Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Five Quick Takes


Lent starts the day after tomorrow, and I'm still not sure what I'm going to do. I am stocking myself up with delicious food against the fast on Wednesday -- and I took the precaution of taking that day off work, because for whatever reason I get frightfully short-tempered when I fast -- but I haven't picked a discipline to adopt, or even a book to go through. (Last year I read Theology of the Body, which I recommend; you can get through it over one Lent if you read three or four sections a day, which is a tall order when what you're reading is St John Paul II, but doable.)

Though we made little use of it at my parish this year, our calendar does retain the pre-Lenten season as an option, in which the vestments are switched from green to purple (commemorating the purple robe of the Passion) and the Alleluia is removed from the liturgy, but the Gloria is retained until Lent proper. I like the way each season of the liturgical year interlocks with the next in the Anglican Use and Tridentine calendars. The conclusion of the Epiphany season in Candlemas, February 2nd, the celebration of Christ being presented in the Temple, is emblematic of this: it is a joyful feast, and part of the Christmas cycle, but in its memory of the prophecy of Simeon, it also looks forward to Jesus' Crucifixion and the anguish of the Mother of God. The movement of the Christian year -- from our Lord's descent into time in Advent and Christmas, His earthly life from then through Holy Week to the Ascension, and then returning into eternity with His humanity in Pentecost and Trinity -- is a beautiful thing, and I'm glad to have found a tradition that observes it in its richness.

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Snow is falling outside at the moment. (I specify because, in the ancient house I live in, snow falling inside is not altogether out of the question.) Baltimore is, I'll be frank, a ratty, run-down city; I've said before that it grows on you, like a fungus. But almost anywhere is beautiful when it's covered with snow, and not only because the grime is hidden. There's some magic quality that snow has -- one that grown-ups, sadly, tend to lose touch with in grumbling about the traffic and the shoveling. I feel as though, if it felt the way it looks, it would be warm instead of cold. The silence it lays over things is like an enchantment. And the way fresh-fallen snow glitters always gets me, like something out of a fairy tale. I'll take even nasty traffic for this.

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I've been thinking about ISIS lately. I feel weirdly dumb, having a sense like I ought to do something about it, and having no idea what I possibly could do. Pray, certainly; it's amazing how easy it is to dismiss that -- both in theory ("Yeah, sure, I'll pray, but I want to do something too," as if prayer, entered into in faith, isn't doing something) and in practice ("Sure, I'll pray for you," and then you never do). It's easy to feel powerless, with or without prayer, when contemplating the brain-numbing savagery of these men. And it's easy to feel oneself torn between the desire to protect the defenseless, the desire to adhere to nonviolent love even to the point of martyrdom, and mere naked fear at the thought of actually going to Syria or Iraq and doing either one there.

Easy, too, to go for the blame game: "Sure, Islam is a 'religion of peace' -- look at ISIS!" As though Christendom didn't have equally nasty skeletons in its own closet. I'm sure the dead of the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years' War, and the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre would have something to say about the claims of Christianity to be a religion of peace.

I wish I had any idea what to do. Good thing I'm not in charge of anything. Admittedly it isn't clear to me that the people who are in charge of anything have any idea what to do, but, in a universe this size, almost anything is possible.

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I've run across a number of extremely good Catholic pieces on matters gay and trans lately, such as this bizarre, lovely, haunting essay on, of all things, Reddit. There are also these two essays on Melinda Selmys' blog, one by Mrs Selmys herself, and one by a trans woman, Edie Fetch, both interacting with a recent essay on Public Discourse (the online magazine of the Witherspoon Institute) that also sparked my recent post on the subject. And there is this piece by Aaron Taylor at Spiritual Friendship, advancing a really fascinating theory about the genesis of the conservative Christian mindset about sexual orientation and identity, and its effects on church unity.

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It kind of alarms me that so few people I know seem to be really, thoroughly suspicious of the government. Even our house-trained media, who get many facts wrong, interpret most of them still worse, and report everything out of context, lay enough scary information about the government in front of us to sponsor five or six anarchist insurrections among a robustly independent people, and our response as a nation is a reverberating "Meh."

Of course, even as an anarchist, I think an insurrection would be even worse. (Though I give full weight to the phrase I think, as opposed to the alternative I'm sure.) Violence is generally a bad answer to violence for much the same reasons that fire is a generally bad answer to fire.

All the same, it bothers and baffles me sometimes the way the spirit seems to have gone out of this nation. I love my country, and to see her respond to things like the Snowden affair by watching the news, having a meandering conversation in a coffee shop, and then forgetting about it, is deeply disheartening.

