All Saints Day. All Souls’ Day. Wszystkich Świętych. El Día de los Muertos. This is the moment when in so many cultures the line between living and dead grows thin, when one world touches another. In Poland the cemeteries are currently thronging with people; crowds are gathering at the graves of their beloved dead, lighting candles in reverence and prayer. In Mexico, the celebration of Day of the Dead combines solemnity with comedy; people make beautiful altars in honour of the dead and dance dressed as skeletons during wild festivities. In my current city of Toronto, red poppies are beginning to appear lapels in preparation for Remembrance Day. Though focused on honouring those soldiers who lost their lives in the two world wars of the twentieth century, many Canadians treat the eleventh of November as a time to honour all of those who have come before us.

As a Catholic born and raised in the United States of America, I am fascinated by the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. I come from a culture where death is a taboo topic, where the elderly and dying are hidden away in hospitals and nursing homes. In American culture, youth is usually seen as the best part of life; most people live in denial of ageing and death. Our Memorial Day in May holds none of the solemnity of Wszystkich Świętych in Poland or Remembrance Day in Canada – most of us treat it as simply the unofficial beginning of summer, a good chance to go to the park and enjoy a nice picnic. I am more than sympathetic to this attitude toward death; indeed, despite my religious faith I live in as much fear and denial of it as anyone. But, this time of year causes me to step back and reflect on my own impending mortality and the memory of my ancestors – not only distant ones, but my own grandparents (both of my grandfathers died before I was born, and I lost my grandmothers during my teenage years), aunts, uncles and cousins. Despite their absence, they live in my memories, and perhaps they still exist in another realm that briefly touches ours during these late-autumn days. Tonight, on this freezing November evening, I am thinking of my father’s mother, Emille, a stoic yet tender Polish-American woman whom I lovingly called Bacci.

If I search for Emille on the Internet, the only results I get are links to ancestry websites that mention her birth and death dates. This is hardly surprising, given that she was born in the era of horse drawn carriages and died when computers and the Internet were only beginning to really transform the world. Nevertheless, there is no Wikipedia page to describe her accomplishments; no biography has been written about her. And yet, for me, she is nothing less than remarkable. In addition to witnessing all of the major events of the twentieth century – from two world wars to the advent of space travel – my Bacci dared to live boldly and passionately, refusing to bend to societal expectations. Born into an upper middle class family with an aristocratic mentality, she studied pharmacy in the 1920’s – a time when few women dared to even imagine pursuing higher education. I must admit I chuckle whenever I pick up her old university yearbook and read the all-male editorial board’s commentary on their female colleague: “Watch out for that frigid stare if she doesn’t like you.” While I used to imagine my grandmother – who indeed had a stern, imperious demeanour – as being somewhat disagreeable, I now suspect that this posture was a survival technique, a means of commanding respect as one of three women daring to enter a male male-dominated class studying for a male-dominated profession.

Upon graduating, Emille didn’t go to work as a pharmacist – not at first. For some years she followed the path that was expected of her (though I suspect it was also the path that she wanted). She married my grandfather, had her children, and devoted herself to living as creatively as she could in the context she was given. She cooked, baked, canned, knitted and crocheted items that received prizes each year at the county fair; she painted, did calligraphy, read in four languages, built gingerbread houses at Christmas, wrote, collected antiques, and maintained a garden that bloomed from February through November. I am always amazed at the range of her abilities (after subsisting on my mother’s meals for the first eighteen years of my life and takeout for the next ten, I have only now begun to experience the joys of cooking; handicrafts and artistic ability are lost on me). However, what amazes me even more is that in the late 1950’s, thirty years after completing her Bachelor of Science degree, my Bacci went to work for the first time. As a pharmacist. Economic need drove her to it – her husband was dying of cancer and could no longer work himself; the family was in deep debt. And so, without making any fuss, she brushed up on what she had learned decades earlier, researched the latest developments in her field, and got to work.

Naturally I wish I could ask her how she did it. Was there no fear, no self-doubt behind that firm expression she always wore? How did she relearn everything, and how did she become informed of all the ways her field had changed in those thirty years? How did she keep her resilience in the face of so much adversity? During my Bacci’s long life, she had the misfortune of losing not only her husband, but three of her five children (one died in infancy, two in the prime of life) as well as her daughter-in-law; she coped with her husband’s alcoholism, endured economic hardships and the challenges of caring for him when his health failed in middle age, and eventually had to face her own ageing and death. And yet, with a fortitude as unassuming as it was strong, she moved through the phases of her life as deftly and gracefully as a trained dancer, always landing on her feet. She worked as a pharmacist for three decades, only retiring in her mid eighties when no longer physically capable of meeting the job’s demands. She continued pursuing her hobbies throughout her life, crocheting the beautiful tablecloth that now adorns my parents’ dining room table. During the second half of her life she travelled to over thirty countries on five continents, hiking in New Zealand, dealing with black market money changers in communist Poland and joining one of the first groups of foreign tourists to visit China after its revolution. She never tired of learning and experiencing as much as life would allow her – which, as she delightfully found out, was quite a lot.

However, what impresses me most about my grandmother is the strength she showed in the face of life’s challenges. Compared to her, I have led an easy life. As of this writing, I have yet to deal with serious financial hardship; I have yet to care for the dying; I have no children and certainly cannot imagine what it would be like to lose them. And yet, I feel like I’m always on the edge of some crisis, always about to stumble into an emotional abyss of loneliness, discouragement or fear. How did she keep her chin up like that? When she died in 1995 I had just turned twelve years old; I was much too young to appreciate the richness of her life and the strength of her character. Sometimes, I wish I could have her back, just for an afternoon or evening meal. I wish I could clasp her hand in mine, look into her big blue eyes, and ask her how she did it. She is one of the ones who made me; one quarter of my genetic material is hers, so surely there must be some of her in me. But at the present moment, as I stand at a crossroads and face a future filled with uncertainty, I don’t know where to find her.

