Reflections on the Sacrifice of Issac

In time for Holy Week, a reflection on the Old Testament story, the Sacrifice of Issac, inspired by Meditations on Vatican Art, Mark Haydu.

Sacrifice of Isaac, Attributed to Ludovico Carracci, 1555-1619, Vatican Museums

I have never really reflected on the first commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me.” Reading Strange Gods, by Elizabeth Scalia, has opened my awareness of how this commandment, and the breaking of this commandment is part of every moment of our lives, since the worship of God (pray without ceasing) is part of every moment of our lives.

I’ll bet that, if you are a Christian, no matter how faithful you are there are Bible stories that perplex you. This morning I attempted to pray using Meditations on Vatican Art by Mark Haydu. Today’s meditation focused on The Sacrifice of Issac by Carracci. This is the story that I continue to approach with confusion. I could accept it with faith, but it never fully made sense.

Here the pieces came together. Inspired by Greydanus’ review and reflections on the controversial movie Noah, I came to a appreciate in a deeper way the development of our understanding of God. God revealed himself gradually to the Israelite people. Noah, as portrayed in the movie, did not always understand God and how to carry out his will. But he was righteous in that he did all he could to fulfill God’s will, even if it is was a mistaken interpretation.

God asks Abraham to show he will not put his progeny before God. What are all one’s accumulations, in this time and culture, if you cannot pass it on through an inheritance? Abraham is nothing without a proper heir, yet God asks Abraham to show that God has primacy in his life. Is he willing to sacrifice his only son, his own hope for a future, a possible idol? Perhaps it is an idol of self because it would be the carrying on his glory into a next generation.

Second, perhaps God asks Abraham to sacrifice the idol of prosperity. But not prosperity in the sense of accumulated things, rather the idol that we make of God when we look to God to be our personal candy machine. I will love you if you give me this, if you provide for me the things I believe I need to have. This is a strong American ethic, if I understand correctly, a common Protestant ethic (I’m not an expert on that) and comes from a strong Jewish ethic. That devotion will be rewarded, in some measure, in this life. God asks Abraham to cut that away and be faithful to God as God, not the God who gave him all he ever wanted. Will he love God when even that is stripped away? The same question was put to Job.

But God is faithful to himself. God never changes even though he reveals himself gradually to us. Isn’t it common, when we first experience conversion, giving our heart to Christ, to have an overwhelming sense of joy? It is only later when the spiritual honeymoon has settled that we encounter the cross again, strengthened by what God gave us. Even though he did shower joy in this life on us, that is a gradual revelation of his constant goodness. He never was the candy store even though we might have interpreted it that way.

So even though God asks Abraham to kill his only son, he stops him. God does not want parents to kill their children. He stays Abraham’s hand, though the word of an angel. He put Abraham to the test.

We will be put to the test. Our children will stray. Are we willing to face God as the one true God, putting aside idols we may have accumulated in our chapel? Facing God with empty hands, will we remember our children are “on loan”? What a terrible place that is, to have to learn that lesson, and we must learn it again and again. Every parent faces this cross, gradually or acutely.

God wants us to do all we can to protect our children. Yet, the reminder that “God works all things for those who love him” reminds me that he will take the terrible situations we face as parents as opportunities to affirm our devotion to God and that we should have no strange gods before him.

Reflections on Strange Gods, Chapter 5, The Idol of Technology

What follows are my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapters 5: The Idol of Technology. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book. There’s more to read than my reflection contains. I highly recommend you check out the book for yourself.

Chapter 5: The Idol of Technology

Family brought us home. No tragedy, no crises, just wanting our daughter to know her grandparents. We moved back to California without a plan, other than to work on making it work here. It was not long before we missed the culture and art of the big city. I have continue to yearn for the life and people I knew in Minnesota while in college. We don’t fit in here, just like we didn’t fit in while were in school. And we know it.

But it is worth it to be here. Some time ago I read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, by Rod Dreher. His book taught me the why it is important for us to be here and the benefits we’ll derive. We know from the spiritual life that what matters is relationships, God is relationship. The search after art and culture can be talked about as a search for beauty, one of those very important transcendentals. But to seek a life that revolves around it, choosing to enjoy the art and food over family or community, is in a way, a search for pleasure. If pleasure is the goal of life, in the end, it turns up empty, because we are made for relationship.

In Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, Chapter 5, The Idol of Technology, Elizabeth Scalia gets to the heart of the matter. Like seeking out a town solely based on pleasure (albeit, pleasure that has to do with the good and the beautiful, trancendentals), is like the personal reinforcement we seek through an internet community. I look at what makes me feel good, what reinforces my beliefs, either about life or myself. I can click away if it disturbs me or challenges me. It is my world and I make it for myself. Pandora and Netflix uses my preferences to introduce me to new things, but never new things that will shake me up, only once that cater to what I already know I like. I’m simplifying of course, but why not?

If I come back to my roots, living in a town for higher reasons (relationship, family), I find myself less comfortable. We have to seek more. We have to accept more. Instead of locking ourselves away in a lovely artistic tower of a narrowed culture, we live side by side with people who continually make us assess our values, keep our radical ideas in check, and cause us not to live by the letter of any law, but approach with a pastoral and open mind. On paper and online it is easy to say, “this is way it should be in liturgy,” for example. But to meet with a variety of mindsets and learn to communicate not just on the level of ideas but on the level of the human person. This forces us to grow. This is for our good. This is the good of a relationship.

As Scalia and Dreher point out, living and loving a community or country, are a lot like loving a person. You take the good with the bad, the quirks with the charm, and in the end, because your love has been tested and tried, you love them better for it. You can’t plant roots in an asphalt jungle. We’d grow, but wouldn’t grow well without a little fertilizer. We need people, both to help us grow, and to remind us that we are capable of having that role in other people’s lives, keeping that idol of self molten and not molded.

Reflections on Strange Gods, Chapter 4: The Idol of Prosperity

What follows are the excerpts that stood out to me and my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapter 4: The Idol of the Idea. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book. There’s more to read than my reflection contains. I highly recommend you check out the book for yourself.


“He was warning us that holding on to anything too tightly—our lives and the stuff in it—will prevent us from being able to open ourselves up to him.”

A young woman desired to emulate the poverty St. Francis. This balanced the love of things she admitted to having and was tempted to indulge. Desiring to be holy, I wondered if I should feel this way as well. As time went on, I knew I loved stuff. I did seek to eliminate clutter, to not own what I did not use. But each time we moved, I came to the same conclusion, I need this stuff; I have too much stuff. How I could I need it when other do with so much less? I felt guilty for my lack of detachment.

“Benedict said, instead of being a source of pride, it should be a source of humility, because it is better to need less. Every worldly, every thing you “need” is something else that can come between you and God.”

St. Benedict used examples of those who are unable to fast, as I have been through pregnancy and nursing, or those who need a nightlight to sleep, which would seem to some as a less obvious “need.” On a pilgrimage the young woman said she would travel like St. Francis, with a spirit of poverty. I decided I would do the same, in the spirit of poverty. My bag was twice the size of her’s! I thought to myself, to be truly poor, I will just use what I have; I won’t buy anything new or special for this trip. Hence the size of the bag. I shed some belongings as the journey went on.

Each time we move, I cannot believe the amount of stuff we own. But certain things I won’t get rid of because, anticipating future children, I would have to buy it again. We don’t have the funds for that. In my guilt of owning so much stuff, Elizabeth Scalia’s words and Benedict’s rules are comforting to me. I’m not wrong to want to need less, because it is better to need less. For years I told myself, I should need less. Now I understand that some people do, realistically need more. I don’t need my candle holders and all my trays, but I have needed a changing table because of back pain, a crib so baby can sleep in a quiet room, the millions of bibs because babies have little faucets just inside their heads that leak. I have needed the ridiculous amount of clothes because they span 50 pounds of weight that I put on and take off depending on whether or not I’m carrying someone inside me. That’s life. That’s a message I needed to hear.

And it turned out, I was not as bad as I thought. When we moved to a smaller home, it was not difficult to get rid of things. I saw that I am not as attached to things as I thought. I’m not trying to praise myself here, because my primary temptation is to condemn myself or be anxious, so these are important lessons for me. To see that I am a little closer than I thought to the way I think I ought to be, to the way I know it is good to be, detached.

But there is another area that could stand some growth.

Scalia writes this about Dorothy Day.

“Divesting herself of material things, she also rejected prestige, power, and office (Given her influence, her connections, and the high regard many held for her intelligence and energy, she could have had them.) She encouraged others to reject power and its trappings, too, because she knew them for the false gods of busy-bodiness and tyranny they were.”

I will ask myself, why do I want to step forward in my career? I love my job in a deeply, incredible way. I benefited from my education. We’re making payments on loans. We have all we need financially. Why do I want to advance? I know I want to be able to meet with clients for longer periods of time, and provide therapy for them, beyond the coping skill building and support I provide now. This is cause for my to examine myself. How much of it is for prestige or more money?

