Commonplace Book: November 2006 Archives

Quotation for the Day


I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams. Shakespeare--Hamlet, II.ii

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What We Owe God, and Why

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From Fr. Luis of Granada:

from The Sinner's Guide
Fr. Luis of Granada

The design of this book being to win men to virtue, we shall begin by showing our obligation to practice virtue because of the duty we owe to God. God being essentially goodness and beauty, there is nothing more pleasing to Him than virtue, nothing He more earnestly requires. Let us first seriously consider upon what grounds God demands this tribute from us.

But as these are innumerable, we shall only treat of the six principal motives which claim for God all that man is or all that man can do. The first; the greatest, and the most inexplicable is the very essence of God, embracing His infinite majesty, goodness, mercy, justice, wisdom, omnipotence, excellence, beauty, fidelity, immutability, sweetness, truth, beatitude, and all the inexhaustible riches and perfections which are contained in the Divine Being.

This quotation came to me today in a time of struggling to focus, and it made sense for the day, this being Christ the King.

It's an odd thing but the through and through American Baptist Church always seemed to me to have a better sense of what this feast is about than does most of the Catholic Church. Baptists seem to understand the concept of absolute sovereignty with noblesse oblige. Protestants in general tend, if anything, to overemphasize the concept of sovereignty, neglecting the fact that we always have the right to reject His rule, possibly for eternity. Nevertheless, if there's anything a Calvinist knows and responds to it is the sovereignty of God. Catholics, oddly considering all their ritual, seem to be a more casual people God may be sovereign, but that doesn't really mean much of anything. We are more on the terms of the importunate widow--and as a general thing, that's probably a good thing because it is a closer and more reasonable approach to the God who loves us. But it is also good to have a day to remind us of His Kingship and what that means for us.

So I'm grateful today for Luis of Granada and his reminder that we should not sin firstly because it offends justice, the justice of the God he goes on to describe. Now, why in the world would we even consider such an offense?

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Alas! Already Too Late for Me


Yes, even given that it is the words of a father for his well-loved son, this is the type of tribute I would like to receive:

This morning at 3:15, Wilbur passed away, aged 45 years, 1 month, 14 days. A short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadily, he lived and died. Bishop Milton Wright

Especially, "seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadily, he lived and died."

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Benedict's Melancholy

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I was talking to a friend and sharing with her excerpts of the book and she commented that it sounded in every case as though he grasped it from the wrong side, that he talked more about what was missing than what was needed or present. And here's an example that I think demonstrates this proclivity.

from Let God's Light Shine Forth
Pope Benedict XVI, ed. Robert Moynihan

Why we say "before Christ" and "after Christ"

The secular regimes, which do not want to speak about Christ and, on the other hand, do not want to ignore altogether the western calculation of time, substitute the words "before the birth of Christ" and "after the birth of Christ" with formulas like "before and after the common era," or similar phrases. But does this not rather deepen the question: what happened at that moment that made it the change of an era? What was there in that moment that meant a new historical age was beginning, so that time for us begins anew from that date? Why do we no longer measure time from the foundation of Rome, from the Olympiads, from the years of a sovereign or even from the creation of the world? Does this beginning of 2,000 years ago still have any importance for us? Does it have a foundation dimension? What does it say to us? Or has this beginning become for us something empty of meaning, a mere technical convention which we conserve for purely pragmatic reasons? But what then orients our joy? Is it like a vessel that in fact has no course and is now simply pursuing its voyage in the hope that somewhere there may exist an end?

This starts as a superb rebuttal to the BCE folks but it rapidly deteriorates into a peroration about our slide into the sea of meaninglessness. Rather than ask the question Does this beginning of 2,000 years ago still have any importance for us? , it would seem that another approach would arrive at the same end--the approach I associate with JPtG. His tack on the same subject would be, "This beginning of 2,000 years ago still has importance for us today. We cannot escape its shadow, we cannot hide from its glory. As desperately as the historians of death seek to homogenize it into oblivion, they are left with the change of an era without an explanation--a constant hearkening back to the entrance into History of God Himself."

To my mind, Benedicts thought runs downhill into melancholy, a tremulous descent into questioning and into giving some credence to those who would hide from the momentous event. Whereas I think JPtG would tend to call them out of the shadows and ask them to look at what they have been avoiding--were he even to choose to address such a topic.

Again, purely personal, but a track of why I have difficulty approach the thought of Benedict. My problem, not his--but at least it is a problem shared by others as well in encountering Benedict's teaching.