A few years after my Bacci’s death, I attended a charismatic religious retreat intended specifically for youth. I remember it as an impactful and somewhat unnerving event, filled with music and song that put all of us participants into a trance-like state. Suddenly, her face flashed before me; I felt her gnarled hand on my shoulder, reaching out with tenderness and love. It wasn’t a hallucination, and I don’t believe it was her ghost. It was only a memory. But, it still startled me. I hadn’t really thought of her much during my teenage years, and then, all of a sudden, she appeared. “She’s watching over you,” my father said gently when I later told him about my experience. And, while I’m not sure if that is true that the dead watch over the living, I can’t help but imagine that somewhere, in some way she is aware of my life, just as I have become aware of hers.

“Do you think Bacci would approve of how I’ve lived during these years?” I recently asked my father, referring to my twenties, which were filled with travel and educational pursuits. “She’d love it,” he affirmed, and all I can say is that I hope that he’s right. And, now that I can sense challenges on the horizon, I also hope that I can draw strength from this connection that, though tenuous, somehow feels stronger as we celebrate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. One of the things I most love about my Catholic faith is the idea that the living and the dead form a community – we call it the communion of saints. Despite our individuality, despite the inevitable isolation that each of us must endure, we can trust that we are all on this human journey together, and we can also rely on one another for strength – not only our living friends and companions, but also the beloved ancestors who have walked this road before us.

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Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 
For he who has died is freed from sin. 
But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. 
For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 
The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

– Romans 6:3-11

This is the night
of which it is written
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me
and full of gladness…
O truly blessed night,
when the things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

– From the  Catholic Easter Proclamation recited at the annual Easter Vigil Mass

Easter Sunday. The sky is blue, the crocuses are pushing up from the ground, cardinals are hovering around the bird feeder. After a long winter, spring has finally come to Western New York, where I am spending this Easter as I usually do, with my parents and other family members. Over the past week I have engaged in traditions that, for Christians, mean temporarily setting aside our daily concerns behind and entering into another dimension: the realm of story and myth. During these days, Christians commemorate the end of Christ’s earthly ministry, the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, his unjust suffering and death, and his glorious resurrection three days later. During these days, we celebrate the centre of our faith: the belief that God is alive and moving through our troubled world, transforming our pain and suffering into grace and salvation.

During this week, I have found myself meditating on faith. Looking at the world we live in now, with its continued war and violence as well as the destruction of human and non-human life, it can be difficult to maintain a belief in God’s mercy. And for me, as an academic in a secular milieu where atheism or at least agnosticism is most often the default belief system, I find the premises of my religious faith are constantly being challenged. When I look at the history of Christian apologetics (the efforts by theologians to justify the truth of faith through the use of reason) for guidance, one of my favourite arguments is that put forward by seventeenth century philosopher Blaise Pascal. According to “Pascal’s Wager,” as it is called, all of us human beings bet our lives on the possibility of either God’s existence or non-existence. If we do not believe in God, we are unlikely to seek to live according to Christian principles; we are more likely to pursue earthly pleasures and personal gain. If we believe in God, however, we will set our aim on salvation and the infnite reward of heaven. For Pascal, even the possibility of this infinite reward should be enough to convince a rational person to embrace a life of faith.

Though groundbreaking in its time and still invoked today by many Christian apologists, Pascal’s Wager has also met with much criticism. While it might be true that we bet our lives on whether or not God exists, these critics say, we do not know what kind of God this might be. For example, what if God is evil? In that case, any sacrifices we might have made in the hope of an eternal reward will have been in vain. Conversely, if God is truly benevolent and merciful – if his love is unconditional and universal as Christians believe it to be – then why do we need to live according to a set of precepts or even profess belief in order  to obtain a divine reward?  Then, there is the argument of inconsistent revelations – what if, for example, the God that exists is not the Christian God, but perhaps Zeus, or Odin, or one of the many other divine figures that have graced the stage of human belief systems over the centuries?

For me, there is much truth in Pascal’s wager. As of this writing, God’s existence (or non-existence) has not been proven. Whether we choose to believe, disbelieve, or remain undecided, not one of us can claim to know for sure. Knowing full well that I could turn out to be wrong, I choose to believe – but not for the reasons that Pascal has argued we should. While I hope that I will some day meet Christ face to face in heaven, the truth is that I am already meeting him here and now, on this earth, every day.

Contrary to its public image, the Christian life is not about devaluing our earthly existence. Yes, it is true that we hold a dualist view of the world; we believe that there is a transcendent realm beyond this one where God lives – a transcendent realm we all aspire to reach. At the same time, we also believe that God is immanently present in the world we inhabit: in nature, in our joys and sorrows, and most important, in our relationships with one another.

For me, there is no need to make a bet on eternity. My own experience of Christianity has much more to do with my llife here and now. As a Christian, I am given the opportunity to have a relationship with a loving God who consistently offers strength and mercy – to constantly strive to overcome my innate tenency toward wrongdoing, knowing that God will help and support me every step of the way. As a Christian, I am admitted into a two-thousand year-old community of imperfect but courageous people who are striving to transform our world into the image of the one whom we dare to call its Creator – people like St. Augustine, Michelangelo, Teresa of Avila, Maximilian Kolbe, Oscar Romero and so many others who have lived out their faith in the best way they know how. As a Christian, I am encouraged to constantly seek divinity in my daily existence, to see God’s face in every person I encounter, to find strength even in times of hardship. I am called to love all, to give of myself generously to others, to seek peace through justice, to see beauty and meaning in our world, even when it is at its most chaotic. If this is not the recipe for a happy life on earth, then I do not know what is. And if I can do this, then even if my initial bet on God’s existence (and benevolent nature) turns out to be false, I will not have lived in vain.

I wish a happy Easter to all who celebrate it, and a blessed journey to all.

 

 

Surprised by Joy

December 18, 2012

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob

 

  • Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85 (84):1

     

Christians throughout the world are now celebrating the third week of Advent. Two days ago we celebrated “Gaudete Sunday” – the day of rejoicing. I’ll admit that, as I dragged my feet to Mass and skulked into the church halfway through the psalm, I didn’t feel in anything like a joyous mood.

I’ve spent the past several weeks (or perhaps months) in a slight malaise. Lately I feel I’ve been going through the motions of my own life – dragging myself to class or choir rehearsal, but letting my mind wander during every meeting ; gripping the handrail in the subway, my face buried in a book I’m only half-reading, and refusing to notice the people around me.