We can fall into worshiping a god of prosperity, setting up one’s retirement, make-a-buck, make-a-buck. On Sunday, the priest preached a message on prioritizing. Money can be replaced; possessions can be replaced, but time cannot be replaced. I looked at my husband as he held our baby. For us, for our state of life, for our financial status, our parental status, for the moment, I knew we were doing it right. We were answering the call as God has called us.

Reflections on Death on a Friday Afternoon, Chapter 2: Judge Not

Below are two reflections from Richard John Neuhaus’s book, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, Chapter 2: Judge Not. To read my reflections from Chapter 1, please click here.

An Approach to Faith

As a 8th grader, attending daily mass, I fell in love with the Lord through the Holy Eucharist. After high school I served one year with the National Evangelization Team, NET Ministries. In that year I learned how to pray using the lectio divina. Following that year, a friend invited me to make a holy hour every day. Throughout college I planned my courses around daily mass and my holy hour. It was a blessed time.

Then came adulthood. In my first year of full time work, I struggled to find rhythm in my prayer life. Then marriage, then pregnancy, then baby, so on and so on. During pregnancy I regained my spiritual strength to pray upon waking, but then baby. “Routine is beauty,” Mark Berchum, founder of NET Ministries said. How to find the beauty when the routine continues to change?

I struggled for a long time with this. The markers I used to diagnose my spiritual life had all changed. With a new vocation I had to look at it with a totally different tool. When I sought counsel, some excused me, some accused me. One day I attended mass, either without my child or with my child asleep. After communion I felt the Lord, I knew that presence, I knew him. “That’s right,” I said, “I love you.”

In the second meditation on Christ’s last words in his book, Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Neuhaus has this to say:

When our faith is weak, when we are assailed by contradictions and doubts, we are tempted to look at our faith, to worry about our faith to try to work p more faith. At such times, however, we must not look to our faith but look to him.

Look to him with whatever faith you have and know that your worry about your lack of faith is itself as a sign of faith.

I learned to stop worrying. Periodically I have glimpses of his light and I am reminded, yes, I know you, I love you. I am the same person and you are the same God and our relationship still exists. Step by step, I will continue to follow his path. I have to remind myself to accuse myself, to confess. Each season I need to seek out ways to pray, to read, to grow. I try to be more merciful towards myself and how far we are from the goals we set for our family prayer.

So this is good advice for me.

Desire all to be saved

As Neuhaus reflects on the interaction between the Good Thief and Christ, specifically Christ’s response to him, “Today you shall be with me in paradise,” Neuhaus considers whether all can or should be saved.

“For paradise we long. Fer perfection we were made.”

“Given the evidence of Scripture and tradition, we cannot deny that hell exists. We can, however, hope that hell is empty. We cannot know that, but we can hope it is the case.”

Some might object to such a notion, and indeed many intelligent minds have. To one objection, Neuhaus reminds the reader of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, called at different times throughout the day, but paid the same wage. In response to the indignation,

“‘What is the point of being a Christian if, in the end, everyone is saved?’ People who ask that should listen to themselves. what is the point of being first rather than last in serving the Lord whom you love? what is the point of being found rather than lost? what is the point of knowing the truth rather than living in ignorance.”

Some would say that since no one can be saved except through Christ, that those without Christ do not know the truth, and thus cannot be saved.

“Everything that is true—in religion, philosophy, mathematics or the art of baseball—is true by virtue of participation in the truth who is Christ. The problem is not that non-Christians do not know truth; he problem is that they do not know the truth they know is the truth of Christ.”

At length, Neuhaus lays the foundation of understanding that God has made us for paradise and wants all men to be saved. So we must pray as the persistent widow.

“Prayer creates space for possibilities that would not otherwise be possible.”

We must care, we must desire that all be saved because this is what God desires.

“A Christian is not saved against the rest of humanity, to be separated out from the rest of humanity. Rather, we are saved, as it were, on behalf of all—to be reconcilers, intercessors, mediators for all.”

And we must make an effort to share that truth. We should not be bashful.

“Many Christians are embarrassed by this claim (that there is salvation by no one else). They are intimidated by a culture that decrees that all truths are equal. Who are you to claim that you have the truth and other do not? That is indeed an intimidating question, unless we understand that we do not have the truth in the sense that is it ours by virtue of our having discovered it; we do not have the truth in the sense of its being possession under our control.”

It is God’s truth, it is he who has made us aware of it. And so we should share it, and share in his desires that all men be saved. This is the way of evangelization. One more piece of the puzzle.