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Let God's Light Shine Forth

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This book is a compendium of short insights from the writings of Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, the "author," Robert Moynihan, is humbly listed only as an "editor." The book is published this month in paperback.

For those, like me, who are not enamored of the present Pope's writings, this is a perfect introduction. After a short biographical introduction in which Moynihan spells out the three main thrusts of Cardinal Ratzinger's/Pope Benedict's approach to the crisis in the Catholic Church, the editor produces a compendium of short writings centered around the topics of "His [Benedict's} Faith", "Today's World," and "The Christian Pilgrim." In addition there are three short pieces from the beginning of Pope Benedict's pontificate.

The organization is superb. For me the selection was enlightening, although probably not in the way it was intended to be and seemed to cull from a great many lesser known sources, and the information provided was illuminating. Pope Benedict XVI, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, is a very interior man who has some difficulty sharing the wealth of revelations that came from his insights. Throughout the book I saw more the intellectual than the pastor. Given that the hardcover book was produced at the very beginning of Pope Benedict's pontificate, this can hardly be surprising. However, it gives a lot of credence to those who feared the pontificate because of the singular lack of pastoral charism evinced to that point by Pope Benedict XVI, which should not be read as a criticism of the Pope, merely a personal reaction. And this observation helped me understand my disconnect with him--we are far too similar. In this brief selection of writings, I get the impression of an extremely intelligent, extremely thoughtful, perhaps very holy bull in a china shop. Now, when I said we are similar, I don't mean to claim for myself either intelligence, thoughtfulness, or holiness, but rather that we are both very interior men whose exterior behavior is occasionally, and probably mostly unwittingly akin to that of a bull in a china shop. The recent brouhaha over remarks made during one of BXVI's speeches is a splendid case in point of saying precisely what is on our minds but having it interpreted outside of the context of our minds and the general message. These qualities don't make for the heart of a great pastor. That said, we cannot deny that the Holy Spirit gave us this great leader for this time and for His purposes. And with time, I will probably find myself drawn to understand and love him far better.

The passages in this book point out the crystal clarity of thought. What I was astonished by was the lack of surprises and interesting insights I encountered as I read. Pope Benedict XVI has had a mission to catechize from the basics, and much of what I read here, I read with a sort of acknowledgment of the truth and an implicit question, "And then?" or "What follows from this?" For example:

from Let God's Light Shine Forth
Pope Benedict XVI, ed. Robert Moynihan

A Central Truth
It must be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith that the universal salvific will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once and for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.

So, surprise, we must believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him shall not die but shall have everlasting life--only stated somewhat more ponderously.

This said, I must admit that the excerpts from the Today's World and particularly The Christian Pilgrim sections of the book provide more of what I was looking for. Not that what is articulated above is trivial, it is not, but it's rather like never moving beyond Euclid's postulates. In this case a lifetime of love can be had from meditating upon the truth articulated in the quotation from John, but I find Pope Benedict's articulation of it rather like a very high fiber muffin--nutritious but a bit tough, tasteless, and chewy.

On the other hand:

Proof of the authenticity of my love

In my prayer at communion, I must, on the one hand look totally toward Christ, allowing myself to be transformed by him, even to burn in his enveloping fire. But I must also always keep clearly in mind how he unites me organically with every other communicant--the one next to me, who I may not like very much; but also with those who are far away, in Asia, Africa, America, or in any other place.

Becoming one with them, I must learn to open myself toward them and to involve myself in their situations.

I'm sure the longer works would answer the question raised. But the truth of the matter is that I had enough of reading Benedict in these short passages. I'm neither enlightened nor excited, and frankly, contrary to the previous Pope, I find Benedict's message too gloomy and dire to spark me onwards in faith. Were I to take any part of what I've read too seriously, I'd have to consider going off into the desert and giving up hope for humanity--even though he constantly says not to, his writings are a compendium of reasons to do so.

These are all subjective impressions--gleanings from short works before the Pontificate, and highly colored by my own impressions. For those not deeply aware of Benedict, his career and his writing, this book provides a superb overview and series of insights into the main lines of this great man's thought. For those better acquainted, this book serves as a sort of "Sermon in a Sentence" compendium of short thoughts--a gathering of insights from the many published works and from many speeches, sermons, and lectures given during his career.

For people desiring a better acquaintance with our present pontiff, this book may serve as an excellent resource. I know that it helped me better understand my reticence and lack of rapport. Recognizing my fault in looking at the Holy Father, I can now take steps to remedy it. Going back to a quotation used earlier,

Becoming one with [him], I must learn to open myself toward [him] and to involve myself in [his] situations.

