Monday, August 25, 2014

Loneliness and Dunbar's Number

I have, to my lasting regret, not raved much before about David Wong, novelist and esteemed author of many Cracked articles (like this one and this one). I bought his debut book John Dies At the End just shy of a year ago now, and have since read it five or six times, because it's that good. Thanks to my folks, I have now also received and read his second novel, This Book Is Full of Spiders. I'd been slightly nervous to get it, because I liked John Dies so much I was afraid he wouldn't be able to pull off something of the same magnitude again. I had the same fear when I heard that J. K. Rowling had written a second Harry Potter book: "Please," I thought, "everything about Sorcerer's Stone was so great, and so neatly resolved, it doesn't need this -- she's obviously been pressured by the publisher or someone into cashing in on its popularity with a cheap sequel. But just in case, I'll go ahead and read this Chamber of Secrets thing." Which I then liked even better than the original. Now, I'll admit that I still like John Dies better than Spiders, but the latter put up some fierce competition, and I have a feeling that it too might eventually assume a place on the Whiskey Shelf.*


Warning: You may have a huge, invisible spider living in your skull. THIS IS NOT A METAPHOR. -- David Wong

Anyway, the reason I bring it up, aside from urging you all to go buy a copy of This Book Is Full of Spiders (and in all likelihood having some extraordinarily creative nightmares for a while), is that he cited a factoid that fascinated me. The town the book is set is has been quarantined following a zombie outbreak -- and, sidebar, it's worth noting that in a genre as old, popular, and market-saturated as zombie fiction, Wong still manages to produce something actually inventive and pretty scary -- and one of the characters is explaining something to the narrator:
"The restraint that governs human ambition isn't a lack of a unified language. It's Dunbar's number. Named after a British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar. He studied primate brains, and their behavior in groups. And he found something that will change the way you think about the world. He found that the larger the primate's neocortex, the larger the communities it formed. It takes a lot of brain to process all of the relationships in a complex society, you see. When primates find themselves in groups larger than what their brains can handle, the system breaks down. Factions form. Wars break out. Now, and do pay attention, because this is crucial -- you can actually look at a primate brain and, knowing nothing else about what species in came from, you can predict how big their tribes are. 
"... The salient issue here is that every primate has a number." Marconi gestured to the crowd gathering outside the fence. "Including those primates out there. Including you and I. Based on the size of a human's neocortex, that number is about a hundred and fifty. That's how many other humans we can recognize before we max out our connections. With some variability among individuals, of course. That is our maximum capacity for sympathy." 
I stared at him. I said, "Wait, really? Like there's an actual part of our brain that dictates how many people we can tolerate before we start acting like assholes?" 
"Congratulations, now you know the single reason why the world is the way it is. You see the problem right away -- everything we do requires cooperation in groups larger than a hundred and fifty. ... So every moment of the day we urgently try to separate everyone into two groups -- those inside the sphere of sympathy and those outside. Black versus white, liberal versus conservative, Muslim versus Christian, Lakers fan versus Celtics fan. ... 
"And here is the key -- those who lie outside the circle are not human. We lack the capacity to recognize them as such. This is why you feel worse about your girlfriend cutting her finger than you do about an earthquake in Afghanistan that kills a hundred thousand people. This is what makes genocide possible."**
This got me thinking, a bad habit that I've never quite been able to shake. The book of Acts records that, at the Ascension, there were a hundred and twenty disciples (probably a round number -- given for its symbolic significance as a multiple of twelve, that being the number that Scripture typically uses to signify the chosen people of God). This lies neatly within Dunbar's number*** for social groups, as if the primitive Church had been designed to experience itself first as a tightly-knit yet expansive community -- a Church that was catholic.

The narrative thereafter shows the various ways in which the Church expanded beyond its previous boundaries of both size and composition: first her numerical expansion after Pentecost; then the evangelization of the more-or-less (but, in most Judean Jews' opinion, distinctly less) Jewish people of Samaria; then the beginnings of the mission to the Gentiles in Syria; and then, with the conversion of St. Paul, the beginnings of an evangelization of the whole Mediterranean, and the crossing from Asia to Europe, arriving at last at the center of the Empire and what had been the symbol of everything the Jews -- including the Apostles themselves -- wanted to be freed from, both politically and spiritually: Rome. As if the Holy Ghost took the Church and told her, "Alright, we're going to radically change how you relate to literally everyone in the world. So start here, where you can comfortably handle the scale of what's going on. And now a step beyond that. And now, a while later, another kind of step, beyond the previous one. And now another."


We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained
before the world unto our glory:which none of the princes of this world knew: for had
they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. -- I Corinthians 2.7-8

From one perspective, of course, the experiment failed; I don't know that Christianity is more divided against itself than any other religion, but it has shown the ill-effects of expansion: that dissolution of empathy and receptivity known, in theological language, as schism. From another perspective, the experiment was a considerable success: it will round its two thousandth year in just about twenty years more, with a continuation not only as a spirit but as a living institution at every point -- a historical fact peculiarly well symbolized (whatever one's theology of it) by the Papacy, which is the oldest continuous institution in the world.**** That the Christian religion has managed to continue to exist, and even to recollect itself from native corruptions several times, is an impressive feat, perhaps an unrivaled one.

It's a funny phenomenon to me to think of simply running out of sympathy based on the size of a group. Running out of time, energy, patience, all of that I understand from within; and I suppose that if Dunbar's number just signifies that, practically speaking, we can only manage to know so many people, it makes sense. But it very much seems as though -- whether for pragmatic reasons or for some darker cause -- what it means is that, after that threshold, we just know too damn many people, and start not merely saying "I haven't got the resources to do you justice" but in fact saying "You don't deserve for me to do you justice."



