I am certainly not the first one to make note of the fact that the Sequence, Dies Irae, for All Souls’ Day appears to have made a profound and far ranging contribution to American Culture.
From blockbusters likeStar Wars to Lion King to It’s a Wonderful Life to The Hobbit to Jurassic Park to Ground Hog Day and to who knows how many other movie sound tracks, the sublimely doleful tune, reminiscent of the last things, has touched untold millions.
Of course, the musical “quotations” or allusions, sometimes subtle sometimes obvious, are only recognizable to those with a passing familiarity of the original; nonetheless the presence of the chant in these movies makes them all the more substantive and powerful.
Now, I am certain there are others who are able to make a solid case for the influence of Gregorian chant in western civilization. Students at conservatories and music schools everywhere are taught the significance of the Solfege Scale and the significance of Gregorian chant in the foundations of the music of western civilization. I am not the one to make this case with the compelling clarity that it deserves.
Nor do I intend to make any attempt to launch a more scholarly treatise manifesting the enormous impact that Gregorian chant had on the great musicians of the Renaissance, like William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. I will not attempt to trace the influence of chant in the music of the Baroque period, in the music of, say, Bach and Mozart. Such an attempt far exceeds the level of my musical literacy. That Gregorian chant is foundational in western music, and is therefore foundational in the consciousness (perhaps subconsciousness) of the western mind, is, nonetheless, indubitable.
The task of demonstrating the profound impact that Gregorian chant has had on civilization is far, far above my power!
But isn’t it interesting how the timeless strains of a melody composed by some anonymous Catholic monk in the thirteenth century is still used to stir the minds and hearts of those in the twenty- first?
I will simply suggest the truth of my thesis based on the first four notes of the Dies Irae, and rely on the compelling case it has made in It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey makes his ultimate choice on that bridge!
Or perhaps my point is really about the principles of western civilization. Sometimes enormous things arise out of very small beginnings. Think of the oak! Likewise, think of the relative simplicity of the eight notes of the Solfege Scale (i.e. the Do Re Mi Scale) and the mere four notes that begin the Dies Irae.
Just so, the principles of Christian civilization arise out of relatively few principles: twelve articles of faith and two laws of charity.
Or perhaps we might say that Christian western civilization arises out of the contemplation of the four last things; when we remember death, judgement, heaven or hell. Civilization arises from the “memento mori.”
Catholic civilization is the basis for all civilization and even four simple notes surely inspired by the grace of God are able to give us a glimpse of the transformative power of His grace in our world.
As an organist and choir director, I am inclined to argue that the sacred music of the Catholic church is a “treasure of inestimable value.” And as the first four notes of Dies Irae demonstrate by their universal appeal, so the entire treasury of Catholic sacred music is a gift of inestimable value to the entire human race.
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
Now I think most people are familiar with the first two thirds of this injunction- we should love God with our whole heart and soul. The phrase ‘heart and soul’ is fairly common. We often hear of someone who “put his whole heart and soul” into some enterprise.
When we put our heart and soul into a project we devote our energy and enthusiasm to it. We commit ourselves to the success of the project ‘holding nothing back’. We are fully invested. We are “all in.” Think of a serious athlete preparing for a major competition. Think of the entrepreneur launching his first business.
Those who do something ‘halfheartedly’ by contrast are clearly not marked for success; the ‘halfhearted’ denotes a person who does something with a lukewarm effort, with tepid enthusiasm at best for seeing the work done- like an Algebra II student approaching another homework assignment!
And so Our Lord advises us that, should we wish to win an everlasting crown, we need to engage in the task whole heartedly!
But if we have already engaged our whole heart and soul in some enterprise, what more does the phrase ‘with the whole mind’ add? What could be lacking in the effort of one who has already invested his heart and soul?’
One church father, who apparently is not St. John Chrysostom, but whom we call “Pseudo Chrysostom” interpreted our Lord thus:
But to love God with the whole heart, is to have the heart inclined to the love of no one thing more than of God. To love God again with the whole soul is to have the mind stayed upon the truth, and to be firm in the faith…. He only loves God with his whole mind, whose intellect ministers to God, whose wisdom is employed about God, whose thoughts travail in the things of God…
I think Pseudo Chrysostom, whoever he is, has hit the nail on the head. The one who loves God with his whole mind is the one whose intellect ministers to God.
But how are we to do this? How do we develop minds that minister to God?
Well, I think the answer is clear, but rather than say it outright, it is probably better to “talk it up” a little. One should never just blurt out answers! And so we need to ask a few questions.
First, what does it mean to have a mind that ministers to God?
Central to the business of the mind is knowing. That is to say, that the mind’s main work is ‘to know.’ So I think it is safe to say that that the mind which is able to minister to God is the mind which is able to know God.
