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Booker Prize Guarantee?

Ambiguity in response to a novel rests with judgments that test values - literary, stylistic and ethical. I read Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning Narrow Road to the Deep North ready to turn away from the page at the shock of his recreation of a WWII Japanese work camp in Burma; but I could not deny the power of the writing. The novel might cover the same territory as the Bridge on the River Kwai, but Flanagan’s account makes tactile the foul degradation and suffering. His characterization takes us into the minds of the Australian prisoners and their Japanese captors, in particular that of the officer Doctor Dorrigo Evans, the Aussie chief, and his counterpart, Captain Nakamura. On the one hand, the novel offers us the mentality of the Captain who can justify working men to death even as he demands they be beaten to insure their compliance; and on the other hand, the mentality of his opponent who encounters such treatment and yet does not collapse, rather finds the strength to accept cruelty, resist with caution, and remain generous. Such focus has little by way of sentimentality. The extremity of the situation is evoked in measured, unadorned prose. Flanagan gives us two men who reveal themselves in acts of self-justification. Each asks: am I a good man? Their answers lay out a moral spread that stretches from assurance to distrust. If a claim can be made for the novel’s stature, it is in its willingness to entertain such moral contrasts. This is fiction that takes us into dark places.
The style of the prison camp sections mimics, in some sense, the effects of extreme suffering. The men are commanded to watch the beating of a fellow prisoner wrongly accused of dereliction – Darky Gardiner is incapable of standing, let alone working, because of his physical weakness and illness. Nevertheless, he must be punished:
 

So they saw, but they did not see; so they heard, but they did not hear; and they knew, they knew it all, but still they tried not to know. At times, though, the prisoners were tricked back into seeing the beating by some novelty, such as a small teak log that the Goanna [the guard] found and threw at Darky Gardiner’s head, or when he thrashed Darky Gardiner’s body with a bamboo pole as thick as his arm, as if the prisoner were a particularly filthy carpet. Blow after blow – on the monster’s face, a monster’s mask.
The prisoners were starving, and increasingly their thoughts were on their evening meal, which, however meagre it was, was still real and still waiting for them; the beating was denying them the pleasure of eating it.

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The numbed passivity, the slowness of their thoughts, and the distraction caused by by their own state in extremis, and their inability to feel shock or sympathy, limp along in the monosyllables and are echoed in the sickening details of the log and the pole. Then there is the metaphor of the filthy carpet – Darky was indeed covered in filth and filthied himself in the course of the beating. We have a shift in reference: who sees Darky as a monster? The guard? Or is it the narrator’s judgment, imposed on the reader? Finally the demands of survival: hunger over any other concern, narrows all consciousness to bodily demands.  This passage is carefully composed and sets itself off for attention. We have analysis and judgment, and a form of estranged compassion. How can the prisoners not respond to the torture of on of their own, and yet how can they? And the victim? How is he not made monstrous, and yet be thoroughly human. 

Given the imprimatur of the Man Booker Prize committee and very favorable reviews, it is difficult to evaluate a novel that treats of such topics as less than a success. Admittedly, as I finished the book, I had some questions about the various plot resolutions, the depiction of the later career of Dorrigo and his chief opponent, and I wondered also about a love story involving Evans and his uncle’s wife – an affair idealized, consuming and yet displaced; no resolution but only frustration. There is an improbable latter day rescue a from Tasmanian bush fire, and there are glancing references to the salvific nature of poetry, both Japanese and English. Yet the weight of the book seemed to tip the scales.

But then I read a corrosive review by Michael Hoffman, critic, academic, poet and translator, that compared the novel’s effect to that of a sham piece of masonry, decorated polystyrene, being dropped on a boat full of tourists from a bridge above. The boaters leap from their craft to escape destruction only to see the “weight” float deridingly away. They reach the shore thoroughly distressed and made uncomfortable – for nothing. Clearly, for Hoffman, Flanagan’s masterwork is all show, lacks gravity and frightens without substance. How can such a review do anything but evoke ambiguity in response to Narrow Road to the Deep North?

Granting that Hofmann’s objections have merit, his judgments, based upon passages he prints and dismisses as  bad writing, are not self-evidently so. Indeed, others have objected that the very passages he cites prove the opposite of his dismissive evaluation. Was the book really such a superficial deception?