That's super weird to me. I don't know whether it's just because it's weird to anybody, or because I've dealt so much with loneliness throughout my life, or what. But it's strange, and it's tragic. It's perfectly true that that is what allows genocide to happen, and what allows us to be so callously inattentive to, or contemptuous of, others' sufferings -- particularly if those others are far away, or look or dress or speak or behave in ways that we do not recognize or do not like, or are simply a very large group (it being a curious but, it seems, generally acknowledged phenomenon that it's easier to mourn sixteen people than sixteen million).

I wonder, too, whether there is a reverse to which Dunbar's number is the obverse: whether there is some number of people we need to know intimately, a number of relationships beneath which a person simply can't function without their humanity begin to fracture. Of course, there will always be variability. And there will always be periods when we need solitude: some people need much more solitude than others, and some people even have vocations for the long term to be recluses or hermits, though even they tend to gather visitors and disciples, not infrequently against their will. But I wonder whether there is an opposite to Dunbar's number nonetheless. It'd be entertaining if that number should happen to be three.

Or -- and this is at least as likely, based on the data at my disposal -- loneliness is just A Thing That Happens, like many Things.

Now, I'm fairly fucked up, as a person: to give you the idea, about two weeks ago now, a friend of mine, a guy I've known and respected and liked for years, asked if I was going to be at the writers' group we both go to, and when I told him yes and he said he was glad because he'd been hoping I would be there, my knee-jerk reaction was to think, Did I do something wrong and he wants to talk to me about it? Did I borrow something and he needs it back? Do I owe him money? (I borrow money approximately never.) Not something like, Oh, this person likes spending time with me, how nice. That is a hypothesis that I generally only arrive at after several minutes, though I've learnt to try positing it earlier on, if only out of a spirit of adventurous experiment. So my own way of experiencing and contemplating loneliness may not be typical, or indeed noteworthy for its sanity. But, judging from my own life and what the people I know and trust the most say, loneliness does just kind of come and go in waves, even under the best circumstances, even when all of the affection that we need is being supplied by family and friends.

My suspicion is that this is one of the signs that we were made for something more and other than human company. Loneliness is kind of like being hungry; I wonder whether perhaps it is being hungry, for God. This also is Thou, neither is this Thou, as the saying goes: God is known through every created thing, and yet He is not nor resembles any created thing. And as painful as it often is -- and it's been biting especially deep of late, for whatever reason -- there is also a strangely clean feeling to loneliness sometimes. Something that faintly resembles the feeling you get when you look up at the sky on a day when there isn't a cloud in sight, and just stare into the deserted blue.

I do think it rather interesting that the saints, the great paragons of supernatural love, have made use of both methods -- solitude on the one hand, and society far beyond Dunbar's number on the other. In a woman like Lady Julian of Norwich, we find a recluse, immured from the world as if already buried (neither is this Thou), yet whose overflowing charity and grace still guide and inspire Christians to this day.


"The Holy Ghost never urgeth any thing against charity, for if He were
to do so, He would contradict His own nature; for He is all charity."

At the other extreme, as it were, we have a figure like Blessed Mother Teresa: untiring and unresting, having traveled halfway around the world (from Albania to Ireland to India) for no other purpose than to pour herself out for others, herself secretly brimful of the darkness and pain of the Passion, yet giving every single person a smile, a prayer, a touch, making some gesture of love however small, for the sake of loving every person as Jesus -- loving Jesus in every person (this also is Thou).


"We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The
poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty."

And the extremes meet, as any introvert who's attended a party knows well. (As Joey Prever put it once, "Everybody came over! It was great! That was three hours ago! They won't leave!") Not only can company be solitude, whether said company is in excess of a hundred and fifty people or not. It's also true that solitude can be company: not just that solitude is a relaxing break, but that there is a quality in solitude that can be as enriching and positive as a supportive, affectionate friend. It isn't always there; or, more likely, I'm not always tuned in enough to notice it. But hey. That could mean that -- just as, by training or talent or Divine grace, some people exceed the Dunbar number and care about more than a hundred and fifty people -- so too, maybe, the opposite of the Dunbar number, under the same conditions of nature or of grace, might be zero.

Hmm. This will require some beard-stroking, and possibly a raised eyebrow.


*For those not already acquainted with my personal blend of bibliomania and alcoholism: I was tired of having to get up and walk all three and a half feet from my desk to my bookshelves whenever I needed to reference something while writing, so I took an old wooden whiskey crate that I liked and makeshifted it into a bookcase for the works I use most frequently, whether for use or pleasure. Books on the Whiskey Shelf are accordingly those I most highly esteem. Most of them, other than John Dies At the End, are books that I've been familiar with for several years at least and read many times over. (Because I arranged them alphabetically by author, this means that Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling is sitting right next to The Silmarillion, which I imagine must be a novel experience for both of them.)

**This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It, pp. 295-296.

***Dunbar's number has been disputed, with some scholars setting it significantly higher. A generally accepted range, according to infallible Wikipedia, lies between 100 and 250.

****Unless the claims of the Japanese Emperors are true, in which case they predate the Bishops of Rome by about 660 years. Which I admit would be pretty awesome.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Five Quick Takes

I.

I am feeling tired and lazy, so, even though it's been more than a week since I wrote a real post, I'm going to also not write a real post right now. You're welcome.

In the spirit of not doing things, or at any rate of not having ideas, I have been thinking hard about what content to make as a special thank-you for my Patreon sponsors, and frankly I'm stumped. About the only idea I've had thus far is to video some kind of pencil-mounted-puppet show -- thus demonstrating that a preoccupation with puppets is not the exclusive preserve of left-wing liturgical nutjobs, but in fact a temptation common to all wicked men. If you have any suggestions, patrons, I welcome them; otherwise, you're probably getting a puppet show.


