever, or to ask and pay any surgeon to heal your sore leg? For God can both hear you and help you as well as the best of doctors. He loves you more than they do, and He can help you sooner. Besides — His poultices are cheaper and He will give you more for your words alone than they will for your money!
—St. Thomas More

Friends, again I ask you, what about today? What are you seeking? What is God whispering to you? The hope which never disappoints is Jesus Christ. The saints show us the selfless love of His way. As disciples of Christ, their extraordinary journeys unfolded within the community of hope, which is the Church. It is from within the Church that you too will find the courage and support to walk the way of the Lord. Nourished by personal prayer, prompted in silence, shaped by the Church’s liturgy you will discover the particular vocation God has for you. Embrace it with joy. You are Christ’s disciples today. Shine His light upon this great city and beyond. Show the world the reason for the hope that resonates within you. Tell others about the truth that sets you free.
—Pope Benedict XVI,
Greeting to Young People, St Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, 19 April 2008

Believe me, don’t wait until tomorrow to begin becoming a saint.
—St. Thérèse of Lisieux

O God, I not only want to be all Yours, I wish to be a Saint. Since I do not know whether my life will be long or short, I tell You that I want to be a Saint soon.
—St. John Bosco

It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Real Christian holiness is about entering into God’s life, giving over one’s life to God, becoming like God, loving as God loves in one’s daily life. And, of course, “becoming like God” and “loving as God loves,” as the example of Jesus shows us, means self-giving, self-offering and self-less service of others, modeled after the example of Jesus. Christian holiness, then, always stands under the Cross, as the great pattern of pouring out our lives in love and in service of others. In many ways, there is nothing more “this-worldly” than true holiness.
—Fr. Mark O’Keefe, OSB

All the saints will have their own brightness, different in each case, yet equal. Christ’s judgment will not advance one at the expense of another’s deserving merit. All will have Christ as their kingdom, light, life, and crown. Note how the teachers of the Old and New Testaments differ in their deeds but are paired in glory, for the one Wisdom issued twin Laws in the two Testaments, so equal distinction gives the same weight to differing powers. Peter did not divide the sea with a rod, but then Moses did not walk on the waters. However, both have the same bright glory, for the one Creator inspired both the cleavage of the waters with a rod and the treading of the waves underfoot. The God of the saints of old is also the God of the new.
—St. Paulinus of Nola

God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but He does what is still more wonderful: He makes saints out of sinners.
—Søren Kierkegaard

When the Church keeps the memorials of martyrs and other saints during the annual cycle, she proclaims the Paschal mystery in those “who have suffered and have been glorified with Christ. She proposes them to the faithful as examples who draw all men to the Father through Christ, and through their merits she begs for God’s favors.”
CCC #1173

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.
Hebrews 12:1


Images: Fra Angelico; The Culture Project Australia

Les Misérables and the Church Militant

les-mizRecently I had the chance to see Les Misérables on Broadway for the second time, and its themes of mercy, redemption, and sacrificial love have been swirling through my mind ever since. It’s no secret that the story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, is filled with themes that reflect Catholic spirituality. What struck me most this time was how the characters expressed different attitudes toward the value of human life, and how that affected their own search for meaning and fulfillment.

LES-MIS-AUSTRALIAN-PRODUCTION-2014-Barricade-PHOTO-CREDIT-MATT-MURPHY-300x207(1)The central character, Jean Valjean, seems to be doomed to a life of poverty and ostracism as an ex-convict. But when he is shown undeserved mercy by the kindly bishop, his life is turned around, and he chooses to use the bishop’s gift to become a better man. His bitterness and cynicism fade away and are replaced by an honest, hardworking spirit and compassion toward others. At the very beginning of the play, Valjean cannot see the value of anyone’s life, including his own. He says of the bishop, “He told me that I have a soul. How does he know?” By the end, Valjean is not only deeply aware of his own soul but also of everyone else’s; he saves multiple lives throughout the play, including that of his enemy, Javert. After he is shown love, he learns to love others, too, and in doing so he saves himself. His life is a testament against an every-man-for-himself attitude, even as others declare, “At the end of the day she’ll be nothing but trouble / and there’s trouble for all when there’s trouble for one.” By taking on other people’s troubles, Valjean finds love and redemption.

Les-Miserables-Still-les-miserables-2012-movie-32902250-1280-853In the middle of the first act, we are introduced to a group of students in Paris. Their leader, Enjolras, is filled with revolutionary ideals and is willing to die for his cause. The students meet to discuss equality and democracy, putting plans into motion to resist the monarchy and fight for the rights of the poor and working-class citizens. Where the noblemen look away, turning a blind eye to the injustice in their city and the wretched circumstances among the lower class, these students are attentive to those who are most in need, and they are willing to defend them.