Fresco depicting the friar preaching to the Florentines



Reflections on Strange Gods, Chapters 2 & 3, the idols of I and the idol of the idea

What follows are the fragments that stood out to me and my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapter 2: God after Us: the Idol of I and Chapter 3: the Idol of the Idea. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book.

Chapter 2: God after Us: The Idol of I

“And the most painful trust is that the first and most difficult idol to dislodge is the idol of oneself.”

This makes sense, doesn’t it? If Adam and Eve wanted to be like gods, want to determine or themselves what is good, then we will be no better. It will start with us. I have always been distant from this concept. Never thought idolatry would be possible in my life.

The great evil of murder, then, is the fruit of the idolatry that is first an idea, and the idea is almost always about the self.

Objectifying another (whether we do so in lust or in anger) is a key component to idolatry, but that object is most often not the idol.

Those objectified become sacrifices to the idea. Elizabeth Scalia, in her book, Strange gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, Chapter 2, walks us through the concept and how the breaking of this first of the Ten Commandments explains first what is so wrong with breaking all the others. To put anything before God is to give it primacy of place, to worship it. This happens to us all at one time or another.

How do we prevent those thoughts of rage or lust from become idolatry?

“[God] wants us to deprive [our wayward thoughts] of power. Saint Benedict of Nursia tells his monks that when evil thoughts arise, they are to ‘dash them against Christ immediately.'”

“…doing so begins with awareness and a willingness to admit our imperfections.”

Following the Commandments will lead us to perfect joy, because it leads us to freedom. To worship another god enslaves us to it. The author points to the Sermon on the Mount to illustrate what God has in store for those who love him.

“Those beatitudes are the promise of what is ours, in all of those aspects of ourselves, once we have cast off the attachments to ideas, the idols Jesus illustrated throughout the Sermon, that keep us so self-involved and forever fragmented. If we are attentive to Christ call for detachment—not so much from our limbs and eyes but from our furies and fancies—we remain more closely aligned with God, more direct in our focus, and more mindful of keeping God alone before us.”

Detachment from the things of this world. Detachment in order to keep right order. How difficult this seems. I wonder if I am detached. I buy new clothes as I outgrow my old. From before bearing children to four years after my first was born, my style has changed. My size continues to change, though I thought it had finally settled. Time to buy new clothes. Again and again and again. I wonder if I am a slave to the new.

I will return to this question. I return to it again and again. I continue on the path of Scalia’s thoughts.

“This finally explains the paradoxical coda with which Jesus ties up his list: to be happy to be abused, persecuted and lied about because you are no longer ensnared and enslaved by the idols of your mind or the idols of anyone else. You have been freed from the shackles of conformity; you’ve come detached from the ever-whirling collective.”

The collective. There is something in this chapter that sparks remembrance of a painful episode at a parish. “Why wouldn’t they want Latin?” a woman asks. We can name two parishes where we are not wanted. We try to never be pushy, arrogant, know-it-all, but to share what the Church teaches, to aim for something higher, to say, “we can do more!” But my husband and his organ playing, Latin-chanting, are not wanted. We were pushed out. Our new parish has welcomed us and wanted us and appreciated the gifts and skills we desire to offer to the parish. What happened before was a mystery.

Then I come to these words. “persecuted and lied about because you are no longer ensnared and enslaved by the idols of your mind or the idols of anyone else.”

We are not being cast out from out homes. We are not being cursed at, told we are going to hell. We are not being spit upon, legislated against, sued. Never once did it occur to us that being excluded in this way was a form of persecution. But could it have been?

I continue to the next chapter.

Chapter 3: The Idol of the Idea

…this community had embraced their idea so wholeheartedly they’d stopped wonderful whether there might be other perspectives out there. Because they’d stopped wondering, they couldn’t know that, as Sister admitted that night, another perspective could have validity.

When I finished Chapter 2 I was left with a thought that what we experienced at a parish may have been a form of persecution, although, even now it feels strange to use the word, since whatever we experienced pales in comparison to what others have suffered.

“In every parish,” [the priest] sighed, “the first thing they want a priest to do is bow down to the god of ‘but we’ve always done it this way.’”

“We’ve always done it this way” yes, this is what we encountered. My husband and I feel free. We love the Church and her Traditions. We take from it. We are not at all opposed to that which is new, but it ought to respect the Tradition. The parish he worked at wanted to do the same music, something “traditional” was unwelcome, even if it had been new, if it sounded too “old” I imagine it would not have been welcome. Whatever my husband could have done better to navigate the emotions and politics, he wasn’t given a Christian chance. He challenged the group-think and for that, was pushed out.

