Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Myriads of Myriads

The City Council would like to remind you about the tiered Heavens and the hierarchy of angels. The reminder is that you should not know anything about this. The structure of Heaven and the angelic organizational chart are privileged information, known only to the City Council members on a need-to-know basis. Please do not speak to or acknowledge any angels that you may come across while shopping at the Ralph’s or at the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. They only tell lies and do not exist.

—Joseph Fink, Welcome to Night Vale, Episode 1: Pilot

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One of my patented one-off posts,1 this one is about the doctrine of angels. With Michaelmas, the feast celebrating St Michael and all the angels (including St Gabriel, from whom I took my name), coming up on Thursday, the topic’s been on the brain, and anyway it’s a fun subject to think about.

We don’t in fact know a whole lot about angels. Catholic academic history gives us some educated guesses that are super cool and kind of sci-fi, or, in more scholarly language, some extremely interesting speculative angelology. But the actual, authoritative data we have from Scripture and dogmatic tradition is limited. We know that the holy angels are intelligent, free beings; that they adore God and signify his presence; that they appear in a wide variety of forms, from basically humanoid to bizarre myth-like animals to wheels of golden fire; that they at least sometimes deliver God’s messages and at least sometimes enact his decrees; and that they minister to us spiritually somehow, some of them being given charge over individuals and others over groups of people (such as nations and churches). We also know that some of the angels have rebelled against God, of whom the one called Satan or ‘the adversary’2 is the principal rebel—these are the same kind of beings as the holy angels, but they are, by choice, depraved.

That’s about where our hard data ends; but we do have a trove of generally accepted Catholic thought, which I’d like to go over, because this is seriously one of the most coolly sci-fi things about Catholicism and it’s just so awesome, you guys! But do please understand that what follows is speculative theology, not formal Catholic teaching.

The various angelic beings are divided3 into three spheres, each of which contains three choirs, for a total of nine different types. The spheres are defined by where their activity is oriented: the first sphere are focused on the worship of God, the second on the government of creation in general, and the third upon human beings. The spheres and choirs are believed to be as follows:

I. Seraphim
II. Cherubim
III. Thrones

IV. Dominions
V. Virtues
VI. Powers

VII. Principalities
VIII. Archangels
IX. Angels4

In the first sphere, the Seraphim—seen by Isaiah in his vision in the Temple—are those beings who, after the Blessed Virgin Mary, love God with the greatest depth and power. Their adoration is frequently compared to being aflame, and the Hebrew word literally means burning one. Scripture describes them as being six-winged, though otherwise more or less human-like (having both faces and feet): this is, presumably, a symbolic depiction for human benefit, but then the symbolism was presumably chosen to be significant to the human mind.

The second choir are the Cherubim. Forget the pudgy babies that disgrace Hallmark cards everywhere. Cherubs seem to have been borrowed from the mythology of the ancient Near East, and especially from the sphinx-like lamassu of Mesopotamia. The Four Living Creatures from Revelation appear to be Cherubim, and they’re freaky as all get-out: most of them shaped like animals, but all with wings and covered all over with eyes. The eyes are, first of all, gross. But they symbolize their role: as the Seraphim love God more than any other creatures do, so the Cherubim know him better than any other creatures do.5 Cherubs were depicted on the Ark of the Covenant, covering the Mercy Seat with their wings.

The third choir are the Thrones, who may be the same as the Ophanim or wheels of Ezekiel’s trippy vision: gigantic, nested circles of sea-green fire, full of eyes, moving in straight lines without turning or rolling. Like the Seraphim and Cherubim, the Thrones are only ever encountered in the immediate company of the Lord. Their special activity is wonder before God’s authority and judgment, and accordingly bear his throne, hence the name. If you will, the orders of the first sphere at once adore and mirror the three great attributes of the Deity: love, wisdom, and power.

The second sphere begins with the Dominions or Dominations. Their work is to receive the knowledge and glory communicated downward by the higher choirs, and convey it to the lower, so governing their operations—they are, as it were, revelatory powers. St Paul tells us that the Torah was originally given to Moses through the mediation of angels (and the author of Hebrews implies the same thing); it is thus possible that the Dominions first delivered the Law. The commonest depiction of angels, as humans with two feathered wings, is generally associated with them, sometimes wielding scepters or swords that bear orbs of light.