1329662188-2012.barricade.crop.05.lesmiserables.us.fallofrainHowever, for all their focus on the rights of the working people, the students sometimes miss the point of what it really means to value each and every human life, especially Enjolras. His willingness to die for a just cause is noble, but he begins to take this idea too far, seeing the lives of the revolutionaries as merely ammunition to use toward the cause, a means to an end. When his friend Marius begins to question whether he wants to fight and risk his life, Enjolras sings: “Who cares about your lonely soul? / We strive toward a larger goal / Our little lives don’t count at all!” But the fight should be entirely about each individual soul. Isn’t the idea supposed to be that their little lives count for everything, that there is dignity in every human soul, even the poor, lowly ones? Enjolras campaigns for social justice and the dignity of every man (“Every man shall be a king!”), yet he fails to see the dignity of a simple life that does not end in a hero’s death. It is as though he believes that martyrdom alone will make his life worth something. His disregard for his life in service to something greater is noble, but his disregard for his soul is not. We ought to be willing to die for truth and goodness if necessary, but we also ought to guard and defend our lives, as well as those of others. We may have noble ideals that are never achieved in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean that our lives aren’t still worth living in this imperfect world.

lesmisstill-013Enjolras and his friends eventually face their death at the barricade, and for all their efforts, no real change results. The women in the neighborhood mourn their loss, singing, “They were schoolboys / never held a gun / fighting for a new world that would rise up like the sun / Where’s that new world now the fighting’s done?” And Marius, the sole survivor of the group, gives a heartbreaking eulogy for his friends: “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me / what your sacrifice was for / Empty chairs at empty tables / where my friends will sit no more.” The true value of their “little” lives is felt fully after their death, through the heaviness of their absence.

LES-MIS-AUSTRALIAN-PRODUCTION-2014-Hayden-Tee-PHOTO-CREDIT-MATT-MURPHY-300x200Another character who struggles to understand the meaning of his own life is Inspector Javert. All his life, he has been committed to upholding the law and serving justice, which has kept him on the hunt for Valjean. To him, Valjean will always be a criminal and a danger to society, and he wants him back behind bars. However, after Valjean saves his life, Javert faces a crisis of conscience. He begins to realize that Valjean might not be entirely evil, and he himself might not be entirely good. When Javert is faced with his own errors and forced to reevaluate his entire perception of the world around him, he is unable to reconcile his current confusion and doubt with the deep-seated sense of clarity and justice that has guided him all his life. He reaches a critical point of decision that echoes Valjean’s in Act One, but where Valjean had chosen to call upon God’s mercy and begin anew, Javert makes the opposite choice. 1329662778-2012.resize.landing.19.lesmiserables.us.barricadeWhen Valjean faced his sins and shortcomings, he made a resolution to transform his life for the good, to turn to God despite his unworthiness. But when Javert sees that his own worldview is flawed, he can’t face the frightening uncertainty of a world he doesn’t understand. When he saw everything in black and white, he knew his role in the world and was confident that he was acting for goodness and justice. Now he can’t be sure that his actions are just, and without that, he doesn’t understand the worth of his life at all. Has he really been working for justice all his life, or has he been doing harm? Is Valjean a monster or a saint? Rather than face the complicated nature of human imperfection, concupiscence, and mercy, Javert simply gives up. Overwhelmed by this inner turmoil, he commits suicide. If only he had understood the concept of mercy, he might have had a transformation to rival Valjean’s; instead, his is a tragic ending.

lm_finale0599I was especially moved by the staging of the finale, in which Valjean dies in the arms of his daughter Cosette. As he leaves this world and passes into the next, Valjean is joined by characters who have preceded him in death, and together they sing a song of victory. Cosette, dressed in her wedding dress, cries in the arms of her groom, Marius, and the song that rises from the group of souls above seems to be directed at the newlywed couple: “Will you join in our crusade? / Who will be strong and stand with me? / Somewhere beyond the barricade / is there a world you long to see?” After death, these characters have reached the ultimate goal—the glory of heaven—and they sing to those still on earth, encouraging them to continue the good fight and join them at the end of their lives. They are the Church Triumphant, singing to the Church Militant. Cosette and Marius are at the beginning of their own journey toward heaven through the vocation of marriage; they are called to be noble and valiant amid the challenges they will surely face along the way.