In the end, I have to welcome the controversy, if controversy it is. The sharp disagreement has to focus on the act of judgment. We read within a context of expectation. The book is the finalist in a prestigious competition. So many experienced writers and critics have chosen this book among a host of others. Yet the contrarian voice has a salutary effect in demanding a rereading. Do I really admire the passages that I marked as memorable [as above]? Why? Do the mature reflections by the chief character on his life’s judgments carry the weight of responsibility and clarity of purpose? Is he a self-deprecating secular saint? (I am thinking of Graham Green’s Scobie.) or does Flanagan give us a light-weight moral confection?

I certainly have thought and rethought my reactions to the novel in ways that heighten for me the good of differing critical voices. Poetry or literature in general may never make things happen, but the worlds literature evokes push us to understand own sense of value and demand honesty from writer and reader alike.

John Jeremiah Sullivan: An Appreciation

This week, John Jeremiah Sullivan was among the winners of the Windham Campbell Prize alongside Geoff Dyer and Edmund de Waal in the nonfiction category — an honor that comes with $150,000. Sullivan is the Southern editor of the Paris Review, and an all around gem in contemporary literary non-fiction. If you're tempted to despair at the state of that particular genre, Sullivan's work is a counter-argument.

His long-form essays pop up everywhere from GQ, the New York Times Magazine, to the food journal Lucky Peach, and they're never boring or predictable. This owes a lot to his deep research and attention to detail which lets his subjects shine through in all their particular weirdness.

Take, for example, his profile on former star of the reality show The Real World, nicknamed "the Miz." Even only knowing that piece's premise, it is easy to see how Sullivan could have played his subject matter for laughs. "The Miz" is one of a host of reality television stars who make club appearances for a living after their show has aired, but Sullivan doesn't stand apart from the circus and point. The Miz comes across as someone you could have known once. Even more, Sullivan is willing to say more than the obvious about reality television — in all its staged feelings and produced hot-tub scenes — and its appeal, then go ahead and implicate everyone.

And I just get so exhausted with my countrypeople—you know the ones, the ones you run into who are all like, "Oh gosh, reality TV? I've never even seen it. Is it really that interesting?"...To me that's about as noble as being like, "Oh, Nagasaki? I've never even heard of that!" This is us, bros. This is our nation. A people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.

Did I mention he's funny? He's really funny.

I particularly wanted to point out one of his more well-known essays, Upon This Rock, which also originally appeared in GQ. Sullivan goes to a Christian music festival — a curious event in itself — but about halfway into the piece's 11,000 words, we discover that Sullivan was once a creature of that vibrant evangelical subculture. So while the essay describes the bands, the Christian rock industry and its colorful fans, it's about confronting a faith that has died, but still haunts you. "I love Jesus Christ," he admits.

 "...Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can't I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species?

Because once you've known Him as God, it's hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won't slacken.

Sullivan is both faithful to his old faith, and his current disbelief. This might be a strange description of an 11,000 magazine article, but it's full of restraint. Toward the end, he concludes of his new festival-going friends, "They were crazy, and they loved God—and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that love, which I never was capable of. Because knowing it isn't true doesn't mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were."

Theodore Hesburgh, R.I.P.

Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, president of the University of Notre Dame from from 1952 to 1987, giant of the Catholic Church in the United States, died late last night at the age of ninety-seven. Read the Notre Dame announcement here (don't miss the biography and photos), the New York Times obituary here, the Chicago Tribune's, the Washington Post's, and the Observer's.

Fr. Hesburgh wrote precious little for Commonweal over the decades (although he was very much written about). Both of his Commonweal articles appeared in 1961. The first was an excerpt from a talk he gave on American Catholic higher education in the twentieth century. The second was developed (it seems) from that address: "What are we doing to mediate, philosophically and theologically, as only the Catholic higher learning can," Hesburgh asked, "between these various extremes that make up the divided fabric of our society?" It's a queston worth pondering today.

In an interview with the campus paper, Heburgh spoke movingly about his vision for the university he loved:

“I think Notre Dame has to be a tremendous force for good, but it has to do it as an educational institution,” he said, his voice solemn. “We’re not a political party, we’re not a, you know, a bunch of gangsters with a lot of money trying to run things in a bad way. We’re trying our best to create a great country by putting into the mainstream of that country people who are not just knowledgeable, but they’re dedicated and they have high hopes for the future and they’re willing to work hard to be the best. To create the best country on earth.”

