Bicameral Minds on Perelandra

JMJ

Julian Jaynes’ epic 1976 work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind argues that the human mind had a major evolutionary change as recently as 3,000 years ago: that the left and right brains used to talk to each other and that this conversation could be perceived as an external voice, as the voice of God. This stoped about 1,000 Before the Christian Era. Jaynes suggests this is the real origin of all religion – the human brain talking to itself. He further posits that the evolutionary opening-up of this conversation (so that it became more unified) resulted in our modern mind – the way our “internal conversation” is all “internal”. Except in cases of certain mental illnesses, we don’t think of or experience the various voices in our head as anything but our own consciousness. The change 3,000 years ago left us hungering for that directive voice in our head. This is a very cursory view of the theory, but the book is worth a read: it explores everything from Homer to the Hebrew Prophets and modern experiments. Perelandra, CS Lewis’ meditation on man, woman, and the fall, presents a different idea of this bicameral conversation in a prelapsarian culture on Venus. A man and a woman are situated by God (Whom Lewis named Maleldil) on a planetary Eden. A tempter and a defender are sent from Earth to mix things up. Ransom, the protector, encounters the Eve of Venus or the Lady, as she is called in the book, just in time to begin the battle with evil. The story plays out in a different way from our own Eden story. There’s much else to meditate on and there’s spoilers below this paragraph: if you’ve not read it you should – you may want to pass this post by. That said, though, we’re going to focus on the bicameral conversation and implications for our human, earthly faith.


As Ransom begins to interact with her he finds the Lady strange and somewhat childlike, even silly. Yet she grows wiser, even as he watches! She seems to be constantly growing more mature. She is somehow plugged into the Holy Spirit in an active, two-way conversation. At times this conversation is very present, pulling her full attention away from whatever is before her. At other times the conversation is somehow under the surface, but it’s always available to her awareness but never intrusive. When Ransom says something about Earth or our history – forgetting that the Lady has never been to Earth – suddenly she understands. “Maleldil is telling me…” she says when he asks her how she knows. Maleldil tells her about space travel and Mars. Other things, which are deemed less important, Maleldil does not share with her even when she asks.

The Lady of Perelandra is fully engaged in what Jaynes would call a Bicameral Conversation- except it’s actually God she’s talking to. It can be somewhat frustrating for the reader: there’s no plot device that this ongoing conversation cannot trigger. Deus ex machina except it’s actually Deus himself, not a machine. You keep waiting for her to stop talking to Maleldil and to become an active part of the book. It’s as if there’s someone outside of the sphere of reality that is interfering with what could otherwise be an excellent book about good and evil, women and men. One keeps expecting her to pull out of the conversation or perhaps to grow up. Maybe later she will mature and God will let her stand on her own? But by the end of the book – when the evil has been destroyed and she has not fallen as our first parents did – the conversation is still going. She has become infinitely wiser and yet God still whispers in her ear.

Even reading the book several times, this conversation with someone offstage constantly annoyed this writer. Why was this character – and her husband as well – so immature, even at the end of the book when they were infinitely wiser? By “immature” here what is indicated is there’s a sense where the characters in this constant conversation with Maleldil have a sort of crutch in the mind of the reader: can she (later they) not make decisions on their own? Are they condemned to be children forever? Even when they are sitting on their thrones triumphant, Lord and Lady of their own world, Maleldil is whispering in their ears about what should be done next, about what choices can be made, about how to live. Even when the “good guy” makes choices he seems to be able to do so on his own without little whispers in his ear.

For our first session of class this semester, studying the Old Testament with Wendy Biale, we were asked to read the opening parts of God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology by Dominique Barthélemy, OP. In discussing Eve Barthélemy notes that “it seems to me to be neither at the moment when Eve began to doubt, nor when she committed the act, but when she left herself open to the fascination of the doubt, when she entertained the doubt. It was precisely then that she became responsible; at the moment when she began to dwell pleasurably on the eventuality, on that doubt which touched on the motive of the divine command, when she let her mind play with what the serpent suggested. It was not the fact of having heard, it was not the fact of having acted, it was the fact of having lent her ear willingly, of having reflected and dwelt on the possibility, of having as it were forgotten in that moment all her daily experience of God’s dealing with their lives, of God’s dealing with creation, and having preferred instead the most unlikely eventuality, which was at the same time the most terrifying: that she might be sport of God… There we have that fragile second when there is indeed still real liberty of choice and then, an instant later when there is liberty no longer. Although nothing has been done, one has toyed with and welcome the idea that it might possibly be done. And in this toying, the decisive element takes the form of a sort of crazy attraction to what is worst.”

