The library (and our culture) in decay

img_1807I’m currently reading Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, by Anthony Esolen. Published in late January (and currently listed at #1 in New Releases in Sociology and Religion on Amazon), it is the first of three books I’ve had on my reading list since I read they were to be published early in 2017. The second is Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christina World by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput (published this week) and The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher (due on March 14). I am halfway through Esolen’s book having bought it last week and he is setting a high standard for the other two. These books are building off of two books I picked up a few years ago: John Senior’s The Death of Christian Culture (written in 1978) and its sequel The Restoration of Christian Culture. Professor Senior was a founder of the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas who influenced and taught my diocese’s current bishop, James Conley.

I wish I was adept at providing book reviews, but will say that the reason I’m so interested in these books is not because they reaffirm how bad things have become in our culture as we’re all aware of that. I’m reading them because of the solutions they propose within their pages. I’m done with the complaints. It’s time to get to work. It’s time to rebuild.

The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction in which Esolen invites us to imagine a great manor house lived in by the Weston family. He begins a tour of the mansion (a metaphor for our former culture) in the spacious drawing room, continues into the library, and then proceeds to tour the grand house’s conservatory, ballroom and chapel. This portion is from his tour of the home’s library. I thought it presented a creative way of looking at where we’ve been, where we are, and provided a glimpse of the work that lay ahead.

Then we enter the library, with its high ceiling and large windows to the east and south and west that flood the room with light all hours of the day. A movable ladder on wheels runs along a track set eight feet from the floor, to allow access to a gallery that divides the lower half of the room from the upper half. Lord John Henry Weston, two hundred years ago, had the room built in this way. The lower half is stocked with books in several of the modern languages of Europe. They include novels, collections of poetry, histories, biographies, travelogues, and so forth. If you’re a nine-year-old boy and you want to read Humphry Clinker or Robinson Crusoe, or if you’re a little older and you want to read Pope’s translation of the Iliad, you can find them ready to hand. Or you can get lost there on purpose, as you might go forth into the woods on a sunny day, not knowing where the path will take you.

Lord John Henry devoted the upper half of the room to the upper half of knowledge and culture. There we find works in the ancient languages, Latin and Greek, and books dealing with philosophy, divinity, political constitutions, law, and natural science. The sermons of Lancelot Andrewes are there, near Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament in Greek and Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity. The legal writings of Coke and Blackstone are there, near Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis and the works of the Roman jurist Ulpian. Montesquieu, Bossuet, Pufendorf, and Grotius are there, and not just for decoration. Plutarch is there in the original Greek and in North’s sixteenth-century English translation. Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Hesiod—all the poets are there; the Hebrew Bible; various works by Augustine, Chrysostom, Gregory  of Nyssa, Lactantius, Jerome. It was the library of a learned man interested in everything human and divine.

If you moved that ladder now, you would notice, in the channels of its wheels, a thick coating of grime and mold. There was a bad storm fifty years ago, and rain began to seep through some broken shingles on the roof, dripping down to the plaster ceiling. One corner of the room is quite gray-green with mildew. No one has done anything about it. If you open that edition of Horace from the Aldine Press, you will be greeted with a dank smell.  Spots have begun to appear on the books wherever paper was exposed to the air. You let your hand rest on one of the shelves but then whisk it away at once, when you will a strange grit lying all about—mouse dirt. In fact, some of the spines of the books have been gnawed through.

The library is not abandoned entirely, though. In one corner there’s a table heaped with glossy hardcover biographies of celebrities, like Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison. That’s also where the most recent children in the Weston family have stashed their old schoolbooks. Lately the family has taken to using the room for storage, so we also find, crushed against one another, old hat racks, trunks full of outworn clothing, souvenirs from a trip to Disneyland, a sideboard that was supposed to have been repaired but never was, and photo albums filled with pictures of people no one can any longer identify.

From the Introduction to Out of the Ashes, by Anthony Esolen: “The Rubble”. pp. 5-7

abandoned-library

Abandoned library image source

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Finding beauty and joy on the planet of the apes

This morning I was greeted with a story that broke yesterday about the mentally disabled man who was kidnapped, tied up and tortured while his ordeal was broadcast on Facebook Live. I have not watched it. After reading initial reports last night I chose not to watch before bed. I chose to not watch again today after receiving a few emails from friends about it as well as seeing it on social media.