Now you might say,
Well that’s easy because every mind is able to know God!
That’s true, but only in the sense that every mind is able to do calculus. Or that every child can play the violin. In other words, there is ‘able’ and there is ABLE.
For example, everyone (who can read) is able to read St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. But in point of fact, the reason St. Thomas’ masterwork about the knowledge of God is so universally neglected is that the mere ability to read does not mean that everyone can read this work, that is, with any understanding.
Even though St. Thomas himself introduces this work saying,
we purpose in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners
….. sadly the beginners he is speaking about happen to be those who have already completed a complete course of study in Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Music.
And after the student has completed his study of the seven liberal arts, St Thomas is assuming that his ‘beginners’ have also completed a thorough study of the central works of Aristotle.
And of course these beginners, who are ready to read the Summa Theologica, have more than a passing knowledge of Plato’s Dialogues (well…at least the most popular of them!)
…and a pretty decent working knowledge of the works of Saint Augustine. (e.g. Confessions, On Christian Doctrine, City of God, etc.)
Having the liberal arts, the works of Aristotle and Plato and Augustine under one’s belt, so to speak, really does give one an advantage for reading the Summa Theologica. But let’s not forget the study of Latin (and maybe even just a little Greek!). After all, how can one really attempt to study the Summa Theologica seriously without at least a passing knowledge of Latin.
Sure- it would be great to be able to read the Summa in Latin with facility. But I only mean that a student ought to be able to at least check this or that text in the original, simply for clarity about what Latin words are being used. Often the precise word used in translation may cause an impediment.
Furthermore, nobody can seriously read the Summa Theologica who has not at least cursorily read the Bible from cover to cover at least once. Scripture is the “soul” of Theology as the church has affirmed more than once.
Of course the ability to read and study all of these assumed a prior study in a student’s younger years of what we might call all the “good books.” These good books are the books that were pivotal in developing a student’s ability to read in the first place. The books that stocked his intellect with a rich and memorable storehouse of experience, stuffed his imagination with a plentiful resource of good and beautiful images, enlarged his vocabulary, developed his focus and extended his intellectual resources.
We will not even mention how a large experience of the fine arts disposes the mind of the student towards the knowledge of God. But St. Thomas is not excluding the ‘habit of beauty’ in his assumptions concerning the ‘beginner’ for whom he wrote his Summa.
So what does it mean when we are commanded to love God with all our minds?
It means that we need to engage in a lifetime of learning in which we study every aspect of God’s creation, every science, every art, every discipline so that we can discover the God who is the cause of all His manifold and wonderful works.
To love God with all our mind entails a lifetime application of our greatest resource, our intellect, in a tireless attempt to know the invisible things of God through the visible things of the natural world.
He only loves God with his whole mind…whose wisdom is employed about God, whose thoughts travail in the things of God…
For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.
We certainly do not want to confront St. Paul one day and see him wagging his finger at us and saying, “You are inexcusable.”
Who are inexcusable?
Those are inexcusable who fail to live life ministering their minds to God. They are inexcusable who bend their mental and intellectual efforts towards ‘knowing’ this or that aspect of the natural world but somehow miss the “invisible things of Him” that “are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.”
Those also are inexcusable who have never respected the ultimate purpose of their minds but have only employed it for the sake of utility- that is, those who have refused to engage their mind in anything but the pragmatic.
To put it bluntly: When our Lord enunciates the greatest commandment, saying
you shall love the Lord, your God…and with all your mind
He might as well have said,
in order to love God with your whole mind, you need to know God. In order to know God you need to know the visible things of the world through which God is clearly seen. In order to know the visible world, you need to engage in a lifetime orderly pursuit of this knowledge…
To me it is obvious what this all means. It means that everyone should pursue a liberal education. Everyone should pursue a Catholic classical education to the extent that it is possible. Everyone should desire to educate one’s children with a Catholic liberal education or run the risk of meeting St. Paul one day who will say to those who do not follow this advice, “You are inexcusable.”
Sure, many of us might have been cheated out of a Catholic liberal education when we were young. But, thankfully, liberal education is never a project that becomes too late to undertake.
A classical liberal education has always been thought to be the education which is concerned with knowing the world around us for the sake of ultimately knowing God. That is to say, it has always been a tenet of liberal education that every field of knowledge, every art, every science, every discipline is ultimately ordered to the knowledge of God.
This simple truth is what St. Thomas Aquinas proposed when he taught that Sacred Doctrine is the’ Queen of the sciences.’ In his Summa Theologica he writes,
Other sciences are called the handmaidens of this one: “Wisdom sent her maids to invite to the tower” (Proverbs 9:3).