Next we come to the Virtues. The name is, nowadays, a little misleading; though the holy angels of all orders are, well, virtuous, the name of this order is a holdover from an older meaning of the term—something like efficacies or forces would do in more modern terms.6 These are the angelic beings that govern the forces of nature; indeed, in a real sense, they are the forces of nature. Gravity and electricity and so forth are not abstractions, but the personal operations of invisible, potent, hyper-intelligent minds. This is also how miracles happen: the Virtues suspend their normally patterned activity. If you like, there’s nothing supernatural about miracles from that perspective; or, there’s everything supernatural about every process, because every process is as much the deliberate choice of supra-dimensional intellects as any miracle is.7

The sixth choir are the Powers. These are generally depicted as armored soldiers, and are thought to regulate the flow of history, especially the fluctuations of power. They may be synonymous with the Watchers (called the Grigori in Slavic texts), who feature prominently in the apocryphal Book of Enoch as corrupters of mankind before the Flood and progenitors of the nephilim, human-angel hybrids of monstrous size. The recording angels, mentioned in the book of Malachi and hinted at in other places in the Bible, may be Powers. However, the activity of the Powers is still conjectured to be one of generalized authority: they deal with history as an abstract phenomenon, and with the ebb and flow of power, not with individual people or even with groups. That ministry belongs to the final sphere, to which we now turn.

The Principalities, sometimes shortened to Princedoms, are the seventh choir. I’ve found difficult and, to some extent, conflicting information about the Principalities: it seems hard to distinguish between them and the Archangels. Some authors identify them as directing the last two choirs, rather as the Dominions govern the choirs beneath them; others consider them sources of ‘inspiration’ for men, in pursuits such as the arts, the sciences, and philosophy—thus making their role in history the particular to which the Powers are general. Both could be true.

The eighth choir are the Archangels. These are the guardians of nations, people groups, churches, cities, and specific locations; though all of the same kind, Archangels are not necessarily equivalent in function. St Michael is an Archangel, described in Daniel as the guardian of Israel and accordingly taken by Christians as the protector of the universal Church. This also makes him the chief angelic foe of Satan, as described in the epic war in heaven in Revelation 12, despite the fact that most theories of Satan’s nature posit that he came from a much more elevated choir. St Gabriel, who appears in the books of Daniel and Luke, may be of this order as well, but it isn’t clear. Since he generally works as a revealer of divine truths (explaining Daniel’s visions to him, and bringing word of the conceptions of the Baptist and Christ to their respective mothers), he could be a Dominion, even though he is mostly referred to as St Gabriel the Archangel.8

Finally there are the ninth choir, the Angels proper. These include our guardian angels, and most kinds of supernatural ministering, except the sacraments, come through the activity of Angels among men. They bring messages to people, are widely thought of as encouraging good impulses in us (the angel-on-the-shoulder routine is a vulgarized version, quite possibly correct in essentials), and are recorded in the Gospels as serving and strengthening Jesus, particularly after his temptation in the desert and during the agony in Gethsemane.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, anonymous Orthodox iconographer, 12th century

