The Personalist Project

Truth and personal influence

[Truth] has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of [those] who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it.

John Henry Newman, Oxford University Sermons

In elementary school I used to endure frequent agonies for a very silly reason. You see, the teacher would regularly select someone to be in charge of advancing the film strip to the next frame. (Too young to remember film strips? That's what teachers would use to put students to sleep before PowerPoint was invented.) I'd sit there,  hoping against hope that she wouldn't call on me, because I had no idea how to do the job. Everybody else did (I assumed), but I didn't. 

Why didn't I just ask? Well, but then the teacher would find out that I didn't already know. Unthinkable. I was supposed to know.

Did I outgrow this ridiculousness? Yes, eventually. But even in high school biology, my teacher, a battle-scarred veteran of the public-school system who could and did run classes in his sleep, used to write the entire lesson on the board, complete with charts and diagrams. Every day. I couldn't really see the board, but I didn't want to say so. Instead, I flunked the class and took it over again, borrowing a classmate's notebook to copy from. Every day. 

I spent many years doing things the hard way, because I believed--or at least I felt as if--I was already supposed to know everything. It wasn't that I was lazy. I devoted plenty of energy to futile attempts to conceal my predicament. 

If you're still with me at this point, you may well be wondering what value the experience of an inexplicably clueless child could possibly hold for you. Well, read on.

I assume I was an extreme case. At least I hope most people don't live like this.

But I think it's very common in the spiritual life. Not knowing how to pray, or get close to God, or conquer a vice, often leads, not to trying to find out, but to futile and repeated attempts to make sure no one--not even God Himself!--discovers that you don't already know. To faking one's way through, carefully avoiding the one thing that might help.

My cluelessness about the inner workings of the filmstrip mechanism was a simple lack of information. Most people wouldn't hesitate to simply acquire the data they needed. But when it comes to spiritual things, there's a stigma--at least a perceived stigma--to the ignorance. You're just supposed to know--not only "supposed to" as in "expected to," but "supposed to" as in "moral-ought to." Admitting ignorance is admitting a moral failing. But either way, until you admit what you're lacking, you can't hope to address it.

I remember a priest at a day of recollection describing how sometimes a person gets to the point where she throws up her hands, lifts her eyes to heaven, and blurts out, "OK, fine! I just can't do this! I need help!"

And then the Holy One, he said, breathes a sigh of relief and says, "Finally! Now I can get somewhere with you!"

He knows we need help. We're not going to fool Omniscience anyway! Trying to hide it from Him is even sillier than me trying to hide my lack of technical know-how from Ms. Zelinski in the third grade. Trying to hide it from other people cuts us all off from the assistance and empathy we're designed to give one another.

Being a successful fraud is the worst thing that could befall us.

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Since the last installment of my "live blogging" of Amoris Laetitia was posted over a month ago, I might need to adjust the title of the series. "Barely-blogging" or "Amoris Laetitia at a slow crawl" might be more appropriate. Anyhow, a recent article on the subject in L'Osservatore Romano by our former, beloved and esteemed professor Rocco Buttiglione reminds me to get back to it.

I was happy to find that Rocco, too, is out of sympathy with the Pope's critics, who at times seem so attached to their accustomed ways of thinking that they've shut their ears to "what the spirit is saying to the churches."

The sensus fidei of the Christian people immediately embraced and followed [Pope Francis]. But some of the learned class seem to have trouble understanding him. They criticize him and portray him as out of harmony with the Church’s tradition, and more specifically, out of step with his great predecessor, Pope John Paul II. They seem disconcerted by the fact that they find no support in Francis’s teaching to affirm their own theories, and they do not want to depart from their intellectual framework and listen more closely to the surprising freshness of Francis’s message.

I like that distinction between the Christian people with their sensus fidei and "the learned class" with their theories. I like, too, his implicit rejection of the scholar's temptation to reduce the tradition to documents. And he is right to point to Francis' continuity with John Paul II, who not only defended the objectivity of truth, but constantly promoted the truth of subjectivity.

Now back to AL, with renewed resolve to open my heart fully and freely to its essential message. I am up to Chapter Four, called "Love in Marriage."

It begins:

All that has been said so far would be insufficient to express the Gospel of marriage and the family, were we not also to speak of love.

Once again, I'm inwardly applauding. For years and decades (thanks to the influence of von Hildebrand and Wojtyla) I've been lamenting teachings on courtship and marriage that make practically no mention of love—as if the main thing we need to be concerned about in pursuing the married vocation is sin-avoidance. This Pope, like his predecessors, sees it very differently. 

Indeed, the grace of the sacrament of marriage is intended before all else “to perfect the couple’s love”.  

It follows that the first aim of pastors vis a vis married couples should be to support and encourage them in growing their love for one another and their children.

Paragraphs 90 - 119 offer an extended reflection on those well-known verses about love in 1 Corinthians 13. The reflections are partly exegetical, but the Pope's prime aim, as I read him, seems to be pastoral. He is trying to open our eyes to the contrast between the love revealed and called for in the gospel and the master/slave tendencies of our fallen condition.

