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Monday, December 29, 2008

Still missing Kermit ...

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A lightning rod

Someone asked once on the blog if a person could be a Catholic in good standing and at the same time disagree with the Pope.

I saw a post at America magazine's blog today (An interview with a lightning rod) about Fr. Richard McBrien .... if anyone fits the description of a Catholic in good standing who dissents, it would be him. Fr. James Martin SJ describes him in his post as 'the always-interesting, always-provocative, always-hardworking, always generous-with-his-time, always-worth-listening-to Richard McBrien, the Catholic theologian teaching at Notre Dame. I've always profited from Father McBrien's writings, particularly his book "Catholicism" and "Lives of the Saints," and have found him always to be a gracious man, even on the rare occasions when we've disagreed. Others are not so generous. Paulson reports one Catholic blogger calling him a "heresiarch," that is, leader of heretics.'

So the answer to the asked question is yes :)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

John Dear SJ on being a vegetarian

Become a Vegetarian!

By John Dear

In Fort Lauderdale last week to speak at the National Convention of Unitarian Universalists, I met my old friend Bruce Friedrich, with whom I spent eight memorable months in a tiny jail cell, along with Philip Berrigan, for our 1993 Plowshares disarmament action. A former Catholic Worker, Bruce is now one of the leaders of PETA, “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.” And he gave a brilliant workshop on the importance of becoming a vegetarian, something I urge everyone to consider.

I became a vegetarian with a few other Jesuit novices shortly after I entered the Jesuits in 1982 and later wrote a pamphlet for PETA, Christianity and Vegetarianism. I based my decision solely on Francis Moore Lappe’s classic work, Diet for a Small Planet, a book that I think everyone should read.

In it, Lappe, the great advocate for the hungry, makes an unassailable case that vegetarianism is the best way to eliminate world hunger and to sustain the environment.

At first glance, we wonder how that could be. But it’s undisputable. A hundred million tons of grain go yearly for biofuel--a morally questionable use of foodstuffs. But more than seven times that much--some 760 million tons according to the United Nations--go into the bellies of farmed animals, this to fatten them up so that sirloin, hamburgers and pork roast grace the tables of First-World people. It boils down to this. Over 70% of U.S. grain and 80% of corn is fed to farm animals rather than people.

Conscience dictates that the grain should stay where it is grown, from South America to Africa. And it should be fed to the local malnourished poor, not to the chickens destined for our KFC buckets. The environmental think-tank, the WorldWatch institute, sums it up: “Continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat eaters and the world's poor.”

Meanwhile, eating meat causes almost 40 percent more greenhouse-gas emissions than all the cars, trucks, and planes in the world combined. (The world’s 1.3 billion cattle release tons of methane into the atmosphere, and hundreds of millions of CO2 are released by burning forests due to dry conditions as in California or due to purposeful burns to create cow pastures in Latin America.)

And global warming isn’t the only environmental issue. Almost forty years ago, Lappe spelled out the environmental consequences of eating meat in stark relief. But more recently, her analysis received some high-power validation. The United Nations recently published “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” It concludes that eating meat is “one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” And it insists that the meat industry “should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”

Much of our potable water and much of our fossil fuel supply is wasted on rearing chickens, pigs, and other animals for humans to eat. And over 50% of forests worldwide have been cleared to raise or feed livestock for meat-eating. (A recent protest in Brazil denounced “Kentucky Fried Chicken” for clearing thousands of acres of untouched Amazon rain forest for chicken feed.)

As a Christian, I became a vegetarian because of the Gospel mandate of Matthew 25, “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me”--because I do not want my appetites to contribute to the ongoing oppression of the world’s starving masses. As a Catholic and Jesuit, I want somehow to side with the poor and hungry.

But another issue arises, too Over the decades, I’ve learned that our appetite for meat leads to cruelty to animals--chickens pressed wing-to-wing into filthy sheds and de-beaked, for example. And since I’ve always espoused creative nonviolence as the fundamental Gospel value, my vegetarianism helps me not to participate in the vicious torture and destruction of billions of cows, chickens, and so many other creatures.

The chickens never raise families, root in the soil, build nests, or do anything natural. Often they are tormented or tortured before they are slowly killed, as PETA has repeatedly documented in its undercover investigations--for your chicken dinner or hamburger. (All this is documented on a video narrated by Alec Baldwin, at

Animals have feelings, they suffer; they have needs and desires. They were created by God to raise their families and breath fresh air; and if chickens to peck in the grass, if pigs to root in the soil. Today’s farms don’t let them do anything God designed them to do. Animal scientists attest that farm animals have personalities and interests, that chickens and pigs are smarter than dogs and cats.

Animals figure in the Gospels. They brim with lovely, respectful images of animals. Clearly Jesus was familiar with animals, and cared for them, as he urged us to look at the birds of the air or be his sheep. He even identified himself as “a mother hen who longs to gather us under her wings.”

And animals figure in the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah 11, a vision of reconciled creation, dreams of a day when “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together with a little child to guide them. The cow and the beast shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest. The lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the God of peace, as water covers the sea.” (Isaiah 11:1-9)

A vision of a nonviolent world, all creatures nonviolent, children safely at play with them, and no violence anywhere. That is the peaceful vision of creation that we are called to pursue--in every aspect of our lives, from the jobs we hold, to our use of gasoline and alternative energies, to what we eat and wear, say and do.

I admire the Bible’s greatest vegetarian, Daniel, the nonviolent resister who refused to defile himself by eating the king’s meat. He and three friends became healthier than anyone else through their vegetarian diet. And they excelled in wisdom, for “God rewards them with knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom.”

In his workshop, Bruce added another beautiful image, the Garden of Eden. The Bible opens with a vision of paradise where God, animals, and humans recreate in peace together. Clearly, the Bible calls us to return to that paradise.

And Bruce reminded us that from the beginning we are directed to be vegetarians. Genesis 1:29 says, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food.”

Biblical images and justice issues aside, there are medical reasons to stop eating meat. Vegetarian diets help keep our weight down, support a lifetime of good health and provide protection against numerous diseases, including the U.S.’s three biggest killers: heart disease, cancer and strokes.

Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn both have 100 percent success in preventing and reversing heart disease using a vegan diet. Meanwhile, Dr. T. Colin Campbell writes that one of the leading causes of human cancer is animal protein. More, vegetarians are also less prone to developing adult-onset diabetes. And then we have to contend with the spread of Mad Cow disease and Avian influenza. One could almost argue that the human body is not designed for meat-eating.

But for me being vegetarian boils down to peacemaking. If you want to be a peacemaker, Bruce said, reflecting the sentiments of Leo Tolstoy, you will want to eat as peaceful a diet as possible. “Vegetarianism,” Tolstoy wrote, “is the taproot of humanitarianism.” Other great humanitarians like Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer and Thich Nhat Hanh agree. The only diet for a peacemaker is a vegetarian diet.

“Not to hurt our humble brethren, the animals,” St. Francis of Assisi said, “is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission: to be of service to them whenever they require it. If you have people who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity,” he continued, “you will have people who will deal likewise with other people.”

So it was good to visit with my friend Bruce, and hear once again the wisdom of vegetarianism. It’s a key ingredient in the new life of peace, compassion and nonviolence.

