The Personalist Project

Discussing the conduct of life

It is no ordinary matter we are discussing, Glaucon, but the right conduct of life.

Socrates, The Republic

As I try not to mention too often, I've been working out at a bootcamp called Fit for Christ* for almost a year now. I'm happy about my body going from enemy to ally--but that's what I was aiming at, so it wasn't a total surprise. But four ideas that have helped me go from couch potato to, well, much less of a couch potato, have also helped me in other areas of my life. The connection between body and soul is mysterious but real.

On the chance that these ideas might help you, too, here they are.  I'm grouping them under The Four Sayings of Uncle Larry--that's Larry Lee, sometime circus clown, aerialist and stuntman, now coach to a bunch of well-intentioned neighborhood people in unexotic Hyattsville, Maryland.

1. "Fight for it." 

Sometimes Uncle Larry will tell us to do something truly terrifying, like a set of 8-count burpees or a 2-minute high plank. In the beginning, I'd make a token attempt and fizzle out as soon as things got unpleasant, which was pretty much immediately.

And he'd say: "Fight for it!"

I finally did start fighting for it, and it turned out I could do a burpee.  Eventually I could do a pushup. Later I could do twelve.

And it turns out, when I'm faced with the intellectual or spiritual equivalent of a set of military-style pushups with leg extensions, I can tell myself "Fight for it!"--and it helps. As C. S. Lewis says somewhere, we give up too easily. We imagine temptation is irresistible because we think there are only two choices: give in or suffer forever. We don't know if a temptation might fade away if we kept resisting--because we don't resist long enough to find out. We don't fight for it.

2. "Prove it."

When Uncle Larry's going over ground rules for newcomers, he'll give this speech: "'I can't do a pushup,' you say? OK, but don't just tell me you can't do a pushup. Prove it! Show me you can't do a pushup!" The idea is, instead of cementing yourself in your "limiting belief" that pushups are not a thing you do, you're attempting, maybe, a knees-down pushup, or a half-pushup crowned by a pathetic collapse on the pavement. Each time you do that, you get a little stronger. You might get strong enough to do a real pushup one day. But if you refuse to try, you just stagnate.

This works in the non-physical world, too. Don't just say you can't pray a novena, or write a book, or homeschool a kid--prove it! Try it (unless, of course, there's some genuine reason not to) and see what happens. Go ahead--prove what a loser you are. 

3. "We start together; we finish together."

This one works as follows: There we are, running laps around the parking lot. Some of us are running an eight-minute mile, and some of us are mentally reviewing the symptoms of a heart attack, because we think we might be having one as we pant our way through our nineteen-minute mile. Some of us--this was me last year--are walking, not running, for the first month or so, because we haven't run in thirty years except that one time with our friend Joe, who would smoke AS HE RAN, so it was a little embarrassing to be outrun by Joe.

But when the boot campers who finish sooner are done, they go back to accompany the ones who are still lumbering along. They don't sneer, either: they're sympathetic and encouraging, because they remember how they used to be the ones lumbering along. The fast ones aren't slowed down, and the slow ones get faster (or at least don't feel abandoned). 

This is also transferable to spiritual things. If we study together and worship together and lean on each other through family crises, nobody feels abandoned, and everybody gets a chance to be useful. "It is not good for man to be alone" is still true, even for introverts, even for stubborn people. When Moses lifted up his hands, the Israelites had the best of the battle. That was some dramatic, supernatural aid--but even so, his arms got tired, and his people would have been defeated despite the miracle if his friends hadn't been there holding up his arms.

Let your friends hold up your arms.

4. "I've got a workaround for you."

I don't mean to imply that the power of positive thinking, or the support of fellow sufferers, is a guarantee of success in everything life might throw at you. Sometimes no amount of "fighting for it" or "proving it" or "accompaniment" will make you able to do a certain exercise.  Do you get kicked out of the group? No, Uncle Larry devises a workaround. Maybe you do your pushups on your knees, or you sort of bounce your legs when other people are doing the pushup part of the burpee. You do what you can. You don't stop pushing yourself: you do something, but you don't despair, because, as another Saying of Uncle Larry has it, it's a work in progress.

And this, of course, is a helpful approach for the rest of life, too. You're not a perfectionist if you have high standards; you're a perfectionist if you refuse to do something at all unless you can do it just exactly right. But very few things in life absolutely have to be done one particular way. Resourcefulness, imagination, and a willingness to improvise can take you a lot farther than a purist mindset will. I'm not talking about going mushy on Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. I'm talking about making peace with "close enough" in everyday life while also trying to do better.