Theology, or Sacred Doctrine, has always been considered the ‘head’ or ultimate goal of the curriculum at a Catholic school, college, or university. Not that every student at such a school is meant to be a theologian formally speaking, but rather that every study, every intellectual pursuit, granting its usefulness and nobility considered by itself, is nonetheless something that finds its highest fulfilment in serving sacred doctrine and preparing the mind of man for the knowledge of God.
And so we have arrived at our thesis which is quite simply, it is only by a Catholic liberal education, or a Catholic classical education, that a person is able to render his whole mind to the service of God.
No matter what ails the nation, turmoil in the inner city, conflagrations, and riots, anxiety over the upcoming election, fears rational and irrational, nonetheless, along with the season of fall there arrives the insuppressible feeling of a new academic year!
Almost akin to the instinct that irresistibly directs the feelings and actions of our friends in the animal world, the instinct that the Catholic French entomologist and scientist par excellence, Jean Henri Fabre, so eloquently and compellingly observed and wrote about,
so too does an instinct, a yearning for learning arise in teachers and students and parents and just about everyone who ever went to school during early youth and perhaps even through college and graduate school!
This is the time of year when even those who no longer attend school still might saunter through the back-to-school aisles at the local store eyeing the three-ringed binders and composition books, perhaps grabbing a pack of new gel pens (with the rubber grips!) or mechanical pencils. Such is the power of that instinctual feeling of the season.
Aristotle, of course, explains all of this aptly when he says “All men by nature desire to know.” I don’t know that he made a mint off the proposition but Walmart and Target sure did. There is no surer way to a profit than basing one’s business plan on the most fundamental of human desires. Interestingly, teachers at classical schools appear to be at the tail end of the profit trail. But that’s probably as it should be since no teacher worthy of the name should be teaching for the sake of profit- at least profit in the green sense of the word.
But the point is that no matter what world upheavals might be taking place, no matter what kind of cataclysmic events, whatever is the crisis du jour, the task of education will go on. This is most undoubtedly the case because life itself is ordered to the knowledge of the truth.
Pope Pius XI quoted St. Thomas Aquinas to this effect,
Prius vita quam doctrina: vita enim ducit ad scientiam veritatis.
which I translate freely,
Life is first, then doctrine (teaching): for life leads to the knowledge of the truth.
In Studiorum Ducem Pius XI quotes his predecessor John XXII in perhaps the single most astoundingly powerful tributes to the mind of St Thomas:
He alone enlightened the Church more than all other doctors; a man can derive more profit in a year from his books than from pondering all his life the teaching of others.
Imagine that! Of course, Pius XI attributes this remarkable fact to the great humility of Aquinas, citing Leo XIII’s praise for him in Aeterni Patris:
because he had the utmost reverence for the doctors of antiquity, he seems to have inherited in a way the intellect of all.
The fact that Pius XI’s reign was between the two World Wars and the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and the persecution of the church, particularly in Mexico and Spain, accentuates how significant Catholic education was to him; how essential Christian education was to the life of the church and of the world.
Indeed, his last speech consisted of an address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences (which he established) speaking, from no prepared text, on the relation between faith and reason.
Pius XI was indeed a teacher’s pope. And such was his respect for the profession of the teacher that he quotes the fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, St. Gregory Nazianzen, when he says that teachers practice, “the art of arts and the science of sciences.”
Here is how Pius XI said it in Divini Illius Magistri,
All these [teachers] labor unselfishly with zeal and perseverance in what St. Gregory Nazianzen calls “the art of arts and the science of sciences,” the direction and formation of youth. Of them also it may be said in the words of the divine Master: “The harvest indeed is great, but the laborers few.”
Life is ordered to the possession of the truth, which is to say that life is ordered to Christ, who is the Truth.
And the art or the science that brings about this possession would therefore be the chief art, or the chief science. The art by which human beings are united with the truth would be the art of arts. What science, what art could then be more noble or excellent than that art, that science by which souls are instructed towards the possession of the truth? Teaching is, indeed, “ars artium” and “scientia scientiarum!” (the art of arts and the science of sciences).
At the outset of the new academic year, let Christian teachers aspire to the wise words of Pius XI. Let teachers recognize the nobility of their profession and be heartened by the pride that the church itself takes in its teachers.
Let teachers recognize that when they form the minds of the young in goodness, beauty, and truth, they are practicing the “science of sciences.” The good of families and the good of countries depends upon their work. For, As Pope Pius XI says,
Perfect schools are the result not so much of good methods as of good teachers, teachers who are thoroughly prepared and well-grounded in the matter they have to teach; who possess the intellectual and moral qualifications required by their important office; who cherish a pure and holy love for the youths confided to them, because they love Jesus Christ and His Church, of which these are the children of predilection; and who have therefore sincerely at heart the true good of family and country.