* * * * *

Friday, December 26, 2008

Be Not Afraid

I'm still reading Timothy Radcliffe's book, What is the Point of Being a Christian, and came to an interesting chapter titled "Be Not Afraid". In writing about how to be brave, he mentions that only those who are aware of their vulnerability can be so, and then he goes on to talk about spiders :) Here's part of it ......


The first stage in becoming brave is liberation from unreal fears, from being afraid of things that are not really dangerous. Most of us are haunted by fears that are unfounded, or neurotic. For example, most members of my family are arachnophobic. Introduce a few spiders into a room full of Radcliffes and the result will not be edifying! We all know perfectly well that it has nothing to do with any real harm that spiders in England could ever do to us: it is a phobia that projects upon spiders a threat that they do not pose. At first I used to dread travelling around parts of Africa and Asia where I regularly had to encounter ghastly spiders: bird eating spiders, tarantulas, black widows, the lot! I can bear witness to the fact that this is an effective if unpleasant cure. One has to open one's eyes to see that spiders are just spiders and nothing else. Of course, if these fears are an illness, such as agoraphobia or claustrophobia, then to be inflicted by them is not a form of cowardice at all. Some of the bravest people that I have ever met have struggled with such phobias.

The prisoners on Robben Island in South Africa, who had opposed apartheid, gave each other courage by sharing their favorite passages of Shakespeare. Nelson Mandela's was from Julius Caesar: 'Cowards die many times before their deaths.' Cowardice may entrap us in an imaginary world filled with life-threatening dangers. Courage begins in the search for objectivity in the face of danger. Many Christians face real danger every day. On 12 February 2005, gunmen shot down Sister Dorothy Stang, a Notre Dame sister, who had been defending the rights of poor settlers from the big landowners in the Brazilian Amazon. The next on the hit list is a French Dominican, Henri Burin de Roziers, who has been trying to take landowners to court who enslave and kill their workers. They have put a price of $30,000 on his head. Henri insists that the threats are exaggerated, and 'I'm not afraid of dying. I am 75 and I have lived a long life.' When I stayed with him he lent me his room for the night. He did not sleep because it suddenly occurred to him that if they tried to get him that night, then they might kill me instead, which would be embarrassing. Fortunately the same idea did not occur to me. How can we learn such a courage, liberating us from servile fear?

At the crux of our faith is the cross, the image of an utterly vulnerable person, hurt unto death. But when Jesus is risen from the dead, the wounds are still there. In Luke's Gospel he says, 'See my hands and feet, that it is I myself' (24.39). And in John's account of the resurrection, 'Jesus came and stood among them and said to them "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side' (20.19f.). When Thomas returns, all he demands is to see and touch the wounds of Jesus. The risen Christ is still wounded. His passion and death are not just left behind, as earlier stages in his story, as is our childhood when we become adult. James Alison has argued that

the raising of Jesus was the gratuitous giving back of the whole life and death that had ended on Good Friday - the whole of Jesus' humanity includes his human death. Now what that means is that the risen Lord is simultaneously the dead-and-risen Lord. Jesus as he appeared to the disciples was not, as it were, the champion who has showered down after the match.

The third Preface for Easter tells us that Jesus is 'still our priest, our advocate who always pleads our cause. Christ is the victim who dies no more, the Lamb once slain who lives forever.' The original Latin is more paradoxical: Jesus is 'agnus qui vivit semper occisus'; 'the lamb who lives forever slain'. If the risen Lord did not still bear his wounds, then he would not have much to do with us now. The resurrection might promise us some future healing and eternal life, but it would leave us now alone in our present hurting. But because of Easter Day we already share in the victory. He still shares our wounds and we already share his victory of death. We too are now wounded and healed. When Brian Pierce OP first went to Peruvian Andes, he was surprised by the ubiquitous images of the crucified Christ, covered with blood. It seemed as if the faith of these indigenous people stopped prior to the resurrection and they were left only with images of defeat. But he learned that he was wrong. These crosses are signs of how the risen Christ is now sharing their crucifixion. We can have courage and risk getting hurt.

Charles Peguy, the French writer, told the story of a man who died and went to heaven. When he met the recording angel he was asked, 'Show me your wounds.' And he replied, 'Wounds? I have not got any.' And the angel said, 'Did you never think that anything was worth fighting for?'


Feast of St. Stephen

- The Burial of St Stephen by Juan de Juanes, c. 1564, oil on panel, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Dancing In Odessa

- Ilya Kaminsky

We lived north of the future, days opened
letters with a child's signature, a raspberry, a page of sky.
My grandmother threw tomatoes
from her balcony, she pulled imagination like a blanket
over my head. I painted
my mother's face. She understood
loneliness, hid the dead in the earth like partisans.

The night undressed us (I counted
its pulse) my mother danced, she filled the past
with peaches, casseroles. At this, my doctor laughed, his granddaughter
touched my eyelid—I kissed
the back of her knee. The city trembled,
a ghost-ship setting sail.
And my classmate invented twenty names for Jew.
He was an angel, he had no name,
we wrestled, yes. My grandfathers fought

the German tanks on tractors, I kept a suitcase full
of Brodsky’s poems. The city trembled,
a ghost-ship setting sail.
At night, I woke to whisper: yes, we lived.

We lived, yes, don’t say it was a dream.
At the local factory, my father
took a handful of snow, put it in my mouth.
The sun began a routine narration,
whitening their bodies: mother, father dancing, moving
as the darkness spoke behind them.
It was April. The sun washed the balconies, April.

I retell the story the light etches
into my hand: Little book, go to the city without me.

Most hit upon

I've been noticing which of my past posts over the year seem to get the most hits according to sitemeter. It's humbling because the posts most hit upon are not viewed for my writing but for photos :) Here are a few of the photos most liked ....

The big favorite - a few people seem to come almost every day to see a photo I posted with a review of the movie King Arthur in my post King Arthur, student of Pelagius .....

- Clive Owen as King Arthur

Next most popular post - people come to see one of the real life photos I found at Wikipedia of Nikola Tesla and which I posted in Tesla and The Prestige. Here's one of them ....

- Nikola Tesla, with Rudjer Boskovich's book "Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis", in front of the spiral coil of his high-frequency transformer at East Houston St., New York

And another photo people come to visit is from my post about the movie The Seventh Sign, showing Jürgen Prochnow as Jesus .....

And coming up after, is a photo of Jeremy Sisto as Jesus in a post I did on the movie Jesus .....

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas, everyone :)

- Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Painting I came across tonight ...

- Sappho by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Last Lecture

Popular culture dunce that I am, I'm probably the only person who hasn't seen this already, but (thanks to Mike) I just watched a YouTube of "the last lecture". Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Randy Pausch gave the lecture on September 18, 2007 titled Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. At the time, he had just a few months to live because of pancreatic cancer, and at the start of the lecture, he made clear he would not be talking about his health or religion (though he did admit he'd had a death bed conversion - he'd bought a mac). What he did talk about was how he had achieved his childhood dreams, how he believed the listeners could do the same, and how they could help others to do so as well. Perhaps the best piece of info comes at the end of the lecture, when he reveals something I believe very much to be true (but I won't tell you what :)

The video is worth a watch - it's funny and filled with a joy that flies in the face of diminishment ........