Why yes, I did discover this Zoidberg meme years behind the rest of the internet.

+     +     +

II.

I am rereading Pope Benedict XVI's Introduction to Christianity, and I just can't do justice to it. The first time I read it, my reaction was primarily, I have read A Thing written by A German Academic Theologian, followed by finding something that seemed more accessible, like theoretical astrophysics. The second time, it clicked, and I loved it. And this third time, it's speaking to me even more deeply. His grasp, and vivid communication, of the act of faith -- the act of entrusting oneself to the invisible -- is helping me through a very strange and difficult period with my own faith right now, if only because it makes the difficulty less strange. Entrusting yourself to anyone or anything is, after all, a risky business, and, like any coward, I don't like it. But, like it or not, it is a problem posed to us not only by Christianity specially, but by simply being a human. To quote His Holiness (from pp. 55-57):
God has come so near to us that we can kill him and that he thereby, so it seems, ceases to be God for us. Thus today we stand somewhat baffled before this Christian "revelation" and wonder, especially when we compare it with the religiosity of Asia, whether it would not have been much simpler to believe in the Mysterious Eternal, entrusting ourselves to it in longing thought; whether God would not have done better, so to speak, to leave us at an infinite distance ... 
[I]s it still permissible to believe? Have we not a duty to break with the dream and to face reality? The Christian of today must ask himself this question; he is not at liberty to remain satisfied with finding out that ... an interpretation of Christianity can still be found that no longer offends anybody. When some theologian explains that "the resurrection of the dead" simply means that one must cheerfully set about the work of the future afresh every day, offense is certainly avoided. But are we then really still being honest? ... Let us be quite plain about it: An "interpreted" Christianity of this kind that has lost all contact with reality implies a loss of sincerity in dealing with the questions of the non-Christian, whose "perhaps not" should worry us as seriously as we want the Christian "perhaps" to worry him. 
If we try like this to accept the interrogation of the other side as the everlasting self-questioning of our own being, which cannot be reduced to a treatise and afterward laid aside, then, on the other hand, we shall have the right to observe that here a counterquestion arises. We are inclined today as a matter of course to suppose that only what is palpably present, what is "demonstrable," is truly real. But is it really permissible to do this? ... [O]r is ascertaining perhaps only one particular method of making contact with reality, one that can by no means comprehend the whole of reality and that even leads to falsification of the truth and of human existence if we assume that it is the only definitive method?
+     +     +

III.

Please, nobody tell me why Fifty Shades of Grey is popular. I am begging you.

Though I guess, if we're lucky, we might get one of these out of it:


+     +     +

IV.

The terrible thing about being a writer, at any rate of fiction, is that you have to make things up. Of ideas, Douglas Adams said something like, "You can't go and rave it up in a field whenever you need one, so you just have to sit there and think of the little bastards. And if you can't think of them you just have to sit there."

I'm running into precisely this problem with the second installment of a three-part (of course) story that I'm working on, about Victorian vampires (sure) as understood through the lenses of Catholic theology (lolwut?) and esoteric alchemical symbolism (I give up). I have the characters, and about enough plot to sustain perhaps six chapters of actual action, which would be fine if the previous installment weren't something more like twenty chapters.


However hard it may be to believe, this is not only confusing when you don't understand it, it's also boring when you do.

So I have to find a way of making a whole bunch more things happen, and worse, I have to find a way that isn't cheating -- not just throwing arbitrary difficulties at my characters, but actually structuring the story so that it produces a plot that, well, takes more time.

I may have had a point when I started this take, but apparently it was not a very compelling one.

Which may not bode well for the story. Oh dear.

+     +     +

V.


After a Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption a week or two ago -- it's only a few blocks from my house, so I go there fairly regularly -- I spoke with the priest, asking him to pray for me because I was having (and continue to have) difficulty in discerning my vocation. He told me that that was related to not knowing myself adequately, and I have to admit that that makes a good deal of sense. Of course, being an introvert with a tendency to obsess over identity, I always feel that way, but it seems like it's actually objectively true here in particular. I think one of the tough things about vocations (and, coincidentally, something I don't consistently encounter when I read or hear encouragements to consider priestly and religious vocations) is that they grow from within: they are not arbitrary impositions on God's part, but flowerings of the inner character that He implanted within us in making us.

That's not to say that they develop perfectly and with no input from our own free will. Our free will is as organic as our inner character. But I suspect that one thing that makes discernment harder than it needs to be, though it will always be hard, is the tendency to think of it as trying to discover a secret God is keeping from us, rather than of trying to discover our natural place -- natural to us because He crafted our nature for that place, and vice versa.

The other thing that makes it hard is our hard hearts. That is, not just sins, but our tendency to sin, our tendency to divert our attention from God to anything else, or even to nothing at all. The fact that we are naturally drawn to God as creatures made in His image does not wholly counteract that. Earlier today, my roommate was trying to reattach the cover on his wing mirror, which had been knocked off, and gotten slightly warped in the process. Try as he might, it wouldn't quite fit in the way it was supposed to, even though it had of course been constructed for the specific purpose of fitting there. Human brokenness is like that. My brokenness is like that.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why I Am a Pacifist

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples, 'My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.' Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, 'Not as the world gives, give I unto you.'