“When we over-identify with our thoughts, the result is always inhibition, narrowness, and constraint, instead of the freedom that resides in a trusting and true relationship with God.”

“To say yes to God is to say yes to the very essence of what is positive, expansive, and co-creative—and for anything creative to happen, there must first be space.”

We feel energetic to begin something new, to help it to grow. This is not always welcome. Yet we have made a home in a parish new to us where the priest desires this very much. He is eager to engage us, eager to begin new things. The people of the parish are tired and wounded. Others are dismissive. I pray for this priest that his creative, expansive energy will not be drained.

I fell into this thinking before. Trying to make sense of certain teachings of the truth, the idea itself because the god and my view was narrowed, unmerciful. God can make us free. A true understanding of God, looking at God for who he is, not in our own terms, leads us to freedom. Having no gods before him.

Reflections from Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life

It isn’t often an introduction keeps you thinking. Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, written by Elizabeth Scalia, is a wake-up call to our way of life. She wastes no time. The introduction sets the stage and opens up the reader’s understanding that those passions and pursuits of our life, on dangerous ground, dancing a dangerous line which can tip the scale into idolatry.

She sets the stage then spends the book helping us to unmask those idols.

First, ease us into understanding:

“Idols are not like opinions or even convictions. They don’t ask for consensus or even strong advocacy—they demand worshippers.”

“If God created humankind in his image, we humans tend to create gods in our own image—or perhaps more correctly, we humans create gods so reflective and shiny, they keep us looking at ourselves.”

I have read about this before. The sin of Adam and Eve was not that they ate an apple, but rather that, having heard the commandment of God, they decided for themselves what would be good. This is how they would be like gods. Scalia rightly points out that when the modern Christian-mind thinks of idolatry, we think of golden calves and silly looking orgies from Cecil B Demille’s The Ten Commandments. It is a concept so far removed that it becomes easy to gloss over the commandment. Of course we would not worship another god. That commandment must reference some other culture where that might be more likely to happen.

Recognizing where we’re at, Scalia leads us another step in understanding:

“We stop and think of what it means to have something “before God”? It means to put something “first,” yes, but more fundamentally, it means to put something “in front” of God, as one might put a screen in front of a fireplace and therefore place it “before” the fire…it stands before God and us; it separates us from him.”

What is an idol in every day life?

St. Gregory of Nyssa said “ideas create idols; only wonder leads to knowing.” “I’ve come to believe that an idol is an idea, fleshed out or formed by craftiness and a certain needy self-centeredness.”

An idol is an idea, fleshed out. It takes on a life of its own. Her definition will help us identify them in our own lives. They will be creative, deep, well-formed and multi-faceted. They will reflect a need we have, a need projected outward but points inward to ourselves.

A pretty weighty introduction indeed.

To carry her introduction, Scalia related the story of an incident she witnessed in an online forum where Scalia saw unfold a love of security that seemed somewhat deeper and close-minded than it ought to be. She looked deeper into the words of those on the forum. Could this be a form of idolatry?

“Rather, I decided, it was the anxiety beneath it—lying coiled like a snake under the mist—that the America they had known might be over. It was in service to this strange god of anxiety—which hissed of threats to everything familiar, sure, and safe, and played to naturally protective instincts—that our rural friend was chased away.”

A god of anxiety? My reflection becomes personal.

Coming from one direction to my thoughts: I have struggled with anxiety. The struggle continues. It is an ongoing effort to maintain a calm so I will not get too near the edge.

Coming from another direction: I am alarmed by the atrocities committed by ISIS. I’ve written on that only once, in “The Christian Mission“, but it stays in my thoughts and prayers. My husband and I watched the The Pianist. The parallels of what I imagine the innocent suffering at the hand of ISIS and what the Nazi’s did in Poland and other counties were undeniable. ISIS is moving and their goal is to destroy Christendom. They have stated goals to attack the US, the President, destroy Rome and Pope Francis. Is the world as I know it being destroyed? Do my children face a radically different future in the US, in the Catholic Church, without the security I have known all my life?

The feelings Scalia describes following 9/11 reflect my current fears. Fifteen years ago, I was a teenager when the towers were struck. I mourned the loss of countrymen, but living in California, was so distant that my world was not shaken, only my heart. I am older now and better see the bigger picture, and with that comes questions.