Meanwhile, the current and projected future state of our world does not provide much cause for rejoicing. I’ll admit that the horrific reality of the Newtown, CT shooting has not quite set in with me. Somehow, any news transmitted by mass media lately has a way of feeling less than real. But unfortunately, rape, murder, torture, cruelty in every form is all too real. I firmly believe that we are all capable of committing these horrific acts, and they are taking place everyday, all around the world.

Where are we to find light amid all this darkness? How can we rejoice even when the reality around us looks so bleak? A partial answer in this past Sunday’s liturgical readings and also from the priest’s homily. Gaudete Sunday – the day of rejoicing. But what does it mean to rejoice? Does it mean the same thing as to be happy?

According to the priest celebrating last Sunday’s Mass, happiness and joy are two very different things. The former has to do with our circumstances. As he explained it, happiness is something often very fleeting that comes to us from outside – often from having our needs and desires met. Joy, on the other hand, is internal. It lies deep within us, perhaps buried at times, perhaps intangible when we find ourselves face to face with adversity. And yet, for Christians, this joy is nothing passive. It is a light that shines through every darkness, giving us the courage to keep walking in the night.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a very happy person, and my current profession (if I dare call it that) as a graduate student in the humanities is not the most conducive to happiness (parasitical and privileged as we lovers of learning may be, we inhabit a social space that tends to cultivate and validate the “Woe is me” attitude). But even before I became a PhD student, my moods tended toward the lugubrious, and I’ve often envied my more ebullient friends and acquaintances who, no matter what injustices or difficulties they encounter, never stop smiling.

And yet…I can also say that while I’ve never been particularly happy, I am very familiar with the kind of joy that is celebrated on Gaudete Sunday. It’s not the magical, radiant, festive joy of Christmas. It is much more subdued, a moment of rose amid a season of penitential purple. It’s not the joy of fulfilled desire, but that of eager, patient waiting for a fulfillment that we hope will come.

Just as I’m not a particularly happy person, I’m also not a patient person – especially in this age of instant communication and instant gratification. And yet, the joy we celebrate on Gaudete Sunday is very familiar to me. It was there when, as a teenager, I struggled at finding myself in the middle of my parents’ marital conflicts, and it helped me to give my mother the support she needed during what was a very difficult time. It was there in my last year of college, as I panicked at the prospect of having truly to take charge of my own life and decisions for the first time. It was there during my first job as a high school teacher, in which I found myself unable to overcome my inexperience and anxiety while dealing with some very unruly kids.

“Sometimes you’re happy,” a deeply spiritual Evangelical Christian friend said to me during that time. “Sometimes you’re unhappy. But God is always present.” I initially balked at what seemed like his trivialization of my misery, but as time went by I started to understand. Even when I most dreaded the morning commute to my job, even when I came home in the evening only to collapse on my bed in exhaustion, there were still moments in the day when something – an encouraging word from a colleague or an engaged class discussion – would fill me with the joy that comes in the midst of struggle.

As of this writing, I have not yet read C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy. And yet, I find the title intriguing. Joy is indeed something that tends to take me by surprise. I was shocked when last night, while reading about a small nonprofit organization’s efforts to save endangered languages in New York City, I experienced a feeling I hadn’t known in quite a long time: excitement. It was a sudden stirring, a sudden bubbling up of a feeling that, though not always felt, is nonetheless present, an underground river rushing below the surface of everyday life.

We are not living in happy times. Violence continues to plague the world; many people are suffering due to the global economic crisis; inequality is increasing; environmental and technological upheavals loom ahead. As for the personal level…I have no doubt that the kinds of personal problems I’ve described in this post are trivial when compared with the ones that you have experienced. However, I am convinced that the joy that Catholic Christians celebrate on Gaudete Sunday is not specific to Christians or indeed to any religious people alone. Surely you can to relate to a moment when, in a time of great personal struggle, you also found yourself surprised by joy.

We are not the first humans to live in uncertain times. To rejoice – to follow that light still flickering within us, no matter how dark the road – has rarely been easy, at least not for the vast majority of human beings. And yet, we are still called to remember this river that sustains us, this nourishment from within that no one can take from us.

 

Every so often we meet someone whose every word seems to be filled with the divine inspiration. During my recent trip to Nicaragua, I was blessed to meet such a someone. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann: Catholic Maryknoll priest, former Nicaraguan Foreign Minister, former President of UN General Assembly, art collector, revolutionary, sage.  Although he believes strongly in nonviolence, he also believes that the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979, which toppled the forty-year Somoza dictatorship, was a just war against imperialism. As the group I was with (a delegation of US and British citizens working for the closure of the School of the Americas) and I listened to Father Miguel talk, we were all struck by his insight and wisdom. I would like to share with you several quotations from his address to us, interspersed with images from his home (which he is gradually converting into a museum of Nicaraguan art).

Father Miguel D’Escoto, M.M.

“To follow Jesus means to live a life of risk. We cannot be Christians and reject risk. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing contact with Jesus.”

“I believe that the gospel of Jesus, my Lord, is radically nonviolent. There is no greater violence than imperialism.”

“The Church has never been in favour of a revolution to benefit the poor. This is because the Church is an old institution that for much of its history, has worked in cahoots with the empires and has accrued many privileges. The privileged classes hate, fear and despise revolution. This has been a lamentable fact.”

“When I was six years old, I asked my father why the Mass was so important. He said it was important because it pleases God. This answer was enough to carry me for a few years. But then, one time while attending morning Mass with my mother, I saw some people looking for food in the garbage. I asked her, ‘Mother, why are they hungry?’ She responded, ‘Because it is not true that we are Christians.’”

“Lord, help me to understand the mystery of your Cross, to love your Cross, to embrace my own cross in whatever form it comes.”

“The Cross was a death penalty reserved for anti-imperialists. The thieves that were crucified on either side of Christ were called bandits. That was the term used to describe people who opposed imperial power. When Christ was crucified, all Palestine was a beehive of anti-imperialism. Christ’s message could not be more subversive; he preached the kingdom of God as a counter-force to the kingdom of empire. The difference between him and those crucified with him was that while they were armed, he was not. His gospel was of nonviolence.”