Sussex Carol

I came across this by accident - David Willcocks' arrangement of the Sussex Carol. Sung by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, 1994. Lyrics below the Tube.

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King's birth.

Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad?
Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad,
When from our sin he set us free,
All for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.

All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night.
All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night:
"Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen!"

In memory of Kermit

Today I received a letter from Dr. Niels Pedersen, the director of the Companion Animal Memorial Fund at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, telling me that my vet clinic had made a donation in Kermit's name to help with research into the diseases of companion animals. So kind of them - it made me happy and sad. Monday Kermit will have been dead five weeks and I still miss her the same.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Some Annunciation art

- The Annunciation to the Virgin, Belbello da Pavia, manuscript detail, 1450/1460

- The Annunciation, Jan van Eyck, tempera and oil on wood, 1422/41

- The Annunciation, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, gouache, 1862



Friday, December 19, 2008

Zechariah and Gabriel

- Zechariah and Gabriel by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1851-60, engraving

I've always been intrigued by the reading for today - Lk 1:5-25 - where the Archangel Gabriel visits Zechariah, tells him about his future son, John the Baptist, and strikes him dumb. Here are some more images of that scene ....

- detail of Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1490, fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence

- detail from a page of St. Albans Psalter, first half of the 12th century, University of Aberdeen

- Zehariah and the angel by Giusto de' Menabuoi, 1376-78, fresco in the baptistry, Padua Cathedral

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mozart’s Starling

- Robert Cording

A little fool lies here
Whom I hold dear —

— Mozart, lines of a poem for his pet starling

None of his friends understood.
A poem for a bird? —
and a funeral, and the ridiculous
request that they dress in formal attire.

But when Mozart whistled a yet-to-be
fragment of a piano concerto
in the marketplace, the bird
may have sang it back to him —

the starling appears in his diary
of expenses, May 27, 1784,
along with a transcription of its song.
What fun they must have had,

he whistling a melody, the bird,
a virtuoso mimic, echoing it back,
interspersed among its clicks
and slurs and high-pitched squeals.

Music to Mozart’s ears,
that dear bird who sang incessantly
for the duration of its three
short years in Mozart’s company.

His little fool was wise indeed —
it could hear a squeaking door,
a teapot letting off its steam,
a woman crying or rain pinging

in metal buckets and gurgling
in gutters, even a horse’s snort
or Mozart scratching notes,
and sing it back until Mozart, too,

could hear the cockeyed,
nonstop music in the incidental
bits and pieces of the world going by,
the exuberant excess of it all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The end of magic

Everyone I ever loved and who ever loved me, all gone, all gone down.

So says Merlin after he's lost his one love, Nimue, and King Arthur as well, at the hand of Mordred. But he's wrong.

I've been thinking about Merlin, as I'm reading (listening to) the sequel to David Weber's Off Armageddon Reef - By Schism Rent Asunder - because the main character is a male android named Merlin, with the memories (and soul) of a long dead woman named Nimue. But when I think of Merlin, I mostly remember the one in the 1998 movie, from which the quote above comes. It starred Sam Neil (Merlin), John Gielgud (Constant), Rutger Hauer (Vortigern), Helena Bonham Carter (Morgan le Fay), Isabella Rossellini (Nimue), Miranda Richardson (Mab and the Lady of the Lake), and Martin Short (Frik the gnome).

Below is a short video clip from the movie, showing Merlin finding Nimue at the end of his life when he had thought her dead, and working one last peice of magic .....

US nuns stand up for Fr. Roy Bourgeois

I saw a post todat at America magazine's blog by James Martin SJ - 100 Catholic sisters protest Vatican action - about American nuns who've written to the CDF in support of Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois, facing excommunication for having participated in a woman's ordination. Here's a bit of the post ....

[...] The nuns' Dec. 12 letter says the Vatican's action "has diminished our Church." They believe that "excommunications depend not on edicts or laws, but on compliance" by the faithful. If the faithful do not exclude or shun someone from the community, they are not excommunicated. The letter asserts that Bourgeois is not outside the community because they "embrace him wholeheartedly." The letter was organized by the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN) ..... "Many of the signers have served the Church for more than 40 or 50 years. Many are prominent leaders in their fields," said Loretto Sister Jeannine Gramick, another NCAN coordinator. She pointed to Mercy Sister Theresa Kane, who made worldwide headlines when she asked Pope John Paul II to open all ministries to women on the occasion of his first visit to the U.S in 1979, and Dominican Sister Carol Coston, who founded Network, a Catholic social justice lobby. She also noted the signatures of Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, a prolific writer in the field of spirituality, Notre Dame Sister Ivone Gebara, a noted Brazilian feminist theologian, and Loretto Sister Maureen Fiedler, host of the public radio show Interfaith Voices.

I wonder what will happen to the nuns. Brave ladies.

Jon Sobrino SJ interview

I accidentally came upon this Pax Christi interview with Jon Sbrino SJ. There's a second part as well here. And here is the blurb that came with the YouTube ....

Marie Dennis, Co-President of Pax Christi International, interviews Jon Sobrino, SJ. Pax Christi USA honored Rev. Jon Sobrino, SJ with the Pax Christi USA Book Award for 2008 at its annual gathering at the School of the Americas Vigil and Action on Friday, November 21. Rev. Sobrino, the sole suriving member of the Jesuit community following the massacre by SOA graduates in November 1989, which claimed the lives of 6 of his brother Jesuits, their co-worker and her daughter, was honored for his book, No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays, published by Orbis Books. Check out more Catholic Peace and Justice Materials

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Can’t you see the desert blooming?

I read a thought provoking homily for the third week of Advent at the blog of Fr. Rob Marsh SJ. I found it especially interesting because I think it asks a question I'm always asking myself - is the kingdom of God find-able in the midst of a (my) broken world? Here's the homily .....


Sunday Week 3 of Advent Year A
December 13th, 1998
Fr. Rob Marsh SJ

John has never been a patient man. It’s not patience that drives you to take up the prophet’s staff, the hair shirt and the disgusting diet. It’s not patience that drives you out among the desert’s ravines to rave over the coming destruction. It’s not patience that has you mouthing off to all- comers about their hypocrisy and evil. No, there’s a thirst for change, a hunger for ending, a hurry to get it all over with. “Even now the axe is laid at the roots of the tree!” he thunders. “It’s all over. Get ready! Be prepared! Because I, John, have a road to build and when it’s built God will come down on you all like a blaze. He will stride down that highway, winnowing fan in hand, reaping the harvest and destroying the stubble. And as for you Herod, friend of Rome, king of adulterers, living with your own brother’s wife, as for you, beware! Beware the end coming to you.”

Patience? No. But why, when he has done his part, built his highway in the desert, even baptized the one to fulfil the vision, when he’s done all this, why is he in prison waiting? Why is nothing happening? Where is the sound of the axe against the tree, the scent of fire on the wind, where is the uproar of Israel in rebellion and Rome on the run? Where is it?

So John sits there impatient, hope fading, doubt growing. Paces there, uncertain. Was I wrong? About Jesus? Has he let me down? Why is he doing nothing?

Advent turns around in that question. All the waiting, all the patience and all the hope are distilled into that question, a question we have all asked at sometime or another. Have I been wrong to trust Jesus? How can he have let me down like this?