Coming from, yet another direction: the four-year old son of a family we hold dear to our hearts died last week. His funeral was yesterday. As I reflect on the pain of my friend, I think to myself how we never have the hold on our children we imagine we have. She may have understood it better than I, as he was born with a heart condition. Perhaps she daily made the prayer to God offering her son to his protection and love. I am the one under an illusion that these children are mine. In trust, they can be snatched away in an instant. I had to learn this when I miscarried, but in the economic, environmental and philosophy stability I wonder if I have grown complacent.

I am pondering all these things. Scalia’s words act as a scale by which I can weigh them. Do I put my fears before God? Have I offered them to God, essentially putting them behind him so I see only him? Can I come to place of trust, a willingness to endure the storm should the storm arise, from whatever direction? Or do I make a god of my fear, willing to sacrifice to its appetite, willing to organize my life around its worship?

I will trust. As Lent evolves, my health improves and I can think productively again. I have begun praying through the meditations and art provided in Mark Haydu‘s beautiful work, Meditations on Vatican Art. Day 1’s meditation on St. Helena, dressed in fine robes, pondering a vision of the Cross, reminds me that holiness is possible in stability, I can trust God even though we do not suffer as we did when we were un- or under-employed. What are my treasures?

Thirty minutes into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the man says he lost everything. He has a son with him. It does not seem to me that he lost everything if his son is still with him.

Let me always remember where my treasure is. Let me find my security in God.

And all this from only the introduction.

Death on a Friday Afternoon, 1: Coming to our Senses

For Lent, we are reading Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus. In Chapter 1, Coming to our Senses, Neuhaus reflects on the first word from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The reflection is vast and deep as it sweeps across reality, the problem of evil, the madness of the Cross. It seems impossible to summarize or hit highlights, as any real reflection takes one step at a time, a scavenger hunt for truth. What are the questions Richard John Neuhaus asks?

Why is Good Friday called good?

For whom does he pray forgiveness?

Who is at fault? Who is guilty?

I will share two concepts, but I highly recommend you read it yourself. Neuhaus’ prose is pure poetry.

The truths at the heart of atonement

These are truths we know instinctively, reflexively.

“First, something has gone terribly wrong. We find ourselves in a distant country far from home.

“Second, whatever the measure of our guilt, we are responsible.

“Then, third, something must be done about it.

“[Fourth], whatever it is that needs to be done, we cannot do it. Each of us, individually, the entirety of the human race collectively—what can we do to make up for one innocent child tortured and killed?

“Somebody else will have to do it.

“It must be someone who is in no way responsible for what has gone wrong. It must be done by an act that is perfectly gratuitous, that is not driven by necessity, by an act that is perfectly free.”

Theodicy: how to justify to humankind the ways of God

From this nuanced understanding of atonement, at-one-ment, Neuhaus’ thoughts brings us to the concept of theodicy: how to justify to humankind the ways of God. I give you an excerpt.

All the Adams and all the Eves join with the brightest and the best of philosophers to declare that this is just the way the world is. And who is responsible for that?

…if God is good and God is almighty how did evil come about?

…In order to adjudicate these questions, we constituted ourselves the jury and the judge and we put God on the dock. And soon enough we would constitute ourselves as executioner as well

…The jury deliberated and reached its verdict. The decision was unanimous. With one voice, poor deluded humanity pointed to the prisoner in the dock and declared, “God is guilty!”

Why this awful, awe-filled Friday is called good.

“Only by submitting to our folly could he save us from our folly.”

“God must become what we are in order that we might become what God is.”

Personal Reflections

When I began to see the world imbued with God’s life and guidance, I saw every facet of the world being touched by him. That was before I knew suffering. As I shared in a previous post, The Madness of Miscarriage, when I encountered suffering for the first time, I struggled deeply not to see God as the arbitrator of this suffering. Consolations such as “it just wasn’t time” or “God wanted this little one in Heaven” deepened my suffering, because it is good that a child should be with his mother. No child should have a life without having been held and no mother should suffer to not be able hold her child. It just isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

Neuhaus hits this point head on. From the suffering inflicted by one on another to the maddening suffering of the innocent to natural disasters or disease, we know something has gone wrong. “Spare me that sentimental love that says what I do or what I am does not matter.”

And so, as I engage with that first sin, the line which Neuhaus draws from the temptation to determine for myself what is good and what is evil, to the judgment of God, theodicy, I suffer with anger at my heart that God is guilty, the he caused the suffering. I experienced this anger at that dark time of grief in our lives, at the times of economic insecurity as I watched my husband suffer to provide for us, at times of illness and colds that seem not to let up. Why doesn’t God make it better? Implicit in that question is the judgement of God, trying to square God with the way I see the world and how I think it ought to be and how I think God ought to act.