“The worst crimes in the world have been committed in the name of obedience. Obedience must be to God and to the primacy of conscience, not to man.”

“What the world needs most is spirituality. The church has silenced its own prophets. By ‘prophets’ I don’t mean people who foretell the future, but people who see that humanity has derailed, who call us back to brotherly relationships.”

“Christianity has to do with moving from the logic of I and mine to the logic of we and ours.”

“Spirituality means being constantly ready to give our lives like our heroes and martyrs did.”

“There is no revolution without spirituality, and no spirituality without revolution.”

“Don’t fall into the temptation of not loving your country, or not loving our harlot mother Church. Thank God that we are all sinners, so that we might have compassion for other sinners.”

“If we receive applause, beware – we are betraying Christ. We must be foolish in the eyes of the world. The wisdom of God is foolishness for the worldly.”

“Our encouragement must be in Jesus. Forget everything else; cling to Jesus.”

“The world is in bad shape; we are in need of people inflamed with love. I pray that you all may receive a shot of divine insanity, the insanity of the Cross. It is this insanity that makes us yearn to risk our lives for those people on the other side of the tracks.”

I just stumbled upon a very interesting article on Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/the-hunger-games-spiritual-but-not-religious/2012/03/21/gIQAgYJmTS_blog.html

If you haven’t read this chilling series, I would definitely recommend it (I can’t speak for the movie, but with a few exceptions books are usually better than their cinematic counterparts). Washington Post blogger Diana Butler Bass raises some interesting points about the absence of God and religion in Collins’ post-apocalyptic world that bears a disturbing resemblance to our own. God may be absent, she suggests, but religion is not. And ultimately, neither is faith.

Over the years I have encountered many people who inform me that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” I must admit that I’ve never been quite certain of what this ubiquitous little phrase actually means. Clearly, these individuals have rejected membership in any organized religion. However, they are still describe themselves in partaking in some sort of spirituality. But what exactly is this spirituality, and why is it so often described as something separate from religion?

Only once did I meet someone who described herself as “religious, but not spiritual.” In my senior year of college, having experienced my first major crisis of faith, I decided to approach my most excellent ancient Greek philosophy professor, Elfie Raymond, for advice. After teaching me a year-long course on pre-Socratic philosophy and Plato’s dialogues, Elfie had taken me under her wing, mentoring me on academic matters and occasionally treating me to dinner. Between bites of channa masala and sips of my mango lassi, I dared to ask her the question that had been plaguing me for as long as I’d known her. “Elfie, are you religious?” I asked.

She put down her fork and looked at me in something like disgust. “What kind of question is that?”

“An impertinent one,” I replied.

A moment of silence followed as Elfie gathered her thoughts. “I would say that, given my educational and cultural background, I am a religious person,” she said. “However, I would not describe myself as a spiritual person.”

I can’t recall just how that conversation finished, other than that it involved a good deal of frustration and a rapid change of subject. I had always tried to be – or at least to appear – as rational as possible in my formidably intelligent professor’s presence; she knew little of the strange stew of philosophical and personal confusion that had led me to inquire about her religious beliefs. And yet, her answer – as provocative to me now as it was then – has stayed with me.  Now, I think that it might offer some insight into this uneasy relationship between spirituality and religion.

But first, what exactly is religion?  Philosophers, sociologists and theologians have given many definitions to this often inflammatory word. According to Emile Durkheim, religion is an institution that serves a social need. For Clifford Geertz, it is “a system of symbols that acts to establish powerful, pervasive, long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” For Karl Marx, it is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world…the opiate of the people.” In my opinion, however, the best definition of religion can be found in the etymology of the word itself. Although the meaning of the Latin “religio” is disputed, some scholars connected it to the verb “ligare,” to bind or connect. Religion is a tie, a knot, or a bond.

In order to understand this idea, it might help to consider the way we use the word “religion” in our everyday speech. While this word is often associated with a particular faith system or social group, it can also be used to describe the everyday, secular business of one’s life. Think of how many times you may have heard the word used to describe a person’s daily activities: “She exercises religiously…She practices the piano religiously…She clips coupons religiously…” Very often, the word is employed to describe daily activities carried out with discipline and commitment. In this sense, religion is indeed a tie that binds us – perhaps to God and our communities, but also to any value that we deem worth dedicating our lives to. Someone who “exercises religiously” doesn’t just go for a run every couple of weeks or so. Exercising religiously implies waking up early when you’d rather sleep in, ignoring those inner voices urging you to press the snooze button. It means bundling up and facing the weather, no matter how unpleasant. And, it means refusing to give up once muscles become sore and the other demands of life threaten to crowd it out of your schedule.  A person who exercises religiously is not completely free to follow her urges of the moment. For whatever reason, the desire for good health gains priority over other desires. You might substitute for “good health” many other values – human rights, ecological justice, God himself.  Even when it is no longer fun, even when it starts to require genuine sacrifice, a religious person never forgets the tie that binds.

Following this definition, I can begin to understand the ways in which my professor may have been “religious, but not spiritual.” For Elfie, morality was not arbitrary – there really existed an objective good worth striving for. Our overall equality as human beings – what she called our ontological parity – was a sacred law. Reason, or Logos, was not merely a mental faculty, but a reality permeating the entire cosmos, an objective, unquestionable truth binding us to the rest of nature and to one another. The path toward truth could be initiated from many points of origin, but Plato and various medieval and Reformation Christian philosophers were the key for this committed yet undogmatic philosopher. Elfie may or may not have been a churchgoer; she may or may not have believed in a personal God. Nevertheless, she was unquestionably religious, always obedient to Logos on the path toward truth.

I doubt that people who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” would say that they reject religion as I am trying to define it. Indeed, spirituality is itself incredibly difficult to define (and even more so to distinguish from religion). In Catholicism, spirituality is often described in terms of prayer, meditation and contemplation – all practices aimed at achieving a deeply personal communion with God. As Fritjof Schuon has posited in his The Transcendent Unity of Religions, all the world’s religions can be viewed as having two layers: the “exoteric” realm, which concerns beliefs, moral codes, and ritualistic practices, and the “esoteric” realm, which concerns the mystical search for union with the divine. According to Schuon, religions may appear contradictory and incompatible when viewed at the exoteric level; however, at the level of esoteric spirituality, they are very much the same. And so, if I had to define spirituality, I would describe it in similar terms to those by which Schuon describes the esoteric: as an inward journey toward mystical union with God (or nature, or the universe, or perhaps just one’s own inner being).

