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.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Five Quick Takes

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It has been a bear of a week: five shifts at one job, two at another, plus ordinary housekeeping. In a way, though, the exhaustion was kind of a gift, because I also received some bitterly saddening news, and being tired helped keep my emotions from going totally haywire. (The physical medium of emotion is, mercifully, limited; bless the body.)

A dear friend of mine, who left the Catholic Church last year, has left the Side B community as well. I treasured (and treasure) her writing, which is brilliant and engaging and vulnerable, and I’m grieved that we’ve lost two of the things that brought us together as friends in the beginning. Of course, we wouldn’t have become friends if we had nothing else in common—vitally, we are the same type of weird. But it always hurts when somebody that you’ve been journeying with leaves the path you were sharing, whatever the reason.

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Work continues on my second novel, The Book of Salt, a sequel to Death’s Dream Kingdom. No spoilers, but I will share with fans that this second novel features Catholic vampire hunters, Francis Thompson, Enochian angelic magic, and just possibly Jack the Ripper.


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The Epiphany season is unusually long this year, since Easter is so late (21st April, which is nearly as late as it gets in the Gregorian computus). Candlemas, or the Feast of the Presentation, rounds out the Christmas cycle as oriented to the Nativity. The earliest part of the Paschal cycle begins on Septuagesima Sunday, about seventy days before Easter, which ushers in Shrovetide—a period of a bit less than three weeks during which people prepare for Lent, culminating in Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove Tuesday. (Shrove comes from the archaic word shrive meaning ‘to hear confession, absolve,’ or by extension ‘to receive absolution’; hence the expression short shrift, which originally referred to a rushed administering of sacramental forgiveness before a condemned man was executed). But, about as often as not, there is a gap between Candlemas and Shrovetide, during which the Epiphany season continues.

I’ve long been inclined to think that there are no accidents in the Church’s liturgical cycle. Especially in its older and more complicated forms, since they were crafted when there was less to do, and making something with many layers of meaning would have been the more appealing as a way to stave off boredom while waiting for YouTube to be invented. The fact that Shrovetide sometimes begins before Candlemas and sometimes after, leading to an overlap between the Nativity and Paschal cycles or a breach between them, seems to me to harmonize with a truth about the Incarnation itself—a truth that, appropriately, is expressed in Candlemas itself, which serves as a sort of hinge between the two seasons.

Christ is sometimes referred to as ‘the man born to die.’ This is, in one sense, perfectly true, and not just in the ordinary sense that everybody is born with the known fate of death ahead of them, but in the sense that he was born with a purpose that was wound up with death, as cords are wound up with each other to make rope. The overlap between Christmastide and Shrovetide thus makes sense, and we see it in Christmas imagery: the Baby laid in a trough like a lamb, the myrrh brought by the Magi, the tragedy of the Holy Innocents, the use of red in decorations both sacred and profane. Candlemas has this in spades in St Simeon’s prophecy to the Virgin: Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also).

Yet there is reason to believe (pace St Anselm and his variegated successors, from St Thomas Aquinas to Jack Chick) that the Incarnation was, so to speak, Plan A for humanity. On this view, redeeming man by means of the Incarnation was God’s response to sin, but, even if man had never sinned, God would still have chosen to glorify humanity by personally taking on a human nature born of a woman. The image of God in man was not accidental, nor final in itself, but a foreshadowing of what man was made for: to be the point at which deity united Itself with creation and with matter.

Whatever God’s original purposes, it is certainly the case that the Incarnation has done more than save us from sin; it deifies us. Epiphany, the disclosure of the glory, is thus a Christian mystery almost independently of the Passion, and so the separation makes as much æsthetic sense as the overlap.
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I recently read that the Archbishop of Denver, one Samuel Aquila, is supporting not only Courage (which after all is a pontifically sanctioned organization), but Desert Stream Ministries, an ex-gay group. Andy Comiskey, a self-professed ex-homosexual and a convert to Catholicism, founded Desert Stream in 1980 and still runs it; Archbishop Aquila has, I gather, begun sending the priests of his archdiocese to be trained by Desert Stream.

I’m livid. Or I would be if I weren't exhausted. I do not know what it is going to take to get Catholics to quit falling for this bullshit. There is no revealed teaching that we have any obligation to become straight if we aren’t. There is no scientific evidence and no theological support for the idea that sexual orientation can be changed by psychotherapeutic means. There is plenty of scientific and anecdotal evidence that ex-gay groups and therapies do substantial harm, and that alone is an adequate theological reason to be deeply suspicious of them.

Maybe I’ll write more about this later, but not right now. I am so sick of this needless, stupid pattern of homophobic abuse.
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On a lighter note, while I already knew about Lindsay Ellis thanks to her magical ‘Thanks, I Hate It!’ video about 2017’s live action Beauty and the Beast (yuck), I more recently discovered a whole world of clever, engaging literary criticism on YouTube. Ellis herself has done more than one series (‘Loose Canon,’ a series discussing different versions of characters through history, may be my favorite); in addition, there’s The Dom, Overly Sarcastic Productions (which does summaries on historical as well as artistic subjects), Earthling Cinema, and Hello Future Me. I’ve linked some fun, exemplary videos here. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

An Image of the City, Part V: Introduction to Power

Servant of God has greater chance of sin
And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.
For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them,
Still doing right: and striving with political men
May make that cause political, not by what they do
But by what they are.