img_6403In the finale, we see that the students did finally achieve a victory, but their victory did not come on earth. The day before their rebellion, they had sung, “When the beating of your heart / echoes the beating of the drums / there is a life about to start / when tomorrow comes!” They believed that the fulfillment of their hopes and ideals would come “tomorrow,” that in just one day they would achieve an earthly utopia. But in the finale, they sing, “Do you hear the people sing? / Say, do you hear the distant drums? / It is the future that they bring / when tomorrow comes!” This time, they are singing about heaven. They used to think that the “tomorrow” they were working toward was a new era of peace and justice in the world, but in reality their “tomorrow” arrives after their death, when they enter the “world beyond the barricade.” Only then do they realize that what they were really fighting for was heaven itself, for themselves and as many as they could help along the way. Their lives were a journey toward a greater destination. They were, as we are now, part of the Church Militant, fighting for the good amidst a fallen world. May we all strive to reach the Church Triumphant and sing with them of the world beyond the barricade.

Header: Universal Pictures
1. Universal Pictures
2. Matt Murphy
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4. Deen van Meer
5. Universal Pictures
6. Matt Murphy
7. Deen van Meer
8. Stephen R. Buntrock
9. Come and Go By Bubble

Mr, Mrs, Dr…Why have titles?

It is evident that along with the collapse of so many aspects of Western Society from the mid twentieth century onwards, we have witnessed a general casualisation of the way we refer to other people; that is, using their title. Whereas one would always refer to another man or woman as Mr., Mrs., or Miss followed by their surname, these courtesies are now more often than not pushed aside for exclusive first name usage from the introductory meeting. Even those who are entitled to the use of specific religious and academic titles such as Sister, Father or Doctor are more commonly introducing themselves as Susan or Ralph.

Perhaps the last domain where honorific titles are still commonly used is the school classroom. The hands of children are shot up in the air with an accompanying “Sir” or “Miss”. There are however plenty of academics that would like to see the old titles dropped in favour of first names. One of the reasons for this is around the level of disparity between the titles ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. It is said that ‘Sir’ began its usage in 16th century England where male teachers of a lower social standing were needing to assert their authority among largely upper class pupils. ‘Miss’ on the other hand is reflective of the late Victorian era when the majority of women teachers were young and unmarried, giving up work once they did marry. The issue of teacher titles then is often spun around the issue of discrimination against women which coincided in the 20th century with the title Ms. as a default term for the address of women without labelling them as single, married or otherwise.

Perhaps one can sympathise with the call in some quarters then to simply drop titles and refer to everyone across the board by their first name. After all this is the age of equality. We might validly ask if titles really offer us anything of value in our modern and adult society. Admittedly, it is not as easy as it once was to use titles. Once upon a time you knew that a male and female couple living in the same house were married with the same surname, but you’d be taking a great risk to assume that now. Titles have been rendered even more bizarre recently with the official introduction of Mx. for those who wish to indicate that their gender is ‘indeterminate’. In fact Australian government departments are currently in the process of responding to new policies where official forms must allow a person to describe themselves using a term that they are “most comfortable with”. However, the stupidity of allowing a person to identify themselves by whatever ‘gender’ appeals to them at that moment in time is something to be more fully discussed in another article.

So while titles can get all mixed up in the battles of political correctness, I do think that misses the deeper point. The most basic titles are a way to show respect to another person. Titles work on the premise that there is a certain mystique around each person we meet. Why are we all forced to be equally close with the butcher as we are with our brother? Our names are the fundamental identity of who we are and a title acts as a sort of veil reminding each of us that the name of another person is to be treated with dignity. Titles also recognise that we contribute differently to the societal fabric, a man is not like a woman, a woman is not like a man. A doctor does not serve the same function as a priest or a nun. Holding to the foundational notion that all people are equal does not mean we all have to be the same. This is the great problem we have today, we think that equality has to equal sameness.

Especially in the egalitarian nation of Australia, the informality with which we communicate with one other is palpable. Not only are we satisfied to use a person’s first name but we will even choose a nickname for a person we are meeting for the first time! I have introduced myself as Bernard to people before and the next sentence out of their mouth is, ‘pleased to meet you Bernie’. I’m sorry…what?!

I am not necessarily advocating a return to the era of Downton Abbey, but I do prefer a society that respects each of us for who we are and a society that doesn’t assume that we are all the same as everybody else. Titles may seem small and insignificant but they are one pleasant aspect of a cultural heritage that in too many places has slipped away.