I would suspect that many people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” are those who have rejected the exoteric side of religion (that of beliefs, doctrines and laws) in favor of the esoteric, experiential side. This seems to be the case for author Tim O’Donnell, whose recently published book A View from the Back Pew narrates his gradual metamorphosis from practicing Catholic (who always questioned his faith) to “spiritual, but not religious.” Alternating between autobiograpy and historically-based critique of church doctrine, O’Donnell concludes his journey with a strong faith in “Our Father, Who Art Inside Us.” The truth is not to be found in doctrines or precepts, but in one’s individual experience.

I can certainly empathize with O’Donnell’s conclusion. Even a cursory glance at my blog should reveal that I take issue with many “exoteric” Catholic doctrines; meanwhile, spiritual, mystical communion with God remains one of my greatest desires. Whenever my belief in the divine has floundered, spiritual experiences – often of the most subtle  quality as a walk in the city park or a conversation with a kind stranger on a bus – have managed to restore my faith. I can certainly understand why many people have remained dedicated to spirituality while rejecting religion as it is so commonly (even if contraditorily) defined.

But, what of religion in the sense that I am trying to describe it here? In seeking the divinity within, do we not come in danger of forgetting the tie that binds? What of living in the service of higher values? What of sacrificing one’s urges for the sake of a greater good? What of the connections we forge and maintain with our families, communities and indeed the human race as a whole?

In recent years many thinkers have sounded the alarm about the breakdown of our communities. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor states that we are in a “malaise of modernity” in which we strive to live authentically – true to ourselves, one might say – but inevitably suffer grave isolation from one another due to the erosion of once-shared value systems. Meanwhile, following the lead of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, some Marxist economists have observed that the changes in our North American and European economic system – from mass production during the Henry Ford era to increased specialization and job instability during this present “post-Fordist” age – have made it an economic necessity to focus much more intently on the “I” than the “we.” In this framework, it is possible that “spirituality” as practiced by so many of us in this secular age might risk appearing like just one more facet of a cultural turn toward greater individualism.

However, I do not believe that religio is in danger of being untied any time soon. Following the definition that I have offered, the Occupy movement might be seen as religious, as is the Arab Spring, as are countless other social movements through which individuals come together in support of a commonly held value. In an age of ever-increasing freedom of choice, it may be true that the ties between individuals and communities – as well as individuals and higher moral values – may be loosening, but many people are choosing to tighten them up once again.

I can easily understand how it might be possible to be “spiritual but not religious,” just as I can understand that many people are “religious but not spiritual.” In my own experience, both religion and spirituality – however you choose to define them – are difficult paths to follow. The discipline demanded by religion is hard to cultivate; meanwhile, the openness and stillness required for spirituality can be equally hard to put into practice. Ultimately, though, I believe that these two slippery yet important concepts are complementary. Spirituality without religion runs the risk of becoming solipsistic and fickle. Religion without spirituality runs the risk of becoming stale and passionless.

 

 

 

 

 

In the Company of Saints

November 19, 2011

“I arise in the morning, torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.” – E.B. White

When I try to imagine the Roman Catholic Church from an outsider’s perspective (which can be hard to do, given that I was born and raised in it), I suspect that a lot of its traditions appear strange and even creepy. From the painful image of Christ crucified to the consumption of his flesh and blood during the Eucharist,  so many Catholic customs are tinged with the grotesque.  Excepting these rituals, I would suspect that one of the oddest concepts for most non-Catholics to grasp is that of sainthood.

Most readers of this blog will probably have at least a vague idea of what a saint is.  Patrick, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila – all of them real, historical figures who, through their extraordinary actions, have been granted an official honor by the Church, allowing for the cathedrals  under their name to be built and prayer cards bearing their image to be printed. Fine, you might say, but the next obvious question is, so what? Why do supposedly monotheistic Catholic Christians need to honor these people? Isn’t it enough just to pray to God?

What some of you may not know is that not all saints receive titles of honor from the institution of the Church – indeed, most do not. A saint is simply a witness to the power of God’s glory and goodness, an ordinary person who, in the course of what might otherwise be an uneventful life, does extraordinary things. As Catholics, we believe that we are all called to be saints. I would argue that human history has abounded with non-Catholic and indeed nonreligious saints as well. In every time and place, people have dared to go against the current, raising their voices against injustice and leading lives of holiness that inspire us all.

As for the ecclesiastically recognized saints…we Catholics admire them as models to follow. And, while we certainly believe in praying directly to God, there are many advantages to praying to the saints as well. For us the divine is both transcendent (standing above and beyond the physical world) and immanent (deeply, intimately embedded within it). Hence the Trinity: God the Father, who created the world and holds it in existence, is transcendent; God the Son, who was born a human, ministered to the outcasts of society and died a common criminal, is the supreme example of immanence. God the Spirit, perhaps the most perplexing of the three divine persons, is something of a mediator between these two planes of reality, a reminder that even though Christ has long left this world, his presence is still here among us.

The Trinity is undoubtedly one of the strangest concepts to arise within the last two thousand years of human thought, and its full meaning, history and theological implications lie far beyond the scope of this blog. However, what my brief explanation seeks to show is that, when faced with something as sublimely crazy as the Triune God, who wouldn’t want to pray to a saint?

The Christian God is indeed the gentle Jesus who cured lepers and befriended sinners, but he is also the angry Jesus who attacked the high priests and the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He is the loving Father who led his people out of slavery in Egypt, but also the violent whirlwind who refused to offer Job any explanation for his suffering. God is in many ways a personification of the ineffable, the mysterious, the contradiction that evades all resolution, the truth that reveals itself in brief moments only to veil itself again. We approach this God with love and trust, but also with reverent fear. And sometimes, when faced with all this mystery, we need the guidance of someone who can make the divine just a little more tangible, who can serve as a bridge between this world and the next. For this the saints are just great.