I suppose such a consideration immediately brings up its opposite. Namely, that the corruption of the best is the worst, or as the Romans would say,
Corruptio optimi pessima
In other words, as fortunate as one is to have good teachers, there are few misfortunes worse than having bad teachers.
No wonder then, that Pius XI says that the formation of teachers should “be one of the principal concerns of the pastors of souls and of the superiors of Religious Orders.“
From a Pope, reigning just after World War I, from a Pope reigning during the bloody persecution of the church in Mexico, Spain and Russia, from a Pope witnessing the rise of Hitler, such testimony to the truth and to life and to the significance of teachers is timely and powerful.
The bad news is that the Civil War did not put an end to slavery.
Sure, the Civil War did end the apparent and visible slavery that made legal the ownership of human beings by other human beings, whereby the owners could wring
their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.
And whatever one thinks about the causes of the North and the South, and the means employed, and the tremendous and appalling loss of life that ensued, every thinking American is just glad that the institution of slavery was abolished.
The physical form of slavery (that has marred human history from seemingly the beginning) does not lay claim to the inner life of the human being. The human spirit is not able to be coerced by chains or whips no matter how brutal – at least if we are to believe the testimony of those that have lived through such treatment.
Thankfully, the Civil War was able to accomplish the eradication of such a sensible injustice, but, unfortunately, it was not able to put an end to some other forms of slavery, arguably even more deleterious, for, as Aristotle pointed out, “Human nature is enslaved in many ways.”
The more invisible forms of slavery, however, of which I speak are far more destructive to the dignity of the human person, because they do touch the human person precisely in his inmost soul.
And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.
The slaveries about which I speak are so subtle that those who are enslaved might not even recognize the fact.
Like the spectators chained to their chairs in Socrates’ famous allegorical cave, who wished for nothing more than to be left alone staring at the flickering shadows on the cave wall, might there be countless millions today among us who are similarly enslaved to a shadow world?
I speak of those who ‘live’ life but are seemingly ignorant of many, if not all, of the most significant realities; those who live in the shadow world of materialism and are devoid of any knowledge of the soul, or of the angels, or of God.
And what are these other kinds of slavery?
They are four. Three of them are caused by things outside of the mind while the fourth is caused by the error in the mind. Let’s enumerate them and then offer some brief exemplifications.
Each of these is a sort of slavery as we shall see. In each case, knowingly or unknowingly, we act and think because of a compulsion, which though not from visible whips and chains, nonetheless directs us with an iron hand. Whether force of habit, unruly and violent passions, fear of scorn and derision, or the inability to think without error, each of these kinds of slavery prevent human freedom.
Who doesn’t recognize the reality of slavery to passion? It is perhaps the most prevalent kind of slavery especially in an adolescent society. But to a great extent the entire moral life of most men is largely a matter of taming unruly passions. Those who fail to control their passions are condemned to a life which is no better than that of the beast. Hamlet soliloquized,
What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Or what about those who live their lives enslaved by fashion? A great many appear to be directed by others in the clothing they wear, the thoughts they think, the music they listen to, and the cultural norms they follow. They are the ones who think and behave according to the fashions of the day. And when the fashions change so does their thought and behavior.
Far from acting freely or thinking for themselves, it would appear that for many people, the principle of their activity is nothing more than to appear to be “with it,” to appear to be au courant with whatever is the latest trend– moral, intellectual, or otherwise.
Whereas those who are slaves to passion and fashion might be aware of their bondage, slavery to custom, on the other hand, is quite insensible.
Why? Precisely because slavery to custom is something which is….well… customary.
Things which we do by custom seem second nature to us. Customary things go unnoticed. We do not notice the things that we do by nature. How many of us are even aware of our heart beating? When we do notice it, it is probably because there is a problem. So also, the things that we do by custom.
But slavery to custom is indeed a form of slavery because custom is that which dictates our actions, not we ourselves. For example, those who live in one part of the world will ordinarily behave according to the customs of that place. From trivial matters such as what we ‘decide’ to eat and wear to far more significant matters, such as to what do we direct our lives?
Those who live in one time or epoch tend to think according to the customs of that epoch. Similarly those who live under one type of government will tend to vary in their views from those who live under another type of government. For example, Americans, by and large, do not have a great deal of respect for monarchs.
Finally, there is the kind of slavery which is the effect, in great part, of the first three kinds of slavery. If we act and think according to our passions, ignoble fashions and bad customs, we will then assuredly develop erroneous habits of thinking. Our minds will become filled with error. We will think things to be which are not, and we will think those things are, which are not.