- In 91, he interprets "patience" as "restraint." Love doesn't force or overwhelm others. It doesn't use its strength to get its way.

- In 92, he offers a caveat: "Being patient does not mean letting ourselves be constantly mistreated, tolerating physical aggression or allowing other people to use us." And: 

Patience takes root when I recognize that other people also have a right to live in this world, just as they are. It does not matter if they hold me back, if they unsettle my plans, or annoy me by the way they act or think, or if they are not everything I want them to be. Love always has an aspect of deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like.

 - In 95, he all but writes, "live and let live."

- In 96, he speaks of love in terms familiar to those tuned in to the social teachings of the Church:

This same deeply rooted love also leads me to reject the injustice whereby some possess too much and others too little. It moves me to find ways of helping society’s outcasts to find a modicum of joy. That is not envy, but the desire for equality.

 Excessive disparities in wealth play in to the master/slave dynamic.

- 97 includes a good description of narcissism, though it doesn't use the word.

- In 98 he reminds us: 

Love, on the other hand, is marked by humility; if we are to understand, forgive and serve others from the heart, our pride has to be healed and our humility must increase.

 And then this: [my bold]

Jesus told his disciples that in a world where power prevails, each tries to dominate the other, but “it shall not be so among you” (Mt 20:26). The inner logic of Christian love is not about importance and power; rather, “whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Mt 20:27). In family life, the logic of domination and competition about who is the most intelligent or powerful destroys love.

 - And in 99:

Every day, “entering into the life of another, even when that person already has a part to play in our life, demands the sensitivity and restraint which can renew trust and respect. Indeed, the deeper love is, the more it calls for respect for the other’s freedom and the ability to wait until the other opens the door to his or her heart”. 

As I say, the Pope is plainly alert to the master/slave dynamic. If he had consulted me, though, in the writing of this section, I might have urged him to develop more the implications of love for the "slave side". He emphasizes well and truly the importance of the "masters" needing to humble themselves, show gentleness, kindness and restraint. But I would have like to see more about the very different way "slaves" must learn to "fight evil" and "always say 'no' to violence in the home." (104) 

I justify the utterance of such a bold opinion by pointing out that the Pope himself has more than once called for a greater development of the theology of femininity and a greater role for women in the Church. He knows there's a lacuna that needs filling.

The same goes for paragraphs 105 - 108 on forgiveness. Though I agree with every word, I think a vital element is missing. He speaks eloquently of the need to forgive and forbear, but not at all about the need to repent the wrongs we have done against others. In my experience, the failure to admit wrong and shoulder responsibility for harm done is the more common destroyer-of-communion in family life than unforgiveness. (Jules wrote a post on the priority of repentance last year.)

I would venture to guess that the reflections on 1 Corinthians 13 (which continue through paragraph 119) are the Pope's own. Unlike other parts of the exhortation, where I strongly feel the influence of others, such as Cardinal Schönborn, in these paragraphs I hear the Pope's familiar voice and manner. It's the voice of a pastor more than an intellectual.

I'll stop there for now.

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Three quotes that I came upon this week in separate contexts are gelling for me.

Visiting the Emily Dickinson Museum Sunday, I was struck by these words of the famously reclusive poet:

The Soul selects her own Society — Then — shuts the Door —

The deep truth about the person— that he is a being "created for his own sake" and only fulfilled in his being by "making a sincere gift of himself"—is sometimes (mis)interpreted as implying that we owe intimacy to anyone who wants it of us—as if the fact that I am called to give myself to someone means that I am not allowed to withhold myself from anyone—as if it were selfish to "select my own society."

Then I came upon this passage from Evangelii Gaudium.

We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives.

"Genuine spiritual encounter" can't occur without listening, without openness of heart.

Some might say, "See, Emily Dickinson was wrong to "shut the door" against anyone." I see it differently. I think she was careful in her search for the genuine encounter. She "shut the door" on those who she saw were not listening, were not open to her soul in its sensitivity and particularity, with its unique mission.

Superficial relations, never mind dysfunctional ones, are enervating and depleting and wasteful.

Then I found this, from Martin Buber's I and Thou.

All actual life is encounter.

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Want to hear the most startling thing I've read in years?

Here you go:

What if we're not, actually, in the midst of everything falling apart? What if it's not a new epidemic, but only improved detection: becoming more aware than as a group we were, of how very much suffering there is and always has been?

If so, we could be in a different part of the story than we thought. 

--Erin Arlinghaus (thanks to Melanie Bertinelli for bringing it to my attention)

A different part of the story than we thought.

Well, that sounds encouraging to me. Could we really be seeing it all wrong? The more I mull it over, the more plausible it sounds.

A differnt part of the story. What would that mean? Not just: Yes, the times are evil, but God can bring good out of it. Nor just: Well, things are worse than ever right now, but it's always darkest before the dawn. It's not, either, a question of imagining (or pretending) that things aren't really that bad. They are. We're not about to wake up and find that ISIS, or this entire election cycle, was just a nightmare.