So John asks the most heartbreaking question in the bible and asks it for all of us: “Are you the one … or must we wait for someone else?”

And should you laugh or should you cry over Jesus’ answer? “Tell John what you hear and what you see: the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor hear good news, and, yes John, the ones who manage to believe in me are happy.”

John is deaf and blind. Not just because he’s locked up in a hole somewhere, cut off from events but because he’s locked up in a vision of death and judgement, reaping and ending. Where John wants an end, Jesus is bringing a beginning. John is drunk on the desert’s stark beauty but Jesus wants to make a garden of it, a place for people to live and love, without sorrow, without lament.

So to John who doubts him, Jesus says “look and see … the evidence is here … can’t you see the desert blooming, the sorrow melting, the fear falling away?”

It’s a question without an answer … at least in the text. We hear no more from John. We don’t know whether he dies defeated or not. We don’t know whether he learns to see what Jesus sees. But Matthew, the gospel writer, asks that question of John expecting you and me to answer it. Matthew’s John is the last and greatest prophet of a dead age, an age that Jesus has left behind. Between John and Jesus there stands a great gap. A chasm of understanding. And the bridge across is only through that question: “Can’t you see the desert blooming?”

Well can we? Can we rejoice in the present and still hope for the future? When we are unjustly imprisoned, unfairly impoverished, when we are sick before our time, or even just unaccountably saddened by life … can we still not despair, not give in, not grow bitter … but look for signs of life, and welcome them with joy. Because even in the darkest times God continues to do good.

It’s not just a matter of being an optimist or being a pessimist … as though the world might be either wonderful or awful depending upon how we look at it. It’s about reality. Is God’s kingdom really among us? Or have we hoped in vain? Is Jesus someone we can trust? Or have we been led up the garden path?

We have to ask him this morning: “Are you the one or must we wait for someone else?” Ask him!


Monday, December 15, 2008

Walking with Ruskin

- Robert Cording

Each day I walk for an hour or two,
what started as exercise now a matter
of devotion. Or, less grandly:
walking gives me something to do,
a kind of discipline since I don't know
how to move toward any of those
big intangible goals—wholeness, God,
forgiveness, justice—but I know how
to walk. Sometimes I bring Ruskin along.

Despite his holy striving and cloying
superlatives ("the greatest thing
a human soul does in the world is
to see something" or "art springs from
the most profound admiration"),
I like the way he forgets himself
in his concern for what is particular
about an eagle's beak or the green-brown
coppery iridescence of a pheasant's feather.

He's teaching me a kind of readiness
for what comes along as it pleases:
a line of ants carrying the remains
of a red emerald butterfly, or
a brook in winter moving under ice
like the one-celled life found in a drop
of water under a microscope.
I like to compare notes with him,
to count the shades of blue

on a kingfisher's back or the three
different kinds of wing feathers,
but I'm still learning to look at things
with Ruskin's respect for fact
and his love for what's being seen—
this beetle, say, that's crossed our path,
its two topside eyes ringed in white,
the lacquer of its shell a depth
of black and darkest greens.

Today, the late July pond water looks
like used car oil, and the roadside grass
is a pointillist study of greens
and the bright white coffee cups of
Americans who run on Dunkin'.
Ruskin and I are looking at clouds,
a kind of medicine. Ruskin says,
they calm and purify, if only because
the sky is large and we are not.

And if I'm always half-thinking of
my credit card debt, or if I'm seven
to ten years of mortgaged life
away from retirement, I go on
crouching down for a beetle
that doesn't care if it's seen, though
my seeing it makes the day more real
to me. Nothing much, but something
I'm always thanking Ruskin for.

Luther and the Devil

- Robert Cording

When I began to lecture on the Psalms and I was sitting in the refectory after we had sung matins, studying and writing my notes, the Devil came and thudded three times in the storage chamber as if dragging a bushel away.
— Martin Luther

Someone once remarked the medieval air
Was so thick with demons, a needle dropped
Randomly from heaven would have to pierce
One or two on its way down. These days
We're more likely to believe in poltergeists
Than the heavy-footed, skulking Adversary
Who shows up in Luther's little story.

Now, when Milton's Satan of obdurate pride
And stedfast hate
can be understood in terms
Of sibling rivalry, how quaint that path
Through the Psalms seems; likewise, the soul
Disturbed by the racket of a jealous Devil
Who needs to be wherever God is. Who believes
That figure of a bushel being dragged away?

Yet we catch certainly a glimmer of Luther's
Pain over the sure step gone astray,
The barbed hours to come when nothing satisfies,
When that dull thudding in the storage chamber
Seems everywhere, centerless, and there is
No escape from the tightly spiralled Nautilus
Of the self that endures by choosing blindly.

And so perhaps we can come to understand again
Why, when Luther turns back to the Psalms
And his writing, he looks hard for the Devil
Harbored in his words, having learned too often
How that old Adversary shows up each time
The soul comes close to letting itself be found,
His soft mouth whispering one more illusory solace.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Avery Dulles SJ & Hans Urs von Balthasar

- Robin Williams' character walks through hell in What Dreams May Come

Jeff has a post at Aún Estamos Vivos on Avery Dulles SJ and I thought I'd mention something about the one article of his that I've read ..... The Population of Hell. It's at First Things and is an answer to the book by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?”. For those who are interested, you can read bits of the book at Google books - here.

Actually, cheater that I am :) I'm going to paste some of a post of mine from a couple of years ago on this very subject .......


I hate the idea that hell may exist, that Jesus mentions it in the Gospels, that being in despair (suicide) can send you there. Most modern theologians and preachers I've read make a case for hell being not God's choice but man's ... that people go to hell of their own volition, following a desire to be apart from God. This explanation doesn't work for me, though it's preferable to some others ... here's a tidbit from an article cited below by David Watts - ... we can be sure that, even in His righteous hatred, God loves the damned. How is God's love for them shown? In their agony not being even greater. They are not suffering as much as they deserve, according to the saints. And one of the reasons God ended their earthly probation when He did was, no doubt, to stop them from adding sin to sin and hence clocking up more severe punishment. The damned may not thank God for all this, but we can. ... holy mackerel!

A theologian who spent some time thinking about hell was one-time Jesuit, Hans Urs von Balthasar. Let's read some bits from an article in First Things by Avery Cardinal Dulles on Balthasar and Hell ...


As we know from the Gospels, Jesus spoke many times about hell ... He describes the fate of the damned under a great variety of metaphors: everlasting fire, outer darkness, tormenting thirst, a gnawing worm, and weeping and gnashing of teeth ....

Among the Greek Fathers, Irenaeus, Basil, and Cyril of Jerusalem are typical in interpreting passages such as Matthew 22:14 as meaning that the majority will be consigned to hell. St. John Chrysostom, an outstanding doctor of the Eastern tradition, was particularly pessimistic: “Among thousands of people there are not a hundred who will arrive at their salvation, and I am not even certain of that number, so much perversity is there among the young and so much negligence among the old.”

Augustine may be taken as representative of the Western Fathers. In his controversy with the Donatist Cresconius, Augustine draws upon Matthew and the Book of Revelation to prove that the number of the elect is large, but he grants that their number is exceeded by that of the lost ....