My friend Natalia Imperatori-Lee, who did her PhD at Notre Dame (and now teaches theology at Manhattan College) recalled her first enounter with Hesburgh, during her first year in South Bend. It was 2000:

Before I had any idea who he was, Fr. Hesburgh knocked on my carrel door and asked if I would help him say Mass in his office. I followed this old man back through the winding hallways of the library into his office, to a small room with an altar, where he had me do all the readings--including the gospel--and he recited the eucharistic prayers by heart. At the end, we hugged. He never mentioned his name.

Requiescat in pace.

Immutability UPDATES

There has been a lot of fiery rhetoic about Netanyahu's acceptance of an invitation to speak to the U.S. Congress without consultating the White House and Dept. of State. There have been hard questions: Is this the end of the special relationship? How will the U.S. vote the next time an Israeli-related resolution comes before the Security Council? Will U.S. subventions to Israel be cut back? Will the U.S. become even-handed in efforts to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to an agreement? Has the Republican Party become Israel's new best friend? What price will Israel pay if the Prime Minister undermines U.S. efforts to come to an agreement with Iran?

We can't actually know the answers to those questions right now. A lot of everybodies will show up for his speech on March 3, including many Democrats. Netanyahu will get a lot of face time on the news. His speech could derail  the Iran nuclear talks now culminating in Geneva.

Would we be wrong in suspecting that whatever Netanyahu says and whatever happens in Geneva, business will continue as usual?

Susan Rice, head of the National Security Council, called Netanyahu's decision "destructive" of the U.S. Israeli relationship. But then, she went on to say to Charlie Rose, “The point is, we want the relationship between the United States and Israel to be unquestionably strong, immutable, regardless of political seasons in either country, regardless of which party may be in charge in either country. We’ve worked very hard to have that,” she said, “and we will work very hard to maintain that.”

Immutable?

UPDATE: Story in  (2/26) NYTimes.  UPDATE 2: David Brook's column (2/27) provides a mild preview of what Netanyahu is likely to declaim next week. "Converting the Ayatollahs" is an unfortunate headline on the column. A round-up of Israeli objections to Netanyahu's speech (including objections from AIPAC).  UPDATE 3: Paul Pillar offers an analysis of Netanyahu's purposes in derailing negotiations with Iran--and it isn't bombs. Even Jeffrey Goldberg!

Lila Ames, theologian (Lila pp.91-177)

Theology is unique among academic disciplines. Although it is indispensible for a liberal arts education, its proper home has never been in the academy. The ultimate end of theology is reflecting on one’s relationship with God. It’s hard to imagine a chemist outside the lab or a historian outside the archives, but we can very easily imagine a theologian outside the academy. After all, Evagrius Pontus, the fourth century Egyptian monk, says that if you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly you are a theologian. Thomas Aquinas, writing on the Apostles’ Creed, argues that “no one of the philosophers before the coming of Christ could, through his own powers, know God and the means necessary for salvation as well as any old woman since Christ’s coming knows Him through faith.” My two grandmothers taught me more about Catholicism than any of my excellent teachers have. And my grandmothers’ tools were rosary beads and lives of devotion, not the volumes of the Sources Chrétiennes.

Lila Ames is a theologian because she does what every Christian theologian must do: she tries to understand God’s word in Scripture and understand herself and her world in light of revelation.

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Pope Francis offends entire country of Mexico.

On Monday Mexico's foreign minister, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribreña, complained--"with sadness and concern"--that comments recently made by Pope Francis had stigmatzed the Mexican people. The Holy See spokesman was forced to issue a "clarification" of those remarks this morning. So what did Francis say that so wounded the Mexican government?

“Hopefully, we’re in time to avoid ‘Mexicanization,'" the pontiff wrote to an Argentine lawmaker last Saturday. “I’ve been talking with some Mexican bishops, and the situation is terrifying.” Francis was referring to Argentina's drug problem. According to the UN, Argentina is the third largest exporter of cocaine, after Colombia--and Mexico. The Mexican government was so upset that it hauled in the papal ambassafor to air its grief over Francis's remarks. It must have come as quite a shock when the papal ambassador informed the foreign minister that Mexico has a calamitous drug-trafficking problem.