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1No one else can do one-off posts now. I’ll sue.
2This term can be understood in the general sense enemy, or the specialized legal sense plaintiff. The latter forms an interesting contrast to the title Paraclete or ‘Advocate’ for the Holy Ghost.
3The list here derives ultimately from the De Cœlesti Hierarchia, ‘On the Celestial Hierarchy,’ a work purporting to be by St Dionysius, the first convert of St Paul at Athens (though in fact it probably dates to fifth-century Syria). St Thomas Aquinas also subscribed to this list, and cited biblical justifications for doing so. There are other speculative arrangements of the angels, but this is the most common in Catholic thought. Curiously, even the variant systems nearly all agree in defining nine angelic orders.
4Note that the name angel therefore applies technically to the lowest order in particular, but is also used by extension of all nine types of superhuman intelligences. It’s thus a little like the word bug, which applies strictly to certain specific species of insects, but is also vaguely applied to all insects and even all creeping things that creep upon the earth. Archangel also occasionally, and less usefully, serves as a term for all the orders above angels.
5St Thomas held the opinion that Satan was a fallen Cherub. Some other thinkers have asserted that he was a Power.
6Even today we can speak of the virtue of a magic jewel, or something of that kind; partly because such language will usually arise in a fantasy setting, and fantastic literature, like religious, is far more tolerant of archaisms.
The word virtue ultimately descends from the Latin vir, meaning ‘man, hero.’ Virtus is therefore something like ‘manliness, courage,’ coming later to mean more generally ‘efficaciousness, power,’ and thence specifically moral power. Vir is a fascinating word in its own right: it goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, and reflexes show up in Sanskrit (where Mahavira ‘Great Hero’ was the name taken by the founder of Jainism) and even English (where the fossilized term werewolf comes from the now extinct Anglo-Saxon word wer ‘man’).
7This thesis about the Dominions and the Virtues opens up another weirdly awesome avenue of speculation. Now, it involves math, which I’ve long been bad at, but here goes.
The Virtues, being the governing forces of nature, are—unwittingly and indirectly—the implicit subject of all scientific inquiry. What governs all the sciences? Mathematics. Does that mean the Dominions are numbers? Probably not, because I can’t imagine ‘numbers are personal’ having any real content: we could dismiss the theory of the Virtues being the forces of nature as anthropomorphic, but it isn’t primarily incoherent, whereas ‘Dominions are numbers’ does seem to be.
Ah, but. Numbers are, among other things, signifiers of measurement, and all measurements are statements of relationship between one thing and another thing. Baffling though they are, irrational numbers may display this more than any others; numbers like φ, e, and π can be shown to exist—they’re, like, right there on the geometric figure you’re studying, they measure the relationship between two parts of a line or the arc of a circle; and yet, they measure something that can never be resolved into a simple, definite ratio of two whole numbers. They are numerical relationships that cannot be finally expressed in numerical terms; almost as if you would have to change your frame of reference to grasp them …
So—and this may blow your mind, convince you I’m crazy, or both, but hopefully at least one of those—what if irrational numbers and twin prime patterns and all those weird math things are, in fact, reflections of, or works of, the Dominions? What if mathematics is an indirect study in the nature and operations angels? How fucking cool is that!?
8St Raphael is another problem child. His work in the book of Tobit is clear enough. But, since Tobit (like Judith, probably Job, and possibly Esther and Daniel) is likely meant as a kind of historical novel rather than an account of history, how far the depiction of him in Tobit is, or is meant to be, accurate is a separate and perhaps unanswerable question. Anyhow we call him an archangel too, just because.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

An Immodest Proposal (Or, F*** tha Police)

It is certain that political power is of God, from whom proceeds nothing that is not good and lawful … [i.e.,] political power considered in general, not descending in particular to Monarchy, or Aristocracy, or Democracy, comes directly from God alone; for this follows of necessity from the nature of man, since that nature comes from him who made it … Note, secondly, that this power resides, as in its subject, immediately in the whole state, for this power is by divine law, but divine law gives this power to no particular man. Therefore divine law gives this power to the collected body. … As is evident, it depends on the consent of the people to decide whether kings, or consuls, or other magistrates are to be established in authority over them; and, if there be legitimate cause, the people can change a kingdom into an aristocracy, or an aristocracy into a democracy, and vice versa, as we read was done in Rome.

St Robert Bellarmine SJ, De Laicis

John Ball urging on Wat Tyler during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

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The wretched record of the police in this country, from institutionalized racism (deliberate or not) to inadequate oversight, has been, quite rightly, a continuous theme in the news for years now. I suspect one reason we sometimes find it hard to believe—and (there’s no way around it) by we, I basically mean white people—is that, like the gross violations of privacy revealed by Edward Snowden and the barefaced lies the state has used to cover them up, we can barely believe that a systemic corruption should be so blatant. Surely they could never get away with it, we think; which is how they get away with it.

Rereading this excellent piece from the illustrious, I do think there’s a solution. That solution is both harder and simpler than something like putting cameras on policemen, beneficial though that would probably be in the meantime; nor is it as naïve as merely taking care to practice affirmative action in hiring officers, though that too would very likely help. But I think what’s needed is a philosophical and cultural overhaul of the whole idea of police work.

The essential problem that seems to underlie this mess is that the police are thought of as government officials in contrast to ordinary citizens. That they may have very silly or nasty habits of mind in dividing ordinary citizens into good and bad, is only a secondary implication of this root problem.

