Why Thomas More?

I am a day late, but to the internet world: happy feast day of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher! I haven’t posted in ages, but I thought the celebration of this blog’s patron would be a good time to come back.

My friends and I drank and feasted mightily last night in memory of this merry man, and the amount of texts, emails, and Facebook posts I received in honor of the feast was touching. I attribute this sudden widespread knowledge of my love for him to my wedding a month ago. A good family friend painted this incredible copy of Holbein’s Thomas More as a gift for us, and its display at the reception caused a lot of people to ask a lot of questions about who the medieval guy was and why he was hanging out next to all the ribbons and pots and pans and gift cards to Bed, Bath & Beyond.

At a certain point during the reception, my cousin Andrew approached and informed me that he had been explaining to people all night why I loved Thomas More. “What did you say?” I asked him, suddenly aware that I wasn’t quite sure how I myself would have answered. “I told them that you admire him for his rational defense of the Catholic Church when it was under attack in Tudor England. And he wrote Utopia.” That sounded pretty good. “How did you know that?” “It’s wikipedia level knowledge.” Staring into the weeds of More scholarship in the past few months of dissertation research can make me lose sight of big picture points, like “why do you love this guy so much?” I thanked Andrew for reminding me.

I think that’s a great summary not only of why I love him, but of why he’s so important these days. G.K. Chesterton famously said that if More was important in his day and age, he wasn’t half so important as he would be in 100 years. We’re coming close to that mark, and I think these crazy times are proving G.K. to be correct. And not simply because there is a crisis of belief nowadays, though this is true. More’s “rational defense” goes beyond Tudor England, and beyond Catholic doctrine; More gives a rational defense of the harmony between faith and reason, which is ultimately a defense of reason itself, which cannot exist without faith of some kind. All knowledge involves some amount of belief, and More takes this truth and hammers it home to its logical conclusion: that the human longing for truth, philosophy, beauty, and peace are fulfilled in Christ alone, Christ in His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I think I fell in love with More because he was just a normal guy who did an awesome job being himself. As a person who never felt called to religious life myself, More inspired me by his faithful living out of the lay vocation. He was a professional and a family man, and I always knew I’d be a married woman one day and I knew I’d do some kind of work. At the beginning of Utopia More writes a letter to Peter Giles about how difficult it was to find time to write in the midst of the busy duties of his life as a lawyer, father, and husband. I was always struck by the passage where he describes the progress of his day in detail, and how, after a busy day outside the house, he would go out of his way make time to attend to the servants, his children, and his wife as important items of business, since these duties are necessary “unless a man wants to be a stranger in his own home.” I don’t think he’s being crass in talking about spending time with his family like it’s a job. More’s careful diligence in these domestic matters is a virtue in its own right. I think we’d have happier families if we imitated that example.

More gave me hope that a person could live radical holiness and integrity without performing marvelous feats or withdrawing from the world. Holiness does not necessarily mean everyone will battle the devil or enter a cloister. More defended the active life as having a status of its own when the Church was coming out of a time that emphasized contemplation as the highest path to perfection. I loved More because he showed me that normal life infused with supernatural motives was an equally viable path to holiness. I loved More because he had a developed concept of the diversity in people’s temperaments, and how different personalities had different talents, virtues, and gifts to offer the Church. There are as many vocations as there are people. There are also many vices to battle. We each have our own, but More is always confidently reminding us that the manly struggle against these faults is the way to heaven. Do you think we’re going to get to heaven on featherbeds? He’d ask his kids. No: you have to work. You have to labor and struggle to win the prize. But there is always hope of victory because God is a “very tender loving father” who is always ready to assist.

There’s a lot that could be said about his delivery of these ideas, and his rhetoric is its own branch of study. His works read with the down-to-earth affability and accessibility of a middle-English C.S. Lewis, and somehow he could make a profound point about the need for good posture in prayer by using ridiculous images of men picking their noses and cleaning out their fingernails in church. He was famous for his humor, and Shakespeare dramatizes this nicely by having the More in his play crack jokes with his head on the block – and this scene is based on truth. What a guy he must have been to have had the fortitude to make wise cracks in the minutes before his death. This could only have been the fruit of years and years and years of deliberate cultivation of that kind of cheery disposition. He seems to have been pretty sanguine by nature, but I wouldn’t bet for a minute that he didn’t have to make a solid effort to maintain that natural buoyancy in troublesome times. None of his jobs were ever easy. Lots of prayer, and a habit of relying on God always – as my dissertation adviser told me in one of my own discouraged moments.

