Sunday, September 28, 2008

On Witch Hunts and Theocracies

So I've decided to change things a little - to make this somewhat less of a strictly-essays blog, to stray more into subjective, personal things... It was to be a personal thing anyway. Sometimes I think I draw the line between myself and the rest of the world a little too thickly.

Anyway! My first goal is to avoid starting paragraphs with meaningless transition words like "so" and "anyway." Starting now.

My sister's high school put on The Crucible last night, and I went to see it - she was ushering and needed a ride, I retained a fairly strong affinity for the play from high school discussions, and her school's drama department never fails to put on superbly acted/directed shows, and my plans had been cancelled by the rain anyway. Well, once I got past the distractions of being seated immediately in front of the lighting booth (read: it wasn't dark by me, even when the theater was dark) and being surrounded by texting high schoolers (even though they threatened to throw out audience members who were texting! What gall!), I found myself engaged in the play intellectually as much as emotionally.

This is a new thing for me, watching a story and considering the philosophical ramifications, but I like it. It certainly made watching the play alone amidst a sea of people a much more pleasant experience.

What first struck me was the caricature of the Christian faith that seemed to be speaking to me in most of the characters. Then I thought about the historical time frame and realized that Puritanism is really very unlike Catholicism (and I considered the pleasing liberality in Catholicism - but more on that another day, perhaps). Instead I tried to consider what my response would have been were I any of the characters depicted.

Say what you will, Arthur Miller has a knack for making nearly all of his characters destestable. At the very least, each person's flaws were clearly visible. I tried, as in reality, to see Christ in each character, to be forgiving to their personality flaws and instead see things from their perspective, to give each character the benefit of the doubt that they really tried to do the right thing... but it was so hard! The "Christians" were so prideful, and once the established order of things was turned completely upside-down, it became painfully clear who was lying and why. Still, it's so much easier as a detached audience member to see that the people in power were obviously being duped than it is to be such a person, admit your own wrong, and turn the system on its head for the greater good of everyone. (Mary Warren tried this, and couldn't hold to the truth.)

Which brings me to my next topic: When government is combined with religion, bad things happen. Here I saw surprising parallels with Zamyatin's We, Orwell's 1984, Moore's V for Vendetta, etc. Perhaps I'm just more sensitive to this because I'm a person who values my faith and religious practices very highly, and who believes that the separation of church and state is being carried out here in a way contrary to its original intention, but it seems clear that whenever the two are combined, both are weakened, and fallen human nature is allowed free reign over both. I think this might be leading me into a brief diatribe about how some form of atheism has become the new culturally dominant minority religion, and anti-Catholicism the trendy new anti-Semitism (not that it's new, but that it's fashionable, and socially acceptable although technically politically incorrect)... and that's not really where I want to go right now. More on that when I finish Michael Novak's No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.

Sorry to leave this conclusionless, but my musings were interrupted at length by both my sister and my mother, and my brain is in a thoroughly different place now than when I began, and I'm exhausted.

In other news: I think it's easier to write nonfiction. No wonder there's so much more of it out on the market.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

On Screens and Boxes

It's amazing how sitting in one place in front of a screen for eight hours a day makes one so tired!

I've been working temporary jobs (mostly just when someone needs a fill-in receptionist or whatever for an afternoon or a few days), and the workload's been low as of late. But this week I've been working full-time, and on Tuesday I noticed this pattern that I'd fallen into:
  • 8am-5pm: at work, surfing the 'net and answering the phones (save half an hour's lunch break)
  • 5-5:20pm: driving home
  • 5:20-7pm: watching TV with my sister
  • 6:15-6:45pm: eating while watching TV
  • 7-10:30pm: sitting in my room, on the computer
  • 10:30pm: start getting ready for bed and for work tomorrow
I compare this experience with other working friends and find that they're in the same predicament. Why is it that we are so drawn to technology, to machines that engage our brains (and maybe our fingers) but little else? Why is it so difficult, in today's fast-food / instant-communication society, to be disconnected? Why must I fight the feeling that it's essential to have read through all the latest news articles and blog posts before I can tackle cleaning my room? Is something disastrous going to happen if, at any moment, I'm not fully aware of the far-reaching implications of the latest insult Sen. Obama has leveled at Gov. Palin?

Of course not. But being aware of the goings-on of the world, and even simply being in constant communication with one's friends and peers, give one a sense of intellectual power and unity of purpose. Even having watched the latest episode of American Idol gives one a strong sense of solidarity with the rest of the nation.

