Commonplace Book: December 2004 Archives

Let All Creation Praise Him!


We find reasons for praise and sources of wonder in the oddest places. This after it was once again in Mandelbrot's book.

from The (Mis)Behavior of Markets
Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson

It is an extraordinary feature of science that the most diverse, seemingly unrelated, phenomena can be described with the same mathematical tools. The same quadratic equations with thich the ancients drew right angles to build their temples can be used today by a banker to calculate the yield to maturity of a new, two-year bond. The same techniques of calculus developed by Newton and Leibniz two centuries ago to study the orbits of Mars and Mercury can be used today by a civil engineer to calculate the maximum stress on a new bridge, or the volume of water to pass beneath it. Now, none of this means that the bridge, river, and planets work in the same way; or that an archaeologist at the Acropolis should help price an Accenture bond. . . . But the variety of natural phenomna is boundless while, despite all appearances to the contrary, the number of really distinct mathematical concepts and tools at our disposal is surprisingly small. When a man goes to clear a jungle he has relatively few types of tools: To cut, perhaps a machete; to knock down, a bulldozer; to burn, fire. Science is like that. When we explore the vast realms of natural and human behavior, we find our most useful tools of measurement and calculation are based on surprisingly few basic ideas. When a man has a hammer, all he sees around him are nails to hit. So it should be no great surprise that, with our small number of effective mathematical tools, we can find analogies between a wind tunnel and a Reuters screen.

This brief passage inspired in me a diffuse chain of thought. If these things may all be described with a limited number of tools (as Mandelbrot maintains) then the infinite diversity and complexity of phenomena that we see about are are really all variations of a few key themes.

I will not contend that this speculation proves anything at all, but merely that looking upon this possible conclusion, one can see for a moment the image of the mind of the maker--infinitely varied and yet discrete and accessible. That all of these varied things should have in common some underlying language, some limited group of descriptors either means that we are not truly describing them, or their relationships are by far more important than their perceived differences.

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Well-seasoned Stock (Market)

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That's kurtosis, which is neither ketosis, thankfully, nor kenosis.

Let's face it. One of the reasons you stop by here is that you want to see what oddity I will trot out next, what quirky thing presented itself to my warped imagination as a thing of interest.

Well today we have Kurtosis and Mandelbrot's analysis of the stock market.

from The (Mis)Behavior of Markets
Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson

Statisticians like to condense a lot of confusing information into one clear talking point, and so they have devised a single number to measure what we have been discussing--how closely real data fit the ideal bell curve. They call it kurtosis, for the Greek kyrtos, or curved. But we can think of it as how much "spice" is in the statistical broth. A perfect, unseasoned bell curve has a kurtosis of three. A hot, fait-tailed curve of the sort we have been finding would have a higher spice number, while a curve that had been boiled into a dull paste would have a lower number. According to a 2003 book by Wim Schoutens, a Catholic University of Leuven mathematician, the daily variaiton in another common U.S. stock-market index, the Standard&Poor's 500, had a kurtosis of 43.36 between 1970 and 2001. This is, by the bland standard of the statistical kitchen, a five-alarm chili. If you throw out the spiciest data point, the October 1987 crash, you still get an uncomfortably hot dish: a kurtosis of 7.17. The high-tech NASDAQ index: 5.78. The French CAC-40: 4.63. All are above the Gaussian norm of three.

Hope that whipped up the Holiday appetite dulled from too many sweets and too much turkey. Get out your stock (market) pot and boil yourself up some Kurtosis of 1987!

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In Preparation for New Year's

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and making resolutions that matter and prayers that are worthwhile, I present once again from the writings of St. Josemaria Escriva:

The Seventeen Evidences of a Lack of Humility

1. To think that what one says or does is better than what others say or do

2. To always to want to get your own way

3. To argue with stubbornness and bad manners whether you are right or wrong

4. To give your opinion when it has not been requested or when charity does not demand it

5. To look down on another's point of view

6. Not to look on your gifts and abilities as lent

7. Not to recognize that you are unworthy of all honors and esteem, not even of the earth you walk on and things you possess

8. To use yourself as an example in conversations

9. To speak badly of yourself so that others will think well of you or contradict you

10. To excuse yourself when you are corrected

11. To hide humiliating faults from your spiritual director, so that he will not change the impression he has of you

12. To take pleasure in praise and compliments

13. To be saddened because others are held in higher esteem

14. To refuse to perform inferior tasks

15. To seek to stand out

16. To refer in conversation to your honesty, genius, dexterity, or professional prestige

17. To be ashamed because you lack certain goods

Lord. grant me eyes to see my own faults and to desire to make them good. Let me see how I fail in humility and give me the strength and the courage to make it right. Lord, let me be what you would have me be--nothing more, nothing less. And let me not pretend to anything more than my identity in Christ. And grant me the willingness to abandon myself in the pursuit of that Pearl of Great Price, the One who matters. Amen

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On Libraries


How is this for a quotation:

"Libraries will survive the digital revolution because they are places of sensuality and power"

or this:

"'I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,' wrote Jorge Luis Borges, poet, writer and librarian, who understood better than most the essential physicality of books."