... Thomas Aquinas, who may stand as the leading representative, teaches clearly in the Summa Theologiae that God reprobates some persons. A little later he declares that only God knows the number of the elect. But Thomas gives reasons for thinking that their number is relatively small ....

About the middle of the twentieth century, there seems to be a break in the tradition. Since then a number of influential theologians have favored the view that all human beings may or do eventually attain salvation ....

Karl Rahner, another representative of the more liberal trend, holds for the possibility that no one ever goes to hell. We have no clear revelation, he says, to the effect that some are actually lost .... Rahner therefore believes that universal salvation is a possibility.

The most sophisticated theological argument against the conviction that some human beings in fact go to hell has been proposed by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” He rejects the ideas that hell will be emptied at the end of time and that the damned souls and demons will be reconciled with God. He also avoids asserting as a fact that everyone will be saved. But he does say that we have a right and even a duty to hope for the salvation of all, because it is not impossible that even the worst sinners may be moved by God’s grace to repent before they die ....

... a number of theologians remain opposed. In a supplement to his book, Balthasar himself reports that one reviewer accused him of supporting “the salvation optimism that is rampant today and is both thoughtless and a temptation to thoughtlessness.” At an international videoconference organized by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Clergy last November, Jean Galot, with an apparent reference to Balthasar, said that the hypothesis of hell as a mere possibility “removes all effectiveness from the warnings issued by Jesus, repeatedly expressed in the Gospels.” At the same conference Father Michael F. Hull of New York contended that Balthasar’s theory is “tantamount to a rejection of the doctrine of hell and a denial of man’s free will.” In this country Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap., accused Balthasar of being a Hegelian relativist who “smuggles into the heart of the Catholic a serious doubt about the truth of the Catholic faith.” Scanlon himself takes it to be Catholic teaching that some persons, at least Judas, are in fact eternally lost. This article set off an epic controversy between two Catholic editors, Richard John Neuhaus and Dale Vree, both of whom came to Catholic Christianity as adults ....

It is unfair and incorrect to accuse either Balthasar or Neuhaus of teaching that no one goes to hell. They grant that it is probable that some or even many do go there, but they assert, on the ground that God is capable of bringing any sinner to repentance, that we have a right to hope and pray that all will be saved ...


Me here again .... Fr. Dulles' article mentions some other articles on the discussion of Balthasar's theory of hell. Here they are, for those who want to read more ...

Fr. Regis Scanlon's article, originally in the New Oxford Review, blasting Balthasar's view on hell - The Inflated Reputation of Hans Urs von Balthasar

Richard John Neuhaus' article in First Things, defending Balthasar against Scanlon - Will All Be Saved?

Dale Vree's article in the New Oxford Review, answering Neuhaus - If Everyone is Saved ...

There's more of the guys above :-) but perhaps the next one to read would be found in the New Oxford Review by Janet Holl Madigan - In Defense of Richard John Neuhaus

And let's not forget David Watt's article, originally in the New Oxford Review, against Balthasar's view - Is Hell Closed Up & Boarded Over?

It's Balthasar's hope that all might be saved, and I like that ... Origen believed even Satan would be saved (an interesting book on the subject of universal salvation is The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott). But my hope is that we won't need to be saved - that hell does not even exist.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


- Nick Cage in Knowing

I miss watching movies on my computer since my old machine died - the replacement can't read DVDs - but my sister pointed me towards a site where you can watch movies on your computer freely (and legally) ... hulu. The movies aren't new, but there are some good ones, and they seem to regularly change. Some that they have now - Gatacca, Sideways, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, A River Runs Through It, etc. They also have some old tv series episodes and film trailers.

- Caleb finds a strange message from the past in Knowing

One movie trailer I thought looked really promising was that for the upcoming science fiction film Knowing. It stars Nick Cage, is directed by the guy who made Dark City, and has a story written by Ryne Pearson, who wrote the book Mercury Rising, from which the movie of the same name was adapted. Here below is a bit about the movie from /film, First Look: Nicolas Cage in Alex Proyas’ Knowing ......


Summit Entertainment has provided USA Today with our first official look at Nicolas Cage in Alex Proyas‘ Knowing. Proyas gained critical acclaim for his 1998 sci-fi thriller Dark City (an essential of any true film geek), but I’ve been extremely unimpressed with his follow-up efforts (I, Robot and Garage Days). Knowing certainly sounds interesting, but then again, so did an adaptation of Asimov’s stories.

The official plot synopsis follows: In 1958, as part of the dedication ceremony for a new elementary school, a group of students is asked to draw pictures to be stored in a time capsule. But one of the students, a mysterious girl who seems to hear whispered voices, fills her sheet of paper with rows of apparently random numbers instead.

Fast forward 50 years to the present: A new generation of students examines the contents of the time capsule and the girl’s cryptic message ends up in the hands of young CALEB MYLES. But it is Caleb’s father, professor TED MYLES (Nicolas Cage), who makes the startling discovery that the encoded message predicts with pinpoint accuracy the dates, death tolls and coordinates of every major disaster of the past 50 years. As Ted further unravels the document’s secrets, he realizes it foretells three additional events-the last of which hints at destruction on a global scale and seems to somehow involve Ted and his son. When Ted’s attempts to alert the authorities fall on deaf ears, he takes it upon himself to try to prevent more destruction from taking place.

This gripping supernatural thriller charts one man’s faltering steps towards belief in the ultimate order of the universe even as he finds himself surrounded by mounting chaos. With the reluctant help of DIANA WHELAN (Rose Byrne) and ABBY, the daughter and granddaughter of the now-deceased author of the cryptic prophecies, Ted’s increasingly desperate efforts take him on a heart-pounding race against time until he finds himself facing the ultimate disaster-and the ultimate sacrifice.


I don't know if the movie will turn out to be good or not, but it raises interesting questions .... do we really want to know the future, our future, other peoples' future, and if we somehow end up knowing it, and it looks very bad, do we have some responsibility to try to change it?

Here's the YouTube of the trailer ....

Surprised by Joy

- William Wordsworth

Surprised by joy - impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport - Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind -
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss! - That thought's return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

You, Darkness

- Rilke

You, darkness, that I come from
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes a circle of light for everyone
and then no one outside learns of you.

But the darkness pulls in everything -
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them! -
powers and people -

and it is possible a great presence is moving near me.

I have faith in nights.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Cristo della Minerva

One of the things I noticed when watching the video of Andrea Bocelli singing Panis Angelicus was a statue in the background. I remembered having seen it on the cover of Gustaf Aulen's book, Christus Victor, and so looked it up. It's Cristo della Minerva, sometimes known of as Christ the Redeemer, by Michelangelo. It has an interesting history, according to Wikipedia ...