Maybe it's just because my generation is so comfortable on computers that we look to them for refuge even when we're seeking refuge from too much time spent on computers. Maybe it's also connected to the vast reaches of the internet. I'm reminded of one bullet-point from the fantastic Evil Overlord List:
Finally, to keep my subjects permanently locked in a mindless trance, I will provide each of them with free unlimited Internet access.
That does sound something like working as a receptionist, except that I have the interruptions of the occasional phone call or doorbell.

None of my jobs were ever fancy enough to give me
a headset, but this gives the general idea.
And as for the TV, I'm reminded of a scene from Stargate: Atlantis in which two men from earth (Sheppard and McKay), are discussing with two crew members who are not from earth (Ronon and Teyla) what their respective peoples do for entertainment. For sake of clarity, earthmen are blue and aliens are green.
Ronon Dex: So people just sit and watch this box for hours at a time?
Maj. John Sheppard: Yeah, people do.
Teyla Emmagon: Is it that engaging?
Sheppard: Depends what's on it. There are lots of programs on dozens of channels, every day, all day.
Dr. Rodney McKay: Most of which are fictional representations of ridiculously attractive people in absurd situations
Sheppard: There are educational programs, all sorts of documentaries. Not many people watch 'em but, uh, well, they're on.
Ronon: And that's what everybody on your planet does for entertainment? Watch a box?
Well... Kind of. Humbling, isn't it? Makes me want to stop in at the health club on the way home fromwork and go for a run on the machines. I know, that still has me inside an air-conditioned building using a machine, but it's progress. Baby steps.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

On Balance

(I know this is somewhat after the initial splash, but I took my time to process this fully. Cut me a break - I'm new at this, ok?)

St. Thomas de Sales often said, in much prettier words, that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar - "truth tempered with charity," or something like that.

This sounds great in concept, but in practice, where does one draw the line? Bishop Niederauer of San Francisco initially got some flak for inviting Nancy Pelosi to a conversation, rather than giving a diatribe about the obviousness of her error, after her notorious recent comments about abortion. While I usually agree with the juggernauts of the Catholic blogosphere, I found myself staunchly on Neiderauer's side: unpopular as his statement may have been, his responsibility is for the souls for his flock, including hers. Perhaps he didn't excoriate her because he knew that wouldn't draw her to Christ (and besides, over two dozen other bishops had made the issue abundantly clear already).

You can't compromise the truth! People have a very real right to know the truth. But you can't convert people with a sledgehammer, as my professors frequently reminded my classmates and me. The hardcore road may be very attractive to many of us, especially when beaurocracy and politics and red tape make life needlessly difficult. But that doesn't mean that it's necessarily the best way to do things.

So what's the balance? How do I avoid being an overbearing charismatic, a bitter traditionalist, a liturgical terrorist, on the one hand, but equally to avoid being lukewarm, a sellout, jaded and apathetic? How do I compromise neither Christ's Truth nor my Christian responsibility to usually not be a jerk to other people?

I don't have an answer here; just questions. I think this whole post can be summed up in the words of St. Josemaría Escrivá that I read between beginning this post and finishing it:
The charity of Jesus Christ will often lead you to make concessions. That is very noble. And the charity of Jesus Christ will often lead you to stand your ground. That too is very noble.
He has a wonderful way of stating things in an obvious, simple, and very challenging way. The question now is simply one of discerning when to concede and when to stand firm...

Monday, September 8, 2008

On Opening Doors

Last week, as I was walking towards the door of my health club, I heard the voice of a man walking a few paces behind me.  "Hold on, let me get that for you,"  he said, skipping ahead to reach the door first.  I thanked him demurely and slowed down, allowing him to gracefully open both doors for me, and appreciating greatly this small token of respect that come to I miss since leaving college.

But the more I thought about this innocuous-seeming event, the more I realized how singular it truly was.  Had he done the same thing merely four years before, I would've brushed him off, saying, "No, that's fine," or perhaps letting him hold one door for me while I held the second for him - and I was of the more polite, moderate brand of feminist!

I recognize that I live in a different world from most of my peers, in a sense, because God truly is at the center of everything I do (that's what I strive for, at least).  I feel that I'm definitively in the minority, however (especially among twentysomethings) of women who are more into traditional chivalry than modern feminism.  What courage it must take for a man like this to go out of his way like he did, to step out of the "safety zone" and open a door for a perfect stranger, with no hint as to her receptivity to such an action!

Look at that face! She was perhaps less receptive...
I'm sure my door-opener has forgotten all about our little interaction by this point, but it is emblazoned upon my memory: a reminder of how men have been pressed between a rock and a hard place by the rise of radical feminism - and it only increases my respect and admiration for those men who do treat women with more respect simply because we're ladies.

To all you door-openers out there: Thank you.  We women may not always show it, but we do appreciate you.  Keep on changing the world, one door at a time.