Each of these kinds of slavery are serious. Each deserves a lengthy discussion. But the central point is that these other forms of slavery reach into our innermost souls and destroy our human dignity.
The free man is the one who thinks and behaves rightly according to norms which are beautiful, good and true. His thoughts and activity arise from an inner principle. Or perhaps better, we might say that the free man is the one whose thoughts and behavior are chosen according to standards which he himself has chosen freely. He has chosen them freely precisely because he recognizes them as the standards of truth, goodness, and beauty.
He is not one who stumbles about unconscious of the norms upon which his behavior is based. Those are slaves who behave unwittingly, almost as if sleeping, according to the erroneous philosophies and ugly fashions of others about whom they are unaware.
Aristotle was right of course. Human nature is enslaved in many ways. So much so that one might almost mistake slavery for a natural state. But it isn’t. Freedom is unique to those beings possessing intelligence, and it just so happens that there is an ordinary process, a specific sort of education that devotes itself to freedom. It is an education that is named after freedom. It is an education that proposes truth as its final aim. Why? Because it is the truth alone that makes men free.
I don’t have any strong objection to men dressing according to the fashions of the 12th or 13th century if they happen to live in the 12th or 13th century. I assume the gentleman in the picture thought that he was looking pretty dapper. He lived in a time when the clothing fashions were perhaps a little extravagant and this fellow looks like he can afford it. My guess is that he thought he was approximating something on the side of the beautiful.
I am just not willing to adopt his fashion for fear of losing the little credibility that I have left, nor have I seen anything like his clothing on the discount rack at Macy’s. Besides, I much prefer clothing that covers my legs. Give me a pair of grey slacks, a Brooks Brothers tie, a navy blue jacket and I am all set- well maybe throw in a pair of Florsheim loafers, socks, white dress shirt and …well let’s get back to the point.
Maybe we all have a bit of a duty to try to dress and appear in a manner that is comfortably within the range of what is commonly accepted as normal in any given time and place. But does that duty extend to making oneself look like this?
Glancing at old family photos does make me wonder. Granted that I was too young to make decisions for myself, nonetheless, I don’t remember exercising any sort of wholesome rebellion when my mother gave me a pair of bell-bottoms.
The seventies really were bad years for all sorts of reasons- but for me, the biggest reason was that they represent a time when not only were most of us slaves to the prevailing clothing and hair fashions (which might be true most of the time) but we were all slaves to really ugly clothing and hair fashions.
By way of contrast, I suppose the hair fashion of the Georgian period makes that of the seventies seem rather moderate.
So powerful is fashion’s sway over our thinking, that many things which appear ridiculous to us now appeared natural and normal when we were under fashion’s influence. A sobering reflection.
What is slavery to Fashion? Well, as one philosopher put it:
Those are slaves of fashion who pursue (or read) what is fashionable because it is fashionable and cease doing what is no longer fashionable [when it is no longer fashionable].
That is a very good definition. Succinct, comprehensive, every word tells.
Those who do something simply because it is fashionable are slaves to fashion. Likewise, those who cease to do something simply because it is no longer fashionable are slaves to fashion.
Those who think or speak a certain way simply because it is fashionable to think or speak that way are slaves to fashion. Likewise, those who cease to think and speak a certain way because it is no longer fashionable to think or speak thatway are slaves to fashion.
The more I think about freedom, the opposite of slavery, the more it appears to me that it is not such an easy thing to achieve. For example, think of what St. Paul says,(Philippians 4:8)
For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things.
Ok. That sounds good to me. But what if my thoughts about “whatsoever things are true,” modest, just, holy, lovely and of good fame are really dictated to me right now the way that my taste in clothing was in the seventies?
For example, it strikes me that most of us pretty much follow the fashions of the day particularly with regard to what we think is lovely and what we think is true. Who among us is free from the prevailing aesthetic and intellectual views of the fashion setters?
You might think, “Well, I don’t wear bell-bottoms. Nor do I wear shoes like this!”
We might think that we have good taste and exercise freedom with regard to how we appear.
But what about how we think? What about what we listen to? What about what we read and watch?
If everyone appears to be doing the same thing within a certain margin of comfortable acceptability, is that apparent harmony the effect of free choice?
Intellectual freedom has something to do with the ability to ‘think for oneself.’ We tell our students to think for themselves and my guess is that most of us live happily under the illusion that if there are some who do not think for themselves, at least we ourselves do.
Ask someone you know, “Do you think of yourself as an independently minded person? Are you a person who thinks for yourself?”
My guess is that he, if not too affronted, will answer in the affirmative.