So wish me well on my one-year anniversary! And join me sometime in our parking lot.


*Mens sana in corpore sano: ancient Roman saying meaning "healthy mind in a healthy body." Mens sana in corpore whatever: loosely translated--"The mind is what counts, so eat all the bagels you can."

**That's "fit" as in "physically fit," not "fit" as in "deserving of."

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I said in an earlier post that John Paul II and Benedict XVI were, humanly speaking, two of the prime authors and protagonists of the new paradigm in the Church. I have in mind "the turn toward subjectivity" that has characterized modernity and the post-conciliar Church. 

To get this, you have to understand that these two great thinkers, council fathers, and later popes, were not exclusively concerned with preserving doctrine against modernist threats. They were also concerned with and intent on grasping "whatever is true" in modern thought and experience, and incorporating that into the living Tradition of our faith.

I wish I could find the reference now where the Pope Emeritus tells an interviewer that when he looks back at human history what he sees a bright trail of the "magnalia dei"—the great acts of God. John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio that “the call and demands of the Spirit resound in the very events of history.” That general sense suffuses all their writings. 

Sound theology and a fortiori papal teaching is not about documents exclusively. It's even more primarily about experience. (Keep in mind that the fundamental doctrines of our Faith were not given through a text, but by way of concrete events and personal encounters.) It listens receptively and sympathetically to experience, “so the Church can also be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible myster[ies]" of our Faith. (FC)

This openness to experience is not novel in ecclesial history. How was Peter persuaded that gentiles don't need to be circumcised before they're baptized? By studying the law? No. Through experience.

While Peter was still speaking these things,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
should have been poured out on the Gentiles also,
for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.
Then Peter responded,
"Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?"
He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Unless we understand this, we're missing the key. We can't hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church in our day. We won't properly understand Vatican II; we'll have at best a one-sided appreciation of John Paul II, and we will fail to perceive the luminous line of continuity between him and his successors, including especially Pope Francis.

We'll also be obtuse to the need for a new pastoral paradigm. And because of that, many of our efforts toward the new evangelization will backfire. We'll be coming across (despite our best intentions to the contrary) as self-righteous, rigid, and condemnatory, not as helpers and healers and bearer of good news.

I know this needs some explaining. Stick with me while I zoom way out, then back in.

Someone better versed in the history of culture and philosophy than I am might argue that it started with Palestrina and the introduction of counterpoint music. Or you could go farther back in time to the Magna Carta and the Barons of Runnymede with their insistence on the rights of individuals vis a vis the king. There was the invention of the printing press and the spread of literacy, allowing ordinary people to encounter texts, including the Bible, for themselves. The Protestant Reformation and subsequent religious wars were certainly major factors in the development of our understanding of conscience and religious liberty. There was the embarrassing Galileo affair and the Copernican Revolution in science. We had those great medieval saints and defiers-of-overreaching-authority: Joan of Arc and Thomas More. 

The seventeenth century gave us Descartes and his effort to find grounds for rational certainty in the experience of knowing rather than in external authority, plus John Locke and the other thinkers of the Enlightenment. There was the Age of Exploration, the founding of the New World, the beginnings of global trade, the vicious exploitation of indigenous peoples, and slavery. In the 18th century came Kant with his definition of persons as "ends-in-themselves, never to be used as a mere means," which was later adopted and adapted by Wojtyla as "the personalistic norm" of ethics. There was the American Revolution and the practical establishment of the concept of "government of the people, by the people and for the people."

In the 19th century we had Newman with his elaboration of implicit reasoning and the illative sense, plus the abolitionist movement and the beginnings of feminism and evangelical Christianity with its emphasis on personal experience in religion. There was the rise of nationalism against Empire. The papacy was compelled to abandon its temporal power; its teaching authority was formally limited to the areas of faith and morals. We got the music and poetry of the romantics, and the art of the impressionists and expressionists. Suddenly, beside giants like Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, women were writing great literature. Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning...

New things were happening, both good and bad. New discoveries were being made, bringing new problems, new questions, new aspirations. 

You had rationalism and idealism and empiricism and materialism, the industrial revolution and the end of the agriculture-based society. After the cataclysmic destruction of the old order of Christian empires in blood-soaked insanity of World War I, the 20th century gave us "the little way" of St. Therese of Lisieux (a quite radical development in Catholic spirituality), and women's suffrage. Social justice became a matter of concern in papal documents. Totalitarian ideologies made their appearance, and more horrible wars with their countless victims and martyrs. We saw the evil phenomenon of genocide, the collapse of colonialism, the rise of mass media, the "discovery" of the sub-conscious and the founding of psychology, the sexual revolution, the spread of secularism and moral relativism, and then, too—almost smack dab in the middle of the century—the Second Vatican Council, followed by the stupendous papacy of St. John Paul II the Great.

