The Personalist Project

The need for something worth fighting for

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature, and has no chance of being free unless made or kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

John Stuart Mill, The Contest in America

Let me tell you a story.

Years ago, I watched a young friend go through a dramatic few years trying to make things right after getting his casual just-for-fun girlfriend pregnant. With effort, he dissuaded her from aborting their child, offering to single parent if he had to so that his daughter would live. He moved in with his girlfriend during the remainder of the pregnancy with the idea that they could be a family. At first, it seemed like it might work out for them. But the relationship fell apart a few months after their daughter was born. Undaunted, my friend continued to spend every moment he could with his daughter, but as his relationship with his ex deteriorated, that became harder and harder to do. 

For a while, he thought that even if he couldn't be in his daughter's life, he could at least avoid being a deadbeat dad. So he signed up to join the army, and went back to his home state for basic training. Three quarters of the way through training, a previously undiagnosed medical weakness was discovered and he was released. The temptation to stay in his home state, near his family and familiar stomping grounds, must have been pretty strong. But he couldn't pretend he wasn't a father. He wasn't a person of any particular moral convictions except for a strong, midwestern family loyalty. No matter how messed up things get, you don't give up on family. So he headed back south to be as close to his daughter as he could be. The last time I saw him, quite a while ago, he was working two jobs, paying child support, and seeing his daughter every other weekend.  

Never would he have said that he wanted his daughter to grow up without both parents around, amidst division and confusion. It wasn't what he intended when he first hooked up with a cute girl, sowing his wild oats while trying to figure out what he wanted out of life. He didn't realize he was choosing the mother of his daughter with this "not at all serious" relationship. When his girlfriend became pregnant, all he wanted was to make it right, for her and for their child. But in the end, it wasn't something he could make right. 

There are things we can break that we are not able to fix.

I thought of this story yesterday while reading the reactions on FB to this open letter by a friend of mine. Many of the responses were attempts to "fix" the situation described---people talking about how troubled marriages should be solved or abandoned. Monica's marriage was labelled, dissected on the basis of the limited information in the letter, diagnosed, and treatments were prescribed by combox strangers. 

The letter itself, if you read it, doesn't ask for a solution. Monica does not ask to be fixed. She asks only for support from the pulpit and from fellow Catholics, that we walk beside her on this difficult road she is travelling. Monica knows something that I learned watching my young friend those years ago: there are things broken that we cannot fix.

Am I advocating despair? No. But these broken places in people's lives are where Francis's call for compassion and pastoral care is most relevant. For while it is true that we cannot heal one another's every wound, nothing is beyond God. And while we wait for his action, we can and should follow his command by loving one another, even in the broken places. 

It isn't comfortable, to walk with someone and help carry their cross. We'd much rather whittle the cross down to size, or tell our friend helpfully that they need not carry this cross (there's a much more comfortable alternative cross just over there, after all), or shout tips from the sidelines on cross-carrying technique. We don't want to look too closely at the inescapable suffering that faces another for fear that we might learn that living well and truly requires that we also suffer, that we also may someday face a cross that seems too large and too cruel to carry and be asked by Christ to bear it for Him. 

In all the coverage of the synod, there's been a tendency to focus on changes in discipline and implications for doctrine. What is the Church going to do to remove people's crosses? What is she going to teach? But the focus of the synod on the family has to be primarily pastoral, and the perennial pastoral concern is this: to feed the hungry, to console the afflicted, to clothe the naked, to see each person and to love and serve them and the image of Christ within them. As a pastoral document, I expect that whatever guidelines might come from the synod will be concerned with giving pastors the tools, guidance, and tools they might need to best serve families as they are, not cracking down on error or loosening doctrinal teachings to pretend the faith-filled life is easier than it is. 

My young friend's story, his life complicated and enriched and burdened, all in one, by his daughter's birth and the impossible task of making right the circumstances surrounding it, could be used as a neat, pat explanation for why the Church teaches what she does about sexual morality. And that would be true, and possibly helpful for many. But we cannot love the man or the child by holding them up as examples of life gone wrong. Nor can we love Monica by declaiming on what her marriage should and should not be. At the end of the day, Monica still has to face what she and her husband and her children are, in reality, not in the abstract, and choose each moment what best serves them. 