But God is not guilty and how desperately we must realize that. As my husband or I remind the other at times of conflict, “we are on the same side,” God is that lover that longs to reconcile, who holds it out to us.

A Sweeping Review of Downton Abbey

Because he wants to avoid writing about the romantic mundaneness of a contented couple, Julian Fellowes takes the viewer through unnecessary and illogical plot twists, tormenting the characters most deserving of mercy. When a character is well-rounded, and the details of his or her life filled in, the plot lines tend to write themselves. In an interview regarding Dan Steven’s, who played Matthew Crawley, departure from Downton Abbey, Fellowes stated, “nothing is harder to dramatise than happiness. When two people are happy, that’s it.”

So we’ve seen with Fellowes’ treatment of John and Anna Bates, the couple who won’t die and he won’t allow to be happy. As I read reviews and recaps of episodes this appears to be the chief complaint, along with Lady Mary’s ability to impeccably act out man’s inhumanity to man.

Fellows wrote Mr. and Mrs. Bates to be virtuous characters, full of good will, who have seen hard time and find in each other a blessed relief, a kindred spirit. They remind each other and call each other on in virtue. To see this couple continually beset upon invokes uproar among viewers because they deserve some relief. When we see the innocent suffer in real life, we get angry with God, though God is not guilt. When we see the Bates’ suffer in Downton Abbey, we get angry with Fellowes, and well we should.

Their troubles are unrealistic and out-of-sync with the characters that have been created for them. Mr. Bates married unwisely and so had to face terrible circumstances that came out of that. Upon his release, upon their reunion and move into a cottage, what would logically happen? They might have had children; they might have faced illness. They face difficulties the world throws at them; they face it together; they become stronger for it. When they do it with style and wit, the viewer is engaged, happy and entertained.

In the first three seasons it was simple to be carried along by the stories as they were engaging, beautifully styled and wonderfully acted. Upon the sentimental, orchestrated death of Matthew Crawley, who unwisely looked up at the sky in joy as he went on his way (he did not watch how the lead died in City of Angels, it seems), I became acutely aware of the puppet master, trying to make work Stevens’ professional decision to leave the show. When Anna was raped, I became frustrated. It was done for drama, because to just leave the Bates’ alone to be happy, would be too dull for J. Fellowes. What a shame.

I love the look of the show. As many others, I’m mad about the clothes and the setting. I keep going back despite deep dissatisfaction. It’s a missed opportunity. Fellowes had wonderful characters. We might possibly be witness to a softening of Thomas’ spirit through Baxter (who, like Molesley, like the Bates’, like Tom, deserve all the goodness that can come to them).

Speaking of missed opportunities, especially opportunities to create drama, whatever happened to Rose’s wild days? While Mary had to account again and again for her fall from virtue, Rose never seemed to have looked back. It seems a strange plot hole to me, but as Fellowes himself said, perhaps more about his perspective than his viewers, in Downton Abbey: Text Santa “nobody cares.”

I hope in the next series, Fellowes will lighten his hand and allow the mundane moments of one maid instructing another on how to fluff pillows without an attitude shine through. There are so many moments of inspiration in this show, and so much that can be done with the wonderful characters he has created. I just hope he will take the time to let them show through.

Reflection on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 5, Talk 3

We come to the final section of Josef Pieper’s book, Only the Lover Sings, a series of reflections on art and contemplation. Follow the links to read my reflections on Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. Below is my reflection on the third talk of this final section.

Vita Contemplativa—The Contemplative Life

Contemplation, c. 1875 by Thomas Couture (French, 1815 – 1879)

What is contemplation?

“It’s immediate and direct meaning indicates seeing, beholding, perceiving some reality

“…To contemplate means first of all to see—and not to think!

“…Also contains a special intensified way of seeing. – The gift of retaining and preserving in one’s own memory whatever has been visually perceived.”

“…it certainly perceives more than mere appearances.”

To see and not to think. Thus are more of the Church’s mystics women rather than men. There is something in the nature of woman that enables her to simply sit, to enjoy, to delight. She does it most naturally with her children, perhaps in a quieter age. So this features opens her up more easily to contemplate, to actively receive, to see the divine. Man is able as well, but woman has a particular inclination to simply sit and watch and see. Typically, man would analyze, and act.

See how she delights in nature, while he is actively destroying it.

I am not so simply made that I think this is always the case. My incredible levels of energy cause me to do quite often. But I see between my husband and myself a difference. Although I am the achiever and one more likely to want to discuss, between us, I am the one who can more easily sit with the children, just sit, not think, just be and watch.