The work was commissioned in June 1514, by the Roman patrician Metello Vari, who stipulated only that the nude standing figure would have the Cross in his arms, but left the composition entirely to Michelangelo ..... Michelangelo was working on a first version of this statue in his shop in Macello dei Corvi around 1515, but abandoned it in roughed-out condition when he discovered a black vein in the white marble ...... A new version was hurriedly substituted in 1519-1520 to fulfil the terms of the contract. Michelangelo worked on it in Florence, and the move to Rome and final touches were entrusted to an apprentice, Pietro Urbano: the latter, however, damaged the work and was replaced by Federico Frizzi after a suggestion from Sebastiano del Piombo..... The first version, rough as it was, was asked for by Metello Vari, and given him in January 1522, for the little garden courtyard of his palazzetto near Santa Maria sopra Minerva ..... following which it was utterly lost to sight. In 2000 Irene Baldriga recognized the lost first version, extensively reworked in the seventeenth century, in the sacristy of the church of San Vincenzo Martire, at Basso Romano near Viterbo; the black vein is clearly distinguishable on Christ's left cheek ....

It's the second version that's in Santa Maria sopra Minerva ....

Biblical marriage

- math genius Professor Charlie Eppes, from Numb3rs

I'm still watching episodes of the science/FBI tv series from the Scott brothers, Numb3rs, and last night there was an episode about a polygamous religious cult, with the main bad guys based on Warren Jeffs. That reminded me that I had seen an article in The Guardian in which an historian had pointed out that the most "traditional" form of marriage in the past had been not one man and one woman, but one man and many women. So when I saw a post - Speaking of Biblical Marriage ... - at Susan Russell's blog, I thought I'd post it here too, as it dovetailed with the above. Marriage has become much more female-friendly in the present, thankfully .....


If we're really after BIBLICAL Marriage, here are some propositions we should be seeing in upcoming elections:

A. Marriage in the United States shall consist of a union between one man and one or more women.
(Gen 29:17-28; II Sam 3:2-5)

B. Marriage shall not impede a man's right to take concubines in addition to his wife or wives.
(II Sam 5:13; I Kings 11:3; II Chron 11:21)

C. A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a virgin. If the wife is not a virgin, she shall be executed.
(Deut 22:13-21)

D. Marriage of a believer and a non-believer shall be forbidden.
(Gen 24:3; Num 25:1-9; Ezra 9:12; Neh 10:30)

E. Since marriage is for life, neither this Constitution nor the constitution of any State, nor any state or federal law, shall be construed to permit divorce. (Deut 22:19; Mark 10:9)

F. If a married man dies without children, his brother shall marry the widow. If he refuses to marry his brother's widow or deliberately does not give her children, he shall pay a fine of one shoe and be otherwise punished in a manner to be determined by law. (Gen 38:6-10; Deut 25:5-10)

G. In lieu of marriage, if there are no acceptable men in your town, it is required that you get your dad drunk and have sex with him (even if he had previously offered you up as a sex toy to men young and old), tag-teaming with any sisters you may have. Of course, this rule applies only if you are female.
(Gen 19:31-36)


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Angel bread

Saw this video today of Panis Angelicus, sung by Andrea Bocelli at Santa Maria sopra Minerva (where Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico are buried) ....


I saw a post at dotCommonweal (Reasonable doubt) about a recent movie on the past clergy-sexual abuse situation, and I thought I'd look the movie up. Roger Ebert has reviewed the movie, illuminated by his own Catholic education :), and he gave it four stars. I'm posting a little of his review below, but first here's a bit of what Wikipedia says of it ....

Doubt is an film adaptation of the John Patrick Shanley play Doubt. Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis, the film is directed by Shanley, produced by Scott Rudin and shot in New York City. Doubt centers on a nun who confronts a priest after suspecting him of sexually abusing a new black student, but the priest denies the charges. Much of the film's quick-fire dialogue tackles themes of religion, morality and authority.

And here is some of Ebert's review .....


A Catholic grade school could seem like a hermetically sealed world in 1964. That's the case with St. Nicholas in the Bronx, ruled by the pathologically severe principal Sister Aloysius, who keeps the students and nuns under her thumb and is engaged in an undeclared war with the new parish priest. Their issues may seem to center around the reforms of Vatican II, then still under way, with Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as the progressive, but for the nun I believe it's more of a power struggle ......

Under Aloysius' command is the sweet young Sister James (Amy Adams, from "Junebug"), whose experience in the world seems limited to what she sees out the convent window. Gradually during the autumn semester, a Situation develops.

There is one African-American student at St. Nicholas, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), and Father Flynn encourages him in sports and appoints him as an altar boy. This is all proper. Then Sister James notes that the priest summons the boy to the rectory alone. She decides this is improper behavior, and informs Aloysius, whose eyes narrow like a beast of prey. Father Flynn's fate is sealed.

But "Doubt" is not intended as a docudrama about possible sexual abuse. Directed by John Patrick Shanley from his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play, it is about the title word, doubt, in a world of certainty. For Aloysius, Flynn is certainly guilty. That the priest seems innocent, that Sister James comes to believe she was mistaken in her suspicions, means nothing. Flynn knows a breath of scandal would destroy his career. And that is the three-way standoff we watch unfolding with precision and tension.

Something else happens. The real world enters this sealed, parochial battlefield. Donald's mother (Viola Davis) fears her son will be expelled from the school. He has been accused of drinking the altar wine. Worse, of being given it by Father Flynn. She appeals directly to Sister Aloysius, in a scene as good as any I've seen this year. It lasts about 10 minutes, but it is the emotional heart and soul of "Doubt," and if Viola Davis isn't nominated by the Academy, an injustice will have been done. She goes face to face with the pre-eminent film actress of this generation, and it is a confrontation of two equals that generates terrifying power .....

I know people who are absolutely certain what conclusion they should draw from this film. They disagree. "Doubt" has exact and merciless writing, powerful performances and timeless relevance. It causes us to start thinking with the first shot, and we never stop. Think how rare that is in a film.


The post at dorCommonweal was mostly about an op-ed on the movie (No Doubt of the Church's Resolve) in The Boston Globe by Michael Merz, chairman of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ National Review Board. Merz,' article is actually more of a defense of the US Bishops than a movie review, and he makes an assertion that ... The Catholic Church is unrelenting in its quest to ensure that all children - indeed, all persons - in its care are safe, and reverenced as children of God. Of this there is no doubt. But as the post at dotCommonweal points out, the respected positions held by guys who made questionable choices about how to handle the abuse crisis (Cardinal Law and Cardinal George) make the truth of that assertion very doubtful.


Another picture ...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

His future remained in the past

- Alexander Gudinov with girlfriend, Jacqueline Bisset

Thinking more about ballet, I was reminded of a former dancer and actor, now deceased, Alexander Godunov. I remember him, I guess, mostly because he seemed like such a sad guy - Russian, and a dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, he defected while on tour in the US. His wife, another dancer with the ballet, had to go back to Russia because of her family, and though he tried for a year to get her out, he was unsuccessful. He danced for a while with Baryshnikov's company, the American Ballet Theater, but they had a falling out and he turned to Hollywood and movies. He was in not so many, the most memorable probably Die Hard and Witness. He died of alcoholism and complications of hepatitis at the age of 45 ..... the epitaph engraved on his memorial read, His future remained in the past.

Here's a YouTube I found of him dancing with the Bolshoi ......

JD Crossan and the Newsweek story

As someone who thinks same-sex marriage is a good thing, I've noticed a number of posts lately on the Newsweek cover story about the Bible and same-sex marriage. On Faith has just asked a question prompted by that - Is there a religious and/or scriptural case for gay marriage? I noticed that JD Crossan, former priest, biblical scholar and professor emeritus in the religious studies department at DePaul University, had an answer, and though he has given his opinion other times about that subject ...