Why Keep Christ in Christmas?

First posted on Dec 24, 2007, on a different blog

The Christmas season has come to mean a time of presents and of spending time with loved ones, a time of happiness and warm fuzzy feelings - except for when it becomes the stress of getting done all the things that need to be done in the time they need to be done by, and a depressing reminder of who and what you've lost. "Keep Christ in Christmas," they say. Aww, that's real nice, but get real - what has He got to do with my crazy life now? Credo ut intelligere, in the words of St. Augustine: Believe, that you might understand.

Believe what? Well, let's start with creation (yes, I know many things start at creation, and perhaps you're sick of hearing it, but the beginning of humanity is a very good place to start). "God created man in His image; in the divine image He created him; male and female He created them" (Gen 1:27 RSV). We were created out of love by the Being Who is perfect love - and we were created "in the divine image." Love finds its perfection in communion (as is clearly seen in the Trinity), and as we were created to be perfect, it's no great leap to say that we were created for communion in love with that perfect Being Who created us.

However, our original parents screwed up. Whether you account it as pride, disobedience, or something else altogether, they nonetheless fell from God's grace and were cursed and exiled from the primordial paradise they'd been given. From that moment when sin entered the world, things were no longer the same between man and God. God no longer walked with Adam in the garden; instead they communicated mainly through the sacrifices Adam offered to God. Their sin was passed on to their children and to their children's children. The essential goodness of man's nature had been compromised and was getting harder and harder to see.

But it wasn't all bad. "O happy fault! O necessary sin of Adam, / which gained for us so great a Redeemer," proclaims the priest in the exsultet at the Easter Vigil. For amidst all the curses laid upon our first parents as they were kicked out of Eden, there is found a promise: "I will put enmity between you (serpent) and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel" (Gen 3:15 NAB). Because of this great sin of Adam and Eve, God promised to one day send a redeemer to bring humanity back to the communion He created us to have with Him.

Many years passed. God made covenants with his people, who, in their sinfulness, successively broke each one. These covenants were for the people's redemption; because they were now unable to keep from sin, God gave them laws (so they would know what was sin), but they had not the strength to keep them. Abiding by God's law is impossible without supernatural grace.

And so, in the fullness of time (i.e., when God so fit to do so), God sent to mankind a redeemer. In order to share this redemption with all humanity, this redeemer had to be fully man. However, history had made clear that no mere human, no matter how holy, had the grace or the power to effect this redemption. So, in a shocking and unexpected move, God sent His divine Son, mysteriously joining His perfect divinity with sinless humanity, to redeem the world.

But it doesn't end there! This redeemer exemplified virtue, spread the Truth of God's Love to others, and liberally distributed healing (both external and internal) for years. He allowed Himself to literally be the scapegoat for his people, the creature on which everyone's sins are cast and which is sacrificed to God to abate His wrath for their transgressions. Holding nothing back, this God-man received from His fellow humans a death that was brutal and torturous to His Body and His soul. He accepted this for our sake, and was Resurrected from the dead for us as well. In this, He accomplished the redemption we so desperately needed and made it available to all of us.

What does it mean that He made redemption available to all? Simply that He has undone, in a sense, the sin of our first parents, and has opened for us the gates of salvation, of perfect communion with God. When He sent His Holy Spirit among His disciples at Pentecost, He opened the floodgates to the last thing they needed: grace! For while God's law, which leads to true freedom, is unfollowable by mere mortals, we are now gladly given the grace to see it through, thanks to Jesus.

So what do we celebrate at Christmas? Christ's coming - in the Incarnation, at the end of time, in our hearts, in the Eucharist. Because He came in carne ("in the flesh"), the riches of heaven of everlasting communion with God and each other, are available to all - even, in a lesser way, here on earth. When He comes again at the end of time, the redemption that He has brought us will be fully realized. In the meantime, He comes to us in many ways, but two of principal importance: 1) When we welcome Him into our hearts and give Him control of our lives, we are brought that much closer to living the perfect life He has planned for us, and 2) In the Eucharist, the Liturgy of heaven on earth, in which we literally ingest into our bodies the God of the universe in the humble forms of what to all appearances are bread and wine. This is our closest earthly glimpse into that communion with Him that is heaven - how awesome it is to have God - Body, Blood, soul, and divinity - inside of us!

And that's why everyone needs Christ in Christmas: Because this season is not about a superficial sense of, "It's time to feel happy and loving now," but is instead a celebration of the fact that, through the birth of Jesus the Christ, the gates of heaven have been opened to us by a God Who loves us more than our tiny brains can fathom, and that real happiness - even on earth - is available to all who ask. Merry Christmas, my friends.

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