Beauty, Truth, and Goodness

I am admittedly no expert in either fine art, nor orchestral music. In fact, I know almost nothing about either of them. But last week I had the opportunity to visit an exhibit of Cuban art at the Walker Art Center, and then the next day attend the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s final rehearsal for its performance of Mozart’s 39th Symphony. The two experiences could hardly have been more dissimilar.

The art exhibit was titled “Adios Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art since 1950.” One might expect that the art, being for the most part a response to and/or criticism of Castro’s godless totalitarian state, would refer back to conservative ideals. And by conservative ideals, I mean the 2000 or so year tradition of the West that began to crumble with the Enlightenment and then was swept briskly aside by the totalitarian fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century. But alas, although Cuban artists apparently railed against the “dreams and deceptions” of the communist regime, they certainly do not wish to go back, so to speak, to conservatism. What is the modern alternative to godless, totalitarianism? Hard to say based on the art presented. But suffice it to say that whatever the alternative is, it ain’t pretty.

Although no art critic, I am human. Which puts me in a unique position to judge art. For only a human can judge art on the only basis for which art can ever be judged: its reflection of truth, beauty, and goodness. And while some of the pieces certainly shocked (the multi-piece depiction of a robot raping a woman comes to mind), and some had a certain voyeuristic enticement (we chuckled that one young lady twice watched a video of a muscular male being stripped naked), few attracted the senses, the heart, or the mind with a portrayal of truth, beauty, or goodness.

This contrasts sharply with my experience listening to the Mozart rehearsal with my five year old son. And although I do not have a musical bone in my body, I was deeply struck by the immense beauty of the orchestral piece. It was awe-inspiring to observe a whole orchestra working in unison to create such a powerful sound. Anyone with a soul could not help but be lifted spiritually sitting in that concert hall.

And maybe that is the biggest distinction between the Cuban art and the Mozart symphony. While it is true, as Flannery O’Connor reminded her readers often, that art must begin with the material, with real objects, people, and senses, it cannot end there. For man is both body and soul, matter and spirit. Denial of the spiritual leads to a cold, ugly, heartless materialism, embodied both in Fidel’s Cuba and the art criticising it. Acceptance of the spiritual is the first step on the way to beauty, goodness, and truth. But an important step it is; for though we are all captives, the Truth shall set us free.

Dante on Righteous Anger

I was recently struck by a scene in Canto Eight of Dante’s Inferno. Dante and Virgil are being ferried across the Stygian Swamp, and on their way meet Filippo Argenti, a Florentine who profited when Dante was exiled and had his goods confiscated. Filippo is furious at Dante’s recognition of him in Hell, to the likely spoiling of his reputation on Earth, grasping with both hands at the ferry. After Virgil has flung him away, Dante says “Teacher, I’ve got a hankering/to see them dunk that spirit in this swill/before we leave the lake and disembark.” To which Virgil responds, “You will enjoy your fill/before the farther beach comes into sight./Such a desire is good to satisfy.” Virgil’s prediction comes true as Filippo soon after is ripped to pieces by other spirits.

There was something about this scene that was unsettling to me when I first read it. Dante seems to take delight in the punishment of Filippo, and Virgil seems to credit Dante’s desire. But, my mind protested, where is Virgil’s mercy? And then I read Esolen’s notes on this Canto, which he opens with a quote from Chesterton: “Children love justice because they are innocent, while adults are sinners and therefore prefer mercy.” So true, so true!

Esolen goes on to write that Dante’s righteous anger towards Filippo was a quick and appropriate response to Filippo’s brusqueness; whereas, if Dante had failed to so act, he could have been charged with sluggishness (acedia), the very sin that was being punished under the Stygian Swamp.

Maybe it’s just me, but righteous anger seems to have grown out of favor. We grow accustomed to evil in our own lives. We grow accustomed to evil in the world. Catch words like mercy, tolerance, forgiveness, and inclusivity are the words of the day, whereas judgment, sin, and hell seem long forgotten. When objective truth is no longer fashionable, perhaps it’s difficult to know what we should be angry about.