What Eve did was to push God away for a moment to think on her own to make up her own mind. She knew what the command was but, having embellished it on her own above and beyond God’s command to not-eat (we shouldn’t even touch it, she added) Eve takes the place of God in her own mind, “wait, maybe I have this wrong”. Sin occurs exactly in that moment where we say, “Everyone hush! (Including you, God…) Let me think for a moment.” In that moment of silence we seem to automatically drift to the worst possible reading.

Even in that moment of Eve thinking on her own – or attempting to – God was still there for the Word can never be silent, but Eve, having made the choice to pull out of the conversation, kept going. The end result was that her tuning device, if you will, could no longer pick up that station and neither can any of her children. Even for us, with the restorative grace of Baptism and continual fortification of the Sacraments, the channel is always just-slightly-enough out of tune. We pick up part of the conversation with care, and none with ease. And now our psychologists posit that the ability to do so, at all, is a sign of devolution at least if not outright mental illness.

So, for the modern or post-modern reading Lewis’ story now, the Lady seems forever childish precisely because we have no way of imagining what that ongoing conversation would be like. We may, for moments, tune in: hands held up in silent prayer and bliss before the exposed Eucharist, the joyful awe of the conception of our children, the peaceful bliss of Viaticum, but it seems painful to sustain, like a holiday that has gone on too long and we only want to get back to regular work just for the sheer normalcy of it all.

Is it possible to sustain it longer? Can we offer to God our on-going conversation? We are not sinless like Eve or the Lady of Perelandra. We are off a different sort, now, but maybe. We have different offerings: stumbles, pricks in the flesh, weak joys, half-baked ideas, spiritual blog posts generated in off moments in parking lots. We might be able to offer these to God as a sort of firstfruits to see if they can be blessed. The normal process is to suddenly cry out for help as we sink beneath the waves, but Peter first said, “If it’s you, call me to come to you…” We might be able to sustain the action more and more each time, with practice. Pray for strength, make the essay with grace, fail and try again. Eventually, it may be possible to pray for the enter tire morning commute. As the Catechism points out, “praying” is the relationship itself. It’s not the particular words we use or the rites, it’s the relationship. It’s not something you can do sometimes. When one is married, one is married always. The only reason to pretend otherwise (even in the house, first thing in the morning) is to prepare for adultery. You’ve already done it in your heart at that point.

As with other relationships, this one starts out small. We cannot sustain it: even though we are designed for it, we are not strong enough. By grace we can be brought forward, able to hold on longer. After a while we may be able to sustain a portion of a holy hour or a walk in the park aware of being In the Presence.

Jaynes seems to be right in that our mind used to, at one point, be better tuned to this conversation. It may even be the Left and Right brains as he theorizes. It follows that having severed the connection in Eden millennia ago, the whole physiological and psychological process would continue to break down. Even in evolution it is true, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” It is possible to imagine that 3000 years ago something else broke.

But by grace, we can begin to repair the instrument.

At the end of Perelandra the Lady and her Lord, having triumphed over the temptation, are enthroned and ruling over Creation is a way that humans have not been able to do since our First Parents fell. As a result, everything is disordered – even the creation itself groans under the weight of our initial misstep. On Perelandra the human beings became as gods in their own right. We only do so by grace and, mostly, after death. We have literally no experience of what this would be like. As this writer noted his frustration with the childishness of the Perelandran Lady, so he must also note his sadness that he cannot be so childlike. As this writer finds her on-going conversation with God to be a sort of crutch, so he can only limp along, on hobbled feet, sad that his pride will not let him have such a crutch. Yet it is so in hope: for filled with grace it is possible that healing can come. One day, Maleldil may be telling me.

It was precisely in her willingness to keep listening to the conversation that the Lady of Perelandra was able to avoid what was, indeed, the only pitfall: trying to stand on her own, apart from the Ground of Being that is God himself. He is not a crutch so much as the very thing we stand on at all, where the Word is the act of standing, and the Holy Spirit is the power to stand. We would not be without beingness Himself. We pretend otherwise at our own peril.

St Louis & Adelphopoiesis

JMJ

By way of Introduction: this paper was for Church History with Dr Kevin Clarke. The assignment was to imagine I was teaching RCIA at a parish named for a “controversial” saint. A member of the class raises an objection to that saint, how do I respond? Further, the same person feels that (pick a common objection from Church history) is very important and wants me to address it. Some possible examples were the Inquisition, the Crusades, etc. As I did not understand the reasons people disliked King St Louis that was my pick for the Saint. I had decided to go with dispelling a common myth about “the Burning Times” (which didn’t happen) when, as I was writing the paper, the CDF dropped a document. The Responsum triggered a memory of reading bad history – John Boswell’s Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe – and I pictured my RCIA challenger citing Boswell’s quotations of actual church liturgies and asking why we couldn’t do these rites now. The assignment limited me to 2,000 words with a 200 margin either way. I made it at 2195, but my first draft of the St Louis section was 3,000 words long. There is so much more to say about St Louis and the Talmud! But the accusation of Islamophobia seemed more realistic a question at this time as much as the question about same sex unions seemed more realistic in San Francisco today than the one about the Burning Times. This is how papers are born, I guess.