I think I love More most of all, though, because he’s a faithful friend. He spoke often of friendship, and if you spend enough time with him he’ll teach you the art of being a good friend. He’s certainly taught me a lot, and also done a lot for me: he was always my go-to guy in my times of discerning what to major in, whether to go to grad school, whether to go on to a PhD, who to marry, what to write my dissertation on. He’s never failed when I’ve asked him to put in a word for me with the Big Guy, and he seems to insert himself into my life in all the most important moments. Thanks to the generosity of friends, I brought some pebbles from his cell in the Tower of London up to the altar with me when I said my wedding vows. He really wanted to be there in some way, maybe to remind me that love and marriage (as I am finding out) is a kind of death to yourself, but the reward is amazing.

Here’s to you, More. May you teach us something of your faith, fortitude, humor, devotion, creativity, integrity, learning, audacity, kindness, realism, generosity, and cunning in these days when these virtues are so necessary.

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A Scholar, a Saint, and a Nihilist Discuss Suffering

… and they all say the same thing: that suffering draws out all of the best qualities in human persons.

We live in a culture that rejects suffering, and our politics are driven by self-victimization; whoever touts their injuries and makes a compelling case that they have gone through some hardship or oppression is entitled to a special status, often at the expense of others in society. Science and psychology are devoted to the elimination of all discomfort, all shame, all difficulty, anything that may pose a challenge to a comfortable, self-satisfied lifestyle. We love our wounds and we are like children who wish to show off our scrapes to whoever will notice.

At such a strange time in history, I thought it would be interesting to take note of what these three men said at different times about the trials and pains of life.

1. The most familiar:
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

In 1940 C.S. Lewis penned his famous response to “the problem of pain,” the challenge to God’s existence which argued that the presence of suffering and hardship in the world ruled out the possibility of a loving, providential God. In Lewis’ explanation, pain is a testament to God’s mercy insofar as it works as a wakeup call to come back to Him which is impossible to ignore. For Lewis there was no escape from suffering in life, but there could be healing in the realization that pain is a mysterious gift from a loving Father who challenges us to become the best that we can be.

2. The most shocking:
“The discipline of suffering, of great suffering–do you not know that it is this discipline alone which has created every elevation of mankind hitherto? That tension of the soul in misfortune which cultivates its strength, its terror at the sight of great destruction, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, exploiting misfortune, and whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed upon it–has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”

In 1886, 80 years before Lewis grappled with the growing secularization in the modern world, Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated the havoc in the human soul that would follow from the “death of God.” Contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche was not a militant atheist who rejoiced that “God is dead;” although he was not himself a believer, for Nietzsche the death of God was a great misfortune for mankind, whom he understood to have inherent spiritual longings by nature. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche explains that religion is necessary to human flourishing since it causes men and women to strive for greatness; part of that striving includes the acceptance of pain and suffering as a means by which one grows in strength. For Nietzsche suffering was the ultimate educator with the power to lead mankind toward beauty and nobility. Nietzsche realized that no great civilization was built by a people attached to comfort and unwilling to suffer.

3. The most beautiful:

“Such is God’s kindness that even when we are negligent and slumbering on the pillow of our sins, He disturbs us from time to time, shakes us, strikes us, and does His best to wake us up by means of tribulations. But still, even though He thus proves Himself to be most loving even in His anger, most of us in our gross human stupidity misinterpret His action and imagine that such a great benefit is an injury, whereas actually (if we have any sense) we should feel bound to pray frequently and fervently that whenever we wander away from Him He may use blows to drive us back to the right way, even though we are unwilling and struggle against Him.”

In 1535 Sir Thomas More joked his way up the executioner’s block when he was sentenced to death for refusing to speak in favor of Henry VIII’s divorce against his conscience. His famed good humor followed him to the most difficult and frightening moment of his life. Written just weeks before his death, this remark about suffering from The Sadness of Christ sounds similar to Lewis’ argument that pain is the way that God calls to us; More delves deep into the human psychology of pain when he explains that humans imagine suffering to be injurious when in reality, as Nietzsche and Lewis realized, suffering can work for the good of humanity. In this passage, suffering has the power to rouse a drowsy soul from its sleepy, unreflective state, immersed in destructive or lazy habits. It is a reminder of the presence of God that keeps a soul on course and prevents it from drifting aimlessly. In More’s estimation, suffering is a privilege that we ought not only to welcome, but to pray for.

One of the greatest marvels of human persons is our ability to bear and even thrive under difficult circumstances, the ability to live well when things around us are not going well. Strength is interior – it does not depend upon the perfect alignment of social, political, material or other circumstances. What these three men each realized is that when these external circumstances fall into disarray and one feels attacked on all sides, it presents an opportunity for the strongest and noblest interior qualities to emerge.