Copyright 2016, Bernard Toutounji

The Force of Mercy

About a week ago, I joined the cool kids club and got to see The Force Awakens in theaters.  It was a fantastic movie, and because I just finished reading a dissertation on John Paul II, there were a lot of really intense philosophical and theological ideas bouncing around my brain as I tried to soak in the movie.  But there was also one much more basic theme, and that’s what I’d like to focus on here.  First: SPOILER ALERT.  DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT READ unless you’ve seen the film and/or just don’t care.

Throughout The Force Awakens (hereafter: TFA), one character’s journey really captured my mind.  I couldn’t figure out why at first, but after the film was over, I figured it out.  The key was mercy, and the character was Finn.  So, I decided with the Year of Mercy upon us, it would be good to meditate on mercy in the spiritual life and how Finn displays the power of mercy.  Again: SPOILER ALERT!

Finn: The Power of the Will

In John Paul II’s view, people become more and more human as they become in possession of their selves. This comes about as a result of recognizing truth and freedom and seeking them with the will.  In TFA, Finn starts as a Storm Trooper, but he faces a conflict of will with the orders he is given.  After he sees one of his fellow Storm Troopers die, and gets his blood on his mask, he has a sudden realization of the truth of his situation and begins to realize the brutality of the First Order.  He then refuses to follow an order to murder innocent resistance fighters.

In short order, Finn has decided to not only resist participation in the evil of the First Order, but to fight back directly. The entire film shows Finn adjusting to this new life.  It’s awkward for him; he’s been so consumed by the identity he was given as a Storm Trooper that he hasn’t learned to be a human.  He was, literally, a number (FN 2187). There’s an obvious parallel here to how prisoners were treated in the Nazi concentration camps in WWII.  No names, just numbers. Yet even in those places where hope seemed lost, there were human beings who would resist (like Maximilian Kolbe).  Finn shows that kind of fortitude.

What’s really fantastic about Finn, though, is he shows the power of a single decision which is then followed through.  He makes a firm amendment of will not to participate in the atrocities of the First Order and never backs down.  He’s not sure how to make an identity for himself apart from his Storm Trooper background, but he eventually utilizes his knowledge of the workings of the evil organization to help bring about its downfall.

Saints as Real Human Beings
There is, in Finn’s story, the core of many stories of saints.  People tend to have a very whitewashed image of what the life of a typical saint looks like.  We imagine them being brought up as perfect little children who knew their prayers, then magically went through adolescence without ever disobeying their parents, and joined a monastery at the age of 15, never to sin again.

Yet, the plain fact is many saints were once mired in sin; some knew nothing other than a life of vice and sin, but were struck powerfully by an encounter with truth and goodness and found themselves drawn out of the darkness and into the light.  Still others, like St. Augustine, show that even when there is a model of spirituality close to home, it’s easy to ignore it to pursue worldly pleasures and accolades.  That’s what the young Augustine did until he realized that, even with all the world could give him, his heart was still restless, and wouldn’t find rest until he found God.

What’s so neat about Finn’s character is that he follows this kind of transformation.  It’s a great visual of the process of spiritual conversion.  While any conversion is likely to begin with a decision, it only becomes real when it’s lived out.  Finn tries, early in the film, to just merely hide from the First Order.  But he realizes that isn’t a viable option. This is what happens when we attempt to flee from sin.  In order to truly overcome sin, it has to be confronted and, most importantly, whatever the source of that sin is must become integrated into a fully human life.  If one is overly proud, the way to overcome that is not merely by trying hard to stop being proud, but by being humble.  Virtue is what leads to victory over vice.

This is the kind of image we need to help us in the year of mercy.  Pope Francis has convened on Dec. 8th a year of mercy in which we will celebrate, in a special way, the power of mercy, which is at the heart of any conversion story. Even if someone succeeds in making the decision to amend their life after a failed struggle with sin and temptation, they still need mercy.  But we need it even more when we’re in the struggle and when we fail.  Through God’s mercy, all can be forgiven and all can be overcome.  That doesn’t make sin insignificant, and it doesn’t make going forward in virtue easy.  But it does mean it’s possible.  It makes it worth doing, and it makes life worth living.

What we can read about in the pages of a great spiritual work like The Confessions by St. Augustine is brought to life on screen, albeit in an analogical way, by the actions and choices of Finn.  Even though he’d been a part of the First Order for as long as he’d known, and had directly participated in their evil, he knew it was wrong.  When he made his initial, perhaps hasty decision to leave it all behind, he was in over his head.  He tried to run away, then had to confront the problem.  If only, during this year of mercy, we might muster the same courage and do as St. John Paul II so often reminded us to: be not afraid!