SPEAKING ABOUT THE BIG statue of St Louis riding a horse on Art Hill in St Louis, MO, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in that city  says “If we’re not honest about our history we will never be able to dismantle the systems of oppression that we are living under.” (Haaretz 28 June 2020) Dislike for St Louis the king is focused in St Louis the city, there are echoes of the protest in other places. The objections to him are that he was antisemitic and anti-Isalm. We will have time tonight to look at the issues around Islam. 

The crusades are the entirety of the argument for the “Islamophobia” of our Patron Saint. Louis was fighting Muslims. It is very easy to see this as a badge of what we understand to be racism today. It carries quite clear marks of it: fighting Muslims because they are Muslims. This idea of branding as evil all Muslims because they are Muslims is one we should oppose. But it’s not one that we can use against Louis. 

Our patron saint is renowned for his piety, his charity, and his bravery. He is also known for his skills as a governor and a diplomat. He is devoted to his wife. An article in Christianity Today says he called his wife a “girl of pretty face, but of prettier faith” which I really like, but I can’t find a source for that anywhere else for that quote. The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent says he always followed his mother’s advice  I would rather see you dead at my feet than guilty of a mortal sin. And they cite him as saying The peace and blessings of the realm come to us through the poor. He took his family with him on the crusade. The Church teaches Louis’ holiness in that she has named him a Saint. 

Beggars were fed from his table, he ate their leavings, washed their feet, ministered to the wants of the lepers, and daily fed over one hundred poor. He founded many hospitals…. a man of sound common sense, possessing indefatigable energy, graciously kind and of playful humour, and constantly guarding against the temptation to be imperious. (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Our secular age teaches us “religion” and “everything else” are different categories. This was not so for King Louis IX: there are times when we want to say he was “acting religious” when, in fact, he would not see it that way. Founding hospitals and feeding the poor are works of charity, certainly, but they are also acts of government. They are “secular”. But not in France at this time. For another example, while he was on Crusade, he allied with some Muslims – helping out some Muslim kingdoms if they would help him. He also reached out to the Golden Horde, pagan Mongols who were part of the invasion/migration from the east seen as enemies by all the peoples in Europe and the Middle East. These could be seen as political choices. But they are also religious.

In the 21st Century, we see Louis as a “Christian King” of “the Nation of France” while imagining 13th Century France to be the same as today: a cultural and economic center, diverse and largely “like us”. That is, we think of 13th Century France as a secular state ruled by – almost by accident – a Catholic King, just as we may elect a Catholic President or a Masonic one. However, France was not a modern, secular state ruled by a leader who was accidentally (if very piously) religious. Pick up a copy of Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, by Andrew Willard Jones (Emmaus Academic, 2017). There’s an entirely different worldview here: one where the whole understanding of things is religious.  

Muslim states today and in Louis’ time work in the same way: systems where “sacred” and “secular” are woven as tightly together as they were for Louis’ France. Yet we often imagine them as mirrors of our modern, secular way of life where there just happens to be a Muslim veneer as we have a Christian one. We visualize the Muslims of the Middle Ages in their peaceable kingdoms attacked by Christians from the west. The image is one of trying to win converts by the sword. 

Yet Louis was not out to convert Muslims. Neither was the war about eradicating their religion, nor one of territorial expansion. St Louis’ crusade was one of liberation

In Syria, Muslims had conquered some Christian towns and were enslaving the people there. Louis decided (on advice from allies) to conquer some Egyptian towns and hold them for ransom: to make a trade. This is very much a modern war tactic, still: Israel traded Palestinian prisoners for one soldier in  2011. It’s secular politics, sure, but this also sounds like the charism of the Trinitarians who were always Louis’ spiritual advisors: To the Glory of the Most Holy Trinity and to Ransom Christian Captives. We might wonder at the means the King chose for his ends, but see the weaving of political and religious here: how hard it is to dissect them. He is fighting “systems of oppression that we are living under” using the best means of his day – diplomatic alliances (even with “bad people”) and ransom.

Jones offers a very brief account of a conflict between Louis and some bishops asking him to enforce some declarations of excommunication. The king said he would look into the issue and enforce it if the action was just. The bishops replied that to let him investigate that way would be to “give the king cognizance of what pertained to [the Bishops]” – letting him snoop in on religious matters. But Louis replied that for him to act without first determining the justice of the matter would be to “give [the bishops] cognizance over what pertained to” the king. The idea of “church and state” is not valid when we look at Louis’ France. Louis is not imposing Catholic ideals on a secular order, but rather embodying the ancient idea of Sacred Kingship as a Catholic. The State is seen as sacral, as part of God’s plan for working out our salvation. Louis acts as a Catholic king, sacramentalizing his actions. 