There may be no single right solution, no one "the answer" to these broken hearts and broken families. But there can still be so much that is good in choosing to love and sacrifice even when it cannot make things right; even when there is no easy answer or perfect happy ending to be achieved. 

I borrowed my title from a Waugh novel, but it's a different novel by that author that I am most inspired by. Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite novels, not despite its lack of a conventionally happy ending, but because of it. What is redeemed in Brideshead is not the happiness of the protagonists; nor are they saved from the consequences of their mistakes. Charles and Julia don't get to have the "might-have-been" of a happy ending together. Their sins and errors have had lasting consequences, and there is no way to take them back and try over. Like my friend, the young father, they cannot make things right.

But while their lives and their sins cannot be redeemed, they themselves may be, and are. There is another story underlying the surface, in which all can be perfected. This is a story we cannot write for each other, but may only witness as companions and as friends on the journey.  

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Just a couple quick thoughts:

1. The power of personal presence.

I'm thinking of Newman's emphasis on the role of personal influence in acquiring knowledge: book can convey the special spirit and delicate peculiarities of its subject with that rapidity and certainty which attend on the sympathy of mind with mind, through the eyes, the look, the accent, and the manner, in casual expressions thrown off at the moment... The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already. 

The point is especially true of religious knowledge. Christian truth is transmitted primarily through personal witness.

It is intended for the many not the few... its great instrument, or rather organ, has ever been that which nature prescribes in all education, the personal presence of a teacher... It is the living voice, the breathing form, the expressive countenance, which preaches, which catechises. 

I felt this especially listening to the Pope's address to Congress. In that hall, where stridency and arrogance and mendacity are the norm, it was the gentleness and humility of the Pope's voice and bearing that stood out—reached out—that attracted and evangelized.

It wasn't only in his formal addresses that the Pope's presence had an impact. A New Yorker described his experience of the Pope's visit this way:

I watched the Pope ride down a street in NY with church bells pealing – the tears came – the phone rang – my sister in MD said are you crying? I said yes – she said me too and neither of us knew why – we’re not Catholic. Side by side sat Boehner and Biden – both Catholic – one weeping – one not, in fact in every picture of Boehner standing near the Pope, he weeps…. The next day Boehner announces resignation, like a man who found permission to lay down the weight of the world finally.

Pope Francis embodies the Holy Spirit and when you feel that presence you cannot help it – it’s spontaneous – especially if you’ve been humbled.  You can’t make people more spiritual – only God can do that if the person is willing – if they are just looking for more political correctness, and not looking for God, things won’t change – in any denomination.

Those of us who tend toward books and ideas and words and doctrines can easily forget this dimension of the Pope's efficacy. The Vicar of Christ is not an office, but a person. To be a Christian is even more about Real Presence than it is about true teaching.

2. His themes were all personalist themes. They were, you could say, anti-ideological themes. Look at the person in front of you—the wounded person in front of you, who needs healing, attention, care. Build bridges not walls. Welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted. Don't condemn. (It's not for us to condemn.) Offer love, hope, help.

He is guiding us by word and deed toward a new way of being Christian, which is really the old way, the original way. Stop contending for power. Stop being oppositional. Stop making demands. Don't be like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Instead, open your hearts, show mercy, show humility, put yourselves in service. That's where you'll find Jesus, and joy.

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The Pope is back on the other side of the ocean. The crowd-control fences are gone, the altar dismantled, the traffic patterns back to what passes for normal here in the District of Columbia. The legions of TSA agents are off on some less spectacular assignment.

Even the moon is back to normal.

It’s not that I feel cheated. My husband snagged me a ticket for the Papal Mass, and the clouds cleared away just in time for us to get a good, hard look at the supermoon. (We even found the binoculars before the spectacle was over, a once-in-a-lifetime portent in itself.) 

But now what?