This past weekend, I attended a retreat organized by the University of Toronto Newman Centre based on the theme of sainthood. I was hesitant to participate as lately I’ve been swamped with work (hence the decline in frequency of posts to this blog), but as the bus twisted its way out of Toronto and slowly headed toward Orangeville, ON, I knew I’d made the right decision. I spent the next forty-eight hours wandering the grounds of the Mount Alverno Retreat Centre, following a path through the woods marked by the Stations of the Cross, making a pilgrimage to the centre of a labyrinth (modeled on the famous one at Chartres Cathedral),  and discussing life,  faith and sainthood with twenty-five passionate  Catholics from all over the world.

The retreat’s leader, Father Mike Machacek, delivered talks on three different saints of the Church: St. Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth-century founder of the Franciscan religious order; St. Therese of Lisieux, the nineteenth century “Little Flower” whose “little way” to Christ continues to inspire Catholics everywhere, and St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an ordinary twentieth-century woman who, at a crucial moment of her life, did an extraordinary thing. The basic message? There is no single definition of a good and ethical life, and each one of us must forge our own path toward the truth. But while our roads may be different, the destination is the same. We are all called to be saints.

The story of St. Francis (1182-1226) is undoubtedly familiar to Catholics and non-Catholics alike: the son of a well-to-do cloth merchant, something of a playboy in his youth who, in a way reminiscent of the Buddha, underwent a dramatic spiritual conversion. While fighting in the war between Assisi and the neighboring city-state of Perugia, Francis was captured and taken prisoner. During a year spent in a dungeon (during which he contracted malaria) he heard a voice calling him to a different sort of life. Using his inheritance to rebuild the Church of San Damiano, Francis ultimately broke off contact with his father (who was very disappointed with his life choices), led the life of a poor beggar, and went on to found the Franciscan Order of priests, sisters and lay people, dedicated to leading lives of simplicity and helping the poor.

St. Francis is one of the most famous Catholic saints, and undoubtedly one of the most challenging. “Preach the gospel always,” he is often quoted as saying. “When necessary, use words.” Although this quotation probably was not uttered by Francis himself, it certainly captures the spirit of the Franciscan life: to lead by example, to live simply, offering up all possessions and worldly attachments for the greater good. And in more recent history, many people – religious and nonreligious alike – have answered this call. Groups like the Fifty Percent Club – whose members vow to give half of their income or more to charity for at least three years – certainly embody the Franciscan spirit. And a very close friend of mine has recently expressed his own desire to lead his life in this humbly generous way.

For me, however, the story of St. Francis is extremely challenging. While I strongly desire to live according to the Christian values and virtues with which I was raised, I must admit that I have many other desires which conflict with these. I like wine. I like the opera. I like trips to Poland and England and Uruguay. Hence the E.B. White quotation at the top of this post. I see myself as the hero of a nineteenth century novel, treating my own life as an artistic creation while yearning to make my own unique mark on my environment. Ultimately, while my conscience urges me to save the world, my heart remains bent on savoring it.

And so, I’m afraid I can’t call myself a Franciscan in any sense. However, as the retreat continued, I realized that there may still be a way to save my soul. Looking through the variety of personalities, abilities and life histories of the saints, we see that in Catholicism there is more than one way to lead an ethical life.

It is often remarked that a sad saint is a sorry saint. Saint Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962) was neither. As a young woman in Magenta, Italy, she enjoyed living life to the fullest. After studying medicine, she dreamed of working as a Catholic foreign lay missionary, but unfortunately, this plan never came to fruition. Instead, she worked as a doctor, got married and had three children, and enjoyed many of pleasures of life – skiing, painting, dressing up, and travelling.

Just before giving birth to her fourth child, Gianna learned that she had a serious fibroma in her uterous and threatened her life. She was given three options: abortion, hysterectomy, or removal of the fibroma only. Interestingly, the second option would not have been considered morally wrong by the Church – even if it inadvertently led to the death of the baby. In this case, as in many others, Catholic ethics focus on purity of intention rather than desireability of consequence.

For Gianna, however, the consequence was what really mattered. She opted to risk her life for her child. One week after her youngest daughter was born, Gianna herself died.

Gianna’s life was not extraordinary. She did not save the world; she did not even bring any sort of goodness into it in the utilitarian sense. What makes her a saint is the consistent ethic by which she led her life, and the courage she exhibited in her final moments. “Gianna spent her whole life preparing for this final decision,” Father Mike told us. “And it’s the same way with us…We are all called to holiness, no matter what our status in life.”

The last saint discussed on this retreat could in some ways be seen as a synthesis of Francis and Gianna, displaying certain attributes of each. However, her path toward goodness was distinctly her own. The life of Therese of Lisieux (“The Little Flower,” 1873-1897) was brief, simple, and in its own way very extraordinary. Raised in an ardently religious family (all four of her sisters grew up to become nuns), Therese was determined to join the Carmelite Order already as a teenager. When the convent refused her, saying that she was too young, she accompanied her father on a pilgrimage to Rome and asked none other than the Pope himself to let her enter. With his blessing, she ultimately received the order’s permission and entered the convent in 1888 at the age of fifteen.

For the next nine years she led a quiet life among the sisters, enduring the austerity of Carmelite life despite her ill health, overseeing the novices (newcomers to the convent), and writing her now-famous autobiography, The Story of a Soul. This simple saint, so unremarkable by many standards, has been honored all over the world to this day, and the nun who never traveled beyond the confines of her Carmelite convent is now the patron of Catholic missionaries.

For me, Therese is similar to Saint Francis in that she renounced worldly desires in favor of a purely religious life; however, she is similar to St. Gianna in that her attention was focused primarily internally on her relationship with God. In many ways Therese’s life seems less remarkable than Gianna’s – a simply life in the convent, cut short when she died of tuberculosis at twenty-four. And yet, her “little way” to Christ – which consists of loving God like a little child and seeing his goodness amid the trials and irritations of everyday life – has inspired Catholics all over the world.

What does it mean to live a good life? As long as humans have existed, we have offered so many answers to this question, and in my opinion, no answer has been completely satisfactory. But for me, the lesson which these saints offer is that goodness, beauty and truth – however we might choose to define them – can still be found by those who seek them.