But if we were then to perform a short survey of his ideas, if we were to ask this independent thinker a list of questions concerning politics, science, mathematics, religion, music, and yes even current fashions with regard to clothing…
…….would we be likely to find a maverick? Perhaps.
I like to ask my students questions like, “How many of you would prefer to have an arranged marriage?” and “How many of you think teenagers should have cell phones?”
Or sometimes if we are discussing politics and government, I might ask, “How many of you think that monarchy is the most excellent form of government?”
When it comes to the study of history, I generally do not find many advocates of the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades.
Eventually, after having established the fact of a fairly unanimous consensus of ideas, I ask my students,
Isn’t it odd that we all tend to think of ourselves as independent thinkers yet the vast majority of our ideas and tastes and aspirations tend to match rather exactly with the ideas, tastes, and aspirations that just happen to be in vogue?
It is odd. It could be that each of us happens to have arrived at the truth independently and our consensus is coincidental.
Or just perhaps we are not such free and independent thinkers as we had supposed ourselves to be?
Isn’t it interesting how that is? Did you think you would ever miss the human face? Who would ever have guessed it?
What is about the face that is so important?
I suppose it’s the mouth and the cheeks and the chin.
It really is difficult to communicate with other people who do not have a mouth or cheeks or a chin. What is it exactly?
Obviously, it is difficult to communicate with someone who has no mouth or an obstructed mouth.
I have never been quite so conscious of the extent to which I myself communicate with more than my voice.
Jokes or any kind of irony become impossible without a face!
Imagine what Owen Wister’s “The Virginian” would have done if this jerk did not have a face?!
Normal, ordinary human communication requires a face. So does extraordinary and even life and death communication!
The beauty of the world, the beauty of life itself is distinctly tied up with the human face.
Who doesn’t love the eyes? But suddenly I have realized that the eyes are housed in a face.
I have heard it said that the human body is the most beautiful thing in God’s earthly creation. And further that the human face is the pinnacle of beauty that crowns the body. Somehow it is the face of a person that is most beautiful.
In some way the beauty of the entire universe of created matter is expressed most completely in the human face. That is to say that consummate beauty, the beauty that makes daily living joyful and fulfilling is all tied up in the face of other human beings.
Has there ever been an epoch in human history in which greater service, more profound obeisance, deeper devotion has been paid to the very end and purpose of all creation- the common good?
Or maybe not?
Let’s remind ourselves quickly about what the common good is.
God is the common good. God is that good which we can share with one another, whom we can possess, to whom we can unite ourselves, in whom we can particpate all without diminishing Him.
By way of contrast, when we share a box of ice cream it only goes so far. The more people that share it, the less there is for each. But the common good is a good that can be shared without diminution.
Another interesting thing about the common good is that it is common.
The ice cream you eat is not common. Your ice cream is not my ice cream even if it came from the same box. Not so when we “share” God. Even when shared, God remains common to all. The God that I possess in Holy Communion is none other than the God that every Christian possesses.
In recent months we have been asked to make sacrifices for the common good. Out of an abundance of caution and for the common good are ubiquitous phrases which immediately signal the unpleasant reality that something will be imminently discontinued, like free samples at Costco, or that something will be denied like public attendance at Holy Mass.
The archdiocese of Chicago, like most dioceses throughout the country cancelled public attendance at Masses invoking the common good, saying,
…we make this sacrifice for the common good, convinced that we, like all citizens, have a responsibility in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Bishop Zubick of the Pittsburg Diocese even invoked the common good in reference to the curtailing of Lenten fish fries! He said,
[I] trust that the leadership of every parish is going to make a decision based on what’s important for the common good.
I don’t know about you, but I have been programmed to follow any order, any prescription, any injunction no matter how drastic or demanding just as long as the words “for the common good” are contained somewhere in the injunction.
If you said to me.
“Langley, we need you jump out of the airplane with no parachute…for the common good!”
Well then, I would count myself a coward of no worth whatsoever to refuse! It’s like those Austrailian soldiers at Gallipoli. When the whistle blew they all leapt up out of the trenches into the very teeth of enemy Gatling guns.
They all knew, every last one of them, that stepping out of trench would gain them each an almost instantaneous death. When that whistle blew, did they hesitate? Did they refuse?
No! Each one of them leapt up and died knowing (at least he thought he knew) he was fighting and dying for the common good. Regardless of what one may think about whether World War I was waged for just reasons, at least those lowly Australian soliders were convinced that in dying they were going to merit a hero’s reward. And I think they did!
But the point we are currently making, is that when one is ordered to do something for the common good, every valiant soul who has the courage of one of those soliders at Gallipoli, or who is as brave as one of those 300 Spartan Hoplites at Thermopylae (commanded by the fearless King Leonidas in 480 BC),
every such a one, I say, would leap to the task at hand no matter how unpleasant, and strive to accomplish it with might and main…but mostly because it is all to be done for the common good!
