Commonplace Book: June 2006 Archives

A notation at Father Jim's reminded of that age-old question that I'm so thankful is neither asked nor heard of within the precincts of a Catholic Church. The query and some possible responses (in various shades of snarkiness) below.

"Have you found Jesus?"

"Oh dear, have you misplaced Him?"
"I hadn't heard He'd gone missing."
"No, but He found me."
"Are you looking for a referral?"
"This isn't 'Where's Waldo.'"

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A Provocation


. . .from Charles Williams-

In defence of his conclusion he was willing to cheat in the evidence--a habit more usual to religious writers than to historical.

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Life in the Balance


from Book by Book
Michael Dirda

To do good work a man should be industrious. . . to do great work he must certainly be idle as well. --Henry Ward Beecher

Plato insisted that a life devoted solely to pleasure would be as incomplete as one given over entirely to wisdom. Only the mixed life is a complete and fulfilled life.--Michael Dirda

Levine's words call to mind the classical imperative, "Do what you are doing." That is, whether you are preparing dinner or playing tennis or tuning a car's engine or sweeping a room, really focus your whole self on just that. Do it well, and you can invest even the most trivial activities with significance, transforming the mundane into the spiritual.--Michael Dirda

And how does focus move us from the mundane to the eternal? In the classic way of all things, by taking "self" out of the equation. In the presence of grace, when the constructed, artificial self moves out of the way, even for a moment, the life of grace resumes its steady rhythm. This wouldn't be Dirda's answer to the question as he finds reason enough in the labor itself; however, it is my answer, taking the good I find here and making it better by directing it toward the ultimate goal of praising God. Praising God may only be done when we do everything with Him, through Him, and in Him. It may only be done when all that we are is put into the task at hand because the task at hand is what God has allotted us for this time. When we do what we have been allotted without complaint and without restraint, we are performing God's will perfectly.

And this is the explanation of that mysterious phenomenon of eutrepalia or "leisure in the Lord" the joy that flows from recreation, which also must be pursued with all that we are. Whatever is the calling of the moment must be engaged in with all that we have and all that we are giving back to God what grace has given us. This is the life of constant prayer--constant immersion in the life of grace through performing with all of our ability whatever task lay before us at the time.

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Please forgive my frequent quotations from Michael Dirda's book, but it is one of those short volume of accumulated wisdom that probably means differently every time you approach it. And tonight these passages really spoke to me:

from Book by Book
Michael Dirda

An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man's entire existence. --Honoré de Balzac

We succeed in enterprise which demand the positive qualities we possess, but we excel in those which can also make use of our defects.--Alexis de Tocqueville

The maturity of man--that means, to have reacquired the seriousness that one had as a child at play.--Friedrich Nietzsche

The point is: You generally can't wait for inspiration, so just get on with the work. Disciplined, regular effort will elicit inspiration no matter what your field.--Michael Dirda

These are all related by being about vocation, and vocation is what each person is called to. Balzac tells us that there is no life without a vocation lived to its fullest. That means if you're a religious, live the life of a religious, but if you are a father (to take the theme of the day) be a father--be a man and show your children what it means to be a man and teach your sons how to become men. Otherwise, they are stranded--lost in Never-Never Land only to be inflicted some day on some poor unsuspecting woman whose father taught her to love what it means to be a man. In other words, no bellyaching--or at least no bellyaching about the responsibilities of being a father. Cowboy up and do what is right and what is required.

And being a father makes use of defects as well as strengths. How many of us have never made any mistakes with our children? But we can turn to them and say, "I was wrong, please forgive me." Say it now. And say it when it is needed. And say it as often as it is needed. Real respect doesn't come from your children thinking you are perfect, it comes from them seeing that you know you aren't, and yet you're trying the very best you can.

And real fatherhood, like all vocations, requires complete involvement--the involvement of a child completely rapt in the fantasy world that accompanies play--oblivious to the call for dinner or to anything outside the pirate ship they have constructed from sticks or the game they are playing at the moment.

And finally, real excellence, real inspiration comes from doing this day in and day out, with the focus not on ourselves but on the service we can render to our families. It means taking the back seat often, when we want to be driving. It means cub scout meetings, baseball practices and dance recitals when we want to watch 24 or Lost. It means putting aside pleasures that you don't want your own children to observe or to do themselves. It means a sacrifice that cannot be called that because the reward gives infinitely more than the sacrifice takes away. When lived the way it should be in God's pure light and true, it is a means of sanctifying grace, of sainthood and of example.

I don't live it yet--but I know that I can through Christ who strengthens me.

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Words of Wisdom

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from Flannery O'Connor in Book by Book
Michael Dirda

The high-shcool English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted, it is being formed.

This is where a great many of us have been let down by the educational system--more in generations after my own, but my own to some degree--at least I can say that this is where the landslide started. Today, if you ask at random any three graduates of our High School system, you're likely to find that none of them have heard of, much less read anything by, Jane Austen, or Ralph Emerson, or anyone who isn't on the very restricted list of the politically correct and culturally sensitive. But lest this turn into a rant--homeschoolers, do your child a favor and teach the classics--poetry as well as prose, whether or not it is to your taste--it is never too late to begin development.