This piercing of the word contemplation also calls to mind my work, as in an earlier section. I must sit and contemplate the information and the person presented to me.

“The eyes see better when guided by love; a new dimension of “seeing” is opened up by love alone! And this means contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance!”
Vincent VanGogh, Women Miners Carrying Coal, 1881-82

“And yet, nothing in this affirming closeness to reality smacks of false idealization, nothing is embellished as if all reality were wholesome and without rough edges.”

I think back to an earlier reflection on the art of the work I do, working with people. I must see them as they are, with love, in order to give them what will really help them. It is not uncommon for me by myself to take a moment after meeting with a troubled client to contemplate the story they have shared. I do not analyze it. I take it in, I let it “simmer” so to speak. Inspiration comes.

“Those who have seen enough…who are satisfied with the outward appearance of things, may easily be content with contriving some smooth and crowd-pleasing yet shallow fabrication.”

 I hear stories often about therapists who have not been helpful, who have rambled or given simple strategies but not fully entered into the story the client has shared. I suppose they have seen enough.

We cannot contemplate in a crowd. It calls for silence, for us to be alone. I have always needed to see art alone. I am an extrovert. I am too inclined too talk, too inclined to awareness of the feelings of those around me. When I am alone, I could stay and look and remember that the art evokes. I could really take time for prayer.

the mission:

If we grant Pieper the truth of his statements, art becomes a teaching tool for children. If children are surrounded by beautiful art and given space from technology and media, they will have the opportunity to recall, to allow the great art to resonate inside them before they even have words to recognize it. They will be too young to sit and contemplate. But if we believe it to be true, opportunities will create a greater facility to contemplate and to love, to understand deeper mysteries of the universe. It is a tall order, but if we believe it to be true, it can do great things.

It will do great things if we allow our senses to be restored to the real. First, the church’s were stripped of their art, their tactile and aural references to the divine. Second, technology came about to help facilitate active participation by project song lyrics on the blank wall. The artist in me recoils at the thought! When people desired some color or change to the building, they hung plain banners, for art had grown too foreign and expensive in the culture. Or too ugly.

But art has great power. Harnessing that power, bringing art and beauty back into the life of the Everyman, we can re-awake his consciousness to the divine. He can see again and be reminded that life is more than simply the task at hand or the news on the screen. There could be hope. There could be joy. There could be a festival.

Reflection on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 5, Talk 2

We come to the final section of Josef Pieper’s book, Only the Lover Sings, a series of reflections on art and contemplation. Follow the links to read my reflections on Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. Below is my reflection on the second talk of this final section.

Those “Guests at the Festival”

In the first section of Only the Lover Sings, Pieper explores the nature of a feast and the ability to celebrate a feast. He described the “festive contemplation of universal realities and their sustaining reasons” as the key to leisure. In this section he tells us, the festive character is “at the same time the remembrance of primordial bliss and the anticipation of future fulfillment.” It is for this task we need the poet and the artist. Understanding the celebration of feasts, Pieper finds the “connection between fine arts and festival becomes evident. Both build on a loving acceptance of the world and of human existence.”

“What good are poets in barren times?” he quotes. Indeed. This line strikes me, as Pieper interprets these barren times to be those times when we have lost the ability to celebrate a feast, to be at leisure, to contemplate our original state, the purpose for which we live, and the promise that lies before us. I feel myself living in these barren times.

In a rural land, little time is spent in such leisurely pursuits. The questions seem superfluous to many, as do the arts. Why would you drive a distance, spend two hours listening to an orchestra when you could be home, doing something? Music in the liturgy becomes utilitarian, meant for people to participate, rather than an instrument to lead us to contemplation. Barren times. When one is struggling to fulfill the bottom levels of the hierarchy of needs, he cannot see any benefit to those spiritual pursuits which seem so distant from his immediate needs.

And yet, we are not so rural here. We go to grocery stores, have neighbors within fifty feet, do not own livestock. Yet the mindset persists. It can be so difficult for an artist to find their place in a town, where neither religion or community tradition occupy the central space of culture, only existence, one step to the next, one click to the next, mindlessly, numbingly walking through life without stopping observe the flowers in bloom or the warmth of the sun. Barren times.

The hierarchy of needs it not fully accurate because we are made by God. Therefore the spiritual can imbue each level with life, making up for deficits. Suffering at each level becomes filled with meaning and is then bearable. So art and beauty at any level are a benefit to man, they can remind him of a life worth fighting for.