Sharing the Treasures of Humanity with the Poor

Spiral Staircase at the Vatican Museums © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
Spiral Staircase at the Vatican Museums © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Last Thursday, March 26, 2015, the Vatican organized an exclusive tour of the Vatican museums for 150 homeless people in Rome. During the tour, the Pope himself welcomed the guests, telling them, “This is everyone’s house and your house. The doors are always open for all.”

Catholic News Services interviewed one of the guests, an Italian-speaking man named Mauro, about the experience:

Mauro, who speaks Italian and serves a spokesman for a group of Poles who sleep near the Vatican press office, told Catholic News Service March 27 that his favorite part of the Vatican Museums was the vintage carriage and car collection.

“I’m passionate about cars and what they have is great,” he said. “I had my picture taken there.”

Mauro said he and his friends always see long lines of tourists waiting to get into the museums, so it was great to see what all the fuss was about. And they didn’t even have to wait in line or deal with a crowd; “it was just us,” he said.

“It’s spectacular,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

Taking the homeless on an exclusive tour of the Vatican museums is not the first idea thought of as a way to help them. In fact, the Church’s critics occasionally challenge her to sell all her cultural and artistic treasures and sell the proceeds to the poor to prove that she cares about them.

This line of thinking suffers one flaw, among many others: it forgets that the Church holds these treasures not for herself, but in trust for the rest of humanity including the poor. It forgets that the poor themselves would be even more impoverished if the Church would lose these treasures.

The poor crave not only for food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. The worst effect of poverty is not hunger, homelessness, or disease; it is the sense of being excluded from the human race. The poor long to be part of humanity, to partake of knowledge, culture, and beauty. They are not just animals to be kept healthy. They are persons capable of appreciating Michelangelo’s frescoes and who have unique interests like vintage carriages and cars.

It would be absurd to expect a dose of high culture to stave off the poor’s hunger pangs. Of course, their bodily needs should not be ignored. (In fact, dinner was served to the homeless guests of the Vatican museums after the tour.) However, the tendency to the opposite extreme must also be avoided, that of forgetting that they do not live on bread alone.

We often ask ourselves what can we share with the poor if we do not have much money. Learning, access to culture, enough cash for a ticket, a bit of time perhaps to read to a sick person or to accompany someone to a museum or a nice movie – these too can be shared. By reminding the poor (and ourselves) that they, too, own the treasures of all humanity, we remind them and ourselves that they, too, are part of the human race and are therefore also children of God.

Correct Inculturation

In Pope Benedict XVI’s book “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” he spends a good deal of time on the postures of prayer and the correct implementation of them in reference to the Liturgy. While many people out there (and I’m sure many of you reading this) might hear that and think that it sounds about as boring as some cliche I could put here, to me it is fascinating and worth every second.

In the midst of a discussion on kneeling, one of the most important Christian postures of prayer, Pope Benedict reflects on the fact that kneeling is something particular to Christian prayer and the acknowledgment of the humility of Christ on the cross. Here is what he says:

“The kneeling of Christians is not a form of inculturation into existing customs. It is quite the opposite, an expression of Christian culture, which transforms the existing culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience of God. Kneeling does not come from any culture–it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God.”

As a twenty-something living surrounded by many aspects of twenty-first century culture, I found this statement—in its content and in its context—to be very intriguing. First, the context: to talk about inculturation in the context of kneeling during the Liturgy is not a method I for one would have ever taken to discuss inculturation. For me, inculturation is always about media, technology, and the latest trends. While our Emeritus Pope’s statement does not exclude those things, it places them in the context that we ought to think about them: the context of the way the Church relates to God. And I think that was brilliant.

popewriting The other important thing about what he said was his understanding of what inculturation for the Church really is, and I think we should dwell on that for a while. Pope Benedict explains that Christianity is not simply an amalgamation of the cultures it is found in, but that Christianity has a culture all its own to offer the world. This culture offers the world something that the world desires, a new and deeper experience of God, who, as he says elsewhere in this book, is himself “the great artist, in whom all works of art—the beauty of the universe—have their origin.” Christianity can offer the world something culturally that the world really needs, an authentic experience of beauty and the Logos, the Word, who contains all beauty and begins all authentic culture.

The conclusion in all of is, I think, is to remember that as we encounter our culture that we live in, as we are saturated with it and surrounded by it, we ought to embrace it while realizing that we don’t need the culture of society because we have our own. With that confidence, then, we can properly inculturate; we can see what is good, true, beautiful, and holy in the world without sacrificing anything of our culture, the culture which allows us to come to know, experience, and love the Logos who loved us each into existence.