And just as an added bonus:

There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.”

– Aeschylus, Oresteia, 458 B.C.

Reason and Religious Liberty in the Christmas Season

This Sunday, December 21st, the Satanic Temple of Detroit, Michigan plans to erect a “holiday” display on the Capitol lawn in Lansing. The display features a black cross entwined with a red snake, topped with a goat’s head encircled by a pentagram. A scroll stretches across the statue bearing the inscription: “The greatest gift is knowledge.”  According to the chapter’s leader, Jex Blackmore, the goal is to make citizens and legislators aware of “beliefs that aren’t mainstream,” presumably as a response to the nativity scene which the Capitol plans to install. “We really try to provide rational insight wherever the satanic voice may benefit,” Blackmore told FOX 2 Detroit.

Blackmore’s statement and the cryptic message on the statue’s scroll got me wondering just what kind of rational insight the satanic group had to offer. Unfortunately, their insights sound eerily similar to the kind of  mainstream rhetoric we hear from the media all the time. Blackmore emphasized that legislators ought to “make sure that we’re all aware this is a diverse community we live in,” and that families who gather during the Christmas season ought to be engaging in discussions about these “divergent beliefs.”  “It’s Christmas, it’s holidays, multiple people celebrate this time because we all have work off and it’s a reason to celebrate,” Blackmore told Fox. “Everybody chooses different ways to celebrate. But having one singular view, especially coming from the Capitol, promoting one singular view is extremely narrow-minded.” These claims don’t sound like witchcraft or sinister, demonic dogmas; they hit home with a lot of the language we’re accustomed to today about accepting all lifestyles and all beliefs equally. But just what kind of “knowledge” is this? What are the implications of these “rational insights” the local Satanic Temple has graced us with this Christmas season? What kind of “reason” is Satan concerned with?

One of the most disturbing parts about this demonstration is that it’s being justified under the auspices of “religious freedom” and toleration. While it’s true that the Satanic Temple technically falls under the category of an organized religion, no one with common sense can fail to miss the chilling irony of the way in which an “anti-religion” which is essentially a rebellion against other religions can claim the same rights as a religion to which it is fundamentally opposed. Next week, passersby will be greeted by two demonstrations with substantially different messages and purposes, placed side by side as if they were qualitatively equal. There is something profoundly unreasonable about this. But how are we to judge the situation on the basis of current political discourse?  How do we think of “reason” nowadays?

In trying to figure this out, I couldn’t help but think of the first letter to Wormwood in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. In the letter Uncle Screwtape denounces rational argument as a method of stealing a soul from the “Enemy” (God); reasoning won’t help Wormwood ensnare his “patient’s” soul. Instead, Screwtape advises Wormwood on the basis of some salutary developments in modern thinking which have undermined the possibility of reason: “Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’ or ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.”

As Blackmore witnessed to Fox News, the “jargon” of mainstream American life is based on this dancing about of divergent philosophies, about which it is impossible to make rational judgments because they are thought to exist equally on a spectrum, not a hierarchy of better and worse accordingly as they are good or bad for human life. This way of thinking is opposed to reason (what Screwtape calls “argument”), because it holds no standard on which true “rational insights” can be formed. The modern creed is based on “diversity” as an end in itself; all beliefs and lifestyles are created equal, and it is heresy to claim that any one belief is better or truer than another. But Lewis points to the fundamental problem this presents, which we plainly see in the competing demonstrations in front of the Michigan Capitol: what if some of these beliefs are incompatible or essentially opposed to one another? By what standard are we to judge which belief will win out in the face of this type of fundamental conflict? How are we to know which outcome is good for human life?

Previously it was understood that the answer could be found in reason, that is, the discerning of a standard of Good which allowed the mind to make judgments about better and worse, right and wrong. But we’ve lost faith in this view of reason these days. I allude to the attitude which we commonly call “relativism,” the notion that all ideas are equal and that no one of them is truer than another. But I don’t know if “relativism” is an accurate description of the phenomenon. There is a clear, moral teaching that is part of the liberal dogma of “diversity;” if you dare to question it, you are automatically and unthinkingly labeled as a “bigot,” “narrow-minded,” “on the wrong side of history,” or some other such sweeping turn of phrase that functions as a convenient excuse to avoid rationally confronting the heart of the issue. This is not reasonable; a culture where all ideas and views are perceived as equal has lost faith in reason as the ability to find the way of life which is best for human flourishing.