-- T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral, Interlude

+     +     +


This past Wednesday was the Feast of the Transfiguration; next Friday marks the Assumption of Mary.* I had never paid much attention to the confluence of these two great feasts of the Church before this year -- I had always noticed it, but not known what, if anything, to make of it. Indeed, it seemed to me a little inconvenient for our Eastern brethren (Orthodox and Catholic alike), because they observe a two-week fast leading up to the Assumption, but there is the Transfiguration, one of the greatest feasts of the year, interrupting it, which I kind of thought would break the mood.**

However, as I was looking up a novena to pray to help prepare for the Assumption, which has long been one of my very favorite feasts, I came upon this one, which links the Assumption firmly to the power of God over life and to His own Resurrection. That, of course, is very natural; but what I had not known about until hunting for an icon to go with this poem that I wrote, is the association, going back to the primitive Fathers of the Church, between the Transfiguration and the Resurrection. They taught that the splendor revealed to SS. Peter, James, and John there was a foretaste of the resurrected, glorified body. To set it in apposition to the Assumption -- a foretaste of the Resurrection, in a sort of diptych with an echo of Christ's Resurrection and an anticipation of the final resurrection of all the dead -- is therefore a very striking feature of the Church's calendar.


The Assumption of the Virgin by Nicholas Markell

It is striking, too, that this sequence should come in conjunction with a slough of martyr's days. Notably, there are the memorials of St. Lawrence, arguably the patron of sassy comebacks, who famously told his executioners while he was being roasted alive, "Have a bite, it's done"; St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan who was a missionary to Japan and a profound Marian mystic, who offered his own life in exchange for a prisoner in a concentration camp; and, today, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as Edith Stein, a German Jewess who after years as an atheist converted to Catholicism. She spent years teaching and writing philosophy, until in 1933 she was forced out of that profession by the newly instituted anti-Semitic laws; the next year, she became a Carmelite nun. She and her sister Rosa, also a convert, were eventually murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz.

Today is also remarkable as the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. Hiroshima was bombed on the feast of the Transfiguration -- unnatural light against supernatural light, as it were -- and Nagasaki, three years to the day after holy Teresa Benedicta offered up her life. The second atomic bomb hit the ground only a third of a mile from Urakami Cathedral, the city itself having been a major center of the Catholic faith in Japan for three centuries.

I find myself coming back and back to these events in grief. I have never believed that these bombings were right. One of the most basic rules of just warfare is that noncombatants are not to be touched, and one of the express purposes of both bombings was to cow the Japanese into surrender by targeting the civilian population. The Catechism states in no uncertain terms that
The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties. Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. ... Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation. -- Paras. 2312-2314
The inability or refusal of even many Catholics in this country to call this particular spade a spade, or more precisely a bloody shovel, is a burning sorrow to me. I have heard the arguments a thousand times over: it saved American lives by shortening the war, it saved Japanese lives by shortening the war, the Japanese were guilty of horrific war crimes themselves, pamphlets were dropped on Hiroshima warning people to get out, and on and on. I have no sympathy with such arguments. A crime is a crime, regardless of what it was done to obtain. Killing defenseless people is murder, war or no war. And call it karma if you want, but I think that corrupt actions have a tendency to work backward and poison even the good intentions of the people who do them -- or approve of them after the fact.

And as for the notion of saving lives, well, two things. First, why don't we pretend we can go back in time. We'll go to Nagasaki, and we'll sit down with the little girl whose skin was melted and mutilated by atomic radiation, whose father had already been killed in action and who watched her mother burned alive by the bombing, and we'll explain to her that it was to save Japanese lives that we did that.


"Am I my brother's keeper?"

Secondly, no, it didn't save lives. Because everybody dies eventually anyway. That isn't just a clever turn of phrase about just and unjust methods of warfare, that is the brutal facts of life and how it always ends. God Himself ended His life in death; and that death was followed by resurrection, but death came first. You cannot save a man's life; you can only grant him a reprieve.

And that leads me into one of my chief reasons for being a pacifist. Objecting to war because it causes men to die is, to my mind, a bad reason: you might as well object to sex because it brings men into existence, only to die seventy years later (if they're lucky). True, war brings about many tragic deaths that would otherwise be avoidable, but so does hiking. And for that matter, some defenders of Just War Theory -- my masters C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton among them -- have rightly pointed out that men are quite as likely as not to be adequately prepared for death in a trench or a tank, since the issue is forced upon them. Nothing like imminent death to set your mind on the Four Last Things.

I don't object to war because it makes men corpses. I object to war because it makes men killers.

+     +     +

PRIESTS [severally]
My Lord, you must not stop here. To the minster.
To the cloister. No time to waste. They are coming back, armed. To the altar, to the altar.

THOMAS
All my life they have been coming, these feet. All my life
I have waited. Death will come only when I am worthy,
And if I am worthy, there is no danger.
I have therefore only to make perfect my will.

PRIESTS
My Lord, they are coming. They will break through presently.
You will be killed. Come to the altar.
Make haste, my Lord. Don't stop here talking. It is not right.
What shall become of us, my Lord, if you are killed; what shall become of us?

THOMAS
Peace! be quiet! remember where you are, and what is happening;
No life here is sought for but mine,
And I am not in danger: only near to death.

-- T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral, Part II

+     +     +

Children, women, and men lose their lives every day. War does not alter the death rate in the slightest: it has been holding steady at 100% for as long as records have been kept on the subject (Enoch and Elijah notwithstanding), and very possibly longer. But war, like murder, involves people in the deliberate snuffing out of human life. Man is the image of God: to take another man's life is to violate that image, to deface the living icon of God. It is impossible to do such a thing without risking corruption of the soul. To do so deliberately and consciously, without just cause and just means, is, apart from repentance, damnation.