If being gay is as intrinsic for some people as being straight is for others--that is, both are God-given options--then gay unions, ordinations, and consecrations must be treated equally with straight ones. On homosexuality, many ancients judged sexual nature in terms of biology and organs but many moderns—myself included—judge sexual nature in terms of chemistry and hormones. In other words, Paul was wrong on hair and equally wrong on homosexuality. And, by the way, can you imagine how unnatural Paul would have considered a heart-transplant?

.... this time he writes that he feels there are more important issues than sex to discuss. Here's his answer -


The Real Issue is Violence, Not Sex

In the Bible, humanity's inaugural problem is never about "sex and the city" but about "violence and the city."

And so the trap closes. Let us, by all means, debate what--if anything-- the Bible says about heterosexual as against homosexual marriage. And while we are doing that--be it from one side or the other--let us ignore what the Bible says about far, far, far more pressing problems. Does that distraction happen just by chance?

The priorities of the Bible are quite clear. When, after that magnificent parable of Genesis 2-3, humans first left the safe confines of the Garden, do you remember the first thing that happened outside of Paradise?

There is nothing about marriage mentioned in Genesis 4, nothing about either heterosexual or homosexual marriage. Nothing, in fact, even about sex, in any way shape or form. Genesis 4 is about fratricidal murder and escalatory violence.

First, the farmer Cain kills the herder Abel and so recorded history begins. It starts that ancient struggle known from the Sumerian plains of Neolithic Mesopotamia ("the cradle of civilization") to the musical strains of Rogers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma ("the farmer and the cowboy should be friends"). But even though Abel's blood cries out to God from the ground, Cain is not killed but marked by God "so that no one who came upon him would kill him" (4:15). God warns, however, that sevenfold vengeance will be taken--not by God but by his tribe--for anyone who murders Cain. And so begins that escalatory violence which has been our human drug-of-choice ever since.

Next, after the farmer slays the herder, he builds a city. "Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and Cain built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch" (4:17). So, for the Bible, humanity's inaugural problem is never about "sex and the city" but about "violence and the city."

Finally, as the chapter proceeds, we find a descendant of Cain named Lamech who boasts that he himself had personally escalated retaliatory vengeance by killing "a man for wounding me" and, "if Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold." That is quite a progress across a single chapter of 25 verses.

The validity of homosexual as well as heterosexual marriage will be generally accepted before most of our generation is gone form this earth. There are, of course, people biblically against it--just as there are people biblically against wine. But nobody tells us anything, if you will recall, about the sexual preferences of that couple during whose "wedding at Cana of Galilee" Jesus supplied an awful lot of wine (John 2:1).

So, then, let us debate about sex and marriage rather than war and violence. Let us concentrate on the bed-room rather than the war-room. Let us liberals get trapped--as always--on the right side of the wrong question. I write this in protest against that deviation from what fundamentally concerns the Bible, the biblical God, and Jesus, namely, that escalatory violence that by now threatens our world with destruction.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

the Nutcracker/Prince

I remember when in college I first realized ballet could be PE. I took some classes and watched Baryshnikov movies :) Here's Baryshnikov below in a bit from The Nutcracker, as the Nutcracker/Prince dancing with Clara (Gelsey Kirkland) by the Christmas tree ....

Monday, December 08, 2008

Can the ends justify the means?

My short answer is "no" but here's my long answer ....

In the comments section of a past post, a question has come up .... is it ok to kill one person to save many? I don't think so, but I'd like to mention a couple of people who've written on the subject, Thomas Aquinas and Philippa Foot.

Philippa Foot, one of the founders of Oxfam and psst Griffin Professor of Philosophy at UCLA, created a thought experiment in ethics called the trolley problem .....

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

Wikipedia points out that Utilitarians would flip the switch because the greater good would follow for the greatest number of people. Others might not do anything, believing that people are not commensurable widgets and that there's not a benefit if fewer of them die. Things get more hinky when you add another element to the problem .....

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

In this case, one actually has to directly cause the death of one person in order to save the others. In the first experiment, one doesn't intend to cause any deaths, and the death of the one person (if one flips the switch) is just an unfortunate side effect of saving the five others. But in this case, you must intend the harm to the person you use to save the other five.

This second example is kind of like the situation in my earlier post .... Rick Warren had said it was ok to assassinate the leader of another country, to save multiple lives. Many of the people who commented on my post agreed with him, and I think this is the point at which Thomas Aquinas' double effect idea comes into play (Summa Theologica, II-II, Qu. 64, Art.7). It deals with acts that have two consequences, one good and one bad, and with the question of whether and how such acts can be moral or not. He sets up some guidelines ....

1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect” (p. 1021).

- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

If I understand correctly (and there's no guarantee of that :), flipping the awitch in the first thought experiment given above, where there is no intent to cause harm, might be ok with Aquinas. But the second example, in which a definitely harmful act is committed along with intent to cause harm, would not be ok. One thing is sure, I think .... the idea of murdering a head of state in order to save great numbers of his subjects would fail Aquinas' test. But of course, Aquinas is not necessarily the last word on morality .... it seems that most people find acceptable the decision to use morally questionable acts as a means to a good end, especially when the stakes are very high.

I guess I'm in the minority, though, as I don't agree that evil acts can be justified by good ends. Once we do start down the road of allowing ends to justify means in extreme cases, how will we figure out where to draw the line?

The Annunciation

Did I post this poem before? Can't remember, so ....

Mary And Gabriel
- Rupert Brooke

Young Mary, loitering once her garden way,
Felt a warm splendour grow in the April day,
As wine that blushes water through. And soon,
Out of the gold air of the afternoon,
One knelt before her: hair he had, or fire,
Bound back above his ears with golden wire,
Baring the eager marble of his face.
Not man's nor woman's was the immortal grace
Rounding the limbs beneath that robe of white,
And lighting the proud eyes with changeless light,
Incurious. Calm as his wings, and fair,
That presence filled the garden.
She stood there,
Saying, "What would you, Sir?"
He told his word,
"Blessed art thou of women!" Half she heard,
Hands folded and face bowed, half long had known,
The message of that clear and holy tone,
That fluttered hot sweet sobs about her heart;
Such serene tidings moved such human smart.
Her breath came quick as little flakes of snow.
Her hands crept up her breast. She did but know
It was not hers. She felt a trembling stir
Within her body, a will too strong for her
That held and filled and mastered all. With eyes
Closed, and a thousand soft short broken sighs,
She gave submission; fearful, meek, and glad. . . .
She wished to speak. Under her breasts she had
Such multitudinous burnings, to and fro,
And throbs not understood; she did not know
If they were hurt or joy for her; but only
That she was grown strange to herself, half lonely,
All wonderful, filled full of pains to come
And thoughts she dare not think, swift thoughts and dumb,
Human, and quaint, her own, yet very far,
Divine, dear, terrible, familiar . . .
Her heart was faint for telling; to relate
Her limbs' sweet treachery, her strange high estate,
Over and over, whispering, half revealing,
Weeping; and so find kindness to her healing.
'Twixt tears and laughter, panic hurrying her,
She raised her eyes to that fair messenger.
He knelt unmoved, immortal; with his eyes
Gazing beyond her, calm to the calm skies;
Radiant, untroubled in his wisdom, kind.
His sheaf of lilies stirred not in the wind.
How should she, pitiful with mortality,
Try the wide peace of that felicity
With ripples of her perplexed shaken heart,
And hints of human ecstasy, human smart,
And whispers of the lonely weight she bore,
And how her womb within was hers no more
And at length hers?
Being tired, she bowed her head;
And said, "So be it!"
The great wings were spread
Showering glory on the fields, and fire.
The whole air, singing, bore him up, and higher,
Unswerving, unreluctant. Soon he shone
A gold speck in the gold skies; then was gone.
The air was colder, and grey. She stood alone.