—T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral

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Every man and woman has rights as an individual, yet every man and woman comes into existence through other individuals (their parents, grandparents, and so on), and is born into a society, that is, a web of preëxisting relationships. We are creatures with a context, a context that we cannot choose and can only partly influence; and, so much of that context being other people, it includes a substantial number of duties and obligations that, whether we like it or not, we were born into, as the child of a monarch is born into royalty.

Ikon of the Trinity, made at Clear Creek Abbey, OK

This is what we call society. But that word has to be fleshed out, because it has many different aspects: the family is a society, religions are societies, political parties, schools, ethnic groups, artistic movements, trades, municipalities are societies. Society is a vast web of intertwined worlds, and everybody belongs to many of them at once. A number of forces govern every society, and the one I want to examine—one that forms a major element in all Leftist political theory—is the structures of power.

I suspect that this, more than any other thing, certainly more than any ostensible Issue in politics, underlies the difference between the Right and Center on the one hand, and the Left on the other, in this country. The Right and the Center (which latter embraces much of the Democratic Party and most if not all relatively liberal Republicans) move very easily in the framework of rights, which considers every person as an individual; and there is a great deal to be said for that. Each one, the prophet Ezekiel said, shall die for his own sins. But what they tend to, and in some ways have to, leave out, is the context of the individual: the why behind the what of their needs, goals, and actions. And if the doctrine of the Trinity, which states that relationship is part of the essential fabric of existence, means anything, it means that context cannot be ignored. Context is, in fact, part of the text. Style is not overlaid upon substance, style is a part of substance. And it is the Left, not the Right or the Center, that grapples with this the most readily.

This is not to say that the Left is generally correct about … well, anything, technically (though I do in fact agree with the American Left about a good deal). It is only to say that they are addressing a question that most political discourse in this country has, whether ignorantly or cynically, mostly ignored since 1783.

This question of power structures is the motor behind a lot of contemporary progressivist movements and causes: Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave feminism, most queer rights groups, First Nations [1] advocacy, and so on. Now, I don’t claim to understand power structures very well—most of what I’ve learned about power has had less intersectionality and more safe words—but what I do grasp can be summed up thus:


1. Social power tends to be wielded by groups who share some kind of common social identity: wealth, ethnicity, religion, sex, and language are all popular social identity definers (e.g. the property requirements of the Roman Senate or the use of French by the English nobility in the Mediæval period).
2. Social power consists in the ability of a group to secure its interests and privileges. Most if not all groups tend to try to increase their privileges.
3. Although egalitarian power structures are possible, in which partnership is valued over dominance, both human selfishness and concerns about scarcity (real or imagined) tend to promote dominance hierarchies, in which power is distributed unequally among social groups.
4. Dominant social groups tend to appeal to theoretical justifications of their disproportionate share of power; these justifications frequently involve maligning other social groups in some way, making it their own fault (intrinsically or historically) that they are excluded from power.

Also known as the 'Should've Thought of That Before You Became Poor' Rule.

A few important addenda are worth noting: for instance, that social power is not intrinsically bad. Being able to secure your interests is a good thing; that’s why people want it. But of course we know very well from both history and daily life that people trying to get things they want don’t necessarily behave very well. It’s that tendency, not the fact of power, that’s bad.

Additionally, with regard to the fourth point about theoretical pretexts for inequalities of power, certain facts must be kept very firmly in mind. Firstly, the abstract truth of the pretext has little or nothing to do with its use by the powerful: typically they are not much interested in abstract truth (only scholars, artists, and sometimes judges normally have a taste for that), but are quite interested in effective tools for maintaining their social power. A justification might be entirely false, entirely unprovable, mixed and mangled, or even completely true: the socially powerful are still going to treat it as a tool, with all of the consequences that generally produces. These justifications are puppet monarchs, installed by foreign interests: the actual strength of the puppet’s claim to the throne is irrelevant; it could be a perfectly good claim, but the foreign interests will conduct themselves much the same way anyhow. I expect that any theoretical justification for inequality will tend to do more and more damage in the self-interested hands of the powerful, as the admixture of truth in the justification goes up. But any of them can do such a lot of damage anyway that this may not matter even if I’m right.

Another facet of the problem is that the origin of these justifications can be deceitfully centered on the disadvantaged. The totalitarian government of Stalin was rooted in Marxism, which was specifically formulated to liberate the oppressed. Christianity, which was a faith of slaves and women in the early centuries of the Roman Empire, became first the backbone of that civilization, and then its weapon and the weapon of its European descendants. The white identity politics of our own day revolve largely around the idea that whites are in some way endangered—culturally, economically, or racially. We might have expected that these puppet claims would always be crafted by the socially powerful post facto, as justifications for a state of affairs that was crowbarred in by explicit force; but, although that certainly happens, it is not nearly so universal as we might have assumed. The powerful and privileged will take any theory that comes to hand, even one snatched from a beggar.

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[1]First Nations is (I understand) the generally preferred term for what used to be called Native Americans. In European colonial history, native has often been a derogatory word; and of course American Indian was always nonsense ethnologically speaking, based on a mistake Columbus clung to throughout his life despite evidence to the contrary.