The sanctity of human life is a truth with which we have long lost touch; we live in a remarkably cynical age. I'm talking about everything from abortion to war to the death penalty. And, behind these, the despair of eternal values that animates both the realpolitik that effects many of the wars we are and have been entangled in, and the utopian idealism (notably to be found in many forms of socialism) that claims to confront such wars. The despair of the former is no doubt obvious enough; the despair of the latter is subtler, but no less present, for when (as always happens in a broken world) the utopian finds his hopes disappointed -- when he discovers, as Solzhenitsyn said, that the line dividing good from evil runs not between classes or parties but down the middle of every human heart -- he has nothing to fall back on. When neither circumcision is anything, nor uncircumcision, he has no faith in a new creature to sustain him.

It is faith in a new creature, the deliberate decision to know all men in Christ, that moves me to be a pacifist. For the love of Christ constraineth us, because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then all were dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again. Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more (II Cor. 5.14-16).


I don't mean that I think violence is always wrong, for everybody, regardless of circumstance. I believe that I am personally called to pacifism, and would urge others to adopt it, but I condemn no one on grounds of not being a pacifist.

A number of contemporary Christian pacifists, such as Shane Claiborne, have taken the view that Jesus' own teaching and that of the primitive Church was pacifistic, not simply in the sense of renouncing violence -- that is, choosing to forsake something that can sometimes be licit in itself, as a celibate acknowledges the good of marriage, but forsakes it for a different path -- but in the sense of denouncing violence, that is, maintaining that it is always and in every situation wrong. I sympathize with, but cannot adopt, such a position.*** If a man kills another man solely in direct defense of his own life, I can't really bring myself to say that he is spiritually condemned unless he repents of that self-defense. Or that the man who uses violence to prevent his wife or his child from being harmed is reprehensible for doing so. He is doing something that risks his own spiritual well-being, for unnatural actions, even those that incur no guilt, always wound the soul and pose a temptation to it to distort its own moral compass thereafter; and every act of violence, however thoroughly justified (to the extent that they ever can be), provokes a thirst for revenge in the person against whom it is committed and in those who care about them -- so that violence is, almost inevitably, self-perpetuating.

But, provided that his purpose is to defend himself or someone else, and that he is not seeking the other's death for its own sake, I don't believe he has sinned. Indeed, based on the example of St. Joan among others, I would go so far as to say that participating in a truly self-defensive war is, in itself, permissible; though God knows there are precious few of those.

Violence can sometimes be permissible. But I don't think it is ever required, and I think furthermore that it is always better to lay down one's own life rather than taking somebody else's. Shew I unto you a more excellent way: so to reverence the image of God in one's fellow man, that the ugly outlines of one's fellow man cannot overshadow it or blot it out, not even if it should hold a spear or a thorny crown.

I think that pacifism, like celibacy or poverty, is a sign of renouncing something that is sometimes licit -- in this case, self-defense by force -- for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. It is, if you will, an eschatological or prophetic act, displaying hope and faith in the world to come, where violence, injustice, and suffering will have no place: electing as our Master did to suffer these things rather than to inflict them upon others, so as to end in oneself the cycle of revenge that naturally springs from every act of violence. Nonviolence anticipates the new creation: which, as I opened with, is precisely the mystery that was expressed in the Transfiguration of the Lord, and again in the Assumption of the Mother of God. That living self-sacrifice that triumphed over death, that virgin maternity -- these things are the opposite of violence, and signify the victory of peace.


+     +     +

You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.
...
Now to Almighty God, to the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, to the blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to the blessed martyr Denys, and to all the Saints, I commend my cause and that of the Church.

-- T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral, Part II


*For those readers not already familiar, Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed bodily into heaven at the close of her life, in a similar way to the assumption of Elijah the Prophet. Opinion is divided in the West about whether she died first, with most theologians believing that she did; in the East, I gather, there is a complete consensus that she died, and in fact the feast is known as the Dormition ("falling asleep") of the Mother of God, rather than as her Assumption.

**These two feasts actually illustrate some of the interesting contrasts between Western and Eastern spirituality (Western and Eastern, not Catholic and Orthodox, because there are a Western-rite Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholics: the divergence of spiritualities is really much more geographical than ecclesiastical). I am not as thoroughly acquainted with the East as I would like to be; but I understand from what I have read that the Transfiguration there equates in devotional importance with the Passion in the West, and that, where a Western saint might be associated with the Stigmata, an Eastern saint would be linked with the light of the Transfiguration.
     The contrast of accent, between Dormition and Assumption, I can't account for with my present knowledge -- though I suppose it's just possible that it is comparable to the fact that Westerners tend to speak about the Blessed Virgin Mary where Easterners tend to speak about the Mother of God: the same person, of course, but I suppose the one accents her unlikeness to most other believers where the other accents her likeness. I mean, not many people are (or wish to be) virgins through their whole lives, but parenthood is very common; and correspondingly, only a tiny fraction of the human race have ever been assumed into heaven, with or without death, but as for dying, like Aslan said, "Most people have, you know. Even I have." But of course all of this is pure speculation.

