Monday, November 7, 2016

The Unexamined Life


The AIDS epidemic of the 1990s inspired the musical Rent from which the world came to learn that there are 525,600 minutes in a year, which are apparently measured in midnights, in sunsets, in daybreaks,  in cups of coffee, and other such jolly tripe.  My experience suggests that 525,600 minutes are measured in miles driven, tanks of gas purchased, diet cokes consumed, meetings planned, meetings cancelled due to poor attendance, television shows on Netflix, and disappointments.  A blog is interesting to read and interesting to write so long as there is something sufficient to merit the effort.  I'm not sure when things became uninteresting, or if they did, but I find it hard to write anything of depth these days.  My muse has either died of neglect, or, like a cat that one stops feeding, has gone to find sustenance at some other person's house.  How did I arrive here?

Chapter 1: In Which The Intrepid Author Waxes Dark and Philosophical 

"The unexamined life," Socrates insists, "is not worth living." Of course, for him, the examined life led to death anyway, so perhaps the examined life isn't so great either. In either case, it seems inescapable that life is dull when one walks through it never asking, "Why do I do what I do, believe what I believe, and choose what I choose? Why am I here?" Boredom is the fruit of an unexamined life, because one fails to discover what one truly wants and thus seeks meaning and pleasure in things that ultimately dissatisfy. Of course, for many, living the examined life leads to angst and nihilism, which is like boredom, except with more self-mutilation. But at least people living the examined life are interesting. They break up the humdrum, mundane, all too regular existence of those who live the unexamined life. Mine, I fear, has become an unexamined life.

Minor seminary, of course, required self-examination.  In all charity, I've never met a group of more self-absorbed naval-gazers than seminarians.  It is their job.  They are asked to question their motives for coming to the seminary, what God wants of them, and how they know he wants it.  This interior investigation takes tremendous psychic, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional effort.  Every little flaw, real or perceived, could become a formation issue - something that would ultimately prevent ordination.  It is the work of major seminary to draw a man to the point where such introspection becomes an external offering of self to Christ and his bride, the Church, through the priesthood.  For many men, at least those who never advance to ordination, it comes as a shock to discover that most other lifestyles neither encourage nor tolerate introspection to this degree.  I recollect bemusedly listening to a former seminarian relate that one of his friends (also a former seminarian), had needed to explain to him that after leaving the seminary, one no longer experiences "formation issues".

The first few years of priesthood likewise lent themselves to examination.  First, there was still an element of formation that occurred so long as I was under the watchful eye of the pastor.  His critiques required me to look carefully at myself.  Second, almost everything was new, shiny, and endowed with infinite significance.  Every act of ministry placed me one step closer to my final goal of having saved the world.  I was changing lives.  I did not yet believe that if people change, they do so only slowly, and sometimes not for the better.  Before becoming convinced of this idea, I wanted to record each moment as a monument to my success.

The process of saving the world leaves one feeling very much as though he is needed.  It feels good to be needed.  Codependency, it has been suggested to me, is dysfunctional.  I suspect that it is, but it is often rewarded in Church work.  The more one is needed, the more industrious he becomes, and thus all the more needed.  Industry takes time and energy.  It leaves little room for examining one's life.  One relies on assumptions, previous experience, platitudes, and a handful of really good homilies from the last time these readings came around.  It is astonishing how long one can get away with employing only these tools.  These tools, however, are rather expensive.  They come at the cost of disappointment and self-doubt.  The one who uses them feels cheap, a cheater, a fraud.  There is, however, a ready remedy for disillusionment; one just needs to become more needed. And to become more industrious. And to examine one's life even less.  And to become even more disappointed.  As surely as carbon becomes diamond under pressure, disappointment becomes blaming, blaming becomes resentment, resentment becomes anger, and anger becomes apathy.  Apathy is the opposite of love; apathy is a killer of muses.

Chapter 2: In Which The Intrepid Author Explores Other Causes For His Authorial Malaise

I like writing.  I like playing with words.  I like nitpicking over whether this or that sentence is just right.  I like deleting whole paragraphs and starting over.  I like beginning a piece with one idea in mind and discovering by the end that I have said something else.  Six hundred word articles in a small town paper, monthly columns for the parish bulletin, the occasional snarky email, and infrequent blog posts inspired by debilitated, pale muses, however, leave me longing for something more.  I am a fan of the short story.  So often they have grabbed me by the soul and shaken me.  I want to write a story.  I grow weary of essays, exhortations, and expositions.  I want, by means of brief narrative, to crystallize the human experience with wisdom, wit, sincerity and singularity.  I want to write a story like Hemingway, or O'Connor, or Bradbury.  But what I write seems insipid, cliche, and immature.  My style is wrong for the genre; the vocabulary is vapid, the arc of the story too brief, and the moral too obvious.  The written word is never so unruly as when I try to write a story.  So I haven't tried for a while.  The blog and my own self-examination suffer as a result.