What are the practical effects of this loss in civil society? Someone’s rights are going to be trampled. In this case, the potency of the Capitol’s traditional Christmas display is undermined and insulted by the presence of a group whose professed aim is to destroy the Christian religion, which is the source of the holiday which eighty-three percent of the country celebrates during this time. To justify this situation on the basis of “religious freedom” is unreasonable.

The point of religious liberty is to protect rights, not to provide a license for every group that calls itself a religion to do as it pleases at the expense of others’ rights.

John Locke was one of the first proponents of religious freedom in his Letter on Toleration, which was written in the context of religious civil wars in England. He published the Letter in 1689 as an attempt to mitigate the violence caused by conflicting beliefs espoused by the state. But “toleration” for Locke did not amount to blind acceptance of all world views as equal; while he firmly asserted that it was not the role of government to be in the business of saving souls, he also wrote that some religions are not to be tolerated if they are bad for human life and civil society. He used violent examples such as child sacrifice to illustrate the point that religious practices qua religious practices cannot be defended purely and simply; some rituals are fundamentally unreasonable, that is, destructive of human life and productive of disorder. The role of the state was to judge, on the basis of reason, whether some religions were intolerable if they promoted the destruction of society or violated the rights of other citizens.

The implication is that there are limits under which the right of “religious freedom” must operate if it is not to descend into a license for any and all practices which remotely qualify as “religious,” regardless of how destructive they may be. So how are we to prevent the right of religious liberty from becoming an anarchic free-for-all? The answer is that the right must be qualified by reason, which asks the fundamental question of what is good for human life. The proclamation that all beliefs are equal, even the “divergent” ones, is not a “rational insight;” it is an invention of modern society which is justified by the liberal jargon which arose in the 1960s; it is a recent phenomenon, a phase, a trend, a fad that will pass in time. And the sooner the better, because any theory that throws out the possibility of discovering which ideas and practices produce disorder and unhappiness in political society is not a theory we should keep around.

In Lewis’ fiction, Screwtape recognizes the salutary effects of reason and does the best he can to keep his “patient” away from it:  “The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s own ground…By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences.” The trouble about our times is that we are preoccupied with things that are immediate and passing; politics is structured around the temporary and shifting demands of different interest groups, and with the loss of faith in reason we can no longer agree on the meaning of universal principles like justice and the common good, by which we can judge which political initiatives are better than others.  Screwtape rejoices in this, because evil rejoices in disorder and confusion.

While America was founded on the basis of religious toleration and the separation of church and state, the Founders did not neglect to include Christian elements and allusions in their founding documents and speeches. While the state did not officially espouse one religion over another, they recognized the salutary effects of promoting the Christian religion which was based on the “laws of nature and nature’s God,” that is, a religion which understood the value of reason and the natural law for human life and the political order. This is why it is appropriate for political offices to honor Christian holidays, and why that honoring is not a breach of the separation of church and state; it’s good for the country to come together under one celebration — based on “one singular view” which Blackmore denounces — because it’s unitive, and that unity is the source of the great joy of living in society. Common opinions about what is good and bad are what hold a country together, and Christmas is the time to celebrate one of the greatest traditions which has held human society together for over two thousand years.