Any lack is not on the part of Benedict, but rather on the part of my own etiolated, scrawny, hardscrabble soul. I demand that he meet my needs, when instead I should be looking to see how he already does and has as leader of the Church and teacher of the truth.

The book is highly recommended for all people who wish to know some of Benedict's thought better without diving into the major works. It is also an excellent book of reflections and insights for people who know and love Benedict and his works quite well.

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Middlemarch Revisted III


And here I must vindicate a claim to philosophical reflectiveness, by remarking that Mr. Brooke on this occasion little thought of the Radical speech which, at a later period, he was led to make on the incomes of the bishops. What elegant historian would neglect a striking opportunity for pointing out that his heroes did not foresee the history of the world, or even their own actions?--For example, that Henry of Navarre, when a Protestant baby, little thought of being a Catholic monarch; or that Alfred the Great, when he measured his laborious nights with burning candles, had no idea of future gentlemen measuring their idle days with watches. Here is a mine of truth, which, however vigorously it may be worked, is likely to outlast our coal.

[And, a bit later on another subject]

"What? meaning to stand?" said Mr. Cadwallader, going on with the
arrangement of the reels which he had just been turning. "I hardly think he
means it. But where's the harm, if he likes it? Any one who objects to
Whiggery should be glad when the Whigs don't put up the strongest
fellow. They won't overturn the Constitution with our friend Brooke's head
for a battering ram."

[And, finally, here's one for the annals of put-down exchanges--almost no character is left unscathed.]

"In the first place," said the Rector, looking rather grave, "it would
be nonsensical to expect that I could convince Brooke, and make him act
accordingly. Brooke is a very good fellow, but pulpy; he will run into
any mould, but he won't keep shape." . . .

"Humphrey! I have no patience with you. You know you would rather
dine under the hedge than with Casaubon alone. You have nothing to say to
each other."

"What has that to do with Miss Brooke's marrying him? She does not do
it for my amusement."

"He has got no good red blood in his body," said Sir James.

"No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass and it was all
semicolons and parentheses," said Mrs. Cadwallader.

"Why does he not bring out his book, instead of marrying," said Sir
James, with a disgust which he held warranted by the sound feeling of an
English layman.

"Oh, he dreams footnotes, and they run away with all his brains. They
say, when he was a little boy, he made an abstract of `Hop o' my Thumb,'
and he has been making abstracts ever since. Ugh! And that is the man
Humphrey goes on saying that a woman may be happy with."

The story may be ultimately sad, but how can one not see the sparkle in such asides?

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On Spiritual Gluttony

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Being a Carmelite can be difficult. Heck, let's face it, it is difficult. The dedication to a life of prayer is all well and good, but it is ethereal and a matter of grace overcoming the tendency one might have to seek more sensible satisfaction.

from Dark Night of the Soul Book 1 Chapter 6
St. John of the Cross

[On Spiritual Gluttony]

2. Such individuals are unreasonable and most imperfect. They subordinate submissiveness and obedience (which is a penance of reason and discretion, and consequently a sacrifice more pleasing and acceptable to God) to corporeal penance. But corporeal penance without obedience is no more than a penance of beasts. And like beasts, they are motivated in these penances by an appetite for the pleasure they find in them. Since all extremes are vicious and since by such behavior these persons are doing their own will, they grow in vice rather than in virtue. For through this conduct they at least become spiritually gluttonous and proud, since they do not tread the path of obedience. The devil, increasing the delights and appetites of these beginners and thereby stirring up this gluttony in them, so impels many of them that when they are unable to avoid obedience they either add to, change, or modify what was commanded. Any obedience in this matter is distasteful to them. Some reach such a point that the mere obligation of obedience to perform their spiritual exercises makes them lose all desire and devotion. Their only yearning and satisfaction is to do what they feel inclined to do, whereas it would be better in all likelihood for them not to do this at all.

3. Some are very insistent that their spiritual director allow them to do what they themselves want to do, and finally almost force the permission from him. And if they do not get what they want, they become sad and go about like testy children. They are under the impression that they do not serve God when they are not allowed to do what they want. Since they take gratification and their own will as their support and their god, they become sad, weak, and discouraged when their director takes these from them and desires that they do God's will. They think that gratifying and satisfying themselves is serving and satisfying God. . . .