In the aftermath of all the excitement, one question seems obvious: how to hang onto all your good intentions when the euphoria is over? You were touched, or moved, or shaken out of your customary inertia? Fine. And so what? For how long? After all, emotional highs aren't guaranteed to translate into a better character, improved habits. And if no transformation ensues, wasn't it all just an illusion? You're back where you started, but a little more disenchanted, a little more cynical.

The obvious moral of the story seems to be: Distrust the heart. Stick to the solid ground of intellect and will. 

But wait a minute.

Not so fast.

The simplistic assumption is everywhere: as if, on the one hand, you have random, irrational sentiment, floating in the void, and sub-rational animal instincts. On the other, intellect and will: that by which we connect with reality and get things done.

Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote an entire (though short and accessible) book called The Heart about this caricature of affectivity, and he says it better than I do. But affectivity is not given to the human person just to be warily ignored or incessantly overruled. Nor are all affective responses created equal.

Some are physiologically driven and can be traced back to a stray hormone (or some other equivalent of the "undigested bit of beef" which Scrooge blames for the apparition of Marley's Ghost). Others are fleeting sentimental reactions too feeble to affect your action, or even your sentiments, ten minutes after they're felt.  But others are responses of the heart--the center of the person--and shouldn't be dismissed so carelessly.

It seems obvious--but only at first glance--that the affections are uniquely untrustworthy, because, after all, they can be so misleading. How many people have pleaded "love" as an excuse for adultery; how often has manipulating the helpless, or even destroying them, masqueraded as "compassion"?

But is the intellect any more reliable, when it's out of sync with the heart and the will? Intellectuals have committed more than their share of insidious crimes. And the will, in isolation, can be monstrous.

I don't mean to make the human person sound like one of my son's Lego figures, composed of three kinds of parts, with the trick being to get the proportions just right. Bur a realistic view doesn't reduce the heart (or the intellect or the will, for that matter) to a caricature of itself.

So I can understand if some are unmoved (as  the always-worth-reading Max Lindemann describes in "Immune to the Francis Effect"), or suspicious when they see the Vicar of Christ being treated like Taylor Swift. (As Michael Gearson notes, they're the only two for whom the NFL schedule has ever been adjusted). I can understand skepticism at the notion that emotional overload can save the world.

But the danger, post-Francis, is not so much that people will count on an emotional high to deliver more than it can. If this past week took you out of yourself, and made the impossible seem plausible, the question is not whether your affections were touched by his gestures, or your reason inspired by his words, or your will boosted by his example.

It's whether you'll continue to generate a chain of free, personal responses to the reality you've bumped up against.


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For weeks, we on the outskirts of Washington  D.C. have been watching the preparations for Pope Francis' visit to our neighborhood. Fences sprouting everywhere, Secret Service types at every turn, low-flying helicopters. And detours. Lots of detours.

Two days ago, my husband surprised me with a ticket to the Papal Mass and canonization of Bl. Junipero Serra.

And this afternoon, I found myself in an endless line, snaking around blocks and blocks, waiting to get in.

Around me I heard Japanese, French, Italian, lots of Spanish, and even some English. A thin girl, hair streaked pink, was talking earnestly about a late assignment. Salesmen were hawking buttons and t-shirts ("I Heart Papa Francisco," and "Love All People"). Flocks of Dominican sisters strolled cheerfully past, reminding me not at all of the tough Italian nuns who used to shove us out of their way--with surprising strength of  elbow--on their path to Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square. Regal African women in sparkling gowns and turbans rubbed shoulders with sloppy American students. 

No strollers were allowed, and I saw unsung heroes, like the father with a toddler sitting happily on his foot, arms wrapped around his ankle, as he trudged along the sidewalk, over the bridge you had to take into Brookland ("Little Rome") because traffic was prohibited between there and the Shrine.I saw them later. She had migrated to his shoulders. 

A college-age girl was jumping up and down excitedly. "Imma keep my ticket forever. Imma frame it. Can I?"

Another, one of the many who had already risen early to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis on the parade route that morning and then come here to wait hours to get into the Mass, was explaining, "Yeah, you couldn't really see him, he was up high, but he was just blessing everyone, and then he did thumbs up when he passed the disabled section."