And yet, Virgil commends Dante’s judgment (“Such a desire is good to satisfy.”) Why? Because, according to Aquinas, anger is a sensitive appetite that is a necessary sequel to one’s will. That sensitive appetite can either be excessive, or deficient, both of which are vices. But the sensitive appetite of anger is not per se a vice; like all appetites, there is a proper ordering of the appetite of anger that helps one to quickly denounce evil and hunger for justice (e.g., Christ overturning the money changers’ tables).

Perhaps because I have succumbed to the excess of anger (wrath) too often, I have not given proper attention to the role that righteous anger should play in my life. There are abominable injustices that take place every day and my appetite ought move my will to act. And yet I do not act. May Dante’s example be the prick in my side that ends my sluggishness and stirs my appetite to rightly-ordered anger.

Jesus, The Hidden Years

In his monumental work, The Lord, Romano Guardini makes the following insight: “The public life of the Lord lasted at the utmost a brief three years; some say scarcely two. But precisely for this reason how significant the preceding thirty years in which he did not teach, did not struggle, did not work miracles. There is almost nothing in Jesus’ life which attracts the reverent imagination more than the prodigious silence of these thirty years.

I often forget about those hidden years, of which not much is known. Instead, I jump right to his public ministry and focus on his preaching, his miracles, and his raising up of disciples and apostles. But it is a great disservice to Christianity not to reflect on those hidden first 30 years. We have Jesus in the manger, and Jesus being presented in the Temple, and finally Jesus found in the Temple at 12 years old, but other than those brief fragments there is silence until he suddenly appears by the river Jordan to be baptized by John. That is remarkable given that Jesus in two or three brief years of public ministry would begin a movement that would spread over the entire world. Not to mention that he would suffer, die, and rise again for the salvation of mankind. It is remarkable how little we know of Jesus’ hidden years, and it is further remarkable that God himself would choose to live in utter obscurity and silence.

Surely there is a lesson for all in Christ’s hiddenness and obscurity. At the very least, there is a lesson for me, who perpetually wants to do great things for Christ! I, who too often let my own pride, conceit, and bloated sense of self, trick myself into believing that what Christ wants from me is public witness, public greatness, and the external building of his Kingdom here on earth. What a fool I am not to recognize that the loudest noise ushering forth from Jesus may well have been the deafening silence of his first 30 years.

Like Guardini, Blessed Charles de Foucauld was deeply struck by Christ’s hidden years, and devoted his life to emulating Christ’s first 30 years of life. There is something unique and extremely powerful about Foucauld’s humble quest to live Christ’s hiddenness, exemplified by this passage from his notebooks:

Everyone who wants to be perfect must live in poverty, imitating with the utmost fidelity my poverty at Nazareth. How clearly I preached humility at Nazareth, by spending 30 years in obscure labors, and by remaining so completely unknown for 30 years. . . . How little esteem I showed of the things of this world, of human greatness, and the ways of the world, of everything the world holds dear: nobility, wealth, status, knowledge, cleverness, repute, honor, worldly distinction, good manners. I pushed all these things far away from me, so that I should be seen only as a poor laborer living very devoutly, completely withdrawn from the world.

Feast of Saint John Bosco

Today, on St. John Bosco’s feast day, I am reminded of one of the saint’s dreams that is relevant to us father’s in discerning what our fatherly role entails.

In this dream, described in “A Letter from Rome,” Bosco is first given a vision of his early-Oratory days. It was a scene “full of life, full of motion, full of joy.” Some boys were happily listening to a Salesian father tell a story; another group was playing charades; still others were leaping, laughing, and playing other games. But through the whole scene, boys and clerics were intermixed and joy reigned between them.

Then Bosco was given a vision of his present-Oratory, which could not have been in starker contrast to the first. Boys were playing at recreation, but there were no longer shouts of joy and songs; no longer motion and life. There was a sense of boredom, mistrust, weariness, and surliness. Bosco asks his guide what is wrong, and the guide responds that the “best thing is missing.” Namely, “that the youngsters not only be loved but know they’re loved.” Bosco then notices that very few priests were mingling with the boys, even fewer were playing games. Most of them were talking among themselves, not worried about their pupils, observing from a “distance.”