Sir Robert Peel, who championed domestic legal reforms in Britain in the 1820s and first devised the modern police force,1 didn’t consider them agents of the government. What police were—as the name police implies, deriving ultimately from the Greek πολίτης ‘citizen’—were ordinary citizens whose job was to discharge social duties that every citizen had; the difference lay in the fact that policemen were paid to devote their full professional time to those duties, not in a different authority. Two examples that really drive home the difference in approach: in the UK, there is no crime called resisting arrest, and they’re not allowed to lie to suspects about what evidence they have.

It’s not clear whether Peel wrote them himself, but the Nine Principles of Policing (which were included in the general instructions to every new officer from 1829 on) sum up the philosophy fairly well—what, in Great Britain and a few other places, is called policing by consent:

1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
2. To recognize always that the power of the police … is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions, and behavior, and on their ability to maintain and secure public respect.
3. To recognize always that to secure … the approval of the public means also securing the willing coöperation of the public in the task of securing the observance of laws.
4. To recognize always that the extent to which the coöperation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity … of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
5. To seek and preserve public favor, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law … by ready offering of service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing,2 by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice, and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public coöperation … and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion …
7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that … the police are the public and the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
8. To … refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
9. To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

That’s a really different picture of law enforcement than we have in the US. I think it’s a much better one. It’s certainly far more compatible with any meaningful idea of self-government. I suspect it’d alter the gun control debate substantively, by altering the gun situation substantively. And I think it could be done here.

Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), pimping.

Now, it’d be extremely tough to do. There would be resistance, and not just from current police officers (many of whom probably don’t want a reduction in their powers or an expensive and tedious retraining): I’m sure there are people who have a vested interest in maintaining and heightening the current suspicion and hostility between the police and the public, just because, wherever there is a systemic injustice, there’s somebody taking advantage of it. Moreover, it would involve training new police officers, and retraining old ones, which means not only the cost of training but finding trainers suitable for the task; and, while the training was going on—and even afterward—the conflict of old habits and new principles would make police work extraordinarily difficult, instead of just highly difficult.

On the other hand, if there is no systemic police reform, I fear that rioting and revolt aren’t out of the question. We’ve seen them already in Baltimore. Whether it’s put into practice or not, Peel’s principle that the police can’t do their work without securing and maintaining public approval and coöperation is less an instruction than an observation. The scales must eventually balance themselves: if they won’t be balanced by free choice, they will be balanced by the forces of nature, and one of the forces of human nature is that oppression and injustice are more intolerable to the human soul than even bloodshed.

Though the aforesaid riots may have had a somewhat different genesis than the media reported ...

We must, of course, be careful to avoid the Politician’s Syllogism: Something must be done; this is something; therefore, this must be done. And we must remember, too, that every system is run by flawed human beings, and that no solution, however potent, is the Elixir of Life. But I think the virtues of Peel’s principles speak for themselves as far as desirability, and I think we can and should take steps toward them.

A few possibilities:

1. We could encourage (perhaps even require, though I’m hesitant about that) police officers to live in the area they police, and form relationships within it. Respect is next to impossible to maintain, and persuasion next to impossible to practice, without a good social reputation among the people whose respect you need and whom you are trying to persuade.

2. Without necessarily going through a total overhaul of their education, give the police some psychological and social training, especially in deëscalating conflicts. One thing Charley Clark (the author of the article I linked above) points out is that, when guns come out, every decision becomes binary: shoot or don’t shoot. Lengthening that list of options would be pretty great, especially adding some along the lines of ‘Get them to chill,’ in which case everybody wins. An important aspect of this would be ridding our society, particularly and emphatically our police, of the noxious idea that disrespect toward policemen is in some way criminal—that idea is little less than the door to tyranny.

3. Introduce some new limits to police powers. It is, inevitably, all but impossible to instill respect for law if you do not follow the law yourself, and the liberties allowed to police—especially (though not only) in the disgusting matter of screwing confessions out of suspects, not infrequently through flat-out lies, and often getting innocent people to confess out of despair and exhaustion—have probably done more than anything else to ruin them in the eyes of the public.

