Monthly Archives: June 2010

Chesterton on Literature and Madness

There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram. . . . And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite.

–G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch. 2.


“Never criticize a priest”

A few days ago, someone on Facebook posted a link to this article, which concerns statements made by the auxiliary bishop of LA about “certain kinds of blogs”. The remarks are clearly aimed at Catholic blogs of the pro-life/”orthodox”/conservative sort, and seem to give a pass to the venom spewed at places like Commonweal, America, National Catholic Reporter, etc.

Anyway, they lady who posted it commented that she actually agreed with this bishop and said she believes very strongly in never criticizing a priest (I was surprised by this as, that same evening, she had posted a link to one of those “Real Catholic TV” podcasts).

Anyway, I have a great deal of trouble, as anyone who reads this blog, can probably guess, with the principle of “never criticize a priest.” Where does that end?

After all, “Never criticize a priest” (or “the Order”) was one of the founding principles of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. About 5 or 6 years ago, I interviewed for a job at a Regnum Christi school. I asked the principal if they did Mass in Latin. He said, “No, because to support the Latin Mass is to criticize Vatican II, which goes against the principles of our Order.”

St. Francis Xavier, in the passage quoted in Matins for his feast day, has some pretty harsh words for the priests teaching theology in European universities when they should be out doing missionary work. St. Jerome famously had harsh words for a lot of people.

What about every theologian in the history of the Church? When Aquinas, Bonaventure, Scotus and others were having their epic debates in the 13th Century, did that not constitute “criticizing a priest”?

It seems to me that “never criticize a priest” is a relic of what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls the “ossification” of the pre-conciliar church, and one of the very things Vatican II meant by its emphasis on the laity. Indeed, while we have US bishops criticizing blogs for criticizing the Church, we’ve also had statements from the Holy Father and other Vatican officials–cited previously on this blog–which *praise* the lay Catholic media for keeping the clergy in check.

After all, isn’t “never criticize the clergy” the mentality that got us into the mess we’re in, at every level?

“Never criticize the clergy” is what most abuse victims were told by their families and others when they tried to report the abuse.

“Never criticize the clergy” is what the victims were told by the hierarchy.

“Never criticize the clergy” is what Fr. James Haley was told when he tried to report that his pastor was committing adultery with a parishioner, or that another pastor was engaging in financial impropriety.

Every liberal priest will talk about Vatican II and the laity, and how important is is for laity to have a greater role in the Church. Yet challenge that same priest on his heterodox teachings, and he’ll immediately fall back on, “Never criticize the clergy.”

Oh, by the way, what was the first action Pope Benedict XVI did to reform the LC/RC movement, other than the suspension of the late unlamented Fr. Maciel? He told them to get rid of their “Never criticize the clergy” rule.

St. Teresa of Avila on “the prayer of quiet”

After many chapters, St. Teresa de Jesus finally begins to describe what she calls the “prayer of quiet”. This is not the same as mental prayer. Mental prayer, as discussed, means actually thinking about God while you pray.

What Teresa calls “the prayer of quiet” is what some would call “consolation,” the experience that God is directly responding to our prayer with a feeling of spiritual rapture. It is a state of prayer that God sends on us. We have to be praying to receive it, but we have no guarantee that it will come in any circumstances. Sometimes, we may get it instantly after some very weak prayers; other times, we may make a retreat worth of prayers and devotions and sacraments and yet not experience “the prayer of quiet.”

This is a supernatural state, and, however hard we try, we cannot reach it for ourselves; for it is a state in which the soul enters into peace, or rather in which the Lord gives it peace through His presence, as He did to that just man Simeon.[107] In this state all the faculties are stilled. The soul, in a way which has nothing to do with the outward senses, realizes that it is now very close to its God, and that, if it were but a little closer, it would become one with Him through union. This is not because it sees Him either with its bodily or with its spiritual eyes. The just man Simeon saw no more than the glorious Infant — a poor little Child, Who, to judge from the swaddling-clothes in which He was wrapped and from the small number of the people whom He had as a retinue to take Him up to the Temple, might well have been the son of these poor people rather than the Son of his Heavenly Father. But the Child Himself revealed to him Who He was. Just so, though less clearly, does the soul know Who He is. It cannot understand how it knows Him, yet it sees that it is in the Kingdom (or at least is near to the King Who will give it the Kingdom), and it feels such reverence that it dares to ask nothing. It is, as it were, in a swoon, both inwardly and outwardly, so that the outward man (let me call it the “body”, and then you will understand me better) does not wish to move, but rests, like one who has almost reached the end of his journey, so that it may the better start again upon its way, with redoubled strength for its task.