Viewing Louis through our modern eyes we miss something of what CS Lewis called (in his The Discarded Image, 1962) the Medieval Synthesis “the whole organisation of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe.”  Lewis thinks of this Model as sharing equal standing with Aquinas’ Summa and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The three form a Map for a reality we can no longer see or even imagine in our world. We can see, though, these three pillars of this reality – the Summa, the Comedy, and the Model of reality – as manifestations of our Catholic Faith. 

Catholic means whole. Our faith seeks an integral whole. One of the ancient Eucharistic Prayers, going back to the 2nd Century (maybe the 1st) refers to the bread as coming from grain “scattered on the hillsides” and gathered into one loaf (Didache). We like things in separate boxes not touching each other: the work box, the God box, the leisure box. Life can’t be divided that way. My life is not 8 hours of customer service for a website and then a couple of hours for God. I’d break: and so will all of us. So will our world if we divide it only further. Catholicism seeks to bring it all together into one loaf to offer it to God in thanksgiving (Eucharist).  Let us ask for the intercession of our Saint Louis to help us see the world we are seeking to offer to God, not cut up into parts, but offered as one whole in Christ.

——

Rabbi Talve said, “If we’re not honest about our history we will never be able to dismantle the systems of oppression that we are living under.” It’s important to realize that we are part of the “oppression” she indicates: the idea that Christianity is the fullness of God’s Truth and that we – as Christians – are not only morally obligated to act as such, but that we believe in our hearts that doing so will make everything better for everyone – including those who reject our ideas or Truth. Allowing the world to drift away from Christ’s Kingdom through our inaction or because we’re afraid of what people will say allows things to fall apart.

The question we received was about John Boswell’s 1994 book, “Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe” wherein he posits the idea of a liturgical tradition of blessing same-sex couples. These rites exist: they are called “Adelphopoiesis” or “brother-making”. Common in the whole church until the 14th Century,  continuing in the East until the 20th, the rite is a blessing whereby two people of the same sex adopt each other as siblings, usually two brothers but sometimes two sisters. Boswell argues that the rite of Adelphopoiesis was a cultural continuation of the sexually intimate (mostly male) couples of ancient Greece and Rome. He implies that the Church simply adopted this cultural practice and that modern opposition to such couples is a relatively recent development in theology. The book includes English translations of the rites.

This week the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document called a Responsum (Response) answering a Dubia (doubt or question). This document was called, Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex, and it was answering the question, “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The Responsum never says “Adelphopoiesis” it reads as if whoever posed the original question was holding the book and asking, “Can we do these rites?” Tl:dr Negative. Then the fewmets hit the windmill.

The use of Adelphopoiesis rites in the past to bless what we would call “gay relationships” assumes that our ancestors had these relationships to bless.  Boswell makes a leap many moderns do assuming (with a wink) that these were obviously sexual unions, even though this goes against the teachings of the Church. Boswell reads our modern assumptions into the past: a person’s identity is based on their desires. This is a type of what CS Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery” in Surprised by Joy: we know better than our ancestors about things like sex and know more about our ancestors than they did – especially in areas like sex. We know that when those people did these things they really were doing what we do even if they didn’t have the words for it. Critics of Boswell point out the use of these rites as political tools, ways to cement family alliances, and also ways to officially recognize reconciliations between opposing factions. Theological critics point out the historic teachings of the church on sexuality.

The modern idea of “sexual desire = identity” trips us up. If one’s desire defines oneself then should not the Church allow for the self to be celebrated? The theological response to that question is not our topic tonight but it is important to see that it is a new question

While there were women and men engaging in such actions, some arguing them to be good or neutral, the idea that these actions constituted a different type of person is very new – only about 100 years old. David F. Greenberg’s 700-page tome, The Construction of Homosexuality (University of Chicago, 1988) argues that  “homosexual” is a category that we have now as a result of the rise of market economies. Greenberg suggests the idea of “gay” is very modern. The only thing more recent than “gay” is “straight” which was formed in reaction to gay as a label. In 2014, First Things magazine published an article called “Against Heterosexuality” that rehashes much of this: worth a read.

Try reading ancient writers commenting on the morality of sex without reading  our ideas of identity into them. Paul did not condemn “alternative identities” nor did Jesus ever talk about “gay relationships” because those things did not exist as social categories. We cannot imagine their silence to indicate their approval any more than we should imagine their silence on television to be a sign of approval of Game of Thrones. Jesus and Paul discussed sexual sin.

This idea of “sin” is one that causes great concern in today’s society. It seems to be one of the “systems of oppression”: simply a way in which the church tries to control people. In fact, many Catholics seem to believe this as well. 