***The view that I take is the same as that set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Some scholars and activists assert that the ancient Church was definitely pacifist. It is in my opinion indisputable that the Church forbade her members to join the military, and that those who converted who were soldiers already were urgently exhorted to find work that did not involve them in killing people. However, this does not necessarily equate to the strictest pacifistic position that killing is always wrong for any reason at all, and it does not even necessarily involve us in the belief that Just War Theory is false, because the Roman Empire -- like most governments -- could not be relied upon to send her troops only into just wars. This means that, even if Just War Theory is (as the Catholic Church teaches) essentially correct, it would still impinge upon soldiers not to participate in unjust wars, which a great many Roman wars were. As for joining the military, it involved swearing oaths to the genius of the Emperor, which was precisely the symbolic act of idolatry that many of the martyrs were killed for in the first place: one could hardly expect the Church to approve of people entering the army by such a means even if she were not pacifistic.
     The Sermon on the Mount is often cited in support of the most rigorously pacifist viewpoint (whether of theology, or of the history of theology): the argument being that Jesus taught us never to retaliate. I am not so sure of this, not because I believe that Jesus did teach us to retaliate -- He certainly didn't -- but because the kind of things the Sermon on the Mount deals with don't appear to me to be coming up in a context of war, or even of injurious violence. The conjunction of being slapped on the right cheek, having your pants sued off you, and being forced to carry a soldier's bags for a while, all suggest that what Christ was speaking of here was the desire to retaliate born of humiliation -- a subtler and a broader thing than the more specific manifestation that violent revenge takes.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Poetry: Chi Ni Wa Odayaka


Flags signed by loved ones and friends were often given to Japanese soldiers during World War 
II, both as keepsakes and as prayers or good-luck charms. Many were found on the bodies of dead 
soldiers, and today they are commonly returned to the living relatives of the deceased when found.


Chi Ni Wa Odayaka

The sun rose plum-red
Above its native ocean
Into the white sky.

Its trailing branches
Caught with it a woman, made
Of steel, big with child.

She was heavy with
The deathly issue: her son
And her Little Boy.

Accompanied by
Two others, she flew westward
O'er the rising sun.

It was the feast day
Of the Light behind the sun,
A white, deathless light.

Upon a mountain
Westward, towards the Old World's edge,
It shone long ago.

It was then heavy
With a deathly issue, and
Three sons beneath It

Saw It rise, trailing
An accompaniment of
Two others, elders.

The skiey woman
Tore open her breasts; gave birth
To death; went her way.

The earthly city
Was transfigured before them:
It shone that morning

Like no launderer
Could whiten any garment,
Nor dye to redness.

Her Little Boy fell,
And in midair, crucified
Above plum-blossoms,

Proclaimed his gospel:
PEACE ON EARTH. GOOD WILL TOWARDS MEN.
And the Innocents

Died for it again;
No katana was broken,
But virgin children.

The mountains melt
Like wax before the Lord; and
Men's faces melted.

(But we were only
Following orders. We were
Fighting fanatics.)

Over the kingdom,
The power and the glory
Irradiated --

Cherry branches bled
Out into the Pacific,
Silence to silence.

A little girl's eyes
Full of glass shards, plucked out by
Her mother's black hands.

A strapping soldier's
Picture, cracked in the wreck that
Crushes his father.

The Light had foretold
The exodus It would lead
From Jerusalem

Before only three:
But that day, many were led
Up on the mountain,

In a pillar of
Cloud, in a pillar of fire,
White and red and white.

Forgive, forgive us,
Christ whom we crucified
In uncounted souls.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis
Peccata mundi, dona
Eis requiem.


Icon of the Transfiguration from St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai


+     +     +     +     +     +     +

NOTES.

Title. The Japanese phrase chi ni wa odayaka is used to translate the text "peace on earth" in Luke 2.14.

1st stanza. It has been suggested that the sun-disc that adorns the Japanese flag may have been inspired in part by a popular lunch dish, consisting in a box of rice with a pickled plum in the middle. Regardless, fruits and flowers and their colors play a significant role in Japanese aesthetics.

3rd stanza. The "woman" is of course the Enola Gay, which was named for the mother of the pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets. The H-bomb it carried was nicknamed "Little Boy."

5th stanza. August 6th, the date selected for the bombing of Hiroshima, also happens to be the Feast of the Transfiguration. The contrast between unnatural and supernatural light and energies runs throughout the poem.

7th stanza. The "deathly issue" that Christ was heavy with is detailed in Luke 9.30-31, where the evangelist specifies what He was speaking of with Moses and Elijah: the departure (or in the Greek, the exodos) He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem, i.e. the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension.

11th stanza: Cf. Mark 9.3: And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.

14th stanza: The Holy Innocents, killed on the orders of Herod the Great (cf. Matthew 2.13-20), form a parallel case to the civilians and particularly to the children who died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of particular interest to Catholics is the fact that Nagasaki was one of the earliest and strongest Catholic centers in Japan, before, during, and after the suppression of foreign trade and Christianity; more than a dozen of its churches have been proposed for the UNESCO World Heritage List.

15th stanza: Cf. Psalm 97.3-6: A fire goeth before him, and burneth up his enemies round about. His lightnings enlightened the world: the earth saw, and trembled. The hills melted like wax at the presence of the LORD, at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth. The heavens declare his righteousness, and all the people see his glory. Especially in conjunction with the allusion to "the kingdom, the power, and the glory" from the Lord's Prayer, this suggests the presumption involved in taking power as enormous and uncontrollable into human hands at all.

16th stanza: An allusion to the Nuremberg Trials, in which many Nazi war criminals attempted to defend themselves on the grounds that they were only following orders, and had been too strictly trained for conscientious disobedience to be expected of them. The mention of fanaticism sets up an ironic contrast between the often criminal acts of the Japanese in the war, and the act of deploying the atomic bombs against civilians on the part of the Allies.

18th stanza: The cherry blossom or sakura is the eminent flower of Japan, equating in importance to the English rose or the French lily. The double mention of silence is meant, among other things, to suggest the Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo's novel of the same name, which explores the significance of suffering in the context of the cruel persecutions of the seventeenth century following the Shimabara Rebellion, and of the silence of God in the face of earthly torment.

