The Personalist Project

Experience as the sole source of knowledge

This work is open to every echo of experience, from whatever quarter is comes, and it is at the same time a standing appeal to all to let experience, their own experience, make itself heard, to its full extent: in all its breadth, and all its depth.  When we speak here of depth we have in mind all those things which do not always show themselves directly as part of the content of experience, but are none the less a component, a hidden dimension of it, so much so that it is impossible to omit them, if we want to identify fully the contents of experience.  If we do omit them, we shall be detracting from and impoverishing experience, and so robbing it of validity, though it is the sole source of information and the basis of all reliable knowledge on whatever subject… Experience does not have to be afraid of experience.  Truth can only gain from such a confrontation.

Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility

It comes up over and over and over. Justice or mercy? Judgement or compassion? Sometimes things get really confused, and we start talking about "objectivism" vs. "subjectivism," or even about "truth" vs. "love."

Edith Stein had the best comeback for that one: "Do not accept anything as truth that lacks love," she said, "and do not accept anything as love that lacks truth. One without the other is a destructive lie."

It's been explained over and over and over. Real justice and real mercy don't contradict each other. We so evidently get nowhere by endlessly pitting a caricature of "judgmental" against a caricature of "pastoral." 

But the other day I was reading Salt and Light, a Q & A with Benedict XVI--whose birthday was yesterday--when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. His approach to what you might call an apologetics of judgment was different from all the rest. It appeals in a unique way to those who are concerned with this-worldly justice--without, of course, going squishy or Truth and Goodness. 

Here's what he says about the Day of Judgment:

There must...somewhere, somehow, be a settling of injustices, the victory of justice; that is what we are awaiting, at least. Nor are Christ and His judgment a victory for evil. No, He is a victory of the good, and, in this sense, the fact that God is righteous and is the judge is profoundly good news.

There's a caveat, it's true. The news may be good, but it won't necessarily be pleasant to put into action. He concedes:

Naturally, this good news puts me under an obligation.

And then comes my favorite sentence:

But when I conceive of the good news only as self-affirmation, in the final analysis it is meaningless; there is an anesthetization going on somewhere.

And then, in a masterful conclusion, he ties together the concerns of "traditionalists" and "social justice warriors" alike:

For this reason we must become familiar again with the dimension of judgment precisely with a view to those who suffer and those who have received no justice but who have a right to it--and then also agree to put ourselves under this standard and to try not to belong to the doers of injustice.

We all need to sustain a lively concern for "those who suffer and those who have received no justice but who have a right to it"--and we all have to uphold the standards of objective truth and falsity, good and evil--and here's the tricky part--without giving ourselves a pass. I'm going to quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn here--not for the first time--because he says it so well.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? 

The trick is to affirm real, unchanging standards of justice and injustice and "to try not to belong to the doers of injustice." It's so much easier to just define ourselves as the just ones because of the side we're on. Then, too, we have to resist the lure of that "anesthetization"--the kind that makes us numb to our own evil, and the kind that makes us numb to the sufferings of "those who have received no justice but who have a right to it." (Pope Francis also has a lot to say about "anesthesia.")

Getting beyond the silly headlines and pulling out of the anesthesia can both be laborious. But in the end, the Day of Judgment is good news.

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Today, in the spirit of the new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate--"Rejoice and be glad"--I want to put in a plug for joy, and show that all the arguments against it we manage to muster don't hold much water. Here are a few misunderstandings that deserve to be squashed, the sooner the better:

1. Easter joy is for people who have Done Lent Right. 

Nope. Nothing against doing Lent right, as long as you can manage it without self-righteousness and contempt for slackers. But I call to witness St. John Chrysostom: 

You rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today!...

He has despoiled Hades by going down into its kingdom, He has angered it by allowing it to taste of his flesh...

2. But harder is better! The more pleasures you deprive yourself of, the more holiness you will produce.

Not necessarily. I call to witness Dorothy Day:

For many years...she had been a heavy smoker.  Her day began with lighting up a cigarette.  Her big sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the community was praying she would light up a smoke. 

Luckily, she wasn't too stubborn to resist some good advice:

One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions urged her not to give up cigarettes that year, but instead to pray daily, "Dear God, help me stop smoking." She used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction.  Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn't want it and never smoked another.

Along the same lines, St. Josemaría Escrivá offers this eminently sensible piece of advice:

Choose mortifications that don't mortify others.

I now feel completely vindicated in never giving up coffee for Lent. I couldn't do it to my husband and kids.

3. But what if you're a better person than I am? What if you can deprive yourself inconspicuously without making life unbearable for the people who have to live with you? In that case, deprivation is always better, right?

Wrong. I call to witness Fr. Jacques Philippe:

Sometimes we tend to forbid ourselves some wholesome aspiration, some accomplishment, or legitimate happiness. A subconscious psychological mechanism makes us deny ourselves happiness out of a sense of guilt, or it may come from a false idea of God's will, as if we ought to deprive ourselves systematically of everything good in life.