"Gender Theory," Nuclear War, and the Nazis

In Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi's new book Pope Francis: This Economy Kills, Francis condemns "gender theory," likening it to nuclear war and genetic manipulation. Joshua McElwee reports:

[Francis] says that every historical period has "Herods" that "destroy, that plot designs of death, that disfigure the face of man and woman, destroying creation....Let's think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings,....Let's think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.

And in a January 19 press conference, he used "gender theory" as an example of ideological colonization, a tactic, he said, used by the Nazis.

Surely something comparable to BOTH nuclear war AND the Nazis deserves some attention. What is this "gender theory," anyway?

Francis seems to be echoing the concerns of Pope Benedict XVI in his 2012 Christmas address to the Curia:

People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed.

Benedict makes three main complaints:

1. He rejects the disconnection of gender from sex.

2. He complains that it is said to be socially constructed or individually chosen

3. He asserts that duality of male and female is essential to human nature.

According to McElwee, Pope Francis' target is "modern theories that consider people's gender identities to exist along a spectrum," which introduces another concept, that of gender identity.

Here, I'll start with a few definitions, basically to clarify the vocabulary of the debate, with a few comments along the way:

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Our new issue is live

Our March 6 issue is now live on the website. In addition to our three-story package “Clerical Errors: How Are We Training Our Priests?” the issue also features:

Rita Ferrone on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the vernacular for the liturgy, and what we risk by taking it for granted; read all of “Unity, Not Uniformity” here.

Anthony Annett on the importance on Catholic social teaching in steering a careful economic course between individualism and collectivism; read all of “Papal Economics” here.

Robert Cowan on the need to focus on the connection between mass incarceration and disinvestment in public education – and so to help the formerly incarcerated remain in college rather than choose to return to jail. Read all of “Prisoner’s Dilemma” here

Also posted today: E. J. Dionne Jr. on the many quantifiable successes of Obamacare – and why we’re likely to miss it should it be dismantled. And, Fr. Joseph Komonchak continues his daily Lenten reflections on the writings of Augustine; see the Lenten Reflections 2015 page here (and make sure to bookmark it if you haven't). 

Monday Morning Links: Feb. 23

Just a handful of links today:

Today, President Obama will seek an emergency legal stay to halt a Texas judge’s injunction against Obama’s program to defer more than 4 million deportations. Republicans are saying that the White House should not be so confident the injunction can be reversed.  

In related news regarding imminent White House decisions, President Obama is also expected to veto the Republican’s bill for construction of the Keystone pipeline, beginning what the New York Times calls “the veto era of his presidency.”

Greece presents its initial plan for economic reform today, but it’s drawing criticism from the left. 

Birdman picked up four Oscars last night, and Richard Brody at the New Yorker didn’t think much of the proceedings. He also seems to think Wes Anderson is underrated. 

Core Wars, Notre Dame, 2015

It’s no news that “core wars” have become rife at Catholic colleges and universities. As Gonzaga’s Academic Vice President Patricia Killen recently remarked in a paper given at King’s, the core curriculum has become “that project to which multiple and often conflicting desires, passions, hopes, fears, long-standing animosities, and deep commitments, both individual and organizational, cling like iron filings to a magnet.” (Core curriculum = an institution’s general education requirements, which all students must satisfy in some form or another.) The review of the core at Notre Dame, however, has become national news, thanks it seems to alumni rumbling and murmuring, expressed among other places on Twitter.

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“Young People Led the Civil Rights Movement, Not the Adults,” said Claudette Colvin

On March 2, 1955, 15 year-old Claudette Colvin, was riding a Montgomery Alabama bus and was told by the bus driver to give up her seat for a white woman.

Colvin had just come from class and was studying Negro History month.  She and her classmates had been studying figures Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.  And they were also talking about all the contemporary injustices of the Jim Crow Laws. 

When the driver ordered her to give up her seat, she said, she could feel Tubman on one side, Truth on the other, pressing her down so that she could not stand up.   She told the driver that she had paid her fare like everyone else and that it was her constitutional right to be treated equally.

She was handcuffed by two police officers, arrested, and put in jail.  And unlike any other woman who had refused to give up her seat, Colvin was the first to challenge the law, as one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery Alabama.

That was 9 months before Rosa Parks’ famous protest. 

Colvin says, Negro leaders felt safer with an adult like Parks, than a teenager like Colvin.  They may have had their reasons, but when she told the story at Boston College last Thursday, February 19, she added, “The young people led the civil rights movement, not the adults.”