Chapter 3: In Which The Intrepid Author Complains About His Stuff

I have too much stuff.  Too many books.  Too many devices.  Too many fishing magazines.  Too much mail.  Too many clothes.  Too much comfort.  Too much time during which no one demands anything of me. (It is a paradox, not hypocrisy, that I can complain in a single post of having both too much and too little time.  The experience merits a post of its own.)  Distractions of one's own choosing are hell on introspection.  Distractions - stuff - seem mostly to lend themselves to silent speculation and frustration about why they are ultimately so dissatisfying, and what other distraction might be more satisfying.  Stuff is not helpful to writing.

Chapter 4: In Which The Intrepid Author Bemoans The Absence of Other Philosophy Majors

Very few people talk about ideas.  They talk about people.  They talk about events.  They do not talk about beauty, truth, goodness, or happiness.  If they talk about themselves, it is only in the most superficial of terms.  Conversations dare no vulnerability, push no boundaries, never risk that one party or the other might be wrong, and resultantly incite no intimacy.  A conversation should reveal the self.  It seldom does.  Most conversations cannot even initiate the process of basic self-revelation because the person speaking has never asked who or what he is.  Talk of the weather, the kids, sports, politics, news, cows, crops, work, school, hook-ups, break-ups, vacations, medications, plans for Thanksgiving, plans for Christmas, plans for summer, who is pregnant, and who recently died can all pass the time.  They do little by way of eliciting truth, goodness, and beauty.  They do little to draw the mind and heart to God.  They do little to inspire self-examination.  Sometimes I ache for these conversations.

Chapter 5: In Which The Intrepid Author Recognizes Glimmers of Hope

And here I sit writing.  I have not written, nor really even thought, so honestly for a long time.  It all started as I refereed a dispute between two college boys, one a convicted Catholic, the other a resentful Catholic who calls himself an atheist.  Their their argument descended (ascended?) into a lengthy conversation about the nature of beauty and whether or not life is objectively meaningful.  At the end, I thought, "I need to read. And I need to write."  Writing leads to self-examination.  And, since I am trying to quit smoking (I've been tobacco free for seven days today), I need to do something to distract my fidgety hands, and craving-addled mind.  So, herein I offer an examination.  I doubt it has the enduring value of Plato's Apology.  It will not shatter the history of Western Thought as did Descartes and his Meditations.  But, it is something.  Something is better than nothing.  And even a shallowly examined life must be more worth living than a life altogether unexamined. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Apologizing for Beauty

Around the turn of the year, I was asked if I would be willing to respond to a letter submitted to the Black Hills State University Student Newspaper.  The author suggested that the Church, if she actually listened to the message of the Gospel and if she were sincere about caring for the poor, would sell all of her treasures.  The author likewise employed the tired canards about Jesus living the life of an Essene, and the Church's complicity in the Nazi atrocities toward the Jews.  I was happy to respond.  In the end, neither letter was published.  But I, luckily, have a blog.  


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When the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered Deacon Lawrence to surrender the riches of the Church as tribute in A.D. 258, Lawrence arrived before the emperor at the appointed time with a parade of Rome’s poor and suffering, insisting these were the riches of the Church.  Though he was summarily roasted to death atop a metal gridiron, he was right.  The Church is rich, but not materially wealthy.  Founded by Christ and comprised of saints and sinners, nobles and paupers, scholars and knaves, pragmatists and dreamers, the Church has provided the world with advances in art, science, medicine, law, education, and nearly every facet of Western Civilization.  None of these advances is the patrimony of a single person or entity.  They belong to the human race.  It is, therefore, misguided to suggest that what belongs to humankind should be sold to anyone for the sake of providing relief to the poor and suffering.

Christians believe the poor deserve to witness the great accomplishments of human creativity.  There is no fee to see Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica.  Have the poor no right to experience such beauty?  And what of those poor who live far from the cultural treasures of Europe?  Do the poor in South America, or Africa, or Appalachia have no right to see, without cost, the handiwork of great artists in the stained glass that decorates their churches, in the vestments worn by their priests, or in the sacred vessels from which even the poor receive Holy Communion?  Do only the rich have the right to surround themselves with beautiful things?