See the source.

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A Spirituality of Reading

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This link thanks to Neil, gives some insight to the thought about the spirituality of reading. I think there is much here that may inspire hope for those who feel hopelessly left out of the contemplative world. Perhaps more later.

Reading with New Eyes
Nancy Malone, OSU (Ursuline Sisters)

I suspect that lots of people who love reading have a sense there is something spiritual about it. That was my hunch when I started thinking about "a spirituality of reading." The hunch was based on two simple observations. One, that the acts of reading and of contemplation share many of the same characteristics: Both are usually done alone, in silence and physical stillness, our attention focused, our whole selves - body, mind, and hearts - engaged. And two, that reading scripture and the lives of the saints played a significant part in the conversions of St. Augustine and St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. I wanted to explore the spiritual value to be found not so much in reading "holy books," however, but in good books of all kinds - novels, poetry, biography, history, short stories.

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Random Thought/Quotation

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Better to be thought a fool than to break silence and remove all doubt.

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Thomas Merton on Suffering

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By the way, much of the recent quotation is derived secondarily from Dwight Longenecker's beautiful study St. Benedict and St. Thérèse

from The Seven Storey Mountain
Thomas Merton

The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you . . . the one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all; it is his own existence which is the source of his pain.

And this extremely powerful note from Longenecker follows:

from St. Benedict and St. Thérèse
Dwight Longenecker

If the vow of stability forces me to stay in one place and face the grim reallitiles of llife, then I am also confronted by the glorious realities. Indeed, if we embrace ther grim reality, then the good reality is more vibrantly alive than we could ever have imagined. The climax of Thérèse's deathbed experience was an excrutiating participation in the suffering of Christ, but it was also an exhilirating participation in the love of Christ. On the afternoon of her death she cries, "Newver would I have believed it was possible to suffer so much!" but her last words are, "Oh! I love HIm! . . . My God . . . I love you!"

The everyday realities of being married, of loving who and where we are--these are the places where we are called to grow in sanctity, in the pain of feeling not appreciated, and in the warm embrace of family.

I go on, but I think you would all do yourselves a favor to acquire and read this wonderful book. It has blessed me over and over again.

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From St. Thérèse


"We must see life in its true light . . . it is an instant between two eternities."

"Let us turn our single moment of suffering to profit, let us see each insant as if there were no other. An instant is a treasure."

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A Rose Against Acedie

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A rose for you from St. Thérèse:

"We who run in the way of Love must never torment ourselves about anything. If I did not suffer minute by minute, it would be impossible for me to be patient; but I see only the present moment, I forget the past, and take good care not to anticipate the future. If we grow disheartened, if sometimes we despair, it is because we have been dwelling on the past or the future."

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In common terms, sloth.

from "The Deadliest of the Sins" in One Half of Robertson Davies
Robertson Davies

I have never been able to make up my mind which it is that people fear to feel most--pain or joy. Life will bring you both. You will not be able to escape the pain completely, thouogh Acedia will dull it a little. But unfortunately it lies in your power to reject the joy utterly. Because we are afraid that great exultation may betray us into some actions, some words, which may make us look a little foolish to people who are not sharing our experience, we very often stifle our moments of joy, thinking that we will give them their outlet later. But alas, after a few years of that kind of thing, joy ceases to visit us. . . There is an old saying of medieval teachers which I recommend to your special notice:

Time Jesum transeuntem et non revertentem.

I shall translate it thus: 'Dread the passing of Jesus, for He does not return.' And thus it is with all great revelations, be they relgious or not. Seize them, embrace them, let them engulf you, draw from them the uttermost of what they have to give, for if you rebuff them, they will not come again. We live a world where too many people are pititfully afraid of joy.

Acedie is one of the most dreadful of the deadly sins because it sneaks up on you. It slowly grows until it has a complete grip and suddenly you can't find the way out (if you even recognize your predicament.) Not so lust or gluttony, which while persausive and powerful, are generally of a moment and recognizable. Most people can recognize when they commit these sins--but most are ignorant of any signs of Acedie. In a time of waiting, look inside and see what is there--look for signs of joylessness of being above the fray, sophisticated, and too advanced for those emotions that drive hoi polloi.