But maybe we can shake the nightmarish sense of living amidst unprecedented evils, with no end in sight.

What, exactly, makes us so sure that things are getting worse and worse and worse? Why does it seem so self-evident? Well, for one thing, we've just come through the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. By some estimates, more Christians have ben martyred in the last few decades than in all previous centuries combined.  We can't wish these horrors away.

If we take a good, hard look at our ability to compare the human suffering of one age with that of another, though, we notice something: to make an accurate comparison, we'd need a thorough, experiential knowledge of what it must have been like to live in another time--in all other earlier times.

How do you assess, for example, the suffering of a 40-year-old man living when the average lifespan was 30, but the aged were revered? How to compare it to, say, the suffering of a woman who dies at 75 in a nursing home where the aged are despised and hidden away? Or how to measure the physical pain of a 12th-century peasant without ibuprofen or antibiotics, against the spiritual agonies of a 21st-century atheist who, as far as he knows, has no reason to live?

We might feel very well informed because we're very much bombarded with information. We ricochet back and forth at the will of headline-writers ("Shock!" "Crisis!" "Breaking point!"). Media moguls have their own reasons for keeping us in a panic, but we don't have to play along. Good news seldom makes the news, but that doesn't mean there isn't any.

Besides, if we're getting better at detecting "how much suffering there is and always has been," that's a good thing. Detecting it is better than being oblivious to it, and could be a step towards relief. Some things have gotten beter in exactly that way: it was once standard practice to shut away the "insane," the "retarded," and the "handicapped""--three over-broad categories that too many human beings were stuffed into for too long. In some ways, we've come a long way since then.

If we're really on the side of truth, "improved detection" is a decided step in the right direction. We should want suffering to manifest itself in a more obvious and unmistakeable way. We don't want to fall for "peace when there is no peace." Nor do we want to assume that te worst is upon us because the clickbait-mongerers, for their own reasons, want us to think so. What do they know? What do we know?

The poor, the hungry, and just about everybody who happen to be born in, say, Haiti or Afghanistan, probably have a far clearer vision of what part of the story we're in. They don't have the luxury of falling for the illusion that things have suddenly gone from pretty comfortable to dreadful. Life was plenty hard for them before the current wave of bad news.

People who think things are hopeless don't fight as effectively as those who have hope. The supernatural virtue of hope, rather than mere human optimism, is key, of course. But we may have more reason for mere human optimism than we had thought. We may be in a different part of the story.

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The book I mentioned a few days ago, Drinking: A Love Story, led me to another its author recommended: A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill, who was born to Irish immigrants and raised in World War II era Brooklyn.  He describes a scene from his childhood that powerfully illustrates a major theme in personalist ethics. We do justice or injustice (as the case may be) not only by conforming or failing to conform to the objective moral law, but in our responses to the concrete subjective moral realities in front of us. 

FOR THE CHRISTMAS of 1943, my mother bought me a pair of roller skates. They were strong and tough, with clamps over the front of your shoes that were tightened with a skate key. The wheels were shiny; they would never wear out, filling with those ruinous holes we called skellies. They had probably cost her a lot of money, at least three dollars. But on a frigid Saturday a week later, there was a huge scrap metal drive, men in trucks moving slowly along the avenue, shouting to everybody to haul out their old metal and iron so we could turn the stuff into bombs and bullets. People came out with beaten-up old metal chairs and lengths of pipe and broken bicycles. I thought it was my duty to make the ultimate sacrifice. I threw in my skates.

But as I watched the truck pull away, I began to cry. I wanted those skates back. And then felt as if I were a traitor, a regular Benedict Arnold. I stopped crying. I walked around the block. A cold wind was blowing off the harbor. I went home and lay down on my bed and started to read a Newsboy Legion comic to restore my sense of patriotism. Yes: I had made a sacrifice. But it was worth it. Somehow, my skates would help beat Hitler and the Japs.

Then my mother came in and asked me what was the matter.

Nothing, I lied.

Come on, something’s the matter.

Nothing’s the matter.

What happened?

I was quiet for a moment and then I whispered: I gave my skates to the scrap metal drive.

Mother of God.

She looked upset and I said, I’m sorry, Mommy.

Oh, she said, this damned war.

Then she went into the kitchen and started cooking in silence.

But that wasn’t the end of it. An hour later, my father came home drunk. We sat down to eat dinner. And he learned about the skates.

What? he said. What? You gave away your skates?

I didn’t give them away, I said. I gave them to the scrap metal drive, you know, the war effort.

You bloody idjit, he said.

And he reached over and slapped my face.

The father sinned against his son's dignity not only by calling him and idiot and slapping him in the face, but even more gravely by his utter failure to recognize and affirm the moral goodness of the boy's sacrifice. He twisted the boy's inner reality into something contemptible. That was a worse and crueler blow than the physical one.

The moral blindness and egotism that prevent us from seeing and doing justice to the subjective truth in others is (I propose) a deeper, more commonplace, and more intractable evil than the evil of lawbreaking. 

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