One of my favorite concepts in Catholicism is that of the communion of saints – the idea that we are all part of a great spiritual network that includes the living and the dead, joined together in the mystical Body of Christ.  As I boarded the bus back to Toronto, I reflected on just how fortunate I am to be part of this community which, though created by humans, is guided by the love of the divine. And now, as I struggle to make the transition from wandering meditatively among falling leaves to the more laborious tasks of preparing for exams and marking papers, I must remember Gianna’s joy, Therese’s perseverence and Francis’ commitment. Life’s journey is not easy, but thankfully I find myself surrounded by companions. And, as Father Mike said, the roads may be different, but the destination is the same. We are all called to be saints.

I was supposed to be born in the Middle Ages. I would have been in abbess. Yes, that’s right. An abbess like the one Heloise became after Abelard abandoned her, or a mystic visionary like Hildegard of Bingen. I would have had spectacular visions and written beautiful poetry, and I would have been happy for most of the duration of my brief but enchanted life.

I almost got my chance, standing there in the line with all the other souls. The problem was that so many of the others saw the opportunity as well, and they all jumped on it. I am convinced that the formless soul who cut me in line was the one who eventually grew up to be the real Hildegard. I’ll never know for sure.

The age that followed – for a long time called the “Renaissance” or “rebirth” until demoted to the less grandiose-sounding “early modern period” – did not appear to offer quite as much of a possibility to me. Yes, there were still mystics in monasteries – it was the age of St. Teresa, after all – but I think that my bitterness from the first lost opportunity made me lose interest in that way of life. And really, it wasn’t so much about faith anymore during this time. It was about men going out and making scientific discoveries and beautiful art while the women stayed home and made babies. Of course, this was true in many places and times, but something about this era irked me. I stood back and let others step ahead of me, deciding it was better to wait.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries appeared to offer many more prospects. I could have been a hostess of one of the great Paris salons, with all the best philosophers and artists of the time coming to my door, or I could have been a pioneer woman traversing the American prairies with my family in tow. But once again, for some reason, these possibilities just weren’t appealing; I felt that I could do better somehow, and so, once again, I decided to wait.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seemed to offer much more possibility: slavery had officially ended in the West; women were getting closer to the vote. And then, to think I could have been a soup-stirring heroine of two world wars – wow. Perhaps much too foolish in my preconceptual state, I rushed at the chance, but just as I was about to fall to earth, a pair of unseen hands seized me and shoved me back into the queue. And suddenly, I got the dreadful feeling that I had waited too long, that I should have settled for an earlier possibility, because now I didn’t want to go at all. I turned this way and that, wondering if I could find a way to hide, to blend in so well with the rest of the other ethereal souls so as to never get sent out at all.

But, just as this thought was crystallizing, the strong hands grabbed me again and pushed me the way a man throws a scared dog into the water. I woke up crying in a sterile American hospital on June 4, 1983.

The first years of my life were pleasant and uneventful. The world around me was frought with problems – war, genocide, natural disasters, the first signs of environmental and economic collapse – but due to the universe’s injustices my own childhood and youth were peaceful and idyllic. Now, just over five hundred years later, I can’t help but yearn for the time when all of us were still human: when we still ate and spat and made love (rather than merely imagining we were doing so); when we still had bodies and all the limits they bring, when there was still some mystery left in the universe.

And so, even now I wish I’d made a different choice. I would have been born in a time when it was still considered acceptable and perhaps even beneficial for people to grow old and die. Of course, I still had that option for myself – I could have chosen not to receive the technological enhancements I did. But, it was hard to refuse this prospect when everyone around me – my husband, my children, my friends – all insisted on becoming machines. I yearned to return to the preconceptual ether, but I didn’t want to leave the ones I loved, no matter what decisions they chose to make.

And so I’ve stayed, and all I can say is that the brave new world we’ve created in an attempt to keep on sneering at entropy even as it continues to gently unravel us is nothing at all like what anyone thought it would be. There is no fear anymore, it may be true, but as a result there is no courage; there is no more sadness, but because of that there is no genuine joy. And, until entropy finally has its way with us, some might argue that there is no death. But all that means to me is that this slippery state we’re currently in can hardly be called life.

Moth to a Flame

September 6, 2011

I look back on my teenage years as a time filled with excitement, possibility and a sense of wonder. There was nowhere that I couldn’t expect to go, no one that I couldn’t hope to become; all my dreams and desires were at my fingertips. I graduated from high school in 2001 – the first year of the new millennium – and the four years leading up to that date were nothing less than magical. I was fortunate to attend an excellent Catholic school with a strong bond of community among the teachers and students, and while the workload was demanding (I had about five hours of homework each day), there was plenty of fun involved as well. At that time everything felt magical, and various points along the journey were filled with ritual significance, from the school musicals I eagerly participated in to the day when we received our class rings. I even remember feeling excited about the SAT’s (a metric of “intelligence” which I now consider to be as arbitrary as it would be to ask students to memorize Latin names of flowers and regurgitate them onto the page) as they represented the life event that I was most eagerly anticipating: the transition from high school to college.

At first, I didn’t have many criteria in mind for choosing a college, particularly because I didn’t know what I wanted to study. The most important criterion was that my future school had to be outside of my hometown. I wanted a change in my life; I wanted out of my parents’ house and into the pseudo-adult world of undergraduate education (even if not the *real* adult world) as quickly as possible. Another criterion was intellectual rigor – I wanted to learn a lot and learn well, on a wide variety of topics. I watched in excitement as the college recruitment material began flooding in.

One of the many universities that initially attracted my attention was the Franciscan University of Steubenville, which advertises itself as “academically excellent, passionately Catholic.” Since I had thrived in the warm, supportive atmosphere of my Catholic high school, the idea of continuing in a religious school was certainly appealing. Some people I knew, including my church youth minister, had degrees from Franciscan and raved about it. With that in mind, I decided to go and check it out for myself. I attended one of the college’s summer youth conferences – a weeklong programme for teenagers filled with praise and worship, music, speakers, and social events aimed at enlivening the faith of Catholic youth.