He continues:

In either case, it has nothing to do with genuine spiritual realism and acceptance of our own limitations. God  sometimes calls us to make sacrifices, but he also sets us free from fears and a false sense of imprisoning guilt. He restores to us the freedom to welcome whatever good and pleasant things he wants to give us in order to encourage us and show us his tenderness.

4. OK, then. Maybe we don't have to seek out sacrifice continually. But surely dancing and feasting are for worldlings and slackers?

No again.

I call to witness St. Teresa of Avila:

She scandalized people when they came upon her teaching the nuns in her convent to dance. When they received a donation of pheasant on a fast day, she instantly cooked them up for all to feast upon. "Let them think what they like," she said. "There is a time for penance, and there is a time for pheasant."

Lent lasts 40 days, but Easter lasts 50. "Gaudete" and "exsultate" are in the imperative mood. They're commands. Like it or not, it's time to rejoice.

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I've been struggling with writer's block lately. Thoughts flit across the landscape of my mind--brief tantalizing glimpses of larger ideas--and then slip away before I can get a grip on them, clothe them with words, pin them onto my screen. One moment, some insight is dazzlingly clear in conversation--but by the time I grab paper or keyboard, it's faded into murky obscurity. 

Times like this challenge not only inspiration and income, but they can challenge identity. We live in a culture, here in North America, where it is routine to start conversations with new aquaintances by asking, "and what do you DO?"--meaning what is your career, your occupation, your daily grind? 

Even vocation and avocation can be reduced to the same terms of careers and usefulness. The artist needs to be creating to be an artist; the priest must be baptizing and burying and saying Mass to be a priest. We are all busily doing, often with an eye to what others see or think of us. 

I think of myself, somewhat timidly, as a writer. But can I be "a writer" if writing is a drag and a slog? Am I still "a writer" when I have dry days, weeks, or months where nothing substantive leaves my desk to wing its way to the world? And if I am not "a writer"--who am I?

If we are tempted to define ourselves by our careers or our productivity, this is probably because there is a seed of truth in this understanding of identity. Who we are and what we do are inextricable from one another because who we are and how we act, what we will, are inextricable.

"The just man justices," Father Hopkins tells us.

"What good is it, my brothers," asks James in his letter, "if someone says he has faith but does not have works?"

Our acting--our doing--stems from and shapes our selves, our being--we are faithful or not, just or not, truthful or not, loving or not, according to whether we strive with our choices to manifest our best, most actualized selves. 

But whether or not I write, in general, has less to do with that sort of identity than does why I write, and what is expressed in my writing. If I think on "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right"---if I set my mind on those things that come from God, in other words--I will write quite differently than if I am full of pettiness, anger, jealousy, or bitterness. 

And if I do not write? Well then, I am not "Kate writing"--but I am still Kate. And whatever it is that Kate is will be expressed in the things I am doing--whether the quotidian tasks of housekeeping and laundry or the pursuit of different expressions of beauty, decorating pysanky or singing with others. I can be "Kate cleaning up vomit" and "Kate walking the dog" and "Kate editing someone else's writing" and "Kate taking a nap," and through it all, I am myself. 

Writing is a good thing (and I need to fulfill my commitments as a writer) but it isn't who I am, even if it is an expression of this particular person in this particular time. We don't lose our selves when we change our occupations; we aren't lessened in essence by the loss of skills or abilities through injury, illness, changing circumstances, or age, any more than my son was less perfectly himself as a baby learning to walk than he is now as a fledgling teenager learning to program and write plays. 

(I mentioned vocation earlier. We Catholics believe that a priest is a priest forever--the priesthood marks a soul in an eternal way. The priest who leaves the ministry and is laicized does not act as a priest, but he is not "un-ordained." The aging priest retains his priesthood even if he is no longer capable of administering the sacraments or acting as a pastor in a ministerial role.)

Personalists sometimes talk about incommunicability--a long word with a simple meaning. It means that none of us is ever able to be completely and perfectly known to another. Our expressions of our selves--our words, our actions, our creations--all fall short of communicating the fullness of our subjectivity. What we do--what we choose to foster and grow through habit and practice--are important, and they do all, taken together, truly reflect something of who we uniquely are. But we are always, always more than what we do on the outside. 

So here I am, writing about what it means that I cannot write. The irony does not escape me!

And as I write, I am "Kate, writing." But when I am called home at the end of my life, whenever that might be, I will not be called before the throne by my occupation, by my accolades or by my accomplishments.

I will be called by name by the One who knows me better than I know myself, the One before whom nothing is incommunicable and in whom no deed offered in love can be lost. 

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The habit of praising and thanking God before asking Him for something used to trouble me. It smacked of insincerity, hypocrisy, and (attempted) manipulation. As if we believed in a Deity who demanded to be placated before deigning to grant us a boon.

Especially in certain denominations, too, there's a time-honored tradition of praying with some very particular linguistic patterns. It's been pointed out that f we talked that way to each other, it would sound something like this:

Mom, I just wanna praise you and thank you for your goodness, for all you do. You're so good to me, I just wanna thank you and praise you, and mom, if you could find it in your heart, mom, to give me twenty dollars to go to the mall with my friend, mom, I would be deeply grateful. Praise you, Mom!