There followed a long, long period of waiting for Pope Francis to be installed in his seat. Untill he was settled in, the police wouldn't let us into our sections to be seated. As the sun beat down, I listened to two ladies next to me kvetching about how THEY would have handled the logistics of seating thousands of people and keeping them all happy all afternoon, and how simple it would have been to do it correctly.

One tall man, who could see the Pope better than most of us, would report periodically, "Yeah, he's doin' laps...Yeah, he's still cruisin'..."

Then all at once Pope Francis made a turn and came closer to us, and a gaggle of little kids who had been playing quietly on the grass instantly rose as one, screaming at the top of their lungs, and made a joyful beeline for their Papa.

Eventually the Mass began. He seemed very, very tired--like any almost 80-year-old man with one lung who, on the heels of a trip from Rome to Cuba to Washington, was about to face New York and Philadelphia, one right after the other. But he seemed to gather strength as the Mass went on. My husband was happily surprised. "In Spanish," he noted, "he sounds like a father telling us things we need to know. The couple of times I looked at the screen translation, the words were more pointed, somewhere between remonstrative and accusatory, closer to the former. I like listening to him better than reading him in translation."

I'd heard the Mass was going to be in Spanish. A lot of it was, but I think nearly as much was in Latin. The remainder was mostly in English, along with Korean, Tagalog, Ameican Sign Language, Vietmamese, and Creole. There was also a reading in "the Chochenyo Native American language." A lector with Down Syndrome was also included--the first time I've seen that, but I hope not the last.

And the homily? It brought up by-now familiar themes of not allowing ourselves to be enclosed in our own comfortableness. He urged us not to settle for "placebos," not to let our hearts be "anesthetized." It reminded me of passages I loved when, right after his election to the papacy, I was helping to translate a collection of his homilies and talks. It's a beautiful introduction to themes he's been returning to ever since, patiently, themes which, if we could grasp them and be convinced to live by them, would make us all so much happier. Two years later, he still radiates affectionate hope and patience, not disappointment and frustration, as he gently tries to pound them into our heads.

Home again, I was met by my excited younger kids, who'd watched the Mass live-streamed on the computer.They'd gotten a far better view than I had, and had noticed all kinds of details that had gotten by me.

But I wouldn't have missed it for anything. 

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When Hitler invaded Austria, Dietrich von Hildebrand and his wife had to flee for their lives. For months they lived in Switzerland as refugees, relying for food and shelter on the generosity of the Swiss Catholics who took them in. When a friend later commented that that must have been a difficult time, considering that he had been born and raised in luxury, von Hildebrand responded that he wouldn't trade the beautiful experience of being on the receiving end of Christian charity for any amount of material security.

I had a similar experience today, albeit on a much more modest scale. After Benedict got off to school, Jules and I set out together for a 16-mile bike ride. It's a lovely time of year, and I was looking forward to the exercise. But, having slept very badly two nights running, on a big hill six miles in, I pushed too hard and fell apart. 

I got off my bike and lay in the grass, trying to catch my breath and recover the energy to go on. Jules didn't judge me. He didn't tell me I was being ridiculous. He didn't get annoyed and pressure me to show a little more gumption and willpower. He just waited patiently till I felt ready to get back in the saddle. I told him I might not be able to make it. He said, "Don't worry, I'll push you on the hills." 

The Dutch, who are practically born on bicycles, have this great trick of riding close beside a weaker rider with a hand on her back, propelling her forward by their strength. (I wish I had a picture to show what I mean.) For the rest of the ride, that's what Jules did. Whenever we came to a hill, he drew up beside me and put his hand on my back, boosting my feeble pedaling and making it easy for me to keep going.

During one longish stretch like that, side-by-side, linked by his strong arm, it occurred to me that this was a perfect image of married love, and of love in general.

It was frustrating to be so weak that I couldn't manage 16 miles by myself, but I will always cherish today's ride as one of my very favorites—much more beautiful and rewarding than the longest one I've ever done on my own strength.

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