Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Pipe-weed, et cetera

There is another thing about the Hobbits of old that must be mentioned, an astonishing habit: they imbibed or inhaled, through pipes of clay or wood, the smoke of the burning leaves of a herb, which they called pipe-weed or leaf, a variety probably of Nicotiana. A great deal of mystery surrounds the origin of this peculiar custom, or 'art' as the Hobbits preferred to call it.
-From the introduction to The Lord of the Rings: Concerning Pipe-weed

I've bought a pipe. It's been a long time coming, this purchase. I've enjoyed cigars for some time, albeit on somewhat rare occasions. This hobby, however, does not quite agree with my present economic situation. Pipe smoking, on the other hand, is a little cheaper. Besides, there's something alluring and artful about the experience of sitting in a nice lounge chair and smoking a nice pipe. Of course, here at the seminary, I'm consigned to an outdoor courtyard with poor lighting when I engage in this behavior, so it loses some of its mystique, as I cannot exactly curl up next to a fire with a volume of Dickens. Nonetheless, I can sit there and wax philosophical with my fellows, wisecracking in a pretentious Chestertonian idiom.

It has been pointed out to me already by concerned parties that this is an "unhealthy habit." I presume that they’re talking about smoking, and not quoting Chesterton. Although, depending on where you are, the latter is probably a lot more hazardous to your health (e.g., a NOW conference or an Ecumenical meeting). However, (a) it’s not a habit – yet; and, (b) I don’t foresee a cause for canonization in my future, so to embrace what might be regarded a small vice wouldn’t be all that objectionable to me anyway. The defense rests.

In other news, I have been exploring the possibilities of starting a club here to celebrate the literary and philosophical prowess of what I call the first and second Oxford movements. The former is the Oxford movement, properly speaking, and the latter is, I think, a direct result of it – namely, the 20th Century Christian literary Renaissance of Belloc, Chesterton, Eliot, Lewis, Tolkien, et al. I need a name for the club. And a less confounding way of describing it, because right now it's too vague. I guess, in a way, we'd be tracing the cultural implications over two centuries of (quasi-)Catholic literature and discussing the import of artistic expression and social activity for the modern Church. I don't think enough consideration is given to this matter nowadays. There aren't many great literary figures left in the world, but among the few who merit attention, there are none with the in-your-face religious bent of the Chesterbellocs of old.

Anyway, as always, suggestions are welcome.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Et cetera


I picked up Arroyo's book this weekend in the local Borders, consumed by a moment of weakness. The book is actually quite good. I haven't read any in the past two days, but by Sunday evening I had already torn through the first half. Arroyo isn't exactly the biographer par excellance - he commits writing foibles that can be quite annoying and interrupt the flow of the narrative. The editing of the book is a little slipshod too. Some non-sentences and incomplete thoughts seem to have been simply missed. But, what he lacks in skill as a biographer (not as a writer, overall, mind you - his command of the language is otherwise inspiring) he makes up for with sincerity. And besides, the story itself is fascinating enough to keep one turning the page.

In other news, our Diocesan Pilgrimage is coming up on Wednesday. Please pray for its success. I'm looking forward to it, and hope to post as soon as I can in more detail about the affair and other miscellany with which I have been occupied here at the seminary. Sorry about my recent low output. Mea culpa.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Really Roundabout Way of Expressing Something I Need to Say

I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

James Joyce's story Araby has long been one of my favorite pieces of Western Literature. In style and technique, there is no writer I more admire. And this haunting passage, with which he ends the story of a boy's pubescent struggles and entrance into manhood, has always struck a particular chord with me. Many critics and analysts say the story is simply about a sexual awakening, a turn from a simple and childish view of affection to a much more complex set of sensibilities associated with adulthood. In part, this analysis is correct, and the rest of Joyce's works definitely support the hypothesis. But to say that that is all is to miss a point, I think. There is more to it than that. A story that uses symbols and words about sight and perception on every page, Araby's penultimate paragraph certainly seems to indicate that the boy's admiration for the young sweetheart on his street is just "blind" affection, which becomes cheapened by his experiences at the bazaar, which bring about a sudden epiphany. The encounter awakens in the boy deeper, stronger, and more carnal feelings. Most analysts consider this paragraph the most important. The following line, they contend, is simply a Joyceian reflection on the self-image wrought by a Catholic upbringing. For most readers, Joyce's message is simple: a sexual awakening and epiphany such as this occurs in the life of every person, and the associated pangs of guilt and regret are unhealthy, usually a product of upbringing. And of course, since these feelings come from upbringing, i.e. tradition, they are, in a modern worldview, incorrect, and should be railed against with all one's might. It is plausible that this is the author’s intended message. Joyce, an apostate, manifests throughout his work a progressive struggle to free himself of the inhibitions imposed upon him by his inherited religion. But this struggle never seems to end. Successful as Joyce's severance from the Church and Her dogmas may have been; as realistically and fervently as he lived and wrote apostasy; his work, nonetheless, shows that Joyce could never escape the haunting fears and doubts about man's condition which he presumed to be simply figments born from man-made doctrine. On the contrary, he seems to have been increasingly worried by the fallenness and sin of mankind, and to have remained at least subconsciously aware that it was objective truth from which he fled. Though he blamed the Church for the dark corners in his own heart, and for the trauma felt by the boy in his story, Joyce could never in the rest of his writing corpus give a realistic solution for how to liberate oneself from such pangs of "anguish and anger."”

