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Archive for July, 2009

I had been planning on writing at length on Benedict XVI’s new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, but Stuart Reid has written so well on it in The American Conservative that I will just link to his succinct and eloquent essay here .

I will only add that I am much gratified and not a little bewildered by the Catholic neoconservatives’ reaction to it. Gratified, because I have been saying for years that they are not interested in conforming their thought to the mind of the Church, but only in bending it to fit their ideology, a sort of romantic free market fundamentalism wedded to belligerent nationalism. Conservative Catholics have generally taken issue or even mocked that contention, but here are Novak and Weigel proving my point beyond dispute. I heard Novak on the radio dismissing Populorum Progressio– Paul VI’s encyclical, which Benedict was commemorating- as the Church’s “pinkest encyclical”. And he has since criticized the Pope for putting “too much stress upon caritas, virtue, justice and good intentions and not nearly enough on defeating human sin”. A vicar of Christ is overemphasizing Divine Love? That sort of leaves one speechless, and never mind that Mr Novak’s strategy for “defeating human sin” in the past has included preemptive war. And never mind that the market controls which the neocons find so offensive are precisely geared to defeating the human sins engendered by the market.

And Weigel really went  overboard in attacking the encyclical, which he “respectfully” likened to a “duck-billed platypus”. He then proceeded to instruct the faithful on what parts of Caritas they should ignore.

Which is bewildering. The strategy of co-opting the Church’s social teaching, in selecting isolated passages from isolated encyclicals to prove their contentions while ignoring all that counters them, has served the neoconservatives so well in the past that one can only wonder what has changed them. Not that an honest reading of the Church’s teachings did not contradict them at nearly every point; I suspect that only the willing were deceived. But once again it is evident that, as Mr Reid says, the Pope is not a capitalist. Nor is he a socialist or a liberal or a conservative. Surprise, the Pope is Catholic.

I hope I will be excused for enjoying my intellectual opponents making fools of themselves. I will try not to take inordinate pleasure in the spectacle. But it will be a struggle.

—Daniel Nichols

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New Contact Page

I realized a while back that there was no contact info here and have finally gotten around to adding a page for that—you should be seeing a “Contact” tab above the main graphic now.

As we noted a while back, we are actively soliciting posts from other people. Please contact Daniel if you would like to contribute something.

I don’t expect to be writing posts here, but I’m still looking after the blog technically, posting what Daniel sends me, deleting the occasional spam comment that gets through, etc. Contact me if you run into a technical problem.

—Maclin Horton

 p.s. I will not be involved in deciding what gets posted, so don’t let that discourage you if you’re interested in writing something. :-)

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In His Vision

One of the many delightful things about small children is when they reach for a word, get it wrong, but come up with one that is even more evocative than the one they missed.

My niece, Wendy, when she was small wonderfully called serpents “sneaks” and I still find myself thinking of the phrase “like a sneak in the grass” to describe a particularly untrustworthy person.

And when my son, Patric, was little he called rabbits “bobbies” instead of “bunnies”, which I still think of when I see one bobbing up and down, hopping across a field.

I’m going to tell you one of our family’s favorite Patric stories, but first I must set the stage. While he is now a trim and muscular twelve year old, when he was two he was fat. Picture a round face with big blue-grey eyes under a shock of blond hair. His nickname was “Sweet-sweet”, and he had a lisp.

We were at my mother’s, and she has a large field behind her house, hopping with rabbits. Patric announced “Me going to hunt bobbieth.”

“What are you going to do if you catch them?”, I asked.

“Me hug ’em, me kith em.”

While that is cute, often children will go beyond cute into the profound. The other day I was talking with Maria, who is now six. We were at the dinner table and she had asked me if I believed in ghosts. I said yes, but that I didn’t think they were conscious beings, but more of an imprint left by a soul in a particular place. I said it was like an after-image, like when you stare at something, then look away and see the shape of the thing for a moment. Maria said she didn’t understand. I held up my hand and told her to stare at it, then look at the wall. She did so, and for whatever reason said she saw nothing. “But Maria”, I teased her, “Everyone can do this. Maybe you are not really a human being.”

“No”, she said, “I am a human being. I am made in the vision of God.”

The word she was looking for, of course, was “image”, but the one she stumbled upon is a vivid one, and as true as the one she missed. We are made in the image- the icon- of God, and an image is by definition a thing that is seen. Creation is usually understood in reference to the act of speaking, but can it not as easily be viewed as an act of seeing?

I suspect that along with sneaks and bobbies, “made in the vision of God” will be with me for a very long time.

—Daniel Nichols

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Death

I assume that anyone who visits this site is familiar with Maclin Horton’s blog, Light on Dark Water, which is linked here. It is consistently good; Maclin in recent years has moved out into the depths, and between his meditative posts and the ensuing conversations- among the most erudite and witty I have encountered on the web- he seems to have staked out a unique presence on the internet. A light on dark water, indeed.

He recently posted an essay called “I Hate Death”, a typically Hortonian musing, inspired by the discovery of a dead possum and the deep unease that any manifestation of death sparks in a reasonably healthy soul.

It got me thinking about a recent experience of my own, not with a dead possum, but with the corpse of a man I had never met.

He was the husband of a lady in my parish, Joanne, who had taken my iconography course a few years ago. The funeral was on my day off, and to show support for my friend in her grief and to supply a couple of altar servers two of my sons and I attended.

The Byzantine funeral liturgy, like all Byzantine liturgies, is very beautiful, with repeated pleas for mercy and reminders to God- or really, to ourselves- that everyone sins, but that God is good and loves mankind. And there are prayers for the forgiveness of sins committed “knowingly and unknowingly”, that I find particularly comforting. Of course we know that no subjective guilt is imputed for a sin committed in ignorance, but these prayers acknowledge the utter transcendent perfection which no man can attain. I suspect that even our virtues are tainted in the light of this perfection.

Between the repeated prayers for mercy and the beauty of the liturgy, I know this is the way I want to be dispatched.

The casket was open before and during the service. When I entered the church, after bowing to and kissing the icons, I approached the coffin and prayed briefly for the dead man’s soul. Later, in line to receive communion, I again passed the body and prayed. Both times, and whenever I looked at the casket during the liturgy, I was stunned by the incomprehensibility of the thing. The absence of the vivifying soul was tangible, and I marveled that anyone could believe death a physical thing, the mere disruption of a material process. I have always been struck by a sense of unreality when seeing a lifeless body, but this time I had a unique perception of the reality of the soul, made vivid by its absence.

The materialist is a great mystery to me. He would describe death as the equivalent of an irreparable mechanical breakdown. But I have had a couple of cars blow their engines. They were goners, that was it, the end of the line. But I did not have the sense that they were no longer automobiles, that something essential had departed. They didn’t seem suddenly unreal.

I have only been present at the death of one person, my father, some ten years ago. I was there with my mother and my sisters. After that last desperate breath had left him they fled the room crying. My instinct was quite other and I dropped to my knees and pulled the rosary from my pocket. But as I prayed I was acutely aware that my father was no longer present, that he had gone far away. It was nothing like when the Toyota blew its engine on the way home from work. It was still my car, hopelessly broken down, but my car. But this was not my father; this was a husk, an empty shell. The person I was praying for was no longer in the room.

But just as the body without the soul seems unreal, if we had the ability to perceive it the disembodied soul would itself seem incomplete, despite retaining consciousness and will.

And so we await in faith the reuniting of soul and body in the mystery of resurrection. And we cling to our Pioneer, our Pathfinder, the God-man who, in the words of the Divine Liturgy, by death conquered death and granted life to those in the tombs.

—Daniel Nichols

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