What’s missing? Bosco wonders, to which his guide responds: “To love them in the things they like, to share in their childish interests, to let them see love in those things which they naturally like but little, things like discipline, study, mortification of their very selves.” The daily rules and order of the Oratory remains: study, prayer, recreation, meals, etc. But the life of the Oratory is missing. Where once the priests took interest in the boys, played alongside them, showed them a warm heart, now they are distant, appearing at the front of the class, or at the pulpit, or distantly observing on the playground. The heart of the Oratory, mutual love and comradeship, is gone.

What a lesson for all of us fathers! A gentle reminder to be present to our children; to take delight in their interests and activities and not just observe them distantly; to see that we must bring life, love, joy, affection, comradeship, and kindness to our children. It is so easy to let the outward forms govern. To think of family life with rigidity and order. To believe that my primary responsibility it to provide for the material needs of my children. But to fall into such thinking and acting does great violence to the relationship between father and child, and creates children that are bored, weary, and mistrustful.

We fathers cannot stand “off at a distance” like Bosco’s priests in his dream, but must be deeply immersed, each and every day, in the lives of our children if we want to capture their hearts. Our vocation asks nothing less of us. St. John Bosco, pray for us fathers.


Nostromo, Silver’s Power to Rend Soul from Body

In a letter to a Swedish professor, Joseph Conrad made clear what his novel Nostromo was about: “Silver is the pivot of the moral and material events, affecting the lives of everybody in the tale.” Indeed, silver dominates the story from page one with the telling of the myth of two “gringo” adventurers who scale a New World mountain in the hopes of recovering silver and are never seen again, but who are “believed to be dwelling to this day amongst the rocks, under the fatal spell of their success. Their souls cannot tear themselves away from their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure.”

The paralysis of the spiritual (soul) because of obsession with the material (i.e., silver) is a theme running throughout Nostromo, with every character being deeply impacted by silver. For some, silver means power; others prestige and respect; still others security; and for some it is akin to the prosperity Gospel, a sign of God’s blessing. But whatever the root of the temptation, silver has a disunifying effect, pitting the spiritual against the physical.

For some, the rejection of the soul and subsequent obsessive pursuit of silver ultimately leads to destruction of both soul and body. Captain Sotillo, for instance, desperately searches to find the hidden silver treasure. Sotillo believes helpless Hirsch, the fur trader, knows where the silver has been hidden. He thus tortures him. In the process, we see the fragmentation of Sotillo’s personality, and ultimately his dehumanization and destruction. As the torture continues, Sotillo’s eyes “saw nothing at all, being merely the reflection of the soul within–a soul of gloomy hatred, irresolution, avarice, and fury.” Sotillo dies a crazed and mad men, desperately sweeping the harbor for the silver that he wrongly believes lies sunk there.

Likewise Decoud grows madder and madder standing guard of the buried silver on a deserted island. Living in utter silence and solitude, Decoud is finally faced with who he is, and what he believes. We are told that prior to this, Decoud had never known a day of silence. We are also told that “he believed in nothing.” Now, confronted by solitude and silence, he was exiled in “utter unbelief,” sadly beholding “the universe as a succession of incomprehensible images,” falling into despair as “all exertion seemed senseless.” And in despair he shoots himself, letting his body sink to the bottom of the sea weighed down with silver ingots in his pocket.

And then there’s Sotillo’s and Decoud’s predecessor, Judas. Why did he betray Jesus? We don’t know all the reasons, but surely he lost faith. Lost faith in Christ’s divinity, and lost faith in his own everlasting soul. He first stooped low (stealing money from the poor) and then lower (betraying the redeemer). Can there be any more clear rejection of the spiritual than Judas’s act? And Judas, like Decoud, after first wrecking his spirit through pursuit of silver, then wrecked his body in suicide.