The Church sees her teachings on the human person as liberation. Being “honest about our history” includes being honest about the history of human sin. We remember that the Church’s teaching is freedom is not the ability to do whatever one wants but rather the ability to do the good. As Catholics, the culture of do whatever you will is the system of oppression from which we seek liberation. 

The Virtual Field Trip

JMJ

HOMEWORK for Church History class with Dr Kevin Clarke. The assignment was to select some art from the Web Gallery of Art, to learn how to use that tool, and to write a brief comment, including why this art, something learned about the artist, and how to use it in a parish ministry. I tended to feel like I was writing for the BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” I noted to Dr Clarke that I’ve not had to do this sort of work since failing “Art in the Dark” at NYU in 1983. I hope this is better…

This was the first time I’ve seen the wings closed (as far as I know). Ornate altars like this were often closed in Lent and Advent. The presence of the Annunciation icons on the outside of the closed wings struck me because the Annunciate is always in Lent. Advent, too, is a good time to see these images. 

I would use this in a discussion of liturgical art: why we veil statues in Lent/Holy Week.

This factoid has endeared him to my heart: he signed some art ALS ICH KAN (As I (Eyck) can), a pun on his name, which he typically painted in Greek characters. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_van_Eyck  retrieved on 7 March 2020).

In the Biblical text, Judith is alone with the general passed out. In this image, she is not alone so I had to look that up. 

Turns out that showing Judith with her maid was an iconographic tradition intended to distinguish her from Salome. Wikipedia says, “In European art, Judith is very often accompanied by her maid at her shoulder, which helps to distinguish her from Salome, who also carries her victim’s head on a silver charger (plate). However, a Northern tradition developed whereby Judith had both a maid and a charger, famously taken by Erwin Panofsky as an example of the knowledge needed in the study of iconography.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_beheading_Holofernes retrieved on 7 Mar 2021.)

This would be useful in a discussion of the “other books” which don’t get so much playtime – even in the liturgy. Also, this would go well in a discussion of the place of women in our tradition.

In researching Caravaggio I found discussions of his presumed “sexuality” to be very interesting. Calling the artist “gay” or “queer” seems to reveal more about the attitudes of the writer as there was no such category of human being in Caravaggio’s culture or the Church’s understanding. I can imagine a very adult class on this topic: eroticism in art, or in the Church’s art. The artist’s use of chiaroscuro can be contrasted with the ample light used for the same effect in the work of the next artist, Fra Angelico.

This image caught my eye because of the ways it does not follow the iconographic tradition. Normally Jesus is depicted holding the Virgin’s soul while surrounded by angels as if he is standing outside of time. However here he is clearly standing next to the Apostles, in the world, as it were. I’m not certain of the artist’s intent, but the idea of Jesus coming to his mother’s death in this world is very moving.

Bl. John has a feast on the OP calendar which has three alternative readings for the Office of Readings on 18 February. The third one, “especially for prayer with a group of artists,” says the Blessed’s art depicts …[t]he ideal world, radiant with the aura of peace, holiness, harmony, and joy. Its reality lies in the future when ultimate justice will triumph over a new earth and new heavens. Yet this gentle and blessed world can even now come to life in the recesses of human souls, and it is to them he offers it, inviting them to enter in. It is this invitation which seems to us to be the message of Fra Angelico entrusts to his art, confident that it will thus be effectively spread... If its content and aim are such as Fra Angelico gave his painting, then art rises to the dignity almost of a minister of God, reflecting a greater number of perfections. We should like to point out to artists, who are ever dear to us, this sublime possibility of art. 

(The Venerable Pope Pius XII, opening an exhibition of art by Fra Angelico at the Vatican on 20 April 1955. Quoted in, Liturgy of the Hours – Propers for the Order of Preachers Revised Edition, 2019, Dominican Liturgy Productions, Oakland, CA.)

I would use this painting in a class on the evolution of the iconographic tradition a discussion point: he is only one generation after Giotto and the latter’s work is more like traditional icons. 

These two works come together because my piety leans heavily on the Incarnation as revolution: the God who feeds us all is fed by the virgin whom he made, God the Word who cannot speak, God the creator of all who has dirty diaper; the God of life who dies, the king who is willingly wounded by his subjects. This humble submission of God to the need for his creation’s salvation is very moving to me.

I was intrigued at the idea of tempera painting being moved from wood to canvas. That led me down a rabbit warren of artistic trivia! 

I’ve never been clear if Dürer was a Catholic or a Protestant – his works seem popular with both groups. So reading up on this was another trip down a series of tubes. The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent says this theory is rejected (https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05209c.htm retrieved on 7 March 2021.) Sed Contra, the Lutherans claim his as their own, for ex: I think it can be safely said that Dürer, at the end of his earthly life, was steadfastly in the Lutheran camp. – Deaconess Carolyn S. Brinkley (https://lutheranreformation.org/history/four-holy-men-albrecht-durers-confession-faith/)

Certainly, for much of his life, he was Catholic, though. It is a profoundly Catholic sensibility that he brings to Protestant Bibles using his engravings. It would be interesting to use his work along with Leonardo’s in a discussion of how Catholicism might reach out – artistically – to evangelize Protestants. 

On Tricking Yourself

JMJ

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE A whole lot of things will click together and I have to write them down lest I forget them. This is more of a ramble than anything else, but maybe it will point us towards some conversations.

This semester’s class on Church History is reading James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church from the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium. While the text is a survey rather than an in-depth examination, more like a dictionary than a textbook, many of the short articles highlight something important I’d missed previously. I’ve greatly enjoyed, for example, reading how the heresies of Arianism and Iconoclasm are not “one and done” moments but rather very extended arguments in the Church’s history.

The blurb on Aquinas (about three pages worth of text) really only cruised at a very high altitude over St Thomas’ thinking, but it highlighted the importance of the intellect.

It may seem very surface-y but something about the way all the words are strung together helped me to grasp some important elements in Aquinas which I’m happy to string together for you here. This will be equally surface-only. I’m still meditating on all of this.

  1. Evil does not exist. It is a deficiency of good. Just as cold is only a lack of heat, and darkness is only an absence of light, so also evil is only an absence of good.
  2. We misunderstand what is good. We do not have differing ideas of what is good but rather a failure of the intellect to grasp the Good and to understand what is the Highest Good.
  3. Notice that it is our intellect that fails first. We’re not thinking rightly, we don’t grasp all the points correctly so when the intellect passes the information on to the conscience, the latter is not properly informed. It makes the wrong call.
  4. No one loves evil for evil’s sake. Humans love what is good for the sake of good. Something is loved because it is perceived as good. The intellect has convinced us – using the wrong information – that something is good when, in fact, it is not or when it’s only not good enough. Even those who love what is clearly evil (from the outside) do so because they think it is the best thing for them or for others.
  5. Those who are loving something that’s not the best for them have made choices and – as St Paul says – their conscience has been seared. It’s sacrificed the freedom of future choice by making the same choice so many times. It’s no longer looking to make another decision and, if it wanted to, it would be incapable of doing so without Grace.
  6. Acting on Evil, then, becomes of failure of intellect, of conscience, and of love. But it is only a failure in that one does not go far enough: one stops short in “the race set before us” and does not “strain for the prize”. One gets distracted. On this last item, CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters make the point very well. “But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Having all of the above sort of hit me at once as a result of reading that one paragraph in Hitchcock’s History, I drew two conclusions:

This, firstly, is an argument for why we cannot judge someone: they are loving as best they can. We cannot judge love, in fact, to do so would be to damn the virtue we would hope to grow. Reading the books of the New Testament we see this in action: only “insiders” get the strong words. Jesus, Paul, and the other voices in the text, woo and flirt with folks outside of the covenant, outside of the Church, to draw them forward. Strong words of condemnation are reserved for those who ought to know better or those who claim to. Only after you have learned what love actually is can you be accused of failing to love properly.

Secondly, this is a description of how we fail in other areas as well, areas beyond questions of morality, as such. We see the Church as an institution, or as “my parish” or as a political force – each of which is true – and we love it. But we fail to see the Church as the Bride of Christ present in all eternity as Saints and souls in purgatory, the Body of Christ active as his hands and in the world, as the minister of mercy, and as the sacrament of salvation (and so much more). We love only a little and are satisfied – or angry – when that little bit lives up or fails to live up to our personal desires. We see the human person as only XYZ without realizing the whole icon of God present not only in each individual, but in all of humanity together, as one of the Fathers pointed out, many human persons, but one human nature. We trick ourselves into a sort of theological synecdochery where we not only confuse the part for the whole, but we accept the part as good enough and get satisfied – without ever digging deeper. We love not as best as we can but rather we fail to realize there’s so much more to love, so much more to the Church, so much more to the Holy Mysteries, so much more to the Human Person. We love the surface, but not the heart. Then, if someone else also loves “only a little part” but happens to love a “different little part”, we fight with them.

We trick ourselves into hell.

Suicide and Reincarnation

JMJ

LOCKDOWN HAS LEFT ME Dealing with a mild depression. A medical evaluation has indicated this is not so bad as to require medication, but rather a bit of self-management. I need to get out more, albeit safely, and take steps to mitigate the issues that might arise. A mild depression, indeed! If this is mild I’m thankful that God is merciful to me: there are those greatly in need of prayers and grace! Even in a mild depression, the first question every professional asks (and a few lay folks) is “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” I’m not. But why? I mean, apart from God’s mercy, why am I not experiencing what seems to be a very common symptom? Lockdown has left me dealing with a mild introspection as well. To be frank, this mild depression is something I identify, having told my therapist just a couple of weeks ago that in the past such an episode might result in an outpouring of poetry. I recognize the symptoms. What did I do in the past? Did I have such thoughts then? I know I did once (in the Spring of 1985) but only once?

Wrestling through the introspection, the answer came to me that – quite possibly – here is the answer to why I’ve never lived in the same place for a very long time.

Certainly, it is easy to move around the corner as I did recently. But most of my movements have been across the continent whether east to west or north to south. I moved between New York and Georgia multiple times as a child with my family, but I continued this pattern as an adult in the 80s. I also moved from NYC to SF, then to Asheville, then to Buffalo, back to SF, to the Monastery, to Alabama, to SF. What if each of these moves – and some shorter moves as well – was a species of suicide? Frankly, I think they were.

Although I have a real rich resume, I have a somewhat shallow network of friends. Each move resulted in a loss of emotional networks – yes – but also a loss of emotional baggage. I used moves to get away from jobs, relationships, and situations that I didn’t feel like dealing with (or continuing to deal with). I used moves to escape dysfunctional imbalances that I did not want to address. I used moves to escape bullies that I did not want to challenge. This is called, in Twelve-Step work, “the geographical solution”. As is discussed in such programs, it never actually works: wherever you move you’re still there. Sure, moving across the country can extract you from the present struggles, making it possible to start over. The thing is it’s less a new beginning than a reincarnation: one is still the same person, with the same baggage, perhaps painted differently and with a new set of tags, but all still the same. I used moves to, essentially kill myself. But when I came back I was always still me.

Part of this conversation is coming into focus with recent events in my vocational journey – a psych eval, beginning to meet with a therapist, and continuing work on my book on SSA in the Church. It goes further back though. My monastic journey was in the Benedictine tradition. In the Rule of St Benedict, to the traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience is added a fourth: stability. In that journey, I discerned that Canon City, CO, was not where I was going to make that vow, “Make my stability” as the Benedictine line goes. In fact, it was to San Francisco that I made such a vow: here is my spiritual home. When I moved back to SF in 2016, I committed to not leaving, to actually being here (absent some huge and clear sign to the contrary), and to being local, here and now.

At the top of the year in 2019 at a meeting with my Spiritual Director, I spoke of desiring to actually finish things I’d started – to follow through on projects or relationships to the end, good or bad, and to see what happens, finally, when I make promises and keep them. Yes, it’s always today, but one needs roots to have a future. So the only way to keep promises has proven to be in the same place long enough to keep them. The only way to grow healthy relationships is to stay in the same place long enough to have fights. The only way to have an enjoyable job is to stay in the same place long enough to be challenged.

I have mentioned some of the problems that caused me to move. Those problems always seemed to follow me. The relationships that I tried to flee were always the same, somehow. They were recreated with new people – but they were the same. The dead end jobs that I wanted out of were always the same, somehow. I’d find a new company, yes, or work in a new field, but it was the same. It comes to me now but perhaps the problems that caused the relationships and dead-end jobs were internal rather than external. While these internal issues were easily smoothed over in the chaos of a transcontinental migration, after three or four years of stability these problems surfaced again requiring yet another move to escape.

A vow of stability requires dealing with these problems in other ways besides movement. Stability requires a commitment to life, to actually living in a place, with people, relating, taking a stake, even pushing sometimes. It requires happening rather than being happened to. It requires a bit more of what one therapist has called a “sense of being real”. The guy who can kill himself by a yard sale and a job application sent to another state, or enter a dysfunctional (but very fun) relationship in another country via the internet, does not have a sense of being real in the here and now. There’s a reason my fraternity brothers say they can still recognize my bedroom 35 years after college. Stability requires growing up.

Lockdown, therefore, seems to be the spiritual continuation of this process of stability. Diagnostically I think it’s possible my mild depression might be only the sudden onset of normalcy and stability. This is only the fever resulting from a low-grade infection that my mental and spiritual immune system is finally dealing with after decades of running away. Rather than depression, this might just be life: adulting as the cool kids call it. At least in my current Incarnation I have finally decided to grow up.

Paper

JMJ

For our class in Fundamental Theology we were to do a short paper on one of seven theses regarding theology and evangelism. Our primary text was Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity. I relied heavily on our secondary text, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles, and Criteria. I went a little long and as always I need an editor for my typos, but I got a decent grade so here’s my paper.

Thesis #6 Reading the signs of the times and in dialogue with the world, Catholic Theology upholds the unity of all truth, maintains the relationship between faith and reason, and rejects both fideism and rationalism.