25th stanza: This is taken from the Latin text of the Funeral Mass, and means: Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant them rest.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Speak of the Devil

Just as under Charlemagne it was an offense to be a witch and an offense to say, untruly, that anyone was a witch; that is, just as accusations as well as sorceries were discouraged, so the bishops [during the Dark Ages], with intellectual inconsistency perhaps but with the best possible intentions, often attempted to discourage both sorcery and belief in sorcery. ... There ... is obviously a point at which belief and act come very near together. In fact, the authorities seem rather to have taken the view that to believe that anyone could do it, to believe that one could oneself do it, and to do it were three degrees of preoccupation with the same evil. They were concerned to change the whole form of the invisible world; they were concerned to direct the attention of the visible world to Christ.

-- Charles Williams, Witchcraft, pp. 71-72

+     +     +

Possibly I'm imagining things, but I feel as if talking about the devil has become fashionable among Christians again. It does periodically, like anything. Whether we speak of the outcry against the Church of England removing the rejection of the devil from its baptismal formula (against literally millennia of Christian practice of the sacrament), or of denunciations of gay marriage as diabolical designs against the family, or the occasional salacious novel depicting supernatural combat between angels of darkness and angels of light, such subjects will always command a certain degree of interest from most minds.


In fact, I'm a little surprised Michael Bay hasn't gotten in on this yet.
Eugene Delacroix, St Michael Defeats the Devil, ca. 1860

With the exception of the piece I wrote soliciting prayers against a proposed Black Mass at Harvard a few months ago -- a diseased plan that, thanks be to God, was stopped long before the blasphemy could be actualized -- I have written very little about the devil here. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that I firmly believe in the devil, and wish to give him no further credit or attention than seems strictly necessary. The tragedy of the fall of such an exalted being as he is almost overwhelmed by the sickness of his present operations, such as they are, and to spend overlong contemplating them is a nauseating thing to do; until and unless those operations begin to assume the fascinating quality that indicates that they're working.

Nor is that fascination to be found solely in the temptation to what Christians have historically meant by witchcraft. "Speak of the devil, and he appears": that is the second reason I try write and speak little on the subject. There have certainly been men and women over the centuries who have really attempted to enact the hideous way of the soul that consists in adoring devils and trafficking in their works (though how effective those works ever were, God knows), but that is only one type of error, and a rare one. C. S. Lewis was very wise when he wrote that the two basic errors about devils were to either disbelieve in their existence, or else to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them; and such obsessions as that can be expressed in a perversely monotonous hostility, at the expense of the love of God and neighbor, just as much as in witchcraft. There may or may not have been spiritual evil indwelling all or any of the victims of the torture chambers of the later Middle Ages and early Modern period,* but we may be certain that the princes of hell were delighted by the Innsbruck lawyer who declared in 1676 that "The torture chamber should be constantly sprinkled with holy water and a smoke made with blessed herbs."

On the obverse side of that negative reason is a positive reason. That positive reason is that the primary commands of the New Testament are to love God and to love one's neighbor (that is, everybody). The renunciation of the devil, important as it is, was always meant as a preliminary to that; to spend further time and energy concentrating on the devil, even for the purposes of renouncing him, is -- even if we suppose that such concentration is sometimes licit or necessary -- a different thing from concentration upon God and neighbor, for the simple reason that the devil is certainly not God, and can only ambiguously be thought of as our neighbor (however strongly we may sometimes feel that our neighbor is the devil, as for instance when he listens to Nickelback).

Or, to quote Williams again, there were and are two ways of rejecting evil: one with a stern awareness of it, such as we see exampled in the great doctor, St. Augustine; and one with a sweet neglect of it, such as we see in the vivid and holy joy of St. Francis, even at a distance of centuries.


When you're still famous for being happy nearly eight hundred years after you die ... uh,
I guess you're St. Francis, because I can't think of anyone else who fits that description.
Stefano di Giovanni, The Ecstasy of Saint Francis, 1444

Either mode of rejecting evil may be appropriate to a given situation -- one could hardly ask someone living in Nazi Germany, for instance, to pour all of their mental and spiritual resources into the sweet neglect. And both modes are, as the examples show, consistent with profound holiness. But I've found that the people I have most trusted and found most helpful have tended to stress love of God over hatred of His enemies, if only in the name of sticking to the point. Also, that on the whole, the mode that is most helpful outside of specific circumstances that are, as it were, moral or spiritual emergencies, is precisely the sweet neglect rather than the stern awareness. And indeed, insofar as St. Augustine remained Platonic in his thought, he might have been the first to agree: for evil has no being, and is known rather in its defectiveness from good than in itself; so that one can know and reject evil more perfectly by loving the good than by focusing upon evil.

+     +     +

In the best days of the Middle Ages trials might take place and tortures be both threatened and applied -- more often perhaps threatened than applied. But the cases of acquittal were fairly frequent, and such cases as that of Saint Joan show that the ecclesiastical courts were sometimes indisposed to push the torture to its extreme. She was shown the instruments; they were not used. ... [E]ven with Gilles de Rais, the spectacular scene of the Bishop of Nantes embracing the convicted prisoner shows that something of the sense of Christendom remained vital and active. If it was melodrama, it was proper melodrama. ... But now all was changed. The Middle Ages had, as it were, abandoned that effort and dream of sanctity. ... They had learnt the great fundamental lesson, produced by all individual and social experience, that it is much easier, and in a general way as profitable, to blame someone else rather than to blame oneself. They had discovered that it is always agreeable to hold someone responsible.

-- Charles Williams, Witchcraft, pp. 174-175

+     +     +

It bears pointing out, as I hinted at above, that we may and indeed must expect the devil to operate within the confines of Christianity in a sense, and not only by witches prophesying on a blasted heath and so forth. He is (I tend to believe) weaker than our excitable imaginations like to think: a charismatic Catholic of my acquaintance, on being released from a demonic obsession,** said that what had previously appeared to him to be a monstrous and powerful creature that he could never hope to conquer, was suddenly unveiled in a vision as being something more like a malevolent cricket.