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The First Degree of Conversion


from Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer
Fr. Thomas Dubay

The first degree of conversion, therefore, is a 180-degree reversal:"I renounce my idol, Lord; I want you instead. I am very, very sorry. With your grace I am going to change my life. I freely choose to repent. I shall receive your sacrament of reconciliation." The perfect portrayal of this basic conversion is found in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32). The fundamental friendship with God is restored.

Some books are not really meant to be read through, even though they CAN be read through quite easily. From the beginning, this book has seemed one of those. One could read it easily, in an hour, perhaps two. But were one to do so, there are a great many things that would be lost and a great deal that could help one's prayer life that would be overlooked.

The passage noted above is fundamental Catholic doctrine; indeed, fundamental doctrine for all Christians worthy of the name. The world is a fallen place, fallen because of our ancestors' sin and each person takes his or her place in that fallen world. Every person who chooses to abandon his or her place in the fallen world and take up the gift of a place in heaven participates in the salvation of the entire world. Such people can say with Paul that they make up in their own bodies what was lacking in the sacrifice of Christ.

Perhaps one can think of it as a shift in the center of gravity. For every person who chooses to take up the Christian life, the balance is shifted toward heaven. Everyone who determines to do more than the mere minimum adds the mass of grace to the position held in the kingdom, the center of gravity shifts more. Those who choose to live truly heroic lives of virtue become so great an attraction that they draw more into the life of grace. The intercession of the saints is an enormous force. There is a constant shifting of mass in this balancing of the center of gravity--writers of old have called this "The War in Heaven," the enormous battle waged for each soul in which all of the might of the Angels and Saints is mustered against the Fallen Ones over each soul. And all of that massing becomes evident in the choice a person makes for or against God.

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Bad Judgments

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This quotation helps me to feel better about my own lack of appreciation of certain well-respected, admired, and beloved authors. It shows that we all have blind spots--some quite, quite large.

from Ralph Waldo Emerson in
The Jane Austen Book Club
Karen Joy Fowler

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. . . . All that interests in any character [is]: has he (or she) the money to marry with?. . . Suicide is more respectable.

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I have many gems to share with you, but this is the most recent and really delightful. It's passages like this that seem to completely befuddle reviewers of the book--and completely to elude them. Most interesting.

from The Essence of the Thing
Madeleine St. John

'Still: salvation. Not such a bad deal, is it?'

'I don't know--perhaps it isn't. It's just--'

'I know what you mean.'

'I mean, the whole thing's simply preposterous.'

'Yes, it is, absolutely.'

But that, she sudddenly suspected, might be its cheifest recommendation. 'You wouldn't think anyone could ever believe that stuff, would you?' she said, marvelling. 'Let alone in these days.'

'Even quite intelligent people. Otherwise intelligent, anyway.'

'It's an utter mystery.'

'Yes, it is. An utter mystery.'

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Humor and Sorrow


Two glimpses into a book that I am enjoying despite the shared heartache.

from The Essence of the Thing
Madeleine St. John

At lunch-time she sent out for a sandwich and worked in while the office slowly emptied around her. At last they were all gone. She carried on valiantly for a few minutes but then abandoned the machine, and pushing aside the half-eaten sandwich and the half-drunk coffee, and leaning her elbows on the desk, she buried her face in her hands, and sat thus, immobile, abandoned for a time to the unveiled acknowledgement of white-hot relentless pain. It will get better, she told herself at last, it must get better; I have only to live through this. She did not see that it would get better in some ways, and worse in others, would change its shape and colour through the days and weeks to come so as at all times to possess her mind and ensure her suffering until at last it was pleased to retreat. I must, she thought, just concentrate on what comes next, and try to live through this a decently as I can. She was not British for nothing.

Susannah replaced the receiver and stared at the telephone. So it really had happened. Nicola had lost her lover and her home, just like that, kaput. What vile cruelty. It was like an Act of God in its suddenness, its comprehensiveness, its magnitude; it left one gasping. It was almost enough to make a person start smoking again: one really might as well, considering how many much worse ills awaited one. For several minutes the world looked to Susannah unutterably dreadful. The she went on with her work. She was a picture researcher and at the moment she was attempting to collect together colour transparencies of all the painting of J.-B. Chardin. She picked up one which had arrived in that morning's post and looked at it again through the viewer. The world was unutterably dreadful, but. There might be almost nothing one could do about it, but there was after all something one could do in spite of it. Hallelujah, she said to herself, hallelujah. Whatever that may mean. And so she consoled herself.

The story is told in large chunks of dialogue and somewhat out of chronological sequence. And I think many who have read it have missed a central point in St. John's narrative and reasoning. I'll see if my supposition is borne out as I read, but I have a distinct sense of why this impasse has come, and the reasoning and end is very, very Catholic indeed--if there is enough evidence to support it. Following the important rule of three, I have two references, I'll let you know my hypothesis if the third shows up.

Later: Reading during lunch, I'm gratified to find, quite quickly the third critical reference. I'll share in my review of the book.

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Amusing Bits


Approaching the end of A Far Cry from Kensington and there's this, which amused me:

from A Far Cry from Kensington
Muriel Spark

Fred said many other good things about William, for Fred talked like the sea, in ebbs and flows each ending in a big wave which washed up the main idea. So that you didn't have to listen much at all, just wait for the big splash. And so, from his long, rippling eulogy I was able to report to William that his musical criticism was lucid and expert.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Commonplace Book category from June 2006.

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