Chesterton on More

St. Thomas More is endeared to the hearts of many law students at my law school alma mater, the University of St. Thomas, where a 10-foot tall marble statue of the saint stands guard before the entrance to the mock courtroom. The saint’s left shoe is polished where many students have rubbed it seeking the saint’s intercession before an exam. Miracles do happen, right?

In a miraculously concise essay on More in his collection of essays The Well and the Shallows, Chesterton brilliantly etches the essence of the saint. Chesterton saw in More’s martyrdom, a martyrdom fueled by More’s defiance of absolute monarchy, a critical witness for his own age of totalitarianism. Whether in ancient Rome, medieval England, or 20th-century Italy, Germany, or Russia, there seems ever the temptation to totalitarianism. To taking the role of the State too far. Give Caesar a bite of the apple, and he’s apt to swallow it whole. Against this propensity to totalitarianism, there is a need of Christian witnesses to profess, in word and deed, the limitation of the State. And More was a sterling example of such a witness. As Chesterton writes, More “was willing, and even eager to respect [monarchy] as a relative thing, but not as an absolute thing.”

While Chesterton exalted More’s public heroism, it is clear he was even more impressed by More’s private witness as a husband and father. For Chesterton understood that “the real habitation of Liberty is the home.” While there can be a temptation to leave out the front door in the morning and fight against the tyranny and oppression “out there,” More recognized the tyranny that exists in man’s own fallen soul. Ultimately, the tyranny of self will lead to slavery. What’s the solution to this in-born tyranny? According to Chesterton, if individuals wish to remain free, “they must protect their family life.”  

In a postmodern world where the breakdown of the family has had staggering consequences, and the very nature and role of the family has come into question, Chesterton’s words seems prophetic. For we now live in a dictatorship of relativism, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI so aptly coined.

How does a family protect its freedom from this dictatorship of relativism? A few simple things come to mind. Eat meals together. Do not let external activities such as sports, friends, and school become all-consuming. Read great literature aloud. Turn off the television, and tablets, and smartphones, and smart watches. Celebrate the Lord’s Day. But maybe most importantly, share jokes. Laugh together. Chesterton, that most humorous and comedic of English humorists, clearly shared More’s love of pranks, reminding us that More was a practical joker who upon being hoisted up to his beheading, remarked to his executioners, “See me safely up; coming down I can take care of myself.” Indeed our lives are serious endeavors, serious to the point of martyrdom. And yet, we ought not take ourselves too seriously, remembering that He who wept for Lazarus, now laughs with More eternally.

Blessed Stanley Rother, Christ the Only Benchmark

I recently finished Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda’s biography of martyr Fr. Stanley Rother. Fr. Rother was beautified this past November and could become the first American-born male saint. The story of this Oklahoma farm boy’s life is one that ends in deep heroism (he returned to his Guatemalan mission knowing he would likely be killed), but was marked throughout by a simple, humble love of God and those he served.

One aspect of Blessed Rother’s story that particularly struck me was the fact he “flunked” out of his first seminary. This was pre-Vatican II, so his theology/philosophy textbooks were written in Latin. Not only was this farm boy required to understand difficult theological/philosophical concepts, but he had to do so in a complicated foreign language. No small task for anyone.

His failure at his first seminary strikes me in two ways. First, as a homeschooling father, it helps me to see that academic success is not the ultimate benchmark of my boys’ lives. They may struggle at times. They may fail at times. They may work as hard as they possibly can (as Stanley Rother surely did as a seminarian), and yet it may not be enough to “succeed” by the standards set in the world. But I need to remember that those standards are not the right benchmark. Fr. Rother became a hero by the only standard that ultimately matters: love of Christ. This in spite of his initial academic failures.

Second, Fr. Rother’s failure  at his first seminary is a lesson in discerning the will of God. How often I measure God’s will for my life by how successful I am in my various tasks and schemes. If my schemes go well, surely God’s will is in them. If they fail, surely God does not want me doing them. But Fr. Rother shows that external success, or external failure, does not necessarily correlate one way or the other with God’s will. It would have been quite easy for Stanley Rother to dismiss his vocation after his academic failures. It would likewise have been easy for his bishop to dismiss his vocation. But despite the challenges of this time, neither he nor his bishop gave up on God’s summons to the priesthood. There is more to discerning God’s will then outward signs of success.