A proper account of it all is a million miles beyond my scope and competence. Here I only mean to indicate that the need for a new paradigm has been a long time coming. It's developed organically over centuries, in disparate places, and across various sectors of human life and culture.

One way to characterize the trajectory and achievement of modernity from a spiritual point of view—the way, I would argue, the Church characterizes it—is to say that we, the heirs and progenitors of Western Civilization, have been gradually waking up to subjectivity. And, as John Crosby puts it in the essay he wrote for our site, "This awakening of human beings to personal existence is an epochal event, a sea-change in the way we understand ourselves." 

The basic story line is nicely captured and illustrated in the musical A Fiddler on the Roof. Pressures from within and without mean that a way of life previously governed by clearly defined social roles, rules and traditions is no longer sustainable. We have to let those go, and find a new way of living and dealing with one another—one that takes due account of the dignity of each person as a person, an absolutely unique and irrepeatable subject.

I warned you I might need the rest of my life to explain. I'll try not to be so slow with the next installment.

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Amid all the ongoing disdain for the Pope in certain conservative circles, a March Gospel reading stood out to me. It's from John 7:40-53. In the preceding verses, controversy is brewing over Jesus' teaching and his healing of a blind man on the Sabbath. The religious leaders of the day resent him and begin plotting against him.

Jesus challenges them:

21 “I did one miracle, and you are all amazed. 22 Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs),you circumcise a boy on the Sabbath. 23 Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath? 24 Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”

Judging correctly evidently means not prioritizing the letter of the law over its spirit. It means grasping and the real thrust and meaning of the law as being for man. The Pharisees were instead using it as a means of controlling others and aggrandizing themselves.

Then Jesus promises that springs of living water will flow within anyone who believes in him.

40 On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”

41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.”

Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? 42 Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” 43 Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. 44 Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.

45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?”

46 “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied.

47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked,51 “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”

Notice that rather than being moved by the testimony of those who have personally experienced Jesus, they're only interested in the law. They show contempt for those who aren't as well-versed in it as they are. They are experts, and they know, as the ignorant crowd doesn't, that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, not Galilee. The crowd, meanwhile, may not really know or care about all that, but they're open to experience, and they recognize that Jesus speaks and acts with divine authority. 

The Pharisees were right that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, but they were wrong in a much deeper and more important sense. Their vaunted expertise backfired on them. Their inner attitude and their attachment to a too-narrow understanding of the law led them to reject Jesus. The unlettered crowd, whose hopes and expectations came from their experience of need and their hope of salvation were in a much better position, spiritually speaking, to recognize Him.

Notice too that this Gospel passage does nothing to suggest that the law isn't important and needn't be fulfilled. On the contrary. The reader relishes the irony of knowing what that Pharisees don't—that Jesus did come from Bethlehem. The law will be fulfilled, but in a way that takes experts in the law by surprise.

It's almost as if the whole thing were arranged by the Holy Spirit to foil the law-obsessed.

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Mother's Day is coming up. As good a time as any to try to get inside the head of Mary, Mother of God.

In an episode that makes many scatterbrained mamas feel just a little better, Mary and Joseph once left the boy Jesus in Jerusalem and didn't notice it until they were well on their way home. As I was just telling my own children (several of whom have been left behind now and then), I'm sure it wasn't that Mary and Joseph forgot all about Him. It's just that some relatives thought he was with others, and those others thought he was with the OTHER others. They didn't forget about Him. They mistakenly assumed He was accounted for; that's all.

Something new struck me this time around, though. When they finally locate Him, and it turns out He's fine--no robbers, no kidnappings, no accidents--He pulls their rejoicing up short with the words, "Did you not know I must be about my Father's business?"

Now, Mary knew who His Father was. It might possibly have felt to Joseph as if He were throwing it up in his face that he wasn't Jesus' "real" father. I think we can safely assume that, even as an almost-teenager, Jesus would have said it kindly, not insultingly.