The body experiences the greatest delight and the soul is conscious of a deep satisfaction. So glad is it merely to find itself near the fountain that, even before it has begun to drink, it has had its fill. There seems nothing left for it to desire. The faculties are stilled and have no wish to move, for any movement they may make appears to hinder the soul from loving God. They are not completely lost, however, since, two of them being free, they can realize in Whose Presence they are. It is the will that is in captivity now; and, if while in this state it is capable of experiencing any pain, the pain comes when it realizes that it will have to resume its liberty. The mind tries to occupy itself with only one thing, and the memory has no desire to busy itself with more: they both see that this is the one thing needful and that anything else will unsettle them. Persons in this state prefer the body to remain motionless, for otherwise their peace would be destroyed: for this reason they dare not stir. Speaking is a distress to them: they will spend a whole hour on a single repetition of the Paternoster. They are so close to God that they know they can make themselves understood by signs. They are in the palace, near to their King, and they see that He is already beginning to give them His Kingdom on earth. Sometimes tears come to their eyes, but they weep very gently and quite without distress: their whole desire is the hallowing of this name. They seem not to be in the world, and have no wish to see or hear anything but their God; nothing distresses them, nor does it seem that anything can possibly do so. In short, for as long as this state lasts, they are so overwhelmed and absorbed by the joy and delight which they experience that they can think of nothing else to wish for, and will gladly say with Saint Peter: “Lord, let us make here three mansions.”[108]” (Way of Perfection Ch. 31, paras. 2 & 3; emphasis added).

It strikes me that, when I experience the “prayer of quiet,” at first, it is no longer possible to “actively” pray. I may mutter prayers with my mouth or “recite them” in my head, but they can only be truly “rote” prayers. I can’t actively meditate. I can’t think of causes to pray for. I can only repeat little prayers and enjoy basking in God’s embrace.

But, after a short time, it is much *easier* to pray. If, for example, I experience the prayer of quiet after Communion, it can often be almost like an ecstasy, but I know what’s going on around me. I could have been struggling with paying attention all through Mass, and now, suddenly, I’m hit with the prayer of quiet, and prayer becomes extremely easy for me.

While I could easily stay in church for another 15 or 20 minutes praying, I usually have to leave to tend to my family. But, if I have experienced “the prayer of quiet,” I can resume my daily living while continuing in a prayerful state.

Once again, we’ve commited the worst sin

Trying to go to Mass together as a family.

With my handicapped van again in the shop, I’m not in my wheelchair, so Mass is back to being difficult. We’ve been taking turns the past few weeks.

I sat in the car with Joe and Clara with the air on, listening to prayers and hoping they’d go to sleep. When I thought it was too late to risk missing Communion, I got them out of the car and went in. In fact, the priest was just beginning the Consecration.

We sat down with Mary and the girls. Both Joe and Clara refused to sit in my lap. Clara was OK, but Joe started jabbering. Now, the real problem is, he wasn’t being “bad,” per se, in that he was focusing. He just wanted to know what was going on. He was pointing to all the pictures, and saying, “Oh, Mommy! Jesus is being hurt!” That sort of thing.

Mary kept trying to quiet him down. Some old woman in front of us with her hair dyed maroon turned around and loudly “Shh”‘ed.

After another moment or two, she angrily got up and walked away.

As always, it makes no sense that we are a Church that claims to be pro-life, claims to encourage large families, claims to oppose contraception and abortion, yet does *NOTHING* to help families. Instead, the contraceptors and NFP Nazis alike look down their noses, in spite of everything every papal document says and families and the role of the Church as community.

Meanwhile, tons of heretical protestant communities get lots of members because they have “children’s services” and so forth.

I’m the last one to suggest we change the Mass to be more ‘entertaining’ for kids–indeed, my experience shows that my kids behave better the more traditional the liturgy is (and also that the parishioners are more accepting of kids the more traditional the liturgy is). Yes, some people have kids who are naturally well-disciplined–and among my fellow homeschoolers the same people we envy for their well-behaved kids will say they wish their kids were as outgoing as our kids are. And

Then we came home, and, in honor of Fathers Day and the Month of the Sacred Heart, we said the Byzantine Moleben to Jesus over the dinner table. Clara had to go to her room for being disruptive, but came back and sat quietly when given a second chance. Joe was disruptive. Allie and Gigi prayed the responses and offered their own petitions when it was time.

Then I got out the Fr. Lovasik Best Loved Saints and Gigi, just having finished Kindergarten, read the first page with my help on the big words. Given the fact that she can actually see, she’s reading much better than Allie was at this age.

Allie then read the second page but wasn’t interested in reading given that she and Clara were dancing to the religious music–both classical and contemporary–I had playing.