Ironically, Blessed Rother spent the bulk of his priestly ministry serving the Tz’utujil Indians of Guatemala, where he had to learn two languages: Spanish and the very difficult Tz’utujil. When he first arrived in Santiago Atitlan, the Tz’utujil language was strictly oral and the Bible, liturgy, and common prayers had not been translated into the language. One of the ways that Blessed Rother became united with and loved by the local people was by learning the challenging ancient Mayan language and fully integrating into their local customs and way of life. Failure in Latin, expert in Tz’utujil. God’s ways are not our ways. Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us (in Tz’utujil if you prefer).

Burke’s “The Neon Rain” and Addiction

I am not typically a big reader of contemporary detective fiction. Maybe I got my fill of the genre in adolescence reading dozens of original Hardy Boys mysteries. At times I have tried (I remember reading a few Dennis Lehane books a couple of years ago), but they have never really captured my attention.

A couple of months ago, however, I learned of still-living crime fiction novelist James Lee Burke from two sources that gave him high praise. Both sources described Burke as one of the best living Catholic novelists. Among other books, Burke has two ongoing series: one set in Louisiana centered around detective Dave Robicheaux; the other set in Montana with a defense lawyer protagonist.

Having just finished the several-month journey that is War and Peace, I decided I would read something a bit lighter and shorter. So I borrowed a copy of the first in the Robicheaux series, The Neon Rain, from the library. Burke is undoubtedly a talented writer (the Denver Post called him “America’s Best Novelist”), but I’ll confess that reading the book has not made me rush to check out more detective novels. It is simply not my preferred genre. As my eldest son says, “People are different. We like different things.” But while I did not love the book, I was intrigued by Burke’s treatment of addiction in the novel. Like the author himself, Detective Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic, Vietnam vet, and practicing Catholic. He is four years sober, but understands how close he is to the cliff, and how easily he could fall off at any moment. Once an addict, always an addict. Although Robicheaux understands from experience the anguish and pain he would cause himself and others if he picks up the bottle again, he also feels the ache of temptation, as illustrated in this scene:

After four years of sobriety I once again wanted to fill my mind with spiders      and crawling slugs and snakes that grew corpulent off the pieces of my life that I would slay daily. … I decided my temptation for alcohol and self-destruction was maybe even an indication that my humanity was still intact. I said the rosary that night and did not fall asleep until the sky went gray with the false dawn.

This scene brilliantly evokes the mental anguish of an addict. Robicheaux knows the destruction of the bottle, but also recognizes that part of him wants that destruction. Wants to sit in his own filth. Wants to give up and stop fighting. I can certainly relate to this experience, at times choosing that which I know will make me miserable, knowing full well before I make the choice that afterwards I will be miserable. As Saint Paul says, “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” What’s the antidote to this feeling, this experience, this raw temptation, according to Robicheaux and by extension Burke? Humility. And prayer. I can think of no better antidote than that.

War and Peace, Let Go the Telescope

Oh Pierre! Oh fat, illegitimate, foolish Pierre. You had spent your life searching for purpose in an Ecclesiastes-like medley of pursuits: food, drink, women, the Masons, philosophy, high society, politics, even war. But it took being deprived of everything and made to suffer greatly as a prisoner of the French for you to grasp the meaning of life. And since Tolstoy says it much better than I ever could, I will leave you with his words. But would that we all might experience what Pierre has grasped through suffering!

“That which he had been tormented before, which he had constantly sought, the purpose of life–now did not exist for him. … He could have no purpose, because he now had faith–not faith in some rules, or words, or thoughts, but faith in a living, ever-sensed God. Before he had sought for Him in the purposes he set for himself. This seeking for a purpose had only been a seeking for God; and suddenly he had learned in his captivity, not through words, not through arguments, but through immediate sensation, what his nanny had told him long ago: that God is here, right here, everywhere. … He experienced the feeling of a man who has found what he was seeking under his own feet, while he had been straining his eyes looking far away from himself. All his life he had looked off somewhere, over the heads of the people around him, yet there was no need to strain his eyes, but only to look right in front of him.