Terrifying.

But what the devil isn't is stupid. Operating in such an obvious way as witchcraft could never snare more than a tiny minority of souls, both because of its intrinsic ugliness and because of the reaction it would be certain to provoke if it happened openly.

No, I think his most potent method is corrupting spirituality. Whether by obsession with the devil in others, or, better still, with the god in ourselves, shifting our eyes from God always degrades Christian faith. And shifting our eyes need not be accompanied by ceasing to do things in the name of God; all it means is that the spirit in which they are done changes, so that the Name is taken in vain, and hereafter blasphemed among the Gentiles.

The sad, and increasingly obscene, case of Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill seems to be illustrating this very phenomenon. The popularity of discussing him is certainly not a figment of my imagination. A man who was once servant-hearted and devoted to spreading the gospel has been transfigured, to all appearances, into a childish bully and a false prophet; I remember thinking, when he said that he "cannot worship a Jesus I can beat up," that, if that's true, he can't worship Jesus, period. Jesus came to earth for the express purpose of being beaten up.


To be fair, St. Peter wasn't quick on the uptake for this concept, either.
James Tissot, Retire-toi Satan [Get Thee Behind Me, Satan], ca. 1890

I thought at the time about writing a blog post about him, maybe even an open letter to him. Not that I have any particular reason to think he would listen to me: we don't know each other, and I am three things that he despises: a Catholic, a gay man, and a pacifist. But it did cross my mind that I can't sit in judgment upon him -- not really -- because, however strongly I may reject his theology and vituperate his behavior, the brute fact is that I haven't been exposed to the temptations of ecclesiastical power and fame the way he has. I don't know what I'd do if I were in his shoes, or even if Mudblood Catholic became a huge presence on the web. Nor do I know what difficulties and sufferings, concealed from the world (whether out of vanity or only out of his right to privacy), he may experience; though I can extrapolate some of them, maybe, from my own sins of anger. Would addressing a rebuke to him really do anything other than make me look and feel spiritual? Even in writing this, I am taking a very great risk, and have done my best to be careful to stick to publicly known facts without conjecturing their causes, not only to spare myself embarrassment, but because of the perennial temptation to think that I'm better than him. Not simply right where he is wrong, but spiritually superior.

That is one reason that I am deeply convinced that, though it is a spiritual work of mercy and occasionally an obligation, rebuking sinners is an exercise that can only be undertaken safely if we are vividly conscious that the rebuke is also a warning to ourselves. To rebuke out of anger or revulsion -- to admonish someone on the grounds that we just can't understand why anybody would do that -- seems to me to be perilous. It creates rather than eliminating opportunities for self-righteousness (nor does it do anything at all to keep us from falling into the same sin that we are rebuking later on). And if we admonish those who sin as we sin, we admonish ourselves too -- which is a very good reason to issue admonitions rarely, taking them rather to our own hearts than projecting them on other people.


For that matter, someone else might be, given their circumstances, a far better (or at the least less blameworthy) person than we could have realized, and still serve us as an exemplary warning. Because a wrong action is a wrong action, even if the person who did it is rightly to be pitied and perhaps excused; but, if we can begin to understand why we would have done it if we had done it, or have done it, then we can begin to understand the operations of spiritual evil in our own hearts -- with or without the assistance of the devil -- and refocus our attention upon our loving God accordingly.

And that is just one example of the wariness I think we have to have when discussing spiritual evil. No matter what the act is, no matter how good in principle, if it is motivated by something other than love for God in Himself and in the person of our neighbor, it is already in the process of spiritual decay. That decay can be arrested -- but only by applying the cure, which is precisely to turn to Him and beseech His grace, through prayer and the sacraments. I have resolved to know nothing, St. Paul declared, except -- the rejection of the devil? no; I have resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

+     +     +

No-one will derive any knowledge of initiation from this book; if he wishes to meet the 'tall, black man' or to find the proper method of using the Reversed Pentagram, he must rely on his own heart, which will, no doubt, be one way or other sufficient.

-- Charles Williams, Witchcraft, p. 9


*Contrary to popular belief, and as the second quotation from Williams' book suggests, the Middle Ages were not on the whole witch-crazed. That witchcraft, or attempts at witchcraft, did exist was certainly admitted; indeed, the phenomenon of attempting to engage the alliance of non-human powers in acts of selfishness or malice is a much older thing that Christianity. However, what is not often realized is that the Church, in the earliest centuries, firmly maintained that most if not all of the supposed manifestations of sorcerous or diabolical power (except that of possession itself) were delusions, created in the minds of their victims by the devils. It was not until the later Middle Ages that the notion that diabolical powers (as opposed to the crimes that devils might tempt men to do in the name of such powers) might be really effective began to be taken seriously, and it was then -- especially during the Renaissance -- that the hysterical persecution of witches, or of supposed witches, began. Witch-mania is thus far more characteristic of the early Enlightenment than of the apex of Christendom, in terms of chronology if not of rationale.

**An obsession is, in charismatic theological language, a technical term, indicating a demonic foothold in a person's psyche that is more powerful than simple temptation but falls short of true possession: the person's will is being interfered with, rather in the manner of addiction (although the mechanism is different), but the devil cannot actually "take over." I am wary of giving much credence to charismatic spirituality -- not because I consider it at all unorthodox, but because I find it prone to sensationalism and, too often, too ready to jump to a diabolical cause without ruling out natural causes first -- but I am mildly inclined to credit this particular instance, partly because it would seem to oppose sensationalism rather than exacerbating it.