When Allie and Gigi were little, we took them to Mass. After a while, we broke down and used the cry room, in spite of my resistance to it. There was a time when Allie wouldn’t go to sleep unless she’d at least watched Mass on EWTN, if we hadn’t actually gone. Back then, we said, “to heck with anyone who criticizes us,” because we were doing what Jesus commanded: “Let the little children come to Me.”

Now, we have two girls who are absolutely pious.

It’s gotten harder with Joe and Clara–particularly Joe. Lately, he’s been saying he doesn’t believe in God, and we think it’s because he’s already come to see Mass as something negative.

Keep him out of Mass, and we risk not building that habit, building that love for Mass we’ve developed in his older sisters; try to take him to Mass, and it’s put up with the comments and dirty looks and scrutiny, while still making him think of Mass as something bad because we have to discipline him for just being interested in his own special way.

I mean, if someone exclaims, looking at the Stations of the Cross, “Oh, poor Jesus!” Shouldn’t that be a time to say, “Amen,” not “Shh?”

But it should would be nice if the Catholic Church practiced what it preached.

“Your Mother says so”

A year or two ago, I watched a Christian stand-up comedy video on Netflix. One of the comedians told a story about getting his oldest son to join the Army.

When his son was a senior in high school with no indication of going anywhere when he graduated, his wife had him talk to their son.
“Son, we need to have a father-son talk. Just us, father and son.”
“Son, your mother wants to know what you want to do with the rest of your life.”

Somewhere in a course or book on parenting, I came across the idea that a parent should never say, “Your mother says,” or “Your mother wants you to” (or, conversely, “Your father says,” or “Your father wants you to”). Supposedly, this implies disagreement, that “Your mother says to do this, [but I don’t really care.]”

And, yes, sometimes it does. But one thing Mary and I always say to the children is that it doesn’t matter if we disagree–when one parent says “no,” even if we disagree, the “no” applies. On positive commands (“Do the dishes”; “Do your homework”), the rule is that my word, as the father, supersedes Mary’s, and I’ll usually just tell them to do whatever their mother said to do first, then come back to me.

Anyway, I was thinking about that rule just now because the same thing comes up in my teaching. There’s a great liberation in the Enterprise Model of modern higher education. After all, one of the great bugaboos of being a student, and being a teacher, is the implication of arbitrariness.

I am always careful to distinguish with my students between what are *my* policies and what are institutional policies, not because I disagree with the institution, but because that way they can’t say it’s just me. Whenever one of my online students says to me, “What do you want us to do with this assignment?” or “What do you mean when you say this?”, I start my response by clarifying: “The syllabus is institutional; it was not written by me, but by a team of English instructors and instructional designers. There’s nothing arbitrary going on here, so you don’t have to worry that I’m hiding something. I go entirely by what it says in the syllabus.” Then I try to explain my reading of the syllabus. That reinforces the student’s confidence that the guidelines are not just arbitrary things I’ve made up, that they would get the same thing with any other instructor at the college.

So, “Your mother says so” does not *have* to be an implication of subtle defiance–though it often can be. Usually, like my assurance to my students that I’m following institutional policy, it’s a reaffirmation of authority: “You can’t go to Mom for an appeal, because she said it to begin with.”

Getting back to that standup comic, the father-son chat result in a decision that, when he graduated, the son was joining the Army. Well, he graduated, and he got a job, but he never moved out and never joined the Army. So, a year after the first conversation, after he got sick of his wife and son fighting, the father sat down and said,
“It’s time for a man-to-man chat. You’re a man now, so it’s no longer a father and son talk, but a man-to-man talk.”
Son says, “OK.”
Dad says, “Son, you need to move out.”
“You don’t get along with my wife.”
“Your wife?”
“Your mother.”
“I like you just fine, and I don’t care if you come over every day for dinner, but you need your own place. . . . ”
The conversation resulted in the son’s enlistement in the Army.

G. K. Chesterton on Mental Health

It is true that some speak lightly and loosely of insanity as in itself attractive. But a moment’s thought will show that if disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else’s disease. A blind man may be picturesque; but it requires two eyes to see the picture. And similarly even the wildest poetry of insanity can only be enjoyed by the sane. To the insane man his insanity is quite prosaic, because it is quite true. A man who thinks himself a chicken is to himself as ordinary as a chicken. A man who thinks he is a bit of glass is to himself as dull as a bit of glass. It is the homogeneity of his mind which makes him dull, and which makes him mad. It is only because we see the irony of his idea that we think him even amusing; it is only because he does not see the irony of his idea that he is put in Hanwell at all. In short, oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch. 2.

St. Teresa of Avila on “security”

“The devil sets up another dangerous temptation: self-assurance in the thought tha twe will in no way return to our past faults and worldly pleasures” (Way of Perfection Ch. 39, para. 4).

This sets up a false confidence which makes us fail to avoid the occasions of sin, and precipitates an even deeper fall back into the old habits.