Never mind the fact that surveillance has reached a pitch of invasiveness and universality hardly seen since the advent of the Soviet state. (Wasn't the whole point of resisting Communism to not have this happen? I feel like that got away from us, somewhere in there.) Never mind the fact that the executive branch, through the despicable use of that little phrase "police action" and a hundred other forms of cowardice, has been getting around making an honest declaration of war (which would require the assent of Congress) for the last thirty-five years. Never mind that both the current President and his predecessor are war criminals, implicated in some of the most barbaric campaigns of torture, in some cases of complete innocents and in all cases uselessly, that the civilized world has yet seen. And never mind that the financial and coercive powers granted to the state in what is a period of war and paranoia in the face of terrorism are not likely to be done away with when that period comes to a close.

What am I saying? Do mind all of that.


  1. Hi, Gabriel:

    Welcome to Lent : )

    1. Lenten reading. Try Thomas Merton. You can start with his essay "Rain and the Rhinoceros" - actually available on-line here: Also Bishop John Michael Botean here and here: - the letter he wrote about Iraq in 2003 is powerful.

    2. ISIS. Lord have mercy on us all.

    3. Trans issues. This is a really hard one. Existentially it must be an impossible situation. I know that in some cases, the identification with the opposite sex appears in early childhood, so it can't be seen as simply a fad or fantasy (McHugh's idea would apply only to a subset in any case). But I cannot see how surgery and hormones would help the situation; the idea gives me the heebie-jeebies. I'm sorry but this really bugs me. The one guy I knew many years ago had a terrible struggle and went into therapy at a time when transitioning was discouraged. I think he did have gender dysphoria as a child, though I knew him in his twenties. He ended up accepting himself as a gay man and I think was the better for keeping his original anatomy while having quirky mannerisms. A very sweet, kind man and a friend. I guess the point is that we need to have a broad view of what makes a man or woman. One more thing: why is there all of a sudden such an upsurge in trans stuff over the past year?

    1. Thank you. I've read some Merton, though not much; "The Seven Story Mountain" took me quite a while, but "Contemplative Prayer" I really enjoyed. I should take a look at that essay.

      As to trans issues, it's certainly a very delicate problem, and one that bewilders me with its subtlety. The idea of physical transition, in whatever form, doesn't bother me, though I think I can imagine feeling that way; but I think we must be wary of allowing the heebie-jeebies to guide our consciences in any case. That said, transitioning is not lightly advised, even today, and a battery of psychological tests are required before it will be recommended by a qualified therapist. Moreover, not all trans people are interested in transitioning: some are content merely to have found an identity that feels natural and to behave accordingly.

      One complicating factor, and this may be what was going on with the gentleman of your acquaintance, is that it takes many LGBT people a while to discern where exactly they fall as far as both sexual orientation and gender are concerned. Some of us have no trouble, knowing practically from puberty (or sometimes still earlier); others will spend years, decades even, working out how they feel and what concept explains their experiences best. I didn't have a firm gender identity for a long time, though I never identified as female -- it wasn't until my late teens and early twenties that I started to be comfortable with the idea that I'm a man, and to feel masculine (and that late blooming may be partly why I enjoy immature guy jokes so much).

      As to why there is an upsurge in trans issues of late, I think that, with the advance of political causes like gay marriage, trans folks are much less afraid of the consequences of coming out than they used to be. Admitting you're trans in the wrong place can be a literal death sentence, and the legal protections for trans people are very meager. Take employment -- in most places in the US it's perfectly lawful to fire someone for being trans, whether or not their gender has any relevance to their work and whether or not it's a private or religious employer. ENDA, a proposed bill to provide legal protection for trans people in the workplace, has been put forward repeatedly for the past twenty years and been struck down every time. I think the much greater acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in both legal and popular culture has made trans people feel safer and more optimistic about the possibility of being accepted and treated as equals by society -- if they'll campaign for it.

  2. Re: ISIS, have you read this:

    This writer really did his homework. It's a highly informative read.

  3. The discussion about prayer is something I wish I’d see more people expand upon. It’s certainly true that prayer can be a powerful way to aid people we can’t otherwise help and is something easily dismissed or forgotten but, more and more, I see it being used as an excuse not to materially assist people whom it is in one’s power to help. Indeed, it’s not unusual to go onto a message board like the one on Catholic Answers and find people absolving themselves of the need to perform any Corporal Work of Mercy because they spent 15 seconds saying the Minor Doxology that morning. (1) The battle against Materialism seems to resemble, at times, Manichaenism and I haven’t seen enough discussion denoting the Golden Mean between these two extremes.

    (1) I’ll be the first to admit that while it’s not unusual to find such people on message boards like the one at Catholic Answers, it may, in fact, be the case that the people who tend to show up there are, themselves, unusual.