Now when it comes to health we need to make a distinction. On the one hand, let us acknowledge that we all ought to be willing to take steps to protect our own health and the health of others.
Because health is a good thing. It’s good for people to be healthy.
But is health a common good? No. Health is a private good.
Health is a good of the body and is distinctly particular to each person. One person’s health is no more another person’s health than is one person’s beauty the same as another person’s beauty. True, health is not diminished when more than one person has it. But neither does each person share the same health. Health is not shared; it is not common.
It could be that restrictions on liberty and requirements like ‘lockdowns,’ are sacrifices with which reasonable people might comply, at least for a time.
But when such requests are made under the guise that these things are required for the sake of the common good, then we overplay the force of the request and ultimately trivialize the common good. To invoke the common good is nothing more than to invoke the highest motivation for which any human being ought to act. But if that good is not the highest good, then it is right to ask questions about what we should sacrifice for it.
Well, this certainly has been an exciting experiment! But to be perfectly honest, as they say, I have seen enough.
Whereas Frank Capra’s George Bailey was granted the experience (thanks to his guardian angel!) of seeing what life would be like without him, we have been ‘granted’ the opposite experience (by some darker power), the horrible vision of seeing what we are like without life!
We all now have some taste of the lifeless life, and it is anything but sweet!
The peculiar mark of the artistic genius is the ability to capture the universal in the particular; the artistic genius makes something very large, something important, even something infinite, incarnate in a relatively small thing like a painting, a block of marble or, in this case, a two-hour black and white movie.
And so Capra managed to encapsulate the beauty of life, with its concomitant sufferings and joys, in the life of an ordinary man named George. If he accomplished nothing else, Capra shows us why life is worth living. He shows us what life is and why it is wonderful.
And what is life?
Life is sledding down dangerous hills perilously close to an icy death (where were the parents!?).
Life is walking and whistling down the public street locked arm in arm with close friends,
Life is packing into an old jalopy with no seatbelts and way too many kids and a goat to drive to one’s new home!
Life is standing shoulder to shoulder with others to confront irrational panic!
Life is about coming together to weep and pray…
celebrating and maybe even taking up a collection…
and singing Auld Lang Syne (even in flu season!).
At the top of the list of “most inspirational movies of all time,” Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life reminds us that life is wonderful and worthwhile not because of how we live safely apart from one another, albeit in a sterilized environment.
Even though he was headed for jail, through no fault of his own, George Bailey could not restrain his exuberance…because Zu Zu’s petals were real.
Let’s not think poorly of the scientists and epidemiological statisticians for scaring the hell out of the American public by their prediction of a possible 2,200,000 deaths in the United States. Plus, doesn’t it feel so much better that we are predicting only 60,000 deaths?
Actually, after coming down from 2.2 million, I was feeling rather exuberant about the 100,000 – 240,000 death range. I said to myself, “Well, I guess I can live with that!” Only 240,000 people are going to die…that’s not really so bad now is it?
But then when they told us a week later that “Hey, it’s only going to be 60K” I thought
“Wow! Sold! It’s a deal!”
If this is not part of the scientific method yet, then let’s go ahead and add it in as a crucial step.
Gather data and perform observations
Make an inflated hypothesis about ‘rates’ (e.g. profitability, temperature increase, costs, population increase, mortality, etc.)
Collect new data and downgrade hypothesis by factors of 10
Remember, the scientists responsible for the “Imperial College Study,” suggesting 2.2 million deaths, made this prediction only under the assumption that so many deaths might occur should no precautions whatsoever be taken to avoid catching and spreading the disease. So, admitting that these catastrophic numbers were responsible for the destruction of the American economy, let us not be angry with the scientists who were really only “throwing them out there” as a sort of intentional outside-worst-case-scenario projection.
If everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.
What a noble sentiment! And the governor does show us how to prioritize our values, doesn’t he? Who is there that would be so callous as to value a twenty-two trillion-dollar economy over one human life? What kind of cold-hearted, mercenary, bourgeois, corporate individual would object to the idea of putting twenty-two million people out of work if we could just save one human life? And does anyone really think it is fair to counter this noble idea by speculating about the inevitable cost of committing economic suicide in terms of human lives and misery? I don’t think so.
Now about those masks.
Let’s not draw attention to the fact that at first, the experts told us not to wear the masks, and that now we are being told the opposite. So what!? Who cares if scientists change their minds and say one thing this week that contradicts what was said last week? Why would anyone use this kind of silly reasoning to make an attack on the absolute trust that everyone should place in science?