What I'm wondering is, did Mary, and maybe Joseph, ever sort of forget that Jesus wasn't Joseph's son? It doesn't seem likely, and I'm certainly not buying any claim that Mary didn't really how she'd gotten pregnant. But you know how sometimes you have an unmistakeable, earthshaking spiritual experience, one where God breaks through into your everyday life and gives you some crystal-clear message that you can't possibly doubt is from Him--and then time goes by, and you're changing diapers and filling out insurance paperwork and figuring out what's for supper, and everything's been so very ordinary for so very long--and you start asking yourself: "Did that really happen? Was that even real? I remember it, but it seems like a dream sometimes. I know I thought it was real while it was going on, but now…"

It may be theologically un-kosher to suggest that the Theotokos was subject to this kind of confusion. If you don't have original sin, your intellect isn't darkened. The problem with trying to put yourself in the frame of mind of the immaculately conceived Virgin Mary is that it can't be done. Still, it's so important to remember that she's a real person, not a statue, a silent image, a passive model who has nothing in common with us. 

It's good, then, for us to keep on asking ourselves: What must it have been like? What would I have done? What must she have thought? Her words--"Son, why have you done so to us?"--suggest that maybe being immaculately conceived doesn't make you immune to the kind of worries and inner turmoil the rest of us mamas of 12-year-olds know so well. I don't think that when she says, "Your father and I have been searching for you," it really means that she forgot who Joseph was. He was His father legally, and I have no doubt that he was just as concerned, just as affectionate, as a biological father would have been.

But still: What must it have been like?


Image credit: The Finding in the Temple, by Carl Blonch. Wikimedia Commons.

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The murder-by-vehicle of eight women and two men in Toronto last week has been connected to an internet subculture of "incels"--men who consider themselves victimized by their "involuntary celibacy" and gather in online communities to commiserate and vent their frustrations, even to the point of advocating violence against women. 

As one writer who tracks internet subcultures describes it:

Instead of encouraging them to move on from their disappointments, the incel subculture encourages young men to stew in their own bitterness. Instead of encouraging them to learn from their mistakes, the incel subculture encourages young men to blame “Chad and Stacy”— but especially Stacy — for their lack of love and sex. Instead of encouraging those who need professional help to get it, incel culture tells young men that their problems are unfixable — that they are simply too ugly for anyone to ever love.

It may take an extreme combination of factors to drive a man to the point of mass murder, but what struck me most, reading about this ideology, is how self-victimizing and destructive it is in even its mildest forms. 

Incels complain that women are dishonest when they claim to want "nice guys." They obsess over "alpha" and "beta" status and resent women for ending up with "alphas" or "Chads" while they are consigned to beta status forever.  

It's been pithily observed before that if you're being a "nice guy" because you want women to sleep with you, it might be true that you're not really all that "nice." A friend observed to me that he winces whenever he sees someone comment that men who treat women as equals get more sex, because "that shouldn't be the point."

And he's right. It's shouldn't be about whether or not women want "nice guys."

First of all, individual women want all kinds of things, some healthy and some unhealthy, and there's no one single formula to describe what all women will find attractive in a man.

What can be said is this: men and women who are authentic, who seek genuine connection, who are comfortable with themselves and genuinely interested in other people----those "whole-hearted" men and women who are able to bear the risk of vulnerability for the reward of authenticity and honesty----these people have a better chance of finding fulfillment and meaning in the relationships they do have, romantic or not. 

Yes, it sucks to feel rejected, to have your heart broken. Opening your heart comes with risks, and there are no guarantees. You can do everything right, with the best intentions, and be hurt by someone else's choices.

But being hurt isn't the worst fate. It sucks worse to become so stuck within your own bitterness that you can't even see the people around you except through the distorted lens of your own despair and anger. Heartbreak is lonely, but it is far lonelier to build your heart up into a self-protective fortress with walls built of bitterness and fear. 

Hiding behind our walls, we can lose sight of the wonder of the landscape around us. We are surrounded by marvels. Each man, woman, and child is an entire universe of wonders and potential, of unique experience and unrepeatable perspective. Each person is a new world that can never be plundered to barrenness, a horizon that reveals new vistas even as it retreats towards new skylines of subjectivity.

If you can see that, if you can truly *see* the people you encounter every day, the idea of measuring status or worth by sex or money or accomplishments becomes ridiculous. Whether or not expressing interest in a person ends in a romantic or sexual attachment is beside the point.

The person is the point.

It's not about what being a nice guy gets you. It's about who you become when you stop worrying about what you can get out of every interaction. It's about treating people as persons, and persons as infinitely precious and worthy of wonder....yourself included.

Don't settle for being "nice."

Be whole-hearted. Be open. Be true. Be fearless.

BE, without fear.

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