After she said those words, we began thinking of those who sat at the lunch counters, those who first entered the white schools, those who travelled to Selma, and those who marched.  Her words rung true and prophetic, again, sixty years later.

Jesus in the wilderness. A video

In preparation for tomorrow's Gospel, and in hopeful support of our own forty days... Sent to me by a friend.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-6a25Yo2wE&feature=em-share_video_user

Rudy Giuliani and his upbringing

I think that what most disturbs me about Rudolph Giuliani’s  now-controversial remark that he doesn’t believe President Obama “loves America” is his comment on how his upbringing differs from Obama’s.

Giuliani had this to say at a fundraiser Wednesday for Wisconsin Gov. Scottt Walker:

“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

What makes me cringe is that I suspect Giuliani is referring in some measure to his Catholic upbringing. From the time I met him in 1983 as a young AP reporter covering him on the Manhattan federal court beat, I’ve observed how that upbringing was a part of him. 

 

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Pope Francis: Married priests "on my agenda"--"reform of the reform" not so much.

This week, during the bishop of Rome's annual meeting with his priests, Francis delivered a talk on homiletics, after which he took questions. A couple of his responses raised eyebrows. First the pope announced that the question of married priests "is on my agenda." Asked whether priests who married could receive a dispensation to celebrate Mass, Francis said that the Congregation for Clergy is looking into it, but that "it is a problem that does not have an easy solution." Pope Francis's openness to a married clergy is not in itself big news. Before he was elected pope, he acknowledged that clerical celibacy is matter of tradition, not a doctrine: "It can change." And last May Francis gave a bishop the impression that he was open to changing that tradition. Just a few months ago, the Vatican finally relaxed the rule barring Eastern Rite bishops from ordaining married men who minister outside their native countries. So it's not terribly surprising that he would say the issue is on his agenda.

What did surprise was Pope Francis's comments on the Latin Mass--or, as it was known after Benedict XVI approved its wider use in 2007, the Extraordinary Form. Francis called that decision "a couragous hand to Lefebvrists and traditionalists"--neither of whom seem terribly taken with Benedict's successor. Zenit reports:

The Pope noted that there are priests and bishops who speak of a "reform of the reform." Some of them are "saints" and speak "in good faith." But this "is mistaken", the Holy Father said. He then referred to the case of some bishops who accepted "traditionalist" seminarians who were kicked out of other dioceses, without finding out information on them, because "they presented themselves very well, very devout." They were then ordained, but these were later revealed to have "psychological and moral problems."

The so-called reform of the reform was, of course, one of Benedict's signature issues. American reformers of the reform were delighted when Benedict dispensed with the English translation of the Roman Missal and in 2011 forced the U.S. church to accept a new version--one that slavishly adheres to the original Latin--that its priests still haven't warmed to.

Naturally, traditionalists are not pleased with Pope Francis's reported criticism of the "reform of the reform," not that many of them could have been surprised. He's the first pope whose ordination followed Vatican II--and his liturgical preferences show it. These comments only confirm what had been obvious since his election: Pope Francis is not terribly interested in the pet issues of liturgical traditionalists. But what he said about the "psychological and moral problems" of some traditionalist seminarians really struck a nerve.

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A journalist's sacred duty

When I first heard that NBC's Brian Williams had embellished his Iraq war reminiscences, falsely claiming that a chopper he was in had been hit by rocket fire, I thought instantly of Mike Valentine, a Vietnam War veteran diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Mike was the subject of a profile I wrote for a daily newspaper in 1999 to mark Veteran's Day, and because he was brutally frank about his disillusionment with that war, it was more of a downer than most. I worked hard to do him justice, and expected he would be pleased with the result.

Instead, Mike was furious, because I had gotten one detail wrong about his war service. It was a minor error, in my view, and in no way embellished his combat role. But Mike feared that someone who was there would read the story and think he had lied. That, to him, would be unbearable. "You don't understand," he kept saying to me, how crucial it is to get everything exactly right about combat, regardless of how insignificant it might seem. Trust is everything for soldiers, he said, even long after the war is over.