After all, first, they told us that the sun went around the earth, and rose and set every evening, and then they tell us that actually none of that is true and that really the earth goes around the sun!
Which is all just to say that if I am told not to wear a mask by an expert, I will not wear a mask. If that same expert tells me a week later to wear a mask, then I will wear a mask. It’s that simple. Thankfully, we don’t all have to think these things out for ourselves!
Actually, that is one of the gratifying things about living in such a scientific age. Really, we are all very lucky to be living in this period of enlightenment especially since there is no chance of anyone – anyone except the experts – of really knowing what is going on!
Now, one of the things that should give everyone confidence about the rigorous data that is being collected with our current pandemic is the fact that we will simply not tolerate the underreporting of the COVID 19 mortality rate here in these good ole U.S. of A!
Contrary to the sloppy job they did over there in China where apparently only 17 or so people died from the disease since December 2019, we (thankfully here in the West!) will not put up with inaccuracy and outrageous under-reporting! Everyone knows that the accurate collection of data is essential for good science. Therefore it felt especially good to hear that every death in which a suspicion or a tangential connection of any sort to the mere possibility of a COVID 19 infection might be brought to bear will, in fact, be counted as a COVID 19 related mortality. If the unfortunate demised broke his neck falling down the stairs after sneezing, then that most assuredly would be a COVID 19 fatality.
By generously erring on the side of reporting most (if not all) deaths as COVID 19 mortality cases, we will certainly not miss a COVID 19 mortality. I think it is safe to say that when the final mortality rate is reported for this scourge, we will all be able to say confidently that our data has certainly not left any COVID 19 mortality out in the cold. It is possible that someone might object that our final number is double or triple or at least somewhat inflated, but no one will accuse us of having underreported, which is the far greater sin in my view. I am, of course, speaking not as an epidemiologist but rather as a sort of theologian (i.e. someone who engages in the highest science). When speaking about God, for example, one simply cannot over-report His Greatness! The sin is in minimizing Him!
I think it is also re-assuring that hospitals will be paid more to put COVID 19 patients on a ventilator. Nothing ensures scientific precision and accuracy more than financial incentives! I think it is unhelpful to object that ventilators might be overused just because Medicare will pay the hospital $39,000 every time they put a patient on a ventilator. Similarly, it is unhelpful to object that ventilators might be over-used or even damaging to a COVID 19 victim. This is not the time to bicker about ventilators!
Actually, this strategy is win-win for everybody! On the one hand, we can celebrate our success by making great strides in reducing mortality rates from cardiac arrest, while at the same time we can reward hospitals with $39,000 every time they put someone on a ventilator!
Pindar, the great poet, would be proud of our age if for no other reason than that we so excellently embody the truth of his famous statement when he said,
Νόμος ὁ πάντων βασιλεύς
θνατῶν τε καὶ ἀθανάτων
ἄγει δικαιῶν τὸ βιαιότατον
ὑπερτάτᾳ χειρί. τεκμαίρομαι
By which he meant something like,
Custom is the king of all, of mortals and immortals and Custom guides us with its sovereign hand justifying the utmost violence.
Thankfully, we who live in the twenty-first century, unlike those who lived in the hazy fifth century before Christ, enjoy the enlightening and illuminating air of granular metrics. Thankfully we, unlike Pindar and his superstitious contemporaries who lived under the sway of an entire pantheon of sometimes cruel deities major and minor,
we (happy denizens of the twenty-first century!) live safely under the protection and guidance of expert modelers and scientists!
Ahh, the joy of waking up on Easter Sunday morning and discovering the table magically adorned with flowers and gifts! We will let the pictures do the talking, from early morning to brunch to dinner.
Ordinarily, someone paints the Easter candle but a little paper, tape, and some colored markers suffice.
Lucy made this year’s fruit salad. Berries have a funny way of gradually disappearing in the days leading up the fruit salad.
I think the Blanc de Blanc from Trader Joe’s is an acceptable bubbly for the Mimosas- and of course a couple of those strawberries
Hollandaise in the making.
This year’s Easter pastry was a star-shaped chocolate sweet bread of sorts. Here it is directly before getting baked.
We opted to cut some thick ham slices to put over the tomatoes for our Eggs Blackstone.
Meanwhile, the table was set and ready for action.
Now comes the fun- and of course timing is everything.
Here is my plate- the avocado was a pure extra!
Thankfully we were able to finish brunch before noon- and so there was plenty of time to build up a late dinner appetite. This year we returned to Beef Wellington. Underneath that lush covering of Phyllo dough lies a beautiful fat-covered rib roast!
Here is the Wellington resting a little
A little too dark to see, but this is a nice mug of gravy.