The rich get rich and the poor get poorer ...

.... unless we do something about it.

I saw a news story today that said that the brains of poor children are so different from those of rich children, it's on a par with them having suffered a stroke - Brain tests show child wealth gap

I think about poverty a lot, or I should say I worry about becoming poor a lot, yet though I exist at about the poverty line (In the US the poverty threshold for a single person under 65 was $10,787), I know I'm ignorant of the brutal realities of true poverty. I saw a post at the Episcopal Cafe about world poverty and what we can do about it .....

The ONE Campaign, which is focused on combating global poverty, is organizing ONE Sabbath, which, together with "companion programs ONE Seva and ONE Sadaqa will rally believers of all faiths, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others, to learn and take action on behalf of people living in extreme poverty and dying from preventable diseases." More information can be found here.

There's a video that goes with the post which has comments from a number of different people (of different faiths) about poverty and religion. It's worth a watch, but I should warn you, it begins with comments by Rick Warren, who I dissed just a few posts ago (ok, I may have somewhat misjudged him :) Don't let that deter you from watching, as there are also comments from people as diverse as Tony Campolo and a rep for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

The video seems to focus on poverty in Africa, but of course there are poor people in almost every society. I don't know if the ONE campaign is the best way to involve people in working against poverty, but at least it raises the subject. If poverty can actually change the structure of a person's brain, our attitude of people needing to pull themselves up with their own bootstraps is not only uncompassionate, it's unfair. The poor will always be among us, will just get poorer, unless we do something about it. And I need to heed that exhortation as much or more than anyone else.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Friday night Kermit's ashes came home from the vet clinic. I've been sad about it all weekend and today when my sister dropped by, she decided to cheer me up by us visiting Apple's movie trailer site. I'd never been there before because my old internet connection was too slow to watch videos. We saw some trailers that embodied what I love most about the movies ...... the ability to realistically portray what can't be real, or to put it more succinctly, special effects.

Here are a few of the movies -

The Day the Earth Stood Still, a remake of the great 50s film with Michael Rennie (Klaatu barada nikto). It stars Keanu Reeves as an alien who visits Earth to assess whether we have the will and ability to stop destroying our planet.

- the mother ship?

Terminator Salvation, which is the 4th Terminator film and stars Christian Bale as an adult John Connor, the son of Sarah Conner of the original film. The story is set in 2018 and focuses on the war between humanity and the machines employed by Skynet. Time paradoxes abound as John hangs out with his soon to be father, Kyle Reese. Sadly, this is the first Terminator movie without Arnold.

Star Trek, which follows James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) enrolling at Starfleet Academy, his first meeting with Spock (Zachary Quinto), and their battles with Romulans from the future, who are interfering with history. Leonard Nimoy plays Spock's older self, time-traveling.

- Spock's mom (Wynona Ryder) and dad (Ben Cross) on Vulcan

Yes, I like science fiction, but I like fantasy too and one of the trailers I especially liked was for a movie adapted from the book of the same name, Inkheart. It stars Brendan Fraser and Helen Mirren and tells the tale of Mo (Frasier) who has the ability to bring to life the characters in the books he's reading. Here below is a YouTube of the trailer (the trailers at the Apple site are sharper but I don't know how to embed them) .......

Immaculate Conception

- Christ and Mary, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1515

Tomorrow's the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I should say from the beginning that I don't really like the idea of the immaculate conception, that the conception of the Virgin Marywas without any stain of original sin. My basic reason is given at the end of the post, but first let me say I'm not alone. As Wikipedia notes .....

It was rejected by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Alexander of Hales, and St. Bonaventure (who, teaching at Paris, called it "this foreign doctrine," indicating its association with England), and by St. Thomas Aquinas who expressed questions about the subject, but said that he would accept the determination of the Church.

You can read what Bernard of Clairvaux had to say here in a blog post I came upon. It's from Bernard's Epistle 174 which I couldn't find online. Here's a bit - People say that one must revere the conception which preceded the glorious birth-giving; for if the conception had not preceded, the birth-giving also would not have been glorious. But what would one say if anyone for the same reason should demand the same kind of veneration of the father and mother of Holy Mary? One might equally demand the same for Her grandparents and great-grandparents, to infinity. Moreover, how can there not be sin in the place where there was concupiscence? All the more, let one not say that the Holy Virgin was conceived of the Holy Spirit and not of man.

Thomas Aquinas is not so clear in his stance, some say he changed his mind later, but you can read what he had to say here - Question 27. The sanctification of the Blessed Virgin - where he writes, in part, If the soul of the Blessed Virgin had never incurred the stain of original sin, this would be derogatory to the dignity of Christ, by reason of His being the universal Saviour of all.

And in a more modern vein, here's a reaction to the idea of the immaculate conception from a commenter on a post on the immaculate conception at dotCommonweal which echos many of my own thoughts .....

# Posted by Lisa Fullam
on December 7th, 2008 at 12:34 pm

Thanks, Eric, for a thoughtful post. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (which my guy Thomas Aquinas did not hold, btw,) is in stark tension (though not a logical contradiction) with the Church’s denial of ordination to women. It never fails to amuse me that the magisterium occasionally feels the need to define (and delimit) women, our nature and vocation, (with or without any substantial input from actual women,) but oddly never feels the need to define (and delimit) the nature and appropriate roles of men, except by counterpoise in the documents on women. Why no masculine counterpart to “Mulieris Dignitatem”?

Of course, when women are contained, constricted and misdefined, so are men. If women are to be passive and receptive, that would seem to imply that men should not be–and anyone in a real relationship knows that such giving and receiving is mutual and reciprocal. When Mary is misread as passive, not the firebrand who shouted the jouful revolutionary anthem of the Magnificat, we downplay (or dismiss) the call for women to be audacious and active also–and the world loses out.

And the issue of women’s ordination remains a third rail in the Church. We’re told the issue is “settled,” so does not require further discussion. Can something so painful for so many be merely defined away? Can vocation be defined away? Justice? And of course we have L’Affaire Bourgeois, demonstrating that the hierarchy will respond with threats of the harshest penalty at its disposal should a priest act up in solidarity with women called to serve as priests in the Church. To put it mildly, the magisterium seems overly defensive on questions relating to women–why? ......

Despite all I've noted above, I guess my best reasons for not liking the idea of the immaculate conception really reat on two things - one is that I see no compelling evidence for it in the NT, and the other reason has to do with how I see Mary. What makes her special to me is not some assigned purity but that she, as flawed and vulnerable as the rest of us, gathered up the courage and trust to say "yes".