Social media. Satan’s greatest invention, don’t you think? I do. Social media itself is a tool and therefore neutral in its nature. But man, being a fallen creature, tends to corrupt the neutral. This is why after a two year experiment with Twitter I had enough. I still have an account but haven’t logged on in a month. I’ve removed Facebook from my phone and allow myself 20 minutes a day at work to glance at it. Like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks I believe we need to get beyond the politics of anger.

At the end of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow the title character says:

This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell – where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided or for righteousness’ sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need the most, where we see no hope and have no faith, where we are needy and alone, where things that ought to stay together fall apart, where there is such a groaning travail of selfishness in all its forms, where we love one another and die, where we must lose everything to know what we have had.

Increasingly social media, or our media in general, seems to be to be a book about Hell.

During those brief daily interludes on Facebook I began to notice that a friend of mine from Mississippi was daily posting the blog entries for a blog called Sean of the South. After a week I read one entry. Then two. After the third I signed up to have his posts delivered to my inbox each day. I recommend it to you as well. His writing reminds me a little of Jean Shepherd, the man who wrote the stories that the popular movie A Christmas Story is based upon. Shepherd is also the voice that narrates the movie. I’ve read three of his books and often laugh along to his stories. Sean Dietrich can do the same, though he is also a bit more somber at times. This morning’s offering, a story he called simply “Good”, was an excellent antidote to what happened in Chicago. I’ll let you read it for yourself, but I will include a small portion of it here.

Anyway, I feel I owe it to you to admit: I don’t know much about life—I have the lack of training to prove it.

Even so, I’m a person who believes in something. In miracles. Small ones I’ve seen with my own eyes. In people. In things that terrify the sapsuckers who write the nightly news—folks who earn livings reporting on the worst mankind has to offer.

Well, I think life is a lot more than a string of bad headlines.

Me too brother.

As if to punctuate this point I saw this story about three little girls and their garbagemen posted to Facebook this morning. Read the story (or watch the ABC News video).

But Jeff, that young man today is hurting. He’s been traumatized. Aren’t you angry?

Of course I am, but what good does that do other than increase my blood pressure and make my day more difficult than it is? One of my friends that mentioned that the story out of Chicago likened it to “life on the Planet of the Apes”. I can’t disagree with him and have the same thought when I spend too much time looking at nothing but social media and the news. We are approaching a tipping point of a dark nature. I’ve seen several pundits and cultural observers agree with that assessment. It may indeed get very much worse before it gets better.

(Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.)

On Facebook sometime in late 2015 having had enough of all the political shouting and anger I wrote “I choose Joy.” I wrote those three words as an affirmation and reminder to myself to avoid falling into the pit of despair that can result from immersing oneself in the cesspool. I will also add that I’ve further chosen to focus on the beauty that surrounds us all. Because if we but open our eyes it is there, present in our fellow human beings, our families, our pets, music, scenery. It’s there.

On January 1 we said goodbye once again to our son as he left our driveway and headed back to his base in California. Later that day my wife and I decided to go to a movie for my birthday and saw Collateral Beauty. After seeing a trailer for the film I suggested to her that we go. There’s no CGI. No superheroes. I liked the cast. It looked like a simple, but interesting, story. While critics savaged the film on my Flixter app I read five times as many viewer reviews that were positive. I’m glad we went.

I’m not going to write about the film’s plot. From IMDB:

Retreating from life after a tragedy, a man questions the universe by writing to Love, Time and Death. Receiving unexpected answers, he begins to see how these things interlock and how even loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.

During the film a character recalls the words a stranger said to her when facing a tragedy in her own life: “Don’t forget to notice the collateral beauty.”

So looking back at the last few weeks I’ve noticed it:

In my household while my oldest son was home during his two week holiday leave from his Marine base.

In my wife’s hands as she repaired the small holes in Nolan’s camos just as she had sewn the holes in his baseball uniforms throughout his youth.
sewing

In the madness and activity surrounding our daughter’s Christmas Concert.

In my daughter’s face while she sat next to me and her two brothers watching Rogue One in 3D. I glanced over in time to watch her mouth open wide and her small hands reach out in front of her.