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A Vow of Partial Silence

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In a comment, Mama T brought up an interesting and, in my experience, largely true psychological insight. When we control our tongues, we go a long way to controlling how we feel and react to things.

This from James:

James 3:6-12

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue -- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

(An aside: I love the book of James, precisely because Luther so despised it. In order for Luther's theology to work, he needed to divest himself of James and Hebrews--compelling evidence that his system had flaws, if one were only to heed the evidence.)

In the Gospels, Our Lord tells us that it is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but rather what comes out of him. For what comes out of him comes out of the fullness of his heart. Think of your instinctive reactions to comments made around you/about you. Is it the reaction of the saints who say, "Thank you Lord for this humiliation, for this reminder of my lowliness in the scheme of things." Or is it (as in my case) more, "Who the heck does that bozo think he is?"

I think we start with an act of will--a vow of partial silence. With Mama T's friend it was, "No complaint shall pass my lips." By not complaining, her view of the world changed--there became less in the world to complain about. I would do well to start here. But I know that I need to go beyond. I need to promise myself never to speak about another person outside of that person's presence. And I'm not referring to gossip, which I have long abhorred, but even the truth in small negative things. Speaking these truths colors my perceptions of the persons about whom I am speaking. And as James says above, may I bless God and curse humanity that is made in his image? May the stream of my speech flow from both sweet and brackish water?

Bridling the tongue is the first step on the path to extending grace in our lives. God will work with us however we are, but when we make this promise of obedience, even though we do not initially feel it, I do believe that grace flows in so that soon we are feeling.

I look around the blogosphere and so much unpleasantness, so many dark things are the result of people "talking" to people they never meet. What flows out of the comment boxes can be vitriol and hell-fire. Not everywhere, not all the time--but it is so much easier to say ill of people we have never met.

Speech is more than what comes out of my mouth. In a very real way what I write each day is speech. It has the power to comfort or to confront, to wound or to heal, to offer a glimpse of grace or a glimpse of hell. Satan would have us believe that what we say is of little consequence. But both our Lord and St. James tell us otherwise.

So perhaps I should consider this vow of partial silence--simply to refrain from saying what need not be said. It sounds like the easiest, most reasonable, most logical thing in the world--and yet it is fraught with such enormous difficulties one wonders if it is even possible. But with grace and through Christ, I can do all things. He will assist if I am firm in my conviction that for love of Him I will offer no harm to any of His brothers, to any of God's children. Let my speech be always edifying, converting the sinner, changing hearts, offering comfort and a place to rest. That is my prayer as I wait for the coming of Our Lord. With joy and expectation, in hope that His time is soon, I wait and I thank God for this season to remind me of what it is I wait for and wait upon.

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An insight that startled me:

from St. Benedict and St. Thérèse
Dwight Longenecker

Church-shopping is one of the spiritual diseases of our age. Constantly on the lookout for an excellent preacher, good music, fine liturgy, or pleasing architecture, we become liturgical tasters and our taste becomes so refined that, like the connoisseur who has spoiled his appreciation through snobbery, we can never find a church exquisite enough for us.

These lines were written right at me. One of the problems I have espoused with my present parish is the awful decoration and certain anomalies in practice. What I should have been doing is working quietly and relentlessly within the parish to bring it into line with Church teaching.

Apparently some good souls have been doing so. The expansion of Eucharistic adoration, the suggestion of building a special chapel for exactly this purpose, and the request to alter the configuration of the Church to result in a eucharistic centrality, is evidence of a core of faithfulness that has worked relentlessly to effect the changes necessary to bring the entire parish into line with the Church at large. I should be ashamed of myself for my laxity and my own appetite for comfort, by which I deprived the parish of one more supporter--a supporter who might have made shorter work of the long waiting the people have experienced. I pray that God forgive me my own self-indulgence.

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Prayer for the Day


And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

--William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V

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Not a Stalwart Chestertonian


No, I'm not. I like some things, find many things rather poorly written, and find the poetry often all-but-unreadable (there are notable exceptions--sections of The White Horse and Lepanto). But as many are perfectly will to tell you there are some wonderful treasures. In the e-books I posted a link to the other day I found this delightful excerpt of an essay:

from "A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls" in The Defendant
G.K. Chesterton

One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy's novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that a modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically--it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.

In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking, despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole
under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.

To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Commonplace Book category from December 2004.

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