6. They have the same defect in their prayer, for they think the whole matter of prayer consists in looking for sensory satisfaction and devotion. They strive to procure this by their own efforts, and tire and weary their heads and their faculties. When they do not get this sensible comfort, they become very disconsolate and think they have done nothing. Because of their aim they lose true devotion and spirit, which lie in distrust of self and in humble and patient perseverance so as to please God. Once they do not find delight in prayer, or in any other spiritual exercise, they feel extreme reluctance and repugnance in returning to it and sometimes even give it up. For after all, as was mentioned,1 they are like children who are prompted to act not by reason but by pleasure. All their time is spent looking for satisfaction and spiritual consolation; they can never read enough spiritual books, and one minute they are meditating on one subject and the next on another, always hunting for some gratification in the things of God. God very rightly and discreetly and lovingly denies this satisfaction to these beginners. If he did not, they would fall into innumerable evils because of their spiritual gluttony and craving for sweetness. This is why it is important for these beginners to enter the dark night and be purged of this childishness.2

Perhaps everyone longs for some surety of the effectiveness of communication; looks for some sign that the message has been received and acknowledged; looks for some hint that love sent out is returned.

In the matter of prayer, such longings are not to be trusted. In fact, in the matter of prayer, such longings are a temptation away from prayer. If one enters prayer with the notion that one needs to "get something out of it," one will fail every time because there will come a time when nothing sensible does come out of it.

But there are several reasons why this attitude is wrong. If someone were invited to a friend's house for a quiet cup of tea (coffee) and a sit out on the back porch watching the world go by, most would not immediately ask, "What will I get out of it?" This simply isn't the way most people look at friendship. Time is spent because it is profitable, in ways untold, to spend the time. If one's fiancé said, "Let's go for a walk" most people would not ask, "What can I expect from it? Will I know that you love me more by the end of it?" Why then, when it comes to prayer, are expectations so different? In prayer, one is invited to spend time with the Bridegroom of the Soul, the closest, most intimate friend anyone will ever have. But the attitude many, if not most, strike is, "Show me how this will be good for me."

Or think of the matter in another way. When one has been spending a great deal of time in physical training, one doesn't enter the weight room with the expectation that there will be any sensible difference by the time one leaves. In fact, if one is wise, one doesn't really desire any sensible difference because the difference one is more likely than not to sense will be pain. So with prayer, the constant practice of which is remotely analogous to weight-training, one does it to maintain one's grace-won place in the Kingdom, not to "be promoted" to Sainthood. The purpose of prayer is not to earn a place at the right hand of God, but to remain in the place that God's grace has fashioned for one. That, in itself, is the life of heroic sanctity--to advance in holiness, to advance in being what God would have one be, to weed out all imperfection from life and to move as God would have one move. These are achieved not through the sensible satisfactions of prayer, but through simple and humble obedience, humility, and gratitude. One advances not by advancing, but by remaining precisely where God would have one be and not questioning one's station but accepting the will of God in the matter of one's place in the kingdom.

Spiritual Gluttony, the desire to sniff out the sensible consolations of prayer and focus on them, stands in the way of accepting God's will. It amounts to saying, "So long as you do what I like, I shall visit. But as soon as you stop paying out the wealth of your generosity, I shall seek other venues for satisfaction." The desire for sensation overpowers the desire to serve and to be with Our Lord to the detriment of each person who succumbs and of all the people that surround them. Prayer is not about sensible consolation, but about obedience, humility, gratitude, and joy in the presence of an intimate friend.

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from Will in the World
Stephen Greenblatt

With its crush of small factories, dockyards, and warehouses; its huge food markets, breweries, print ships, hospitals, orphanages, law schools, and guildhalls; its cloth makers, glassmakers, basket makers, brick makers, shipwrights, carpenters, tinsmiths, armorers, haberdashers, furriers, dyers, goldsmiths, fishmongers, booksellers, chandlers, drapers, grocers, and their crowds of unruly apprentices; not to mention its government officials, couriers, lawyers, merchants, ministers, teachers, soldiers, sailors, porters, carters, watermen, innkeepers, cooks, servants, peddlers, minstrels, acrobats, cardsharps, pimps, whores, and beggars, London overflowed all boundaries.

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"For All the Saints. . . " II


Isn't it odd how the hymn would have it that we pray to all the saints "who from their labors rest," when, in fact, the serious work of the Saint begins with their ability to intercede before the throne of the Most High. I think of St. Therese and her desire to "spend my heaven doing good on Earth."

For All the Saints
William W. How

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

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"For All the Saints. . ."


TSO has a fuller quotation from which this is extracted:

a joy limited to considering one's own grace and salvation could not claim to be Christian."

--Hans von Balthasar

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About this Archive

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

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