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Elsewhere

At the Atlantic, Leon Wieseltier writes about the predicament of French Jews and the contradictions of French laïcité:

“Islam is the second religion of France,” Manuel Valls, the prime minister, declared in the aftermath of the recent massacres, which have made a grave crisis out of the French incompetence with otherness. “It all has its place in France.” [...] The problem is that pieties about diversity are an inadequate response to intercommunal violence. When members of one patch of the quilt murder members of another patch of the quilt, it will not suffice to invoke the splendors of quiltness. Instead, the harsh realities of tolerance must be faced.

I say harsh because a tolerant society is a society in which feelings are regularly bruised and faiths are regularly outraged. The integrity of the otherwise puerile and disagreeable Charlie Hebdo is owed to the range of its impudence: It insults everybody, and in this way it is respectful in its disrespect. Umbrage is one of the telltale signs of an open society. One can always respond in kind: The offended may offend the offending. (An AK-47, by contrast, is not an acceptable instrument of literary criticism.) Too many Muslims—not all, not all, not all—wish to be granted tolerance but do not wish to grant it. They do not see that blasphemy is the price one pays for the freedom to practice and to propound one’s religion. Blasphemy is freedom’s tax. The important thing is that the tax be imposed fairly—which is why the French government makes a serious mistake, philosophically and politically, when it seeks to criminalize speech that offends the Jews of France. Last summer, in a piece called “France Is Not an Anti-Semitic Nation” in The New York Times, Laurent Fabius, the French minister of foreign affairs, and Bernard Cazeneuve, the French minister of the interior, attempted to reassure the Jews of France that “we are using the full extent of French laws that prohibit all forms of anti-Semitic expression and Holocaust denial.” This is a violation of the liberal order that the French government otherwise staunchly defends. The history of anti-Semitic incitement in modern Europe may appear to justify the regulation of opinion by law and government, but censorship only intensifies and embitters prejudice.

In the New York Times, Oliver Sachs, who was diagnosed a few weeks ago with terminal cancer, writes about how the news of his impending death has changed his outlook:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

At First Things, a poem by Les Murray, "Jesus Was a Healer"—too short to quote from, too good to miss.

That's so disgusting!

Recently in discussion about GMO (genetically modified foods), a friend wondered what were the real objections  to eating things that have been altered by science. After all, practically everything we eat has had some scientific "improvement," pasteurization, refrigerations, etc. But if I had to choose between two packages of cranberries, one marked GMO and one marked the bogs of Massachusetts, I'd go for the purity of bog-produced. 

What is my issue? Well...if the GMO brand is Monsanto, it raises the red flag of corporate greed. And then, if the GMO is more expensive, why pay more? And then, who knows what's in those genes? The list is endless.

The subject arises from a photo of Bill Gates drinking a glass of water produced from sewage, including from toilets. Bill declares the water great. Would I drink it? Hmmm. Fortunately living in NYC, with multiple resevoirs of "fresh" water, I might never have to choose. But others will.

The subject is taken up in a blog post at the New Yorker, "Problems too Disgusting to Solve." It analyzes the various degrees of repugnance we could have to drinking Bill Gates's water, insects, chocolate candy shaped like poop, and other disgusting and "unnatural" stuff. The article could be a test of your own degree of repugnance to potential food/drink items. Would you eat something with a dead, sterilized cockroach in it for your protein? For lent? It's a fun article.

The author, a psychologist, attributes this repugnance to the sense of disgust we develop around the age of four (when most of us learn there are many things we should not put in our mouths). One drawback: the author believes in rational and scientific proof for things and fails to consider the errors and unintended consequences of scientific advances. Who could doubt that Bill Gates's water will produce an epidemic of horrible diseases because of the sub-microl pathogens that get throught the "Omniprocesser" that took toilet water and produced a glass of water in five minutes? Disgusting!!

 

"Fasting is not enough"

Some things to consider doing for Lent:

Do something positive–not just giving up things (yet another attempt to lose weight!): (Augustine: “Fasting is not enough”). The money you save by what you give up should go to the poor.

getting in touch with people (relatives, friends)

a letter
a phone call
a visit

visiting the sick, the elderly, the lonely

repairing a broken relationship–take the initiative

asking for forgiveness
bestowing forgiveness

volunteering in your community, in schools (e.g., remedial help), in church

giving more time to your family, your children, your spouse
(E.g., less TV so you have more time for each other)

making “quality-time” for God (not just the scraps of the day)

for private prayer–could you spare 15 minutes? Maybe before you get into your day?

for daily Mass

for reading that enlightens and strengthens your faith (Do you have an adult knowledge & appreciation of your faith? Or do you remain where your religious education–how many decades ago?–left you?)