Evil happens. It's a mystery, and a terrible one. As difficult as it is to come to grips with His active will, it is God's permissive will that remains one of His more confounding attributes. Borne on the winds of hurricanes, agitated by the trembling of earthquakes, printed in the inky mire of scandals, the questions that so troubled the Patriarch Job arise perennially to concern modern man. And sometimes one finds little consolation in the fact that Christ, whose answer we seek, has chosen to remain present in our world only behind a veil, shrouded in the mystery of men who sin and a sacramental institution founded upon such a "rock" as the thrice-denying Saint Peter.

Yet so it is. In a world so troubled, it is hardly less troublesome to think that happiness and consolation are to be found hanging bloodily on the gibbet of a cross. One can hardly bear it. But indeed bearing the cross is the only way to rest wearied souls. And to turn to the Truth is indeed a cross. The darkness that burned the eyes of Joyce's protagonist with anguish and anger nearly and neatly borders the extremities of Truth's true light. But that light's border is distinct: the darkness cannot comprehend it. Our world presents us with some dark situations, and shadows fall all around us. But it does no good to assert that these shadows are mere figments. Joyce could not remove them by turning away from the visible light of truth. On the contrary, in doing so, he simply turned towards the darkness of despair, much more confounding that the shadows of doubt. The shadows of our world, the shadows of sin and doubt, in spite of themselves, rely upon the light, testify to the light. The less understandable we find God's permission of evil – in whatever forms such evil confronts us, be they natural disasters or manmade terrors – the greater reason do we have to practice the virtues of faith and trust. And if, in such times, we find the Church navigating such dark and choppy waters a battered and beaten bark, then let it be an encouragement to us. It is obvious from Her ancient and battle-scarred look that She has long endured this kind of troubled sailing – is it so incredible, then, to think She'll weather these waves better than the shiny and new boats that daily launch from the harbors of modernity? Her beacon is still lit; her sails are still raised. Turn toward the light. Climb aboard.

For the victims of the recent hurricanes,
For the victims of war and violence,
For all who have suffered hurt of any kind,
For everyone haunted by the darkness and evil in our world,
We pray,
O Mary, our hope, have pity on us.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Two Weeks After Katrina Attacks, Answers Sought

Now, I know what you're saying... wasn't "Katrina" a force of nature, void of will or intellect, a simple phenomenon whose rath was unprovoked and unpredictable? Of course, you're right. But stupid people abound, and this is the type of rhetoric that's being thrown around the political circles in the nations capitol in order to set up a straw-man argument for why our President is stupid (which, by the way, is needless since the reasons for his stupidity, are, I think, rather obvious and plain.) I've actually heard on the news people referring to this event "in light of 9/11". It reminded me of the drunks at the local bar who, upon finishing their sixth or seventh beer, will begin to wax conspiracy about the Soviets are trying to control the weather, nevermind that the Soviet Union no longer exists.

Granted, there are ramifications of the 9/11 response that have come into play with this issue, but they are none of the ones to which people are referring. In fact, quite the opposite. People are saying that, with the the restructuring done after the terrorist attacks, we should have been better prepared for this catastrophe. Actually, the contrary is true. Take FEMA, an organization that was managing natural disaster response since before President Bush dreamed of the White House, and throw it under a new beaurocratic system, namely the Dept. of Homeland Security, and then muddle the process of National Guard usage from the simple "Governor is commander-in-chief" idea by involving them in the same beaurocracy, and then set that new system on a rampage of anti-terrorism and terrorist attack response procedure for a couple of years. Suddenly, when an act of God comes out of the blue, everybody realizes that the policies and framework that has been set up doesn't work against the Almighty, and maybe the whole thing needs rethinking. And everyone seems to be either too stupid to realize this problem, or to want to point fingers at why we should have been better prepared even though they never spoke up in the fast and furious post-9/11 slash and burn reorganizations.

So, sorry, beaurocrats, but it's not the other party's fault this time. And it's not the Islamic Jihad of Monsoon, Typhoon, and Hurricane Manipulation either. This was a hurricane. It didn't attack. It didn't strike. It happened. And you know what it is, they say, that "happens." Life's full of it. And so are a lot of politicians. So quit quibbling, and pick up the pieces. Stop worrying about how to stop hurricanes. You won't do it. In fact, in plain truth, you won't stop terrorist attacks either - but that's another matter.

If something breaks, you fix it. Don't try to reinvent the wheel; just inflate the tire. This fixation on preventative mentality really is a symptom of the culture of death. I won't be surprised if we hear some legistlator pushing a new type of condom that can double as a floatation device in the near future. The best thing we can do is pull together and encourage one another through this tragedy. Give examples of heroism and good-naturedness to counter the barbarism and criminality we saw on TV. And leave the questions until the waters have receded.