15 Remarkable Likenesses Between Grace and Caffeine

  1. They are both divine gifts. It is a truth universally acknowledged that grace and coffee are God’s two greatest gifts to mankind. Period.
  2. They are both essentially intended to give invaluable assistance. The teleology of both grace and caffeine are one and the same: they are basically functions of divine mercy, intended to give you the mental, physical and spiritual energy you need to continue writing papers and studying for exams when all you want to do is sleep. Just as grace perfects nature by giving it the added bonus of Divine Presence, caffeine perfects your brain by giving it the added bonus of special focus beyond its natural ability. They are both basically super-powers, insofar as grace and coffee are unmerited gifts that transcend the abilities of unassisted human nature.
  3. They both feel good. Warm and fuzzy and consoling.
  4. They both make you popular. Movements of grace in the soul make you want to shout with spontaneous joy in praise of the Lord; movements of caffeine in the bloodstream make you more chatty, witty, eloquent and charming. The first endears you to God; the second endears you to your friends.
  5. They both include the element of surprise. This is part of their essential nature as gifts: just as grace can surprise you at odd times, you can surprise friends by giving them coffee at odd times and absolutely make their day. Or their week. Or their month. Or their life.
  6. They both help you grow in virtue. Just as grace helps you overcome the weaknesses of your nature and mould your soul with good habits, caffeine’s natural addictive qualities help you to build the virtuous habit of drinking coffee every morning, afternoon, and evening. Coffee and virtue are virtually the same thing in this respect. (Yes, that pun was intended.)(This witty moment brought to you by the cup of hazelnut coffee on my desk.)
  7. They both smell really good. Ok, fine, so maybe grace is extra-sensory and you can’t actually smell it. But if you could, you can bet your life it would smell really good. Like hazelnut coffee at 6 in the morning. Mmmm.
  8. They are both a 100% necessary part of your life if you are a student. You can’t survive without them. It’s that simple. You just can’t.
  9. Like really, you’d die without them. Or at least get a bad caffeine headache.
  10. They both give meaning to life. Nature left to itself is incapable of providing man with a purpose for existence. For this reason, we have grace, or the presence of Christ, to give meaning to our lives. And coffee. Thanks to Him, and coffee, we get to spend our lives working to grow closer to Him, which gives value to everything we do. And coffee. Even the smallest tasks which seem meaningless become fruitful and fulfilling with an abundance of grace in the soul, and an abundance of coffee in your mug.
  11. They are both hip. A cup of coffee in your hand instantly ups your coolness factor; grace does the same for your soul. Just like a cup of coffee makes you that much more fabulous while you walk through Central Park with a homemade scarf on, sanctifying grace makes you that much more fabulous while you walk through the Pearly Gates with a homemade halo on (and a cup of coffee in your hand).
  12. They are both loveable. The perfection of the object makes it choiceworthy for its own sake, and a fitting object to which the human soul can conform itself. In other words, Christ is so great that He is necessarily the first Love of the human soul, and coffee helps the human soul to perfect this love in three fundamental ways: 1) by radiating the goodness of Christ in so great a caffeinated gift, 2) by giving you the mental focus to pray well and conform your soul to His presence, and 3) by giving you the energy to perform good and virtuous deeds out of love for Christ. For these reasons, coffee is also loveable. Especially hazelnut, because it tastes the best.
  13. St. Augustine. This august man is known as the Doctor of Grace, and I’m fairly certain he also drank coffee.
  14. Notice the pun in the above item. My wit is on fire, thanks to the hot cup of coffee I recently purchased from the café across campus, and also the movement of grace in my soul as my mind participates in the logos of Christ.
  15. They’re both awesome. Literally. They inspire awe. This merits no further argument, since it is plainly self-evident.

The Heroic Minute

I am an abuser of the snooze button. Waking up is generally the most difficult moment of the day. It’s easy for me to let five-more-minutes turn into an hour, and then when I finally drag myself out of bed, I feel discouraged and conquered. Not only was that extra hour wasted, but that first waking moment began on a note of defeat that has the power to set the tone for the entire day. Out of the thousands of moments in an average day a lot of them go to “waste”, but the first one of the morning seems to have a particular impact. St. Josemaria Escriva calls this moment the “heroic minute,”the “time fixed for getting up without hesitation,” a singular opportunity to strengthen your will. The start of each day presents us with the choice to either give in to the inclination to keep on snoozing, or to conquer an urge that we know we’ll regret later. The choice of that moment affects the entire day; if we start the day by giving in, it’s easy to be defeated again and again in small ways that add up to become the big picture, which can quietly transform your whole life.

But I wonder if the “heroic minute” is simply the first waking moment of the morning, or if any minute of the day has the potential to be heroic. The key to living a full and well-ordered life is in these small moments, because the power to conquer the part of ourselves that inclines to laziness or defeatism is contained in the matter of an instant. Goodness is built upon small habits; the choices we make in singular moments are what shape ourselves a certain way, for better or for worse, and tend to impact the choices that follow. Life is constituted by a series of small moments, and when the small parts function well the whole becomes harmonious, like playing the right notes on a piano. When each of the notes are played well, the whole Sonata sounds beautiful. But the key is in each individual note. This is the heroic minute.

The first minute of the day does have tremendous power to affect what follows; it’s true that the key of a song is established at the beginning. But the “heroic minute” can occur at any point through the day. We tend to think of “heroism” on an epic scale, as if you have to be an Achilles or a George Washington to live up to your fullest human potential. But this kind of heroism requires extraordinary circumstances; the heroism of a moment is within the grasp of everyone with the power to say “no” to himself, even if all that means is making the choice to keep on ploughing through The Federalist Papers instead of browsing facebook. Humans are made for the small things that are the building blocks for greater things. The grandeur of a symphony does not diminish the importance of the individual notes.  Heroism is born of making the effort to be disciplined in the small things, the small minutes of everyday life.

When we conquer in small, heroic minutes, that moment takes on the aspect of a morning — a fresh start, a new beginning, a score of endless possibilities because you have made one step towards conquering your greatest obstacle: yourself.