In our beagle Buster as he was once more reunited with his master and was virtually inseparable from Nolan’s lap for two weeks.

In the batting cage where Jonah has spent the last three weeks working on his swing because in his words he “wants to continue to improve”. He hopes to play college baseball one day. His words. Not mine.

swing

In the home of our longtime friends who invited my wife and I over one night to enjoy the wet bar they’d built in their basement after years of discussions. It was present in the laughter, conversation and glow of our cheeks after several recipes involving scotch and bourbon served in a glass.

In the liturgy, music and faces of our fellow parishioners at Mass on Christmas Eve.

In the soft glow of the Christmas candle burning in the center of our Advent wreath after I prayed Matins after midnight on Christmas Eve.

christmas_eve

In our visits with each side of our families to gather for food and presents. In particular I saw it in the face of my two-year old nephew as he climbed on my lap and allowed me to take a 60 second video of himself laughing at his image on my phone’s screen. For the next hour he took my phone away and watched again and again and again the image of himself laughing at himself. And he laughed a beautiful laugh and smiled a beautiful smile.

In the impromptu game of darts that broke out New Year’s Eve on our back patio in 20 degree weather between my three children. Nolan had purchased a dartboard to take back to his barracks. He leaned it against the brick wall and from 8-10pm he played with his younger siblings. My daughter was in her robe and slippers, but her face was warm with laughter and competition. I joined in a game of 301 with them before we went inside to warm up.

In the game of Nerts that my wife and I played with our two youngest afterwards. It has become a bit of a family tradition to play this frantic card game since 2014 when our oldest was at boot camp. This year after one hand he offered to sit in for me as his brother’s partner. For the first time in three years the boys beat the girls at Nerts. Next December 31 when he’s not with us while he’s on deployment I’ll once again partner with Jonah and hopefully do well or else ring in 2018 by hearing how awful a partner I am.

In my daughter wishing me a Happy Birthday after counting down to midnight on New Year’s Eve “Happy 50th birthday, Dad!” After explaining to her that I was now 49 she replied “Really? You look older…like you’re 50.” She’s grounded until I turn 50 next year.

In reviewing my daughter’s homework from school, and laughing at her clever creativity in which she turned a spelling test into a cartoon project of sorts.

spellingbee

In the many birthday wishes graciously sent by friends and family. 

I saw beauty in the blanket of softly falling snow outside my window just last night.

On January 1st after Nolan left our driveway we were too late to attend 10:30am Mass at our home parish so we journeyed a few minutes south to attend the 11am Mass at a neighboring church. And there, once more, I saw beauty. It came to me in these words from Holy Scripture during the Old Testament reading from Numbers, Chapter 6:

The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!

And I thought to myself “What a wonderful blessing to use to greet others in 2017.”

I guess where I’m going is this:

The Beauty is always there, if you but look long enough while standing still.

The Joy is there too. It is our reaction to encountering the Beauty.

Both are present. We just need to stand still long enough to notice.

Reviving the Classic Liberal Arts Education: what I heard at George Weigel’s lecture in Lincoln

weigel-lecture-info

On November 30th I had just arrived home from a long day at work when a good friend sent me a text inviting me to attend a lecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Newman Center. It was to be the final of four in the “Reborn in Wonder” series and since I’d had to miss the other three despite wanting to go, I accepted the invitation. Ninety minutes later Tom and I were in our seats in the second row. I learned afterwards from one of the organizers that the room sat 240, but with the people also standing at the back and sides the crowd was estimated at just over 250 people. The crowd was a mixture of college students, priests and religious sisters, as well as many interested laypeople. I saw and spoke with several of my peers afterwards. There were children present as well, and the front row just ahead of me contained five siblings ranging from I’d estimate early elementary to early high school in age.

For those not familiar with George Weigel you can read his Wikipedia entry. He is both a respected author and one of the leading Catholic intellectual voices of our age. I own four of his books and flirted with the idea of bringing one to be autographed but ultimately decided against it. As it turned out I should have as he signed a few after the lecture.