And so on.

The template for prayer, in some circles, seems to be: step one--extravagant, over-emotional flattery; step two--more flattery; step three--once you've softened the Deity up sufficiently--get to the point.

Fundamentalist verbal patterns and buzzwords are easy to make fun of, but what about something more traditional--like the Hail Mary?

Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee (flattery). Blessed art thou amongst women (more flattery), and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus (MORE flattery). Holy Mary, Mother of God (still laying it on thick), pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death (Gimme)

I'm not saying this is the true nature of the Ave Maria! Just that there's a certain superficial similarity there.

You could see the Our Father the same way:

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven (flattery)

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses (now we get to the point)

As we forgive those who trespass against us (this sounds good, but maybe it's just pro forma, to soften up the Giver?)

...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (more gimme)

It may sound silly, but I suspect I'm not the only one who used to labor under this misconception. There are at least a couple of answers to this false dilemma:

  • First of all, asking for something is not necessarily selfish. We're literally commanded to ask for what we need. Petition may be the lowest form of prayer (running fourth behind adoration, contrition and thanksgiving), but it's still prayer. Reluctance to really believe this could be a symptom of a God-as-Boss-Man mentality: imagining that He doesn't take a personal interest in our happiness and needs to be placated or tricked into serving our interests. Asking is an expression of trust, in both the Giver's power to do something about our problems and His desire to do so.
  • Secondly, praising and thanking can, after all, be sincere! It need not be a silly attempt to flatter the Almighty, who would inevitably see through it anyhow. Praising and thanking could even be construed as "selfish"--if that's the word--in the sense that it can strengthen our faith to fix our attention on the way God really is as glorious and powerful as we're making Him out to be. It can help us make our requests with confidence.

But I think the whole problem really stems from a radical misunderstanding of relations among persons. If we see our dealings with God as a transaction instead of a meeting, a communion, among persons--I give Him Quantity X of flattery and he reciprocates with Desired Result Y--then we're missing the point more thoroughly than any hypocrite. It's a competitive, zero-sum way of looking at the whole thing which will never get us to any kind of loving union with God.

Or with anybody else we treat that way, either.


Image credit: Pixabay

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As any addict knows--whether the substance of choice is Oreos or cocaine--the "freedom" to do whatever you feel like doing can turn into slavery faster than you'd ever have imagined. It's not a question of whether that's true, just of how long it takes us to stop squirming and admit it. 

This point has been made before, to say the least. True freedom is not merely the ability to do what you want, whatever that might turn out to be. True freedom, it always turns out, is the power to do what you ought--the power to say no to your appetites--the power to become who you're meant to be--the power to freely choose what is good and true and beautiful, which will end up leading to your happiness in a way that Oreos and cocaine can't rival.

To 21st-century ears, though, this sounds like sleight of hand. Oh, sure, my freedom is precious and valuable,as long as I end up not getting what I want. True freedom means obeying the rules and doing what I don't feel like doing, doing what God tells me to do. If that's freedom, give me slavery.

I'll leave it to others to defend the point. Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Fr. Jacques Philippe do it brilliantly. But there's another kind of true freedom that Christ exemplifies which is easier for people these days to appreciate. 

I don't mean the freedom to control your circumstances. Christ does occasionally makes use of this kind of freedom. Once, when the crowd was trying to stone Him, He "passed through the midst" of them and disappeared unharmed. Another time, when the disciples needed money to pay a tax, He arranged for the coin to appear inside a nearby fish.

These are examples of the kind of freedom that gives you physical control over a situation. Another example is the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. This ability was so easy to appreciate, they tried to make Him King by force. Anybody can see the appeal of this sort of thing, even if they're oblivious to all the foreshadowing, symbolism and Eucharistic imagry.

But He also wields an interior freedom: the ability to resist attempts at psychological or emotional coercion. This kind of freedom made Him immune to attempts at mind games, manipulation, and people trying to "push His buttons." This, if you think about it, is just as appealing to people today as the freedom to walk away unharmed from a murderous mob, or to make food or money appear just when you're hungriest or brokest.

The Scribes and Pharisees try to manipulate Him, attempting to trip Him up on technicalities. He doesn't fall for it, but asks them questions in return that leave them momentarily helpless. The devil tries to work on His physical appetite ("Command that these stones be made bread") or His supposed desire to prove Himself ("If you are the Son of God..."). The bystanders who jeer at Him as He hangs on the Cross do the same thing ("He saved others; He cannot save Himself!" and "If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross!"). But Jesus, because He is free, doesn't take the bait. He can't be manipulated, pressured, or goaded into doing anything at all--not even under threat of torture and death. He's free to do as He chooses.

What He chooses isn't selfish pleasure or His own convenience. What He chooses is death and abandonment. That part is a hard sell, to 21st-century people or anybody else.

But the message we are to take from that is not just "hardship is better than pleasure" or "stop wanting what you want." It's not a pious lesson at all, not a facile "teaching moment"--but the vision of a Person who possesses real, interior freedom, the kind we all wish we had.

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