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1And from whose first name the apparently bizarre nickname bobbies for British police comes.
2We could start, for instance, by not punishing people for being homeless.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Reflection on St Mark Ji Tianxiang

The pious woman was whispering to him. She must have somehow edged her way nearer. She was saying, ‘Father, will you hear my confession?’
‘My dear child, here! It’s quite impossible. Where would be the secrecy?’
‘It’s been so long …’
‘Say an Act of Contrition for your sins. You must trust God, my dear, to make allowances …’
… Somewhere against the far wall pleasure began again; it was unmistakeable: the movements, the breathlessness, and then the cry. The pious woman said aloud with fury, ‘Why won’t they stop it? The brutes, the animals!’
‘What’s the good of your saying an Act of Contrition now in this state of mind?’
‘But the ugliness …’
‘Don’t believe that. It’s dangerous. Because suddenly we discover that our sins have so much beauty.’
‘Beauty,’ she said with disgust. ‘Here. In this cell. With strangers all round.’
‘Such a lot of beauty. Saints talk about the beauty of suffering. Well, we are not saints, you and I. Suffering to us is just ugly. Stench and crowding and pain. That is beautiful in that corner—to them. It needs a lot of learning to see things with a saint’s eye: a saint gets a subtle taste for beauty and can look down on poor ignorant palates like theirs. But we can’t afford to.’
‘It’s mortal sin.’
‘We don’t know. It may be. But I’m a bad priest, you see. I know—from experience—how much beauty Satan carried down with him when he fell. Nobody ever said the fallen angels were the ugly ones. … Try not to be angry. Pray for me instead.’
‘The sooner you are dead the better.’
He couldn’t see her in the darkness, but there were plenty of faces he remembered from the old days which fitted the voice. When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it. … Hate was just a failure of imagination.

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

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It’s been kind of hard to write lately. I’m not altogether sure why, though I have been feeling that my moral life is even less up to snuff than usual, which tends to make me a little shy of writing.

But if writing is my vocation—and I think that it is—then worthiness has, in one sense, very little to do with it (provided I’m honest about my unworthiness).

I learned earlier this summer about St Mark Ji Tianxiang, one of the Chinese martyrs who perished during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Boxers, or, as they called themselves, the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, were a group of ecstatic militants—a little like berserkers, in some ways—who wanted to purge China of foreign influence, which had expanded significantly after the end of the Second Opium War in 1860. Viewing Christianity as an essentially foreign incursion,1 they aimed to compel all foreign missionaries to leave China and all Chinese converts to apostatize; those that didn’t comply, from either group, were murdered. St Mark Ji Tianxiang, a 66-year-old layman, was one of those martyred.

What’s fascinating about him is that he was an opium addict. He spent thirty years cut off from the sacraments because his addiction was considered a sin and a scandal.2 He prayed for deliverance: it did not come.

Or, if you prefer, it came after thirty years of waiting. Personally I don’t prefer, because that answer is both glib and totally discouraging. Nobody wants to wait until the very moment of death to be delivered from something that’s ruining their life and reputation, especially if (as seems likely) it also destroys their self-respect. The platitude is a non-answer.

On the other hand … Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And Jesus said to His Mother, How is it that ye sought me? Another non-answer—though, somehow, a more palatable one. Perhaps because (as our Lord’s habit was) it is, so to speak, frankly cryptic. But that cry of pain, and even of rebuke, came from a sinless mouth. The anguish of nature being assumed by grace (not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God) is not solely because of nature’s sins being ripped out. There’s something painful in being deified.

William Holman Hunt, The Finding of the Savior in the Temple, 1859

I forget what any of this has to do with me being called to write. Its connection to my being a Catholic is pretty obvious, though, which of course is what most of my writing, directly or indirectly, is about; and examples like that of St Mark encourage me not to give up. At least, they encourage me a little. There’s certainly a part of me that finds it very appealing to spend another thirty years sleeping around and then conclude with a glorious martyrdom, though another part of me finds both parts of that life plan unattractive. But the project is—well—taking of that manhood into God. The Eucharist is nothing else.

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1Interestingly, China already had many centuries of Christian history at this point—not just from the Jesuit missions under St Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci, but far earlier from the Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church, once the most far-flung communion of Christians in the world, stretching from Syria to China. Nestorian Christianity had died out some time in the late fourteenth century before St Francis Xavier arrived in the sixteenth.
2And it was; like St Peter’s apostasy.