“Formerly he had been unable to see the great, the unfathomable and infinite, in anything. He had only sensed that it must be somewhere and had sought for it. In all that was close and comprehensible, he had seen only the limited, the petty, the humdrum, the meaningless. He had armed himself with a mental spyglass and gazed into the distance, where the petty and humdrum, disappearing in the distant mist, had seemed to him great and infinite, only because it was not clearly visible. Thus he had looked at European life, politics, Masonry, philosophy, philanthropy. But even then, in moments he regarded as his own weakness, his mind had penetrated this distance, and there, too, he had seen the petty, the humdrum, the meaningless. Now he had learned to see the great, the eternal, and the infinite in everything, and therefore, in order to see it, to enjoy contemplating it, he had naturally abandoned the spyglass he had been looking through until then over people’s heads, and joyfully contemplated the ever-changing, ever-great, unfathomable, and infinite life around him. And the closer he looked, the calmer and happier he became. The terrible question “Why?” which formerly had destroyed all his mental constructions, did not exist for him now. Now, to this question “Why?” a simple answer was always ready in his soul: because there is God, that God without whose will not a single hair falls from a man’s head.”

War and Peace, Le Bien Publique

Many are familiar with Pontius Pilate’s weak will and complicity with Christ’s murder. Although Pilate found no fault in Christ, he was a coward in the face of the crowd. As the crowd, emboldened by Jewish leaders, yelled “crucify him, crucify him,” Pilate caved. He let the crowd have its will, washing his hands of his role in the violence.

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there is a scene paralleling Pilate’s actions. Only this time the leader emboldens the crowd. Moscow has been deserted. The French army is coming. Moscow Military Governor Rastopchin is furious. Hoping for a brilliant defense of Moscow, he instead is left out of the military decisions and finds himself alone in a deserted Moscow. The few remaining Muscovites, stirred on by liquid courage, gather under Rastopchin’s window, awaiting his orders to defend Moscow against the invading French. Aware of his own utter insignificance and uselessness, Rastopchin initially has nothing to say. But then he remembers Vereschagin, that young “traitor” being held in chains. He orders him taken out to the balcony and then begins to rally the crowd for blood. “He has betrayed his tsar and his fatherland, he has gone over to Bonaparte. . . . Deal summarily with him! I hand him over to you! . . . Beat him! Let the traitor perish and not disgrace the Russian name! Cut him down! I order it!”

Initially, the crowd merely groaned and moved closer, but took no action against Vereschagin. So Rastopchin shouts ever louder “Cut him down! I order it!” And a lone soldier takes up the order, strikes Vereschagin, and the mob murder commences. They beat, stomp, crush, strangle and tear at him, eventually killing him in a bloody and violent mob lynching.

Witnessing this horror, Rastopchin’s conscience not merely pricks, but spears him. He knows that he pushed the rock that tumbled down the mountain. Without his incitement, the deed would not have been done. And he knows that “the longer he lived, the more cruelly and tormentingly that terrible memory would live in his heart.”

And yet, he pacifies his conscience with this thought: “I didn’t do it for myself, I had to act that way.” Tolstoy claims that this same thought has been thought by every murderer: “As long as the world has existed and people have been killing each other, no one man has ever committed a crime upon his own kind without calming himself with this same thought. This thought was le bien publique, the supposed good of other people.”

Thus, according to Tolstoy, Pilate’s own cowardly cruelty was accomplished for le bien publique, the supposed good of other people. Kill the one, to pacify the many. Kill the one, to appease the Jewish leaders whom he governed. Like Rastopchin, we can suppose that although Pilate justified his actions with the thought le bien publique, his conscience tormented him until his own death. And indeed Pilate’s tortured conscience is strikingly rendered by Bulgakov in his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita.