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Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Spot



My cat Spot died on this day two years ago. I almost forgot the day, which is sad - I hope I'm not starting to forget her, or Grendel and Data, who died soon after. When she died, my vet sent me this prose poem about the Rainbow Bridge ...

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Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.

When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.

They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.

You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together…

– Author Unknown

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Geoffrey Robinson, reclaiming the spirit of Jesus

The main story in this week's Tablet is about a newly released book by retired auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Geoffrey Robinson - Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: reclaiming the spirit of Jesus. The book sounds interesting- it deals with issues of of Papal power, the sex abuse problems, and the ordination of women and married men. Here's a little about it from the Tablet article, Outlook from the outback ....

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One of the most intelligent and capable of the Australian bishops, Geoffrey Robinson, 70, is a former lecturer in canon law and was seen by many as the logical successor to Cardinal Ted Clancy as Archbishop of Sydney. Erudite, shy, rather unsmiling, and certainly no wishy-washy liberal, he is esteemed by Australian Catholics for his integrity in coordinating the Church's national response to the abuse crisis in the late 1990s .....

Bishop Robinson says his experience in dealing with offenders has convinced him that there is a strong case to be made for mandatory celibacy having triggered the abuse crisis, even if it is not the only cause. He says there is no evidence that homosexual priests are any more likely to abuse minors than heterosexuals. He also argues that seminaries and novitiates may not be healthy places to form priests and Religious .....

But Bishop Robinson believes the deepest sources of the abuse are embedded in the power structures of the Church, and he calls for a major corporate restructure, including a constitutional papacy: "Papal power has gone too far and there are quite inadequate limits on its exercise." He says the College of Bishops has been marginalised, and that in his time as an active bishop it was rarely asked its advice and never asked to vote, even on controversial matters: "We were not asked to vote before the publication of the document on the ordination of women, not even when the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI] spoke of this teaching as ‘infallible', with the Pope doing nothing to contradict him. If bishops are not asked their opinions even when the word ‘infallible' is in the air, the College of Bishops would seem to have no practical importance in the Church, and the statement of the Second Vatican Council that the college is a co-holder of supreme power would seem to have no practical importance."

Continuing further, Bishop Robinson says that "many bishops are uneasy" about the Church's present teachings on marriage and divorce, and questions whether the constantly repeated teaching that both the unitive and procreative aspects must be present in each act of sexual intercourse is anything more than an unproven assertion ("If it is only an assertion, is there any reason why we should not apply the principle of logic: What is freely asserted may be freely denied?"). He says that there is no proof in the New Testament that Jesus acted with divine knowledge, and no evidence of an explicit order by Jesus that there must be successors to Peter and the 12 apostles .....

In these early years of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, we can all feel the centrifugal forces in the Catholic Church beginning to pull the various continents further apart. The reason is simple. Rome seems unable and unwilling to engage with the practical problems that local Churches are facing on the ground ..... This is why Australia is one of the places where the Catholic ecclesiology of the future - how the Church will look in 10 years' time when there are no priests - is already being worked out .....

Bishop Robinson said he knew what he had written was probably about to change his life forever, and that it was quite possible that the Roman authorities would come after him: "I do realise, at least in theory, that I could end up outside the Church. Whatever happens, let it happen." ..... But if Rome does come after Geoffrey Robinson, it should be prepared for a conflagration.

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You can read the introduction to Fr. Robinson's book in a pdf file here


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

French fries and a movie


- Alex and Thomas escape the catacombs

This week's movie rental was the 2003 film The Order, starring Australian actor Heath Ledger and Peter Weller. The genre of the movie is religious/occult thriller, along the lines of Stigmata, but not as well done. I'll try to reconstruct the plot below ...beware of spoilers!

The story begins with Ledger's character, Alex, a New York priest of the almost defunct Carolingian Order (?), who has a mentally deranged friend, Mara, with a crush on him. When his Cardinal, played by Peter Weller (thinking of RoboCop, I almost want to cry), tells him that the head of his Order, his mentor, has died in Rome under mysterious circumstances, Alex and Mara, and the only other Carolingian priest, Thomas, fly to Rome. Once there, Alex visits the Vatican (we get to see inside St. Peter's) and learns that the head of his Order was a suicide and an excommunicado as well, for heresy.... he had been fraternizing with a sin eater!

Time out for some info on the interesting concept of sin eating ...

The term sin-eater refers to a person who, through ritual means, would take on by means of food and drink the sins of a deceased person, thus absolving his or her soul and allowing that person to rest in peace. Sin-eating is a form of religious magic, part of the study of folklore. This practice was said to have been practiced in parts of England and Scotland, and allegedly survived until modern times in Wales. Traditionally, it is performed by a beggar and certain villages maintained their own sin-eaters. They would be brought to the dying person's bedside, where a relative would place a crust of bread on the breast of the dying and pass a bowl of ale to him over the corpse. After praying or reciting the ritual, he would then drink and remove the bread from the breast and eat it, the act of which would remove the sin from the dying person and take it into himself ... - Wikipedia

In the film, the Vatican is upset ... they want Catholic priests to be the only ones who can forgive sins, but the sin eater allows people to bypass the Catholic Church and still get to heaven. Alex and Thomas secretly bury the head of their Order in hallowed ground in the dead of night, against Vatican wishes, and then set out to hunt down and destroy the sin eater. Alex eventually meets the sin eater, Eden, but rather than killing him as he had planned, finds him fascinating - he watches him consume the sins of a dying man and considers Eden's proposal .... that Alex take his place as the new sin eater (like the dread pirate Roberts thing in The Princess Bride).

It's sadly all downhill from here - Alex, encouraged by Eden, has a romantic interlude with Mara, and when he later finds her dying with her wrists slashed, he despairingly gives up the priesthood and accepts Eden's proposition to become a sin eater ... too late does he realize this choice of his has been manipulated and constructed by Eden and Weller's character from the time of his childhood, for their own nefarious purposes. The only guy who makes it through the movie un-mortally damaged in body or soul is Alex's friend Thomas, the last, I guess, of the Carolingians (heh).

Bad as it was, the movie did touch on a few interesting ideas, but even then, they were examined through the patina of unnuanced movie Catholicism where all the rules are medieval in the worst sense and where the Vatican has only one purpose in life (the same one Agent Fox Mulder attributed to the government) ... to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mother Teresa & the dark night of the soul

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
— a letter written by Mother Teresa, addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated

What is the significance of a sudden and continuing absence of religious experience? The question arises because SusieQ mentioned a recent Time article to me about Mother Teresa and new book that mentions the discrepancy between her private prayer life and the public appearance of the same. Here below is a little of a very long article - Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith ......

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[...] "Christ is everywhere — Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive." .....

"Jesus has a very special love for you .... [But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear ..."

The two statements, 11 weeks apart, are extravagantly dissonant. The first is typical of the woman the world thought it knew. The second sounds as though it had wandered in from some 1950s existentialist drama. Together they suggest a startling portrait in self-contradiction — that one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared.

And in fact, that appears to be the case. A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book's compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, "neither in her heart or in the eucharist." .....

Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross in the 16th century coined the term the "dark night" of the soul to describe a characteristic stage in the growth of some spiritual masters. Teresa's may be the most extensive such case on record .... Yet Kolodiejchuk sees it in St. John's context, as darkness within faith. Teresa found ways, starting in the early 1960s, to live with it and abandoned neither her belief nor her work. Kolodiejchuk produced the book as proof of the faith-filled perseverance that he sees as her most spiritually heroic act ...... [James Martin SJ] of America, a much more liberal institution, calls the book "a new ministry for Mother Teresa, a written ministry of her interior life," and says, "It may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone."

Not all atheists and doubters will agree. Both Kolodiejchuk and Martin assume that Teresa's inability to perceive Christ in her life did not mean he wasn't there. In fact, they see his absence as part of the divine gift that enabled her to do great work. But to the U.S.'s increasingly assertive cadre of atheists, that argument will seem absurd ..... Says Christopher Hitchens, author of The Missionary Position, a scathing polemic on Teresa, and more recently of the atheist manifesto God Is Not Great: "She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself .....

Kolodiejchuk finds divine purpose in the fact that Teresa's spiritual spigot went dry just as she prevailed over her church's perceived hesitations and saw a successful way to realize Jesus' call for her. "She was a very strong personality," he suggests. "And a strong personality needs stronger purification" as an antidote to pride. As proof that it worked, he cites her written comment after receiving an important prize in the Philippines in the 1960s: "This means nothing to me, because I don't have Him." ......

The atheist position is simpler. In 1948, Hitchens ventures, Teresa finally woke up, although she could not admit it ......

America's Martin wants to talk precisely in religious terms. "Everything she's experiencing," he says, "is what average believers experience in their spiritual lives writ large. I have known scores of people who have felt abandoned by God and had doubts about God's existence. And this book expresses that in such a stunning way but shows her full of complete trust at the same time." He takes a breath. "Who would have thought that the person who was considered the most faithful woman in the world struggled like that with her faith?" he asks. "And who would have thought that the one thought to be the most ardent of believers could be a saint to the skeptics?" .....

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I wasn't surprised to read this about Mother Teresa, as I'd read of it in My Life With The Saints by James Martin SJ.

Should she have been honest about her prayer life? I don't know the answer to that, but I don't know if I would have done any different .... she may have feared all she had worked for would have suffered if she told about her doubts, and after all, one's prayer life is pretty personal.

This derth of religious experience isn't unheard of - there is the St. John of the Cross tradition of embracing spiritual dryness (the dark night of the soul).

But as someone interested in Ignatian spirituality, the possibility of the continuing absence of religious experience makes my skin crawl, and the assumption that it is actually a positive phase in one's spiritual growth is (to me) repugnant - for Ignatius, experience was paramount, I think, as was a personal relationship with Jesus. On the other hand, he saw God in all things, so perhaps Mother Teresa's work was a form of "contemplation in action".

Ultimately, I don't know what to make of this whole thing. The writer of the book spins it in a religious way, and others may see it as evidence of the opposite conclusion, but I'm not sure what conclusions to draw ... maybe you guys will have some input.


Friday, August 24, 2007

A Huguenot on St. Bartholomew's Day


- A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew's Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge - a painting by John Everett Millais

Today is the Feast of Saint Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles. I'm reminded of a book I read years ago, after The Three Musketeers - La Reine Margot by Dumas (it was also adapted into film in 1994 -La Reine Margot - starring Isabelle Adjani) .....

It is set in Paris in August 1572 during the reign of Charles IX (a member of the Valois dynasty) and the French Wars of Religion. The novel's protagonist is Marguerite de Valois, the daughter of the infamous Catherine de' Medici and the deceased King Henry II, and it focuses on her story during the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, especially her love affair with the Protestant La Mole and her marriage to Henry IV ...

And here is a little from Wikipedia about the terrible St Bartholomew's Day Massacre ....

The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy in French) was a wave of Catholic mob violence against the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants), traditionally believed to have been instigated by Catherine de' Medici, the mother of Charles IX. Starting on August 24, 1572, with the murder of a prominent Huguenot, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the massacres spread throughout Paris, and later to other cities and the countryside, lasting for several months. The exact number of fatalities is not known, but it is estimated that several thousand or possibly tens of thousands of Huguenots died in the violence. Though by no means unique, "it was the worst of the century's religious massacres." .....

Really awful stuff. I'd like to say we Catholics now embrace ecumenism, but sadly we seem to be doing the backstroke on that issue since Vatican II.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Rebecca


- Hitchcock, Fontaine, Olivier

I was going to write something about the movie, I Confess, but then thought of another Hitchcock film I like better - Rebecca ....

Rebecca is an Academy Award–winning 1940 psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock as his first American project. It is an adaptation by Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood of British author Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel of the same name, and was produced by David O. Selznick. It stars Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as his second wife, and Judith Anderson as his late wife's servant, Mrs. Danvers. The film is a gothic tale about the lingering memory of the title character, which still controls her husband, his new bride, and the housekeeper of their estate, Manderley, long after her death ....

I first read the novel Rebecca when I was in high school - the tale of someone so self-doubting and self-effacing that throughout the whole story, she never even merits a name (Rebecca is the name of her husband's first wife).

Weird factoid about the novle - Wikipedia writes that it was actually used as a code book by the Germans during WWII ....

Sentences would be made using single words in the book, referenced by page number, line and position in the line. One copy was kept at Rommel's headquarters, and the other was carried by German Abwehr agents infiltrated in Cairo after crossing Egypt by car, guided by Count László Almásy. This code was never used, however, because the radio section of the HQ was captured in a skirmish and the Germans thought the security was compromised. This is referenced in Ken Follett's novel The Key to Rebecca. This use of the novel was also referenced in Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient.

But back to the film. The plot ... a shy and penniless young woman working as a companion to an aristocratic Lady in Monte Carlo, meets a wealthy, handsome, older, and mysterious widower - Maxim de Winter - and though she can't figure out why he's attracted to her, she's swept off her feet and they're married forthwith. He takes her back to his huge family estate in Cornwall, England - Manderlay - where everything, which seemed too good to be true, begins to unravel. One of the unpleasant surprises waiting at Manderlay is the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who's obsessed with the dead Rebecca (to the point of a same-sex attraction, according to Wikipedia) and even worse, the novel reveals Maxim to have killed his first wife, with good reason of course, but in the film this is changed, as Hollywood censors couldn't have the male lead a murderer. For those familiar with gothic novels, though, this kind of ... um ... hero is de rigueur, and it's not surprising to learn that the story was based in part on Jane Eyre.

Here below is a little of a review of the film from The Guardian ...

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The sheer, swooning pleasure that this film affords - its melodrama, its romance, its extravagant menace - makes it a must-see. Quite rightly, it was included in this paper's recent list of the best cinematic adaptations, and it really is a masterclass in craftsmanship. The novel is expertly opened out in visual and dramatic terms, and shows something rare in any film from any period: characters who change, and are satisfyingly seen to do so during the course of the story. And the voiceover is austerely limited to that famous opening sentence: "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again ..."

Joan Fontaine plays the mousy and maladroit young woman who finds herself unhappily employed as the companion-helpmeet to a cantankerous, snobbish old dame who is whiling away the off-season at a fine hotel in the south of France. By chance, they happen across a fashionable man of leisure: the enigmatic widower Max de Winter, played by the incomparable Laurence Olivier. Melancholy, saturnine, refined, De Winter is cold with this frightful old woman trying to scrape an acquaintance with him (his behaviour is a demonstration of how an English gentleman is never rude unintentionally), but intrigued by the artless and submissive young companion who senses his inner pain .....

De Winter marries the young woman - a pretty little scene at the local mairie - and takes her back to be the terrified, unprepared chatelaine of his stupendous Cornish estate, Manderley. It is here that the spirit of Max's first wife, Rebecca, haunts every cranny, assisted by the malign loyalty of the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers, played by Judith Anderson. Hitchcock and Selznick made Manderley look absolutely gigantic. This really is an English country house conceived on Californian lines: it looks as big as Castle Howard, and surely far bigger than anything Du Maurier imagined. And it is here that the unspeakable Mrs Danvers begins her campaign to destabilise the second Mrs de Winter and drive her mad ....

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If you like the genre, this is a classic.


JD Crossan on Scripture

Still thinking about Ignatius, I saw this line in a book I'm reading about him ... He ... experienced ... some visions that he believed were from God. He later described one of these enlightenments as being so powerful that he would believe what it contained "even if there were no Scriptures" that taught the same thing.

This brings up the question of the importance of Scripture, and I noticed that the latest question at On Faith dealt with that, so here below is John Dominic Crossan's answer to the question, What passage or verse in scripture or literature best defines your own faith or beliefs? Why? I like his answer :-)

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Only One Verse is Necessary

One verse in one psalm is the lens through which I see all else in—since I am a Christian—the Christian Bible. It is Psalm 82:5b which says, within its context, that, “injustice shakes the foundations of the earth.”

Were all else lost forever from the Christian Bible, that single verse would be more than enough as surviving remnant to start over again from scratch. (Outside and apart from any Christian Bible, that verse can be rephrased to warn that, “injustice threatens the future of human evolution.”) But, in any case, back to Psalm 82.

It does not start with any of that divine bully-pulpit stuff about, “I am the only God—there are no other Gods, etc. etc.” Instead, it imagines the High God seated in heaven surrounded by all the other Gods and Goddesses who run the world. It is like a divine CEO sitting down with Upper Management. And, unfortunately, UP is in serious trouble. Its performance review is an indictment for global malpractice with this bill of particulars:

“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.'" (82:1-4).

That is clear enough as a judgment of transcendental malpractice. But what follows is surprising.

You expect excuses from those castigated divinities. “We are so busy, so much to do, so many things to take care about." Instead we get complete incomprehension. We get this: “They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness” (82:5a). They say, as it were: We handle retribution, we don’t do distribution. Our purpose is power, who brought up this justice stuff?

And that is when we get the key verse. That most clearly and fully expresses my own Christian faith. You expect some anthropomorphic threats about the anger of the High God and the downsizing of Upper Management, Instead, there is only this threnody for a threatened world: “all the foundations of the earth are shaken” (82:5b).

We should write that verse on our hearts and on our consciences. We should inscribe it on our bathroom mirrors so it our first bleary-eyed vision each morning. We should carve it on our domestic programs and on our foreign policies. We should even use it as a criterion when the time comes to choose between political candidates: Do you agree that justice shakes the foundations of the earth? And, if you do, what will you do about it?

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Bayard and Ignatius


- Bayard defending the bridge over the Garigliano River by Philippoteaux ... On one occasion it is said that he single-handedly defended the bridge of the Garigliano against 200 Spaniards, an exploit that brought him such renown that Pope Julius II tried unsuccessfully to entice him into the papal service.

I know, I know - another post about Ignatius of Loyola. Sorry - for some reason he's been on my mind lately. And that's odd, because although I like Ignatian spirituality, I've never given much thought to Ignatius himself. Ar any rate, as you all know, before Ignatius' conversion, he was a soldier. Last night I was reading about the battle in which he was wounded ... the battle of Pamplona, in May of 1521.

That battle was a part of what was called the Italian War of 1521-1526, or the Four Years War ... on one side we had France and the Republic of Venice, and on the other side (Ignatius' side), we had Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, England, and the Papal States. As I read about the war in Wikipedia (I'm not soooo interested that I'm pouring over dusty primary sources :-), I noticed something interesting, and it wasn't that Martin Luther figured significantly in things (though that was interesting), but it was that fighting on the French side was Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard. Here's a little of what Wiki says of him ...

Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard (1473 – 30 April 1524) was a French soldier, generally known as the Chevalier de Bayard. ..... As a soldier, Bayard was considered the epitome of chivalry and one of the most skilful commanders of the age. He was noted for the exactitude and completeness of his information on the enemy's movements, which he obtained by careful reconnaissance and a well-arranged system of espionage. In the midst of mercenary armies Bayard remained absolutely disinterested, and to his contemporaries and his successors he was, with his romantic heroism, piety and magnanimity, the fearless and faultless knight (le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche). His gaiety and kindness won him, even more frequently, another name bestowed by his contemporaries, le bon chevalier.

As it turns out, Bayard didn't fight in the battle of Pamplona, much less did he ever meet Ignatius, but what a cool alternative-history novel might be written about such an event! :-)


- Armure dite du chevalier Bayard musée de l'armée hotel des invalides


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Give me love ...

Give me love
Give me love
Give me peace on earth
Give me light
Give me life
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope
Help me cope, with this heavy load
Trying to, touch and reach you with,
heart and soul

Please take hold of my hand, that
I might understand you

Won't you please
Oh won't you

Give me love
Give me love
Give me peace on earth
Give me light
Give me life
Keep me free from birth
Give me hope
Help me cope, with this heavy load
Trying to, touch and reach you with,
heart and soul

George Harrison and Eric Clapton live in Japan (not sure when) ...




Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Iraq

A post at Zone on the war in Iraq - What Will It Take? - made me think of mentioning a couple of things I recently came upon on the web ...

One is the review at Roger Ebert's website of the documentary movie No End In Sight. The blurb for the review states ... The documentary “No End in Sight” examines why President Bush and his advisers insist on staying the course in Iraq. Subjects interviewed in the film believe the administration’s strategy was flawed from the start. Ebert's review is worth a read.

The other thing was an ad I saw mentioned by peace activist John Dear SJ in a posting - Generosity, not domination is the way forward - in his NCR column. The ad, taken out some months ago in the New York Times, is titled "An Ethical Way To End The War In Iraq". You can read the details at the link, but here below are the steps mentioned ....

I. The War is Wrong: Repentance Is Necessary
II. Replace U.S. and British Forces in Iraq with an International Peace Force Acceptable to the Iraqi People
III. Rebuild Iraq. Launch a Global Marshall Plan.

It then has a list of names of people who've signed the ad as agreeing with it, and it ends with this at the bottom ... When Jesus said “Love your enemies” we think he probably meant: Don’t kill them.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Church & State - The Act of Settlement


- Sophia of Hanover

I guess everyone's read about the possibility that a royal prince of England may marry a Catholic, and about of the Act of Settlement that would be invoked in such a case. It's kind of interesting from an historical standpoint ... Wikipedia says that not only did it limit the monarchy to non-Catholics, it essentially united Scotland, Wales, and England as Great Britain (The Acts of Union). Here's a little bit about the Act of Settlement from an article in this week's Tablet - ‘It would have been more honest to have called it the Dangerous Catholics Act’ by Tim Hames ......

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[....] the Act of Settlement 1701. It is this archaic document that could oblige an heir or heir-presumptive to the throne to choose between their hearts and the crown that would otherwise be placed on their heads. Peter Phillips sits at some distance from the orb and sceptre (he is tenth in line, being the son of the Princess Royal) and if he has to renounce his highly improbable claim to become king in order to secure the hand of Ms Autumn Kelly then I do not think he will lose much sleep over the matter ......

The Act of Settlement was born of desperation as much as prejudice. The death of a much earlier Prince William, a sickly five-year-old, and the only one of the later Queen Anne’s vast number of unfortunate pregnancies to limp that far into life, suddenly created a succession vacuum ..... The strongest contender on the basis of blood was James Edward Stuart, son of the deposed James II, but a Parliament which had sanctioned the Glorious Revolution was not about to reverse it. Most of the other contenders for the throne who were less controversial were also either Catholics, suspected Catholics or married to Catholics who could not be relied upon to raise children in the Protestant faith. Hence the demand for an Act of Settlement. It would have been more honest, if rather ahead of its time, to have entitled it the Dangerous Catholics Act.

Not only was the Stuart family passed over but an astonishing 57 individuals with a stronger blood lineage were discarded so that Sophia, Electress of Hanover, could be established as the successor to Queen Anne. As luck would have it, however, Sophia died a few weeks before the incumbent monarch herself, so it was her son, a man who spoke no English, who had kept his own wife locked up for years, was implicit in the murder of her lover and whose son was barely on speaking terms with him, who was deemed the sort of ideal chap to become George I.

The law was not even well written or internally coherent. Only Catholics are barred from the throne or being married to those who sit on it. Prince William could marry a Moonie, a Scientologist or an out-and-out Satanist and that would be fine and dandy according to the statute book as long as they promised that any children from their union would be raised as Protestants ..... All of which is ridiculous as well as utterly offensive to many Catholics in this country .....

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Kind of puts our own Church/State weirdities in perspective :-)


Understanding Suicide

I've only just started reading Ron Rolheiser's colum (thanks to everyone who has mentioned him to me) and one reason why I decided to bookmark his site once I visited was his list of past articles on suicide. Even if you are not a Catholic and don't think of taking your own life as a mortal sin, suicide is a very unpopular subject to bring up. But if you've ever considered it - and many you might not suspect of considering it have, including saints - you'll know how refreshing it is to see it addressed in terms not punitive. Today's column at Fr. Rolheiser's site is about suicide, and while I don't agree that suicidal thoughts = madness (I'd go more for despair, and in fact believe that sometimes despair is the most rational response to a situation), the description of how one feels seems very truthful to me. Here's a little of his article below ....

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Understanding Suicide

For this year’s column, I will not reiterate those same themes, namely, that suicidal depression is usually a terminal disease and is not a free choice that connotes moral and psychological delinquency. Rather I will give a first-hand testimony from William Styron, author of Sophie's Choice. A victim of suicidal depression he wrote, in 1990, a book entitled, Darkness Visible, A Memoir of Madness, within which he chronicles his own descent into suicidal madness and his helplessness as he spirals into that hell.

Since Styron is sharing, first-hand, the experience of suicidal depression, allow me to quote him extensively:

“The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. ... and for the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer. ...

What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from the smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.”


Styron then describes graphically how the depressed person becomes obsessed with thoughts of oblivion:

“many of the artifacts of my house had become potential devices for my own destruction: the attic rafters (and an outside maple or two) a means to hang myself, the garage a place to inhale carbon monoxide, the bathtub a vessel to receive the flow of my opened arteries. The kitchen knives in their drawers had but one purpose for me. Death by heart attack seemed particularly inviting, absolving me as it would of active responsibility, and I had toyed with the idea of self-induced pneumonia-a long, frigid, shirt-sleeved hike though the rainy woods.” .......

That insider’s story has a double value: Not only should it help us to understand suicide more deeply and exorcise more of its shameful stigma, but, in helping to expose the anatomy of suicide, Styron gives us better tools to help others (and ourselves) in its prevention.

Beyond that, a proper understanding of suicide should help us all walk more humbly and compassionately in grace and community, resisting the bias of the strong and unreflective who make the unfair judgment that people who are sick want to be that way.

The human heart is exquisitely fragile. Our judgments need to be gentle, our understanding deep, and our forgiveness wide.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Breach


- Phillippe and Cooper in church

This week's DVD was a loner from my sister ... Breach. I accepted the loan because I like Chris Cooper, but dim bulb that I am, I had no idea what it was about, much less that it was a fictional recreation of real circumstances.

Breach is a 2007 film starring Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, and Laura Linney. The film is directed by Billy Ray and is based on the story of Eric O'Neill, an upstart FBI operative working under Robert Hanssen, an agent convicted of spying for the Soviet Union (and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia) for 15 years ... - wikipedia

The acting by Cooper was very good, I thought, and one of my favorite character actors, Gary Cole (American Gothic, Crusade), also had a part in the movie. The story told is about how Robert Hansen, an FBI agent nearing retirement and suspected of espionage , is brought down with the help of a young operative placed as his clerk. What makes the movie interesting is not so much the spy stuff, but the character study of Hansen.

Cooper actually made me like and feel compassionately toward Hansen, and that wasn't easy ... he was an anti-feminist, homophobic, supernumerary member of Opus Dei, who kept a stripper, and made porn tapes of he and his wife having sex without her knowledge ... oh, and he was a spy :-)

An interesting bit only alluded to in the movie was that according to the New York Times, Hansen's wife, years before he was caught, figured out he was spying, and got him to go to reconciliation, confessing all to a priest, the former head of Opus Dei in the U.S. The priest didn't reveal his secret, of course.

For those interested, there's an article from the Washington Post on the movie and the situation on which it was based - A Walk in the Dark


More on Ignatius

I've been thinking a lot about Ignatius of Loyola lately. Sometimes, when things seem especially difficult, it feels like he's a friend, reaching through the centuries with advice. And this is odd, because he's not what you'd normally think of as a warm and fuzzy saint. As James Martin SJ wrote in My Life With The Saints ...

Despite his remarkably compelling and undeniably inspiring life, St. Ignatius doesn't elicit the kind of widespread affection afforded to saints like Terese of Lisieux or Francis of Assisi. Descriptions of Ignatius often use such terms as intellectual, serious, austere, mystical - making the saint, while respected, a rather distant figure. And while Jesuits revere their founder, more than a few hold "Fr. Ignatius" at arms lebgth. An elderly Jesuit at Boston College once said to me, regarding the prospect of his judgement in heaven: "I have no problem with Jesus judging me. It's St. Ignatius I'm worried about."

But there is one thing about Ignatius that puts other considerations in the sahde. As Fr. Martins continues ...

Ignatius found God everywhere: in the poor, in prayer, in the Mass, in his fellow Jesuits, in his work, and, most touchingly, on a balcony of the Jesuit house in Rome, where he loved to gaze up silently at the stars at night. During these times he would shed tears in wonder and adoration. His emotional responses to the presence of God in his life gives the lie to the stereotype of the cold saint. Ignatius was a mystic ...

Maybe this harks back to my earlier post on indifference and detachment .... Ignatius wrote about indifference, yet if I understand him correctly, he was anything but (I know, the definition of indifference is way up for grabs :-). Anyway, a book I sent for just came in the mail ... The First Jesuits by John W. O'Malley SJ. It's quite a tome and with tiny print, but yesterday my sister read me the introduction, and it sounds like the book will be very informative. It mentions a number of sources of info about Ignatius and the early Jesuit Order, including .... Ignatius' (dictated) autobiography, which can be downloaded here .... his tons of extant letters, some of which can be read here .... and of course the Spiritual Exercises, which can be downloaded here.

I especially think of the Spiritual Exercises when I think of Ignatius ... one thing to be found there is a list of rules for the discernment of spirits (nice intro to all this here). Ignatius believed that feelings matter (more reason why I distrust the detachment thing) ... our hopes, fears, moods, desires, or our "movements" as he called them, can be indications of whether we're moving towards God or away from him and an awareness of this can help us make good choices. Ignatius thought that we are created to be attracted towards God (his foundational principle) and so when we are moving towards God, we feel "consolation" (peaceful, hopeful, joyful, etc.), and when we move away, we feel "desolation" (fearful, disturbed, doubtful, despairing, etc.). Ignatius thought that some of these movements arise from the efforts of the bad spirit or the good spirit, thus the discipline of how to make choices is the discernment of which spirit is at work in us.

Though the Spiritual Exercises may be a training in discernment, there's another aspect of it that touches me more - it provides an opportunity of an experience of God ...

As was Ignatius himself at Manresa, the person making the retreat was to be ''taught by God". It was surely for this reason that the individual was to have at hand only a few books such as the Gospels. [Ignatius] warns the person guiding another in the Exercises that at the time of the election he should not try to influence the outcome one way or another, for "it is more appropriate and far better that the Creator and Lord himself communicate himself to the devout soul, embracing it with love, inciting it to praise of himself, and disposing it for the way that will most enable the soul to serve him in the future". He should "allow the Creator to deal immediately with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord." This immediate action of God on the individual is the fundamental premise of the Exercises. - The First Jesuits, p. 43

I guess, from my (undoubtedly skewed) viewpoint, Ignatian spirituality has the whole world made in a way that helps us find true happiness ... maybe my dwelling on Ignatius isn't so odd after all.


Saturday, August 11, 2007

God's justice, purgatory, indulgences


- Illustration for Dante's Purgatorio 18 by Gustave Doré

A few days ago I read an old article in the Tablet archives about indulgences - He who holds the keys to the kingdom. I hadn't realized indulgences still existed, nor had I given thought to the view of God that must (in my thought) underlie the whole premise of purgatory and indulgences .... it made me upset, a sure sign that I feel in some way on the defensive, so I thought I'd think about it and post about it at the same time.

First, here below is a little of the Tablet article ...

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Basically, an indulgence – either partial or plenary (full) – allows one to reduce his or her “time” in purgatory or apply this grace to someone else who is already deceased. In order to obtain a plenary indulgence one must perform the prescribed task, plus go to sacramental confession, receive Eucharistic Communion, and pray for the Pope’s intentions.

The Council of Trent, which sat from 1545 to 1562, not only outlawed the selling of indulgences but also roundly condemned Martin Luther as well: “The Church… condemns with anathema those who say that indulgences are useless or that the Church does not have the power to grant them.” This same formula was re-stated, verbatim, by Pope Paul VI in 1967, some two years after the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which – significantly – had chosen not to issue condemnations or anathemas.

The practice of indulgences was never really addressed at Vatican II. And yet, some four decades later, a good number of Catholics – and many Protestants, too – continue to hold rather firmly but equally erroneously to the notion that the Council did away with indulgences – or, at least, severely altered them. It was actually Pope Paul who oversaw the “revision” of the practice. But the formula that Paul devised was only a partial reform that satisfied neither the Neo-Tridentines (such as the schismatic Lefebvrists) nor the so-called “progressives” more sympathetic to Luther’s position. ......

When the bishops arrived in Rome later in the autumn of 1965 for the fourth and final session of the Second Vatican Council the conference presidents were asked to state their views on the Positio, but when they did there was outrage among some. The feisty Antiochan Patriarch of the Melchites, Maximos IV, urged that indulgences be suppressed outright, saying they were “not only without theological foundation but the cause of innumerable grave abuses which (had) inflicted irreparable evils on the Church”.

Then the German bishops added fuel to the fire. The Archbishop of Munich – Cardinal Dopfner – stated unabashedly: “The idea of a ‘treasury’ that the Church ‘possesses’ leads all too easily to a materialistic or quasi-commercial conception of what is obtained by indulgences.” He recommended that the Positio be scrapped and that a group of international theologians (Karl Rahner was one such he had in mind) be selected to re-write it.

The Pope formed his new commission and in early 1967 issued the Apostolic Constitution, Indulgentiarum Doctrina – which looked similar to the original Positio. The new document said that a believer could gain the indulgence only by fulfilling three obligations: by doing the prescribed work, by having the proper disposition (attitude of the heart) while doing the work, and by acknowledging the authority of the Pope in the process.

Indulgentiarum Doctrina was in effect a restatement of the medieval Catholic doctrine of indulgences, with more personalistic language common in the theology of the initial post-Conciliar period. (This remains a criticism of the neo-Tridentines today.) And yet the anathema of Trent is still there. Partial indulgences were no longer calculated by days and years and the number of plenary indulgences was reduced. Yet critics from the other end of the spectrum are perhaps still most disturbed that indulgence theology likens divine justice to human justice and its need for reparation .......

Since then Pope Benedict has indicated that he will make indulgences much more visible than his immediate post-Conciliar predecessors. There are good reasons for this. Theologically, the Pope seems to be emphasising the medieval doctrine – codified at Trent – of the “economy of salvation” and the necessity of the Church. And politically he is making direct appeal to those Catholics – both those still in communion with Rome and those like the Lefebvrists that are in schism – who feel the practice of indulgences and the doctrine of Purgatory have been almost irreparably minimised ...

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As I read the article, smoke spiraling from my ears, I blamed myself for my stunned disbelief ... I must have dozed off in RCIA class one too many times, because this was all news to me. So, just to make sure I've got it right ... when people are bad and repent, God forgives them but they still must endure temporal punishment in purgatory, a kind of pit-stop on the way to heaven, and time served can be mitigated with an indulgence ...

God has mercy upon sinners who repent their sins, but His justice still requires that the sinner be punished for the wrongdoing. In addition, even though the separation caused by sin is removed, the repercussions for the sin have not been removed and still require punishment. E.g. if one steals a loaf of bread, the baker still is missing and suffers the loss of the bread even if the thief makes amends. This punishment is called "temporal punishment", both because it is a punishment of time, as opposed to eternal punishment, and because it relates to the temporary world (Earth or Purgatory), rather than to the “final destination” (Heaven or Hell) ... This punishment may be remitted in Purgatory, or by indulgence. The granting of an indulgence is the spiritual reassignment, as it were, of existing merit to an individual requiring that merit .... - Wikipedia

Thomas Aquinas believed in the existence of purgatory and saw it as a punishment fraught with physical suffering. Augustine (the saint I love to hate) said that such punishment is justice for the unjust and some argue that purgatory and temporal punishment (not to mention hell and eternal punishment, and even Jesus' atonement for our sins) must exist because God must be just and justice requires retribution for sin. I don't know theology, but my feeling is that, with God being love, divine justice in the sense of punishment rather than restoration, makes no sense (an interesting article on the subject - Punishment, forgiveness, and divine justice by Tom Talbott).

The ideas that it's God's nature to forgive and yet still punish rather than transform with love, that by cash, deed, or arranged prayer, rather than an honest change of heart, we can buy ourselves and others out of some of this purgatorial punishment, is disturbing .... I believe God is better than this.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Legend



Given the recent release of a fantasy film, Stardust, and my recent mention of of Ridley Scott, I thought I'd post about a movie from the past that Scott directed, and which puts the lightweight Stardust to shame with its earnest beauty - Legend.



It was made in 1986 and stars Tim Curry, Mia Sara, and Tom Cruise Unlike Stardust, it takes itself seriously and I think that's why Roger Ebert did not share my enthusiasm for the movie, but that's exactly what I liked about it. Take a look at the two video clips at the bottom of the post - they give an idea of the beauty of the film. Anyway, here's some of what Ebert has to say in his review of Legend ...

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The movie is a British big-budget, special-effects extravaganza by Ridley Scott, the director of "Alien." It tells of a time long, long ago, when unicorns roam the Earth and the powers of light and darkness are at war. An evil prince named Darkness lives in caverns far beneath the Earth, scheming to blot the sun out of the lives of all the planet's creatures and to rule the gloom forever.

Earth itself is a sylvan place, filled with flowers and little glades and grassy clearings - but also with dread swamps and moldy fens. Young lovers can kiss for an afternoon in a bath of sunshine, but fearsome storms come up suddenly and lash the land with their fury. A race of evil little druids lives in the woods, and they spread mischief wherever they venture. Their favorite pastime is frightening the unicorns.

Into this setting come our heroes, Jack and Lili. Jack (Tom Cruise) is a hero whose mission in life is to vanquish Darkness and allow the sun to prevail. Lili (Mia Sara) is the young woman he meets and falls in love with, but she is lured into the underworld and seduced by an exotic priestess into seemingly becoming evil. Will Jack save Lili and defeat Darkness? Or will the movie end unhappily? Can we vote more than once? Let it be said that "Legend" is an impressive technical achievement. Scott is a perfectionist who takes infinite pains to make things look right.

The problem is, the world of "Legend" is itself wrong for this material. To some degree, this is a fairy tale, and it needs a certain lightness of tone, a plucky cheerfulness, to work ... [but Legend is] a movie that has no clear idea of its own mission and no joy in its own accomplishment.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

David Hart on Catholicism and Orthodoxy

Given the recent Vatican document - Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church - which defined the Eastern Orthodox Church as "wounded", I was intrigued when I came across a 2001 article from First Things in which David Bentley Hart was one of the posters ... The Future of the Papacy: A Symposium. Of course, it doesn't speak to the CDF document, And the Pope spoken of in the article is not Benedict but JPII, but it is kind of interesting to see what this Orthodox theologian has to say about the relationship between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. There were a number of contributors to the discussion, including Robert Jenson and Cardinal Dulles, but here's just a little of Hart's response below ...

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As an Orthodox Christian definitely in the ecumenical “left wing” of my church, I cannot speak for all my co-confessionalists; but I can record my own shame that so few Orthodox hierarchs have even recognized the remarkable gesture made by John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint (1995), in openly soliciting advice on how to understand his office (even indeed the limits of its jurisdiction), or been moved to respond with anything like comparable Christian charity. However, the Pope has perhaps always been somewhat quixotic in his reckoning of the severity of the differences between the communions, and so of the effort required to effect any real reciprocal understanding between them (let alone rapprochement).

Anyone familiar with the Eastern Christian world knows that the Orthodox view of the Catholic Church is often a curious mélange of fact, fantasy, cultural prejudice, sublime theological misunderstanding, resentment, reasonable disagreement, and unreasonable dread: it sees a misty phantasmagoria of crusades, predestination, “modalism,” a God of wrath, flagellants, Grand Inquisitors, and those blasted Borgias. But, still, and from my own perspective ab oriente, I must remark that the greater miscalculation of what divides us is almost inevitably found on the Catholic side, not always entirely free of a certain unreflective condescension. Often Western Christians, justifiably offended by the hostility with which their advances are met by certain Orthodox, assume that the greatest obstacle to reunion is Eastern immaturity and divisiveness. The problem is dismissed as one of “psychology,” and the only counsel offered one of “patience.” Fair enough: decades of Communist tyranny set atop centuries of other, far more invincible tyrannies have effectively shattered the Orthodox world into a contentious confederacy of national churches struggling to preserve their own regional identities against every “alien” influence, and under such conditions only the most obdurate stock survives. But psychology is the least of our problems ......

Of course a Catholic who looks eastward finds nothing to which he objects, because what he sees is the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (but-here’s the rub-for him, this means the first seven of twenty-one). When an Orthodox turns his eyes westward he sees what appears to him a Church distorted by innovation and error: the filioque clause, the pope’s absolute primatial authority, purgatory, indulgences, priestly celibacy. Our deepest divisions concern theology and doctrine, and this problem admits of no immediately obvious remedy, because both churches are so fearfully burdened by infallibility. The disagreements in theology can be mitigated: Western theologians now freely grant that the Eastern view of original sin is more biblical than certain Latin treatments of the matter; only the most obtusely truculent Orthodox still believe that the huge differences in Trinitarian theology that a previous generation found everywhere in Latin tradition indeed actually exist; etc. But doctrine is more intractable. The Catholic Church might plausibly contemplate the suppression of the filioque, but could it repudiate the claim that the papacy ever possessed the authority to allow such an addition? The Eastern Church believes in sanctification after death, and perhaps the doctrine of purgatory really asserts nothing more; but can Rome ever say that in speaking of it as “temporal punishment,” which the pope may in whole or part remit, it was in error? And so on .......

Jurisdictional squabbling aside, the Orthodox world enjoys so profound a unity-of faith, worship, spirituality, and ecclesiology-that the papacy cannot but appear to it as a dangerous principle of plurality. After all, under the capacious canopy of the papal office, so many disparate things find common shelter. Eastern rites huddle alongside liturgical practices (hardly a peripheral issue in the East) disfigured by rebarbative banality, by hymnody both insipid and heterodox, and by a style of worship that looks flippant if not blasphemous. Academic theologians explicitly reject principles of Catholic orthodoxy, but are not (as they would be in the East) excluded from communion. There are three men called Patriarch of Antioch in the Roman communion-Melkite, Maronite, and Latin (I think I have them all)-which suggests that the very title of patriarch, even as regards an apostolic see, is merely honorific, because the only unique patriarchal office is the pope’s. As unfair as it may seem, to Orthodox Christians it often appears as if, from the Catholic side, so long as the pope’s supremacy is acknowledged, all else is irrelevant ornament. Which yields the sad irony that the more the Catholic Church strives to accommodate Orthodox concerns, the more disposed many Orthodox are to see in this merely the advance embassy of an omnivorous ecclesial empire.

All of which sounds rather grim. But having made the necessary qualifications, I can now praise John Paul II for all he has done for the unity of the apostolic Churches. He is, simply stated, a visionary on this matter. True, human beings cannot overcome the obstacles dividing East from West; but the unity of the Church is never-even when it is only two or three gathered in Christ’s name-a human work. Each church is grievously wounded by its separation from the other, and only those who have allowed pride and infantile anger to displace love in their hearts are blind to this ...... The present pope has long been the great, indefatigable voice of Christian conviction in a faithless age. If future popes follow his lead ..... love will ever more drive out suspicion, and the vision of unity that inspires John Paul II will bear fruit. Sic, at any rate, oremus.

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If future popes follow his lead ..... love will ever more drive out suspicion, and the vision of unity that inspires John Paul II will bear fruit. - beautiful writing from Hart, as always - sadly, Benedict did not after all follow JPII's lead in this area.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

Relic

Relic is a 1995 novel by Douglas J. Preston and Lincoln Child. It received critical praise, and was a New York Times Bestseller. As a techno-thriller, it commented on the possibilities inherent in genetic manipulation, while also being critical of museums and their role both in society and in the scientific community ... - Wikipedia

I've noticed, now that I'm trying audio books, that I'm being cautious - getting books from the library that I've already read. It's not as bad as it sounds because I have a terrible memory and can usually only remember that I liked a book, but not the details of the story. One case in point is the audio book I've just started listening to ...Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Most of the book takes place in the present, in New York city, at the American Museum of Natural History, but the book begins a few years before, in the Amazon rainforest. I had forgotten how much I liked this first chapter. Here it is below ......

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The Amazon Basin, September 1987

At noon, the clouds clinging to the top of Cerro Gordo broke free and scattered. Far above, in the upper reaches of the forest canopy, Whittlesey could see golden tints of sunlight. Animals—probably spider monkeys—thrashed and hooted above his head and a macaw swooped low, squawking obscenely.

Whittlesey stopped next to a fallen jacaranda tree and watched Carlos, his sweating camp assistant, catch up.

"We will stop here," he said in Spanish. "Baja la caja. Put down the box."

Whittlesey sat down on the fallen tree and pulled off his right boot and sock. Lighting a cigarette, he applied its tip to the forest of ticks on his shin and ankle.

Carlos unshouldered an old army packboard, on which a wooden crate was awkwardly lashed.

"Open it, please," said Whittlesey.

Carlos removed the ropes, unsnapped a series of small brass clasps, and pulled off the top.

The contents were packed tightly with the fibers of an indigenous plant. Whittlesey pulled aside the fibers, exposing some artifacts, a small wooden plant press, and a stained leather journal. He hesitated a moment, then drew a small but exquisitely carved figurine of a beast from the shirt pocket of his field jacket. He hefted the artifact in his hand, admiring again its workmanship, its unnatural heaviness. Then he placed it reluctantly in the crate, covered everything with the fibers, and reattached the lid.

From his rucksack, Whittlesey took out a folded sheet of blank paper, which he opened on his knee. He brought a battered gold pen out of his shirt pocket and began writing:

Upper Xingú
Sept. 17, 1987

Montague,

I've decided to send Carlos back with the last crate and go on alone in search of Crocker. Carlos is trustworthy, and I can't risk losing the crate should anything happen to me. Take note of the shaman's rattle and other ritual objects. They seem unique. But the figurine I've enclosed, which we found in a deserted hut at this site, is the proof I’ve been looking for. Note the exaggerated claws, the reptilian attributes, the hints at bipedalia. The Kothoga exist, and the Mbwun legend is not mere fabrication.

All my field notes are in this notebook. It also contains a complete account of the breakup of the expedition, which you will of course know about by the time this reaches you.


Whittlesey shook his head, remembering the scene that had played itself out the day before. That idiotic bastard, Maxwell. All he'd cared about was getting those specimens he'd stumbled on back to the Museum undamaged. Whittlesey laughed silently to himself. Ancient eggs. As if they were anything more than worthless seed pods. Maxwell should have been a paleobiologist instead of a physical anthropologist. How ironic they'd packed up and left a mere thousand yards from his own discovery.

In any case, Maxwell was gone now, and the others with him. Only Carlos and Crocker, and two guides, had stayed. Now mere was just Carlos. Whittlesey returned to the note.

Use my notebook and the artifacts, as you see fit, to help restore my good standing with the Museum. But above all else, take care of this figurine. I am convinced that its worth to anthropology is incalculable. We discovered it yesterday by accident. It seems to be the centerpiece of the Mbwun cult. However, there is no other trace of habitation nearby. This strikes me as odd.

Whittlesey paused. He hadn't described the discovery of the figurine in his field notes. Even now, his mind resisted the memory.

Crocker had wandered off the trail for a better look at a jacamar; otherwise they'd never have found the hidden path, slanting down steeply between moss-slick walls. Then, that crude hut, half-buried among ancient trees, in the wet vale where daylight barely penetrated…The two Botocudo guides, normally chattering nonstop to each other in Tupian, shut up immediately. When questioned by Carlos, one of them just muttered something about a guardian of the hut, and a curse on anybody who violated its secrets. Then, for the first time, Whittlesey had heard them speak the word Kothoga. Kothoga. The shadow people.

Whittlesey was skeptical. He'd heard talk of curses before—usually, right before a request for higher wages. But when he emerged from the hut, the guides were gone.

…Then that old woman, blundering out of the forest. She was probably Yanomamo, obviously not Kothoga. But she knew of them. She had seen them. The curses she'd hinted at…And the way she'd just melted back into the forest, more like a jaguar yearling than a septuagenarian.

Then, they turned their attention to the hut.

The hut…Gingerly, Whittlesey allowed himself to remember. It was flanked by two stone tablets with identical carvings of a beast sitting on its haunches. Its claw held something weathered and indistinguishable. Behind the hut lay an overgrown garden, a bizarre oasis of bright color amid the green fastness.

The floor of the hut was sunken several feet, and Crocker almost broke his neck on the way in. Whittlesey followed him more carefully, while Carlos simply knelt in the entranceway. The air inside was dark and cool and smelt of decaying earth. Switching on his flashlight, Whittlesey saw the figurine sitting on a tall earthen mound in the middle of the hut. Around its base lay a number of strangely carved discs. Then the flashlight reached the walls.

The hut had been lined with human skulls. Examining a few of the closest, Whittlesey noticed deep scratch marks he could not immediately understand. Ragged holes yawned through the tops. In many cases, the occipital bone at the base of the skull was also smashed and broken off, the heavy squamosal bones completely gone.

His hand shook, and the flashlight failed. Before he switched it on again, he saw dim light filtering through thousands of eye sockets, dust motes swimming sluggishly in the heavy air.

Afterward, Crocker decided he needed a short walk—to be alone for a while, he'd told Whittlesey. But he hadn't come back.

The vegetation here is very unusual. The cycads and ferns look almost primordial. Too bad there isn't time for more careful study. We've used a particularly resilient variety as packing material for the crates; feel free to let Jorgensen take a look, if he's interested.

I fully expect to be with you at the Explorer's Club a month from now, celebrating our success with a brace of dry martinis and a good Macanudo. Until then, I know I can entrust this material and my reputation to you.

Your colleague,

Whittlesey


He inserted the letter beneath the lid of the crate.

"Carlos," he said, "I want you to take this crate back to Pôrto de Mós, and wait for me there. If I'm not back in two weeks, talk to Colonel Soto. Tell him to ship it back with the rest of the crates by air to the Museum, as agreed. He will draw your wages."

Carlos looked at him. "I do not understand," he said. "You will stay here alone?"

Whittlesey smiled, lit a second cigarette, and resumed killing ticks. "Someone has to bring the crate out. You should be able to catch up with Maxwell before the river. I want a couple of days to search for Crocker."

Carlos slapped his knee. "Es loco! I can't leave you alone. Si te dejo atrás, te morirías. You will die here in the forest, Señor, and your bones will be left to the howler monkeys. We must go back together, that is best."

Whittlesey shook his head impatiently. "Give me the Mercurochrome and the quinine, and the dried beef from your pack," he said, pulling the filthy sock back on and lacing his boot.

Carlos started unpacking, still protesting. Whittlesey ignored him, absently scratching insect bites on the back of his neck and staring up toward Cerro Gordo.

"They will wonder, Señor. They will think I left you. It will be very bad for me," Carlos said rapidly, placing the items in Whittlesey's pack. "The cabouri flies will eat you alive," he continued, moving over to the crate and lashing it shut. "You will catch malaria again, and die this time. I will stay with you."

Whittlesey stared at the shock of snow-white hair plastered to Carlos's sweaty forehead. That hair had been pure black yesterday, before Carlos looked into the hut. Carlos met his gaze for a moment, then lowered his eyes.

Whittlesey stood up. "Adiós," he said, and disappeared into the bush.

* * *

By late afternoon, Whittlesey noticed that the thick, low clouds had returned to shroud Cerro Gordo. For the last I several miles, he had been following an ancient trail of unknown origin, barely a narrow alley in the brush. The trail cleverly worked its way through the blackwater swamps surrounding the base of the tepui, the soggy, jungle-clotted plateau that lay ahead. The trail had the logic of a human trail, Whittlesey thought. It moved with obvious purpose; animal tracks often wandered. And it was heading for a steep ravine in the shoulder of the approaching tepui. Crocker must have come this way.

He stopped to consider, unconsciously fingering the talisman—a gold arrow overlaid by another of silver—that had hung around his neck since childhood. Besides the hut, they'd seen no sign of human habitation for the last several days except a long-deserted root-gatherer village. Only the Kothoga could have created this path.

As he approached the plateau, he could see a few braids of water cascading down its steep flanks. He would camp at the bottom tonight, and make the thousand-meter ascent in the morning. It would be steep, muddy, and possibly dangerous. If he met the Kothoga—well, he would be trapped.

But he had no reason to think the Kothoga tribe was savage. After all, it was this other creature, Mbwun, to which local myth cycles ascribed all the killing and savagery.
Strange—an unknown creature, supposedly controlled by a tribe nobody had seen. Could Mbwun actually exist? he wondered. Conceivably, a small remnant could be alive in this vast rain forest; the area was virtually unexplored by biologists. Not for the first time, he wished that Crocker hadn't taken his own Mannlicher .30 06 when he'd left camp.

But first, Whittlesey realized, he had to locate Crocker. Then he could search for the Kothoga, prove they hadn't died out centuries before. He'd be famous—the discoverer of an ancient people, living in a kind of Stone Age purity deep in the Amazon, on a plateau that floated above the jungle like Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

There was no reason to fear the Kothoga. Except that hut…

Suddenly, a sharp sickly smell assailed his nostrils, and he stopped. There was no mistaking it—a dead animal, and a big one. He took a dozen steps as the smell intensified. His heart quickened with anticipation: perhaps the Kothoga had butchered an animal nearby. There might be artifacts left at the site—tools, weapons, perhaps even something ceremonial in nature.

He crept forward. The sweet nauseating reek grew stronger. He could see sunlight in a patch of canopy high above his head—the sure sign of a nearby clearing. He stopped and tightened his pack, not wanting to be hampered in case he had to move fast.

The narrow trail, walled in by brush, leveled off and took a sudden turn into the head of the small clearing. There, on the opposite side, was the carcass of the animal. The base of the tree it lay against had been ritually carved with a spiral, and a bundle of bright green parrot feathers lay on top of the gaping, greasy brown rib cage.

But as he walked closer, he saw that the carcass was wearing a khaki shirt.

A cloud of fat flies roared and swarmed about the open rib cage. Whittlesey noticed that a severed left arm was lashed to the tree trunk with a fibrous rope, the palm sliced open. A number of spent cartridge casings lay around the body. Then he saw the head. It lay face up under the corpse's armpit, the back of the skull torn away, the cloudy eyes staring upward, the cheeks bulging.

Whittlesey had found Crocker.

Instinctively, Whittlesey began stumbling backward. He saw how rows of claws had flayed the body with obscene, inhuman strength. The corpse looked stiff. Perhaps—if God was merciful—the Kothoga had already departed.

Assuming it was the Kothoga.

Then he noticed that the rain forest, normally overflowing with the sounds of life, was silent. With a start, he turned to face the jungle. Something was moving in the towering brush at the edge of the clearing, and two slitted eyes the color of liquid fire took shape between the leaves. With a sob and a curse, he drew his sleeve across his face and looked again. The eyes had vanished.

There was no time to lose—he had to get back down the trail, away from this place. His path back into the forest lay directly ahead. He'd have to make a run for it.

Just then he saw something on the ground he hadn't noticed before, and he heard movement, ponderous yet horrifyingly stealthy, through the brush in front of him ...

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Too much fun :-)


Saturday, August 04, 2007

EO Wilson interview

Just looking around the internet tonight, I saw a Salon interview from 2006 with two-time Pulitzer Prize winner E. O. Wilson on evolution and religion. He mentions Hans Küng :-), and also religion as being "tribalistic" - given the death-to-ecumenism behavior that's been evidenced lately between Catholicism and Protestantism, I find it difficult to disagree. I'm not sure what to make of his over-all view of the unmeeting twain of religion and science, but what he has to say is interesting.

First here's a little of what Wikipedia says of hum ...

Edward Osborne Wilson (born June 10, 1929) is an American biologist (Myrmecology, a branch of entomology), researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), and naturalist (conservationism). Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his scientific humanist ideas concerned with religious, moral, and ethical matters. As of 2007, he was the Pellegrino Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism ....

And here below is a bit of the interview, which began with a discussion of Darwin ...

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Darwin's own transformation from devout Christian to non-believer obviously raises significant questions in our own time. It raises a very provocative question: If you fully accept the theory of evolution by natural selection, does that logically lead you to atheism?

Well, it does up to the origin of the mind and spirit. And one of the Vatican's scientific spokesmen, incidentally, just recently turned thumbs down on intelligent design. John Paul II took the position that evolution's been pretty well proved, and certainly was acceptable as God's way of creating the diversity of life. But the human soul was injected by God. So that's a kind of compromise position that a lot of devoutly religious people have taken.

But that begs the question, when did the soul enter? I mean, if you accept evolution, at some point humans evolved out of something that came before. So do all creatures have some kind of soul? Or do only humans have a soul?

Yeah, that's the dilemma. Of course, there is no reconciliation between the theory of evolution by natural selection and the traditional religious view of the origin of the human mind.

Are you saying we have to choose between science and religion?

Well, you have to choose between the scientific materialist view of the origin of the mind on the one side, and the traditional religious view that the spirit and the mind are independent of the process of evolution and eventually non-corporeal, capable of leaving the body and going elsewhere.

This is not a view that all scientists subscribe to. Stephen Jay Gould famously talked about how science and religion are two entirely separate spheres. And they really didn't have anything to do with each other.

Yeah, he threw in the towel.

He dodged the question.

He dodged the question, famously. That's no answer at all. That's evasion. I think most scientists who give thought to this with any depth -- who understand evolution -- take pretty much the position that I've taken. For example, in the National Academy of Sciences, which presumably includes many of the elite scientists in this country, a very large number would fully accept the scientific view. I know it's 80 percent or more who said, on the issue of the immortality of the soul, they don't care.

It would seem that religion and science have two entirely different ways of understanding the world. Science is founded on reason and deduction and empirical study. Religion, on the other hand, is grounded in faith -- often a leap of faith, in mystery, in living with the non-rational part of your mind. Are those two utterly alien ways of looking at the world? Or is there any common ground?

The only common ground that I see is the one that was approached by Darwin himself. Religious belief itself is an adaptation that has evolved because we're hard-wired to form tribalistic religions. Religion is intensely tribalistic. A devout Christian or Muslim doesn't say one religion is as good as another. It gives them faith in the particular group to which they belong and that set of beliefs and moral views.

What about the sense of awe, of wonder? That's something you hear about all the time among religious people. And you also hear about it from some scientists as well.

Well, you do. You hear about it from me. Awe is hard to put into words. But it certainly involves a sense of the mightiness and splendor and almost indecipherable intricacy of something greater than ourselves. A lot of religious mysticism arises directly from it. But it's equally experienced by the secularist whose mind opens to the splendor and intricacy of the material universe ....... that's the dilemma of the 21st century. Possibly the greatest philosophical question of the 21st century is the resolution of religious faith with the growing realization of the very different nature of the material world. You could say that we evolved to accept one truth -- the religious instinct -- but then discovered another. And having discovered another, what are we to do? You might say it's just best to go ahead and accept the two worldviews and let them live side by side. I see no other solution. I believe they can use their different worldviews to solve some of the great problems -- for example, the environment. But generally speaking, the difficulty in saying they can live side by side is a sectarianism in the world today, and traditional religions can be exclusionary and used to justify violence and war. You just can't deny that this is a major problem ........

Let me follow up on this because I've heard you call yourself a deist.

Yeah, I don't want to be called an atheist.

Why not?

You know, being a good scientist, and having been drawn up short so many times on my own theories and speculations -- as all honest scientists are -- I don't want to exclude the possibility of a creative force or deity. I think that would be a mistake to say there is no God or supernatural force. As the theologian Hans Kung once said, how are we to explain there is something and not nothing? Well, that's a question I'm happy to leave to the astrophysicist -- where the laws of the universe came from and what is the meaning of the origin of existence. But I do feel confident that there is no intervention of a deity in the origin of life and humanity ........

Suppose, miraculously, there was proof of a transcendental plane out there. Would you find that comforting?

Sure. Let me take this opportunity to dispel the notion, the canard, that scientists are against transcendentalism, that they want to block any talk of it, particularly intelligent design. If any positive evidence could be found of a supernatural guiding force, there would be a land rush of scientists into it. What scientist would not want to participate in what would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time? Scientists are simply saying -- particularly in reference to intelligent design -- that it's not science and it's garbage until some evidence or working theory is produced. And they are suspicious because they see it coming from people who have a religious agenda.

I guess I'm asking a slightly different question of you personally. Would you like there to be evidence of God? Forget about this as a great scientific discovery. Just personally, given your background, would that be thrilling? Would that be comforting?

Well, it would certainly give you a lot of material to study and think about the rest of your time. But you didn't ask me the right question.

What's the right question?

Would I be happy if I discovered that I could go to heaven forever? And the answer is no. Consider this argument. Think about what is forever. And think about the fact that the human mind, the entire human being, is built to last a certain period of time. Our programmed hormonal systems, the way we learn, the way we settle upon beliefs, and the way we love are all temporary. Because we go through a life's cycle. Now, if we were to be plucked out at the age of 12 or 56 or whenever, and taken up and told, now you will continue your existence as you are. We're not going to blot out your memories. We're not going to diminish your desires. You will exist in a state of bliss -- whatever that is -- forever. And those who didn't make it are going to be consigned to darkness or hell. Now think, a trillion times a trillion years. Enough time for universes like this one to be born, explode, form countless star systems and planets, then fade away to entropy. You will sit there watching this happen millions and millions of times and that will just be the beginning of the eternity that you've been consigned to bliss in this existence.

This heaven would be your hell.

Yes. If we were able to evolve into something else, then maybe not. But we are not something else.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Shusaku Endo

There's been a discussion of detachment or indifference on Paul's blog and as always, that concept raises issues for me. I don't think I can articulate why this bothers me (except to say that it seems gnostically dualitic and world-hating :-) so I looked around the web for back-up. Didn't find any, but did find an interesting discussion between William Johnston, SJ, who's written on Zen and Christian contemplation, and the Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo. Wikipedia says of Endo ...

Shūsaku Endō (遠藤 周作 Endō Shusaku, March 27, 1923–September 29, 1996) was a renowned 20th century Japanese author who wrote from the unique perspective of being both Japanese and Catholic ..... his books mainly deal with the moral fabric of life. His Catholic faith can be seen at some level in all of his books, and it is often a central feature. Most of his characters struggle with complex moral dilemmas, and their choices often produce mixed or tragic results. In this his work is often compared to that of Graham Greene. In fact, Greene has personally labeled Endo one of the finest writers of the 20th century ...

Here below are just some bis from the discussion. What's kind of interesting is that Endo, though Japanese, seems actually more conservative and cautious about Buddhism and the blending of Catholicism and Buddhism than does Fr. Johnston .....

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ENDO: Are you still interested in Buddhism, Father?

Johnson: Yes, of course. I don't think I'll ever lose my interest in Buddhism.

E: What aspect of Buddhism interests you most?

J: The meeting of Buddhism and Christianity ........

E: Little by little the dialogue is getting under way. A while ago in Sophia University I heard Buddhist monks chanting the sutras during Mass instead of Gregorian chant. If that had happened 20 or 30 years ago, there would have been an awful rumpus. But tell me, when did you first get interested in Buddhism? Was it before the Second Vatican Council?

J: Yes. The pioneer was Father Lassalle [Enomiya Lassalle, S.J.]. He influenced me a lot.

E: He built the Zen center outside Tokyo. But apart from Lassalle there wasn't much interest before the council ....... But when Lassalle began, it must have seemed heretical for Christians to practice Buddhist forms of meditation.

J: Not heretical, but progressive.

E: But what did the other missionaries think? I suppose they were indifferent. Or did they not think it was dangerous?

J: Some considered it dangerous. But aren't modern people attracted by danger? Don't they like risk?

E: [Laughing] There was a stage in the Japanese church when we thought we had to avoid all risks. But you seem to have done away with that idea. Was it because of the Second Vatican Council?

J: Of course. But you yourself are known for your interest in inculturation. There can be no inculturation of Christianity in Japan without dialogue with Buddhism.

E: Yes, but my efforts at inculturation got me into trouble with my fellow Catholics. [Laughing] You seem to have escaped ....... I have no doubt that dialogue is a very fine thing. But it has its limits. After all, when we Christians talk to Buddhists and learn from them, we must know where to draw the line. I would like to hear something about that.

J: Yes....

E: There are vast differences between Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism talks about abandoning the self. It talks about getting rid of all attachments and it even claims that love is a form of attachment. We can never say that ......

J: Yet ..... when we come to dialogue, we must distinguish between Christianity as a living faith and Christianity as theology. The living faith is expressed in the prayer and worship of the people who say, "Our Father, who art in heaven" or recite the Jesus prayer. This does not change. Theology, on the other hand, is reflection on religion at a given time and in a given culture. It changes from culture to culture and from age to age, as we have seen so dramatically in the 20th century. Our task at present is to create an Asian theology.

E: I agree ..... I think you have practiced some Zen. You know that when one sits in silence for some time the unconscious begins to surface and one can come into considerable turmoil. Eventually one is liberated ("Body and soul have fallen away" they say) and one reaches enlightenment. Now tell me, is there anything like that in Christianity?

J: Of course. You get this kind of experience in the Christian contemplatives.

E: But is the experience of the Christian mystics like St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross the same as the Zen experience or is it different?

J: This is a much debated point. I can only give you my opinion. I believe that mystical experience is conditioned by one's faith. If one believes that God is love and that the Word was made flesh, this will enter into the experience. It certainly enters into the experience of St. John of the Cross, who speaks of the Incarnation at the summit of the mystical life and whose mystical experience is finally Trinitarian. In short, even though profound mystical experience is silent, imageless and ineffable, it has content. The experiences of St. John of the Cross and Zen master Dogen are not the same. To anyone who reads their writings this is obvious. Precisely because they are different, dialogue is meaningful ......

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Well, that was interesting, but I'm still peeved about detachment/indifference. It seemed like Endo was about to explore the idea, but then never got on with it. I should mention that Ignatius believed indifference was essential ....

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. For this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it. For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

This is something to which I have to give a lot more thought.