And, enliven my faith it did. I remember the joy I experienced as I sat with thousands of other teenagers in a crowded statium, laughing and singing and whooping it up in what was essentially a big rock concert for God.

There was only one problem.

Looking around the stadium, I noticed that most of the people around me – at least 70% of them – were female.

Looking down toward the stadium floor, where an altar had been set up for Mass, I noticed that everyone on that altar – at least thirty priests from all over the country, deacons, altar servers – everyone was male.

For me, this was a visual demonstration of what is a commonly known fact: throughout the world, the true backbone of the Catholic Church is women, who continue to make up the larger number of practicing Catholics. And yet, these women continue to have a limited role in the sacramental and ecclesiastical leadership of the Church that they continue to support.

Even at the age of sixteen, I knew that as much as I loved Catholicism, I couldn’t swallow the pill whole.

Ultimately, I did not choose to attend Franciscan University; instead, I opted for an extremely liberal liberal arts college, where I knew that I would come into contact with people of diverse attitudes toward spirituality. Almost immediately, my faith was challenged, and I discovered more ingredients of the pill that had to be extracted before I could swallow it: the Church’s stance on same sex relationships and sexuality in general, for example. While I could have reacted to this disconnect by converting to the more liberal Church of England or perhaps the Quakers, I chose to stay with the beautiful religion I’d known and loved since my childhood. Like an insect flitting around a streetlight I approach Catholicism tentatively, simultaneously drawn to it and repulsed, flitting away only to be drawn back again. This is the relationship I’ve had with my religion for the past ten years. This is the relationship I’ve chosen.

But, have I really chosen this stance toward religion, or did my environment/circumstances choose it for me? This remains the central question.

Sometimes I imagine that for every decision we make, there exists a parallel universe which is home to the person we would have become had we made a different decision. Because our lives consists of many such decisions, there must be many universes where we are living out all sorts of alternative unrealized possibilities. And so, I can imagine a universe where I dedicated myself seriously to the piano and practiced daily and became a virtuoso musician, and another in which I became a struggling musician. I can imagine one where I became a pharmacist and devoted my life to finding a cure for cancer, and another in which I dropped out of pharmacy school and became a social worker. And, I can imagine a universe in which I attended Franciscan University and, one way or another, finally managed to swallow that strange pill of Catholicism whole.

A week and a half ago, I attended a wedding where I had the chance to meet lots of young adults who have managed to take in the entire faith. The bride (my former roommate whom I met three years after college graduation) was herself a Franciscan grad, as were most of her friends. As I listened to their conversations about faith and religion, I couldn’t help but feel a bit envious. These people weren’t mired in doubt, struggling to maintain what little faith they have as they make their way through the secular world. They are filled with faith and the joy of the Lord, in the world but not of it, certain of God’s plan for their lives, and trusting in the institution of the Church to offer them structure and guidance. They are committed, passionate and devoted to their faith. I remain a moth flitting about the flame.

However, I don’t by any means intend to suggest that these people have life any easier than I do. They don’t. It’s hard to be 100% committed to Catholic Christianity, as following the path in its entirety requires a kind of sacrifice and self-renunciation that are foreign to most of us in our secular, morally relativistic, overly commercialized society. It’s not easy to be a good Catholic, or a good Muslim, or perhaps even a good liberal atheist, simply because it’s not easy to be a good person (if by being a good person we mean renouncing our self-interest in favour of something greater, which all religions, and many nonreligious philosophies, call each of us to do). It’s hard, perhaps even impossible. And yet, it is what we are all asked to do in some way or another.

I’ve learned that if I’m going to be a moth, the least I can do is try to be a committed moth, perhaps skirting the periphery but always acknowledging the importance of the centre. I’m such a long way off, but every day I’m struggling to make my way back to the place where I belong.

The Old Myth And The New

August 29, 2011

There were some ages in Western History that have occasionally been called Dark. They were dark, it is said, because in them learning declined, and progress paused, and men labored under the pall of belief. A cause-effect relationship is frequently felt to exist between the pause and the belief. Men believed in things like the Last Judgment and the fiery torment. They believed people had devils in them, and that disease was a plague from heaven. They believed that they had souls, and that what they did in this life had some bearing on the way in which they would finally experience reality…Altogether, life was very weighty, and there was no telling what might lie behind things. The ages were, as I say, dark.

Then the light came. It was the light that has lighted us men into a new age. Charms, angels, devils, plagues and parthenogenesis have fled from the glare into the crannies of memory…Men were freed from the fear of the Last Judgment; it was felt to be more bracing to face Nothing than to face the Tribunal. They were freed from worry about getting their souls into God’s heaven by the discovery that they had no souls and that God had no heaven. They were freed from the terror of devils and plagues by the knowledge that the thing that was making them scream and foam was not an imp but their own inability to cope, and that the thing that was clawing out their entrails was not divine wrath but cancer. Altogether, life became much more livable since it was clear that nothing lay behind things. The age was called enlightened.

The myth sovereign in the old age was that everything means something. The myth sovereign in the new is that nothing means anything.

Imagination, which is the faculty by which we suppose correspondences among all things and hence see them as images of one another (it is the imagination, the image-making faculty) is understood in opposite ways by the old myth and the new: by the new it is seen as a flight into fancy; by the old it is seen as a flight toward actuality.

In any case, there is the situation: the old myth saw the world as image; the new sees it as a chance concatenation of physical events. This book is an attempt to describe how our experience might look if we looked at it once more under the terms of the old myth. Or, which, probably unaware, we keep the old myth alive by acting as if it were at least useful in organizing our experience. In the way we handle experience, from ordinary conversation to social custom to poetry, painting, ceremony, sex, and ritual, we do obeisance to the old myth. Whether that obeisance is fanciful and superstitious or is an authentic index of the way things are is, of course, the big question. The modern world supposes that it is the former. This books supposes that it is the latter. God (or somebody) will have to let us know which is the case.

– From Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism by Thomas Howard (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1969)

I just sat up for three hours reading this book from cover to cover, and while I may not agree with every single one of Mr. Howard’s conclusions, I stand wholeheartedly behind his central argument. If I have to choose, at the end of the day I’m with Pascal. My treasure is where my heart is. My money is on the Old Myth.