To sell the “riches of the Church” provides only a temporary solution to the problems of hunger, poverty, and homelessness.  Surely money raised by the sale of art and such would amass a vast sum by which to provide rice and clean water for a period of time, but what happens after the money and rice have both been consumed?  What will be sold next?  Luckily, the Catholic Church is on the forefront of the effort to assist in such situations, distributing millions of dollars’ worth of aid annually to those in most need throughout the world.  Could individual Christians give more generously?  Certainly.  Does their failure to do so demand the sale of the human patrimony to individual collectors?  Certainly not.

Allegations of Church alliances with Nazis and associations between Jesus and fanatical Jewish sects always garner attention, but they bear little resemblance to fact.  It is fact, however, that the Catholic Church protected thousands of Jews during the Shoah and worked tirelessly, albeit secretly, to remove Hitler from power.  It is also true that in his entire ministry, Jesus never alleviated the material poverty of a single person.  Moreover, he went to his death wearing an expensive garment woven without a seam, and before that he allowed himself to be anointed with costly oil by a repentant woman in spite of his betrayer’s suggestion that such expensive items could be sold and the proceeds given to the poor.

It is appropriate and necessary to place the best mankind can offer at the service of the worship of God.  Art, vestments, buildings, and all manner of these “riches” give due honor to God and they acknowledge and revere the dignity of all whose eyes are permitted to fall upon them.  Christians and all people have an obligation to care for the poor, and failure to do so is a serious sin.  But to suggest that this feat is best accomplished by selling what rightly belongs to the whole human family is as misguided as were Judas, Valerian, and all those who have claimed the same from the Church’s foundation.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Christmas 2015



As Lent begins, I return to Christmas with my annual letter.

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January 2016

It is uncommon to hear the voices of angels singing.  Not so rare, however, that I was not tempted to stop as I drove between Kadoka and Martin on Christmas Eve as the moon shone full on the snow covered Badlands and prairie lighting them in hues of silver and indigo.  Surely had I paused, I would have heard them celebrating the Holy Night when Christ was born.  But I hurried onward.  The Holy Mass is delayed for no one, not even melodious angels.

I arrived in my new set of parishes six months ago excited and anxious, with vigor and with trepidation, grateful for the prairie and sad to leave the hills.  A half year later, the angst has disappeared, and a routine of Mass, confessions, teaching, and driving has taken its place.  With around a thousand miles to drive for ministerial purposes each month, I am glad for the natural beauty of my new home.  I am less glad for the kamikaze deer, suicidal pheasants, and AWOL cattle.  These creatures and I are engaged in a cold war, deterred from armed engagement only by our shared acknowledgement of mutually assured annihilation.

No such friction exists between the bipedal residents of my parish and me.  The Lord has blessed me with kind and generous people who are eager to help me, gentle in chastising me, and willing to try new things (or at least not to complain much when I decide to try new things).  The Lord constantly catches me off guard with moments of grace as I come to know my new people more deeply.  I find myself awed at their own experiences of God’s love.  In truth, I find myself caught off guard by God’s love more often than I ought.  By now I should know that he is generous giver, and yet I was still moved nearly to tears during my annual retreat as he once again reaffirmed his love for me despite my own inadequacy.

Driving recently, I contemplated the question of when one actually becomes an adult.  Two conditions, I concluded, must be met.  One must possess an armchair of one’s own, and one must have spent Christmas Day apart from one’s family.  Early in my priesthood, I had already met the second of these conditions. It was strange, nevertheless, to come home to an empty house after sharing Christmas Dinner with Deacon Cal and his family.  My chair, however, was eager to welcome me.  

To own an armchair was something I achieved only in my second month in Martin.  It is brown, it appears to be leather, it reclines, and when I sit, it embraces me with a tenderness usually reserved to lovers.  It has become, as it were, the sign of my ascendancy.  It troubles me that I occasionally find myself speaking to it.  Even without the chair, though, I would be happy.  In spite of icy roads, snowy drives, and the lack of a stream to fly fish for trout, I find myself exceedingly content and filled with gratitude that God has entrusted the souls of this place to me.  Martin and Kadoka have become home.  

There is a great deal for which I thank God these days.  Among the gifts he has given me is you.  Thank you for your kind words and deeds, and all your generosity toward me.  Know that I am praying for you.  May all of God’s richest blessings be yours in this New Year.