A THEOLOGIAN IS ONE who prays.”  This is a loose paraphrase of Evagrius Ponticus’ line from ¶61 of his 153 Chapters on Prayer, “If you are a theologian, you pray truly; and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” (Retrieved on 17 Dec 2020) I often heard this when I was in the Orthodox Church. Using ideas such as this Orthodox – especially converts – often build a rejection of the “scientific thought” of “The Latins”. This rejection seems to deny both God’s gift of human reason and intellect, on the one hand, and the very idea that prayer can affect the intellect at all. It seems to set humans up for failure: we are given very powerful tools in our intellect and reason yet they are considered suspect. We should not use these tools to relate to God. Sed Contra, St Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic tradition of Theology as a science arising from God’s self-revelation as providing first principles which fully engage our human reason to explore, more deeply, our relationship with God. In parallel with this, a thinking man – by secular lights – has no reason for prayer, no need for this relationship. 

Thesis 6 on the signs of the times, the unity of all truth, and the relationship of faith and reason resonated with me not only because of my convert experience in the Orthodox Church, where “faith” was seemingly idealized into a sort of prophylaxis against thinking too much but also because of my professional experience in the tech industry where everything is reducible to data points. If there is no data there is nothing to talk about. This fixation on the data and hyper-spiritualism of the faith seem to be the signs of the times – a fideism from “the religious” and a rationalism from the “secular”. 

Since much of modern tech is a web-based experience, there is no interaction between the people who make and run the technology and the people who use it. All development is based on research data. We spend our days at work looking for the “levers” to pull that will “drive clicks” towards a certain goal. I cannot make a suggestion at work for improvement unless there is an obvious metric to which I can point. Numbers are everything. Charts must move “up and to the right”. Data (without any judgment implied) must be provided for everything or it’s – literally – not real. Anecdotes about actual real-person interactions are only anecdotes. They need numbers to back them up. This is an extreme form of rationalism: the claim that only in our reason can we grasp reality. We cannot know anything here by relationship, by communion with other persons.  On the other extreme this is the idea of fideism, that as far as truth goes, we must rely on faith alone. We cannot know by communion with God, but must only trust or believe. Further, the intellect or reason cannot be brought to bear here or, if it is used at all, it is only to comment on the truths revealed and accepted by faith. Both of these extremes place an insufferable divide between God and man: the God who cannot reach us without data, the man who cannot think of God but only blindly trust. In this division we act from these two polls: sexual morality (physical communion of persons) is discussed in isolated ways of “what I want” or “what I feel” or in terms of what is legal or not instead of what is moral. Issues of medicine and the common good are discussed as individual choices and personal autonomy. Truth is parsed out into isolated pockets of “my truth” and “your truth”. 

Catholicism offers a God who is Logos – meaning – engaged fully in the order of the cosmos, and with the mind of man. Man can apply his mind to the understanding (as far as he is able) of that meaning.  Yet that God is also a person, existing in communion within the Trinity, and desiring communion with man, not only as “man” meaning all humans but on a personal, one-to-one, and intimate level. “If Christian belief in God is first of all an option in favor of the primacy of the logos, faith in the pre-existing, world supporting reality of the creative meaning, it is at the same time, as belief in the personal nature of that meaning, the belief that the original thought, whose being-thought is represented by the world, is not an anonymous, neutral consciousness us but rather freedom, creative love, a person.” (Razinger, p 158 ) But our human understanding tends to read from the top down: God is so great and yet he wants intimacy. But the personal reality of the infinite reverses this. “The highest is not the most universal, but, precisely, the particular, and the Christian faith is thus above all also the option for man as the irreducible, infinity-oriented being.” (ibid.) Tech’s Data and Eastern Orthodoxy’s spiritual focus highlight important aspects of our faith: truth can be understood – and communicated to others – through rational thought, but the truth is revealed to us in the self-disclosure of God to us. It requires prayer – a relationship with God (Catechism ¶2565)to engage fully. This is the unity of truth spoken of in our thesis: All truth has a common source in the God who says, “I am the Truth”. This relationship is, first of all, personal. 

Catholic theology offers the meaning of all things as revealed in God and unfolding in his communion with the human intellect, the personal as intimately a part of the infinite. This is prayer, as Evagrius taught: a communion, a deeply loving engagement of God with the human soul. For the Theologian in conversations drawing people to God, “my truth” cannot be other than The Truth – or else it is a lie. It arises from the prayer of the theologian, his relationship to God, and this must be explained to others as a relationship of the Divine Logos with their human logos. And it reveals a discussion of the logoi of the created order. God is disclosing Himself to us and, at the same moment, disclosing the cosmos and ourselves – the actual truth about who we are – to each of us, as particular individuals. God is showing me who I am in communion with himself. Issues of sex and medicine, as mentioned earlier, become issues of the individual’s communion with God as revealed Truth and with other persons as icons of that truth.

The world is, as Ratzinger wrote,  “in the last analysis, not mathematics but love” (p. 160). Our intellect cannot engage as a “data scientist” but must end in a relationship.  But that relationship is one of knowing and being known. It can be communicated with others in order to invite them in.