Lenten Reflections, New Stories

Today we're proud to begin featuring Joseph A. Komonchak's 2015 Lenten Reflections, which you can find on the website at this dedicated page. Now through Easter, a new reflection will be posted daily, so please make sure to bookmark this special page for easy reading. You can also access the Lenten Reflections page from anywhere on the Commonweal site (including dotCommonweal) by clicking on the Lenten Reflections 2015 link in the blue “Trending Topics” bar at the top left of the page.

Also now featured: The editors on Greece’s debt and the need for the European Union to negotiate more reasonable terms, especially in light of Greece’s recent election of a party opposed to harsh austerity measures; read all of “Let Greece Breathe” here. And, Gordon Marino offers a take on the recent travails of NBC anchorman Brian Williams: Was he in search of his “red badge of courage”? Read it all here

Lent and Inconvenient Truths

Francis’ impending environment encyclical will be the Church event of the summer, but as we arrive at the Lenten season, taking stock of our own lives and choices seems timely. Our culture’s imbalances must be addressed at a systemic level… but that systemic change can’t happen without what Benedict called “a serious review of its lifestyle” that “is prone to hedonism and consumerism…. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 51). While Lenten carbon fasting doesn’t get us to sustainability any more than fasting from food gets us to health, attempts to seriously cut down the key aspects of our carbon use remind us of our preoccupation with comfort. Lower the thermostat a few degrees, and we walk around the house chilly. Forego driving, and the 5-minute trip to the store becomes a 20-minute walk – and you’re cold, too. Give up that Florida getaway vacation, and the winter seems that much longer. But the sum of all these things we take for granted is what adds up to climate change, day after day, year after year. We can’t blame anything (or anyone) else.

In this regard, Bill Patenaude is an important and powerful voice: an environmental regulator by trade, he runs the blog Catholicecology.net, and unfailingly provides serious, in-depth, knowledgeable writing for Catholic environmentalism. He has a wonderful piece on Pope Francis’ Lenten Reflection, a striking intervention in the debate between Robert George and Michael Sean Winters over the forthcoming encyclical, and a powerful piece on the link between pious spiritual practices and the environment. Most recently, he has a lengthy post on “lessons for Lent” that intervenes between Maureen Fiedler – who is impatient for Francis to change teaching on contraception in order for the environmental message to be heard – and Maureen Mullarkey – who in First Things raised the level of hostility toward a sitting Pontiff to a shocking level, accusing Francis of being an “ideologue” and an “egotist.” Patenaude writes:

 This bickering from both perspectives must please our ancient enemy, who relishes it when people don’t see what they share. In this case, the Fiedlers and Mullarkeys of the world do share an urgent call—whether in regards to our duty to protect the planet or to protect people. They both call our attention to the more fundamental duty of sacrificial self-restraint in all areas of our lives. And at all times. 

Patenaude’s piece includes extensive commentary from Fordham’s Christiana Peppard and Charles Camosy, both of whom caution against any hasty connection between overpopulation and climate concern. Patenaude also quotes Tobias Winright: “The immediate problem seems more to do with quality of life (overconsumption that disproportionately harms the environment) rather than quantity of lives, although at some point these may intersect.” Peppard puts it in her typically striking way: “Our population problem is that we are overconsumers…. [F]oisting blame onto other bodies—without gazing hard at how our own consumptive habits create environmental problems like scarcity—can be tantamount to yet another form of neocolonialism.”

One may or may not agree with some of Patenaude’s commitments, but he is worth reading and engaging for three reasons: (1) He’s clearly no free-market libertarian, (love Matt Boudway’s recent piece calling out many conservatives for game-playing in trying to avoid this label) (2) he is not dodging the lifestyle issues associated with genuine environmental commitment, and (3) he is probably working out the position that we are likely to see in Francis’s forthcoming encyclical. This makes his commentary inconvenient, just as Francis is making himself inconvenient to American Catholics across the spectrum. But precisely this sort of commentary is the sort that destabilizes us from our sometimes-self-righteous sense that it is only others who are in need of conversion. What can sacrificial self-restraint look like for us? A good question for the start of Lent.