After an introduction courtesy of Professor John Freeh, Doctor of Philosophy, Mr. Weigel began the night by citing some recent survey stats. My apologies as I didn’t catch the source:

  • 35% of Millennials believe that George W. Bush killed more people than Stalin
  • Only 1/3 of Dutch young people thought it essential to live in a democratic state
  • Less than 30% of US young people thought the same
  • 35% of US population are Millennials, but those same Millennials comprise just 19% of the electorate
George Weigel

George Weigel

After establishing a bit of where we are now, he proceeded into the heart of his talk and what he called “The Revival of the Classic Liberal Arts Education”.

To start, he listed, defined and discussed Five Toxins/Solvents that are eating away at civilization.

  1. Gnosticism
  2. Skepticism
  3. Moral Relativism
  4. Radical Individualism
  5. The Will to Power as the center of the human condition. This in turn leads to “A Regime of Coercion”

Weigel also described the “Three-Legged Stool of Western Civilization”

  1. Jerusalem
  2. Athens
  3. Rome

Jerusalem: brought us the school of thought that said life is a journey, an adventure, a pilgrimage, and that life is NOT random. Here he mentioned the experiences and lessons of the Book of Exodus.

Athens: taught that there are truths. That human reason can grasp them in an orderly way. The “Principle of Non-Contradiction” was discussed.

Rome: taught us that the Rule of Law is superior to brute force when governing (even though they were also known to ignore this at times in their history).

By the 11th century the three legs had produced what we know as the Civilization of the West in which the Dignity of the Human Person was emphasized. This also ultimately led to the birth of the Democratic Project.

In the 19th century those three legs begin to be kicked out from under the stool.

weigel-1The first leg to be kicked out was Jerusalem.

  • The project of Atheistic Humanism
  • The God of the Bible as the enemy of human liberation and maturation. (This is ironic as God had entered into history as a Liberator as opposed to the gods of Egypt, Greece, etc., with their demands, child sacrifice, and treatment of persons as “chess pieces” to be lead around a cosmic game board.

The second leg to be removed was the Athenian leg.

  • If no rationality is built into the world…no Logos…then reason left to its own devices turns on itself.
  • The result: there is “your truth” and there is “my truth.” A view dominant in so many philosophy departments in universities today.

The final leg, left on its own, will then collapse. Thus the Rome leg and our entire stool was brought down.

  • If there is no truth, and no horizon of judgement, then I’ll impose my will on you or vice-versa.
  • This is known as “Coercion of the Will” (or Will to Power)
  • Students shutting down free speech on campuses, for example.
  • He referred to modern universities as “expensive daycare centers”, a term that elicited laughter from the crowd.

All of this, he said, is auto-constructed self-deconstruction. In other words, we’ve done this to ourselves. Communism lost. The Nazis lost. Fascism lost. Yet we alone did this to ourselves.

Weigel ended the night by talking about the lessons to be learned from rediscovering and reading what he called “the great books”. These are his Ten Lessons Learned from Classic Education:

  1. The dignity of the human person as inalienable
  2. The superiority of reason to raw emotionalism
    (Thinking trumps Emotion)
  3. The sense of responsibility for the common good
    (A willingness to contribute and sacrifice for the common good)
  4. The willingness to engage others with dignity and respect
    (Disagreement is not hate)
  5. The critical importance of integrity, prudence and maturity in public life
    (Character counts)
  6. The ability to distinguish between Wisdom and Whizbang (Twitter).
    (In other words, there is no way to find wisdom in 140 characters on Twitter or in brief Facebook status updates. Too many confuse the quick hit or even memes as some deep dark secret of life, or as wisdom.)
  7. The recognition that democracy depends on a critical mass of virtue in the citizenry.
    (Weimar Republic: while the architects built grand facades and pillars making it appear as a great, classic society, it masked the corruption and dissatisfaction within that ultimately led to Hitler rising to power through a free election.)
  8. The instinct for sniffing out demagoguery
    (Learning to recognize when the man of power is a demagogue in disguise)
  9. An appreciation for the truly beautiful, not the transiently amusing.
    (We are amusing ourselves to death. Get yourselves, and most importantly your children, away from the screens.)
  10. A sense of life as adventure.
    (Life has a goal and a direction. This goes against the zeitgeist of our post-modern line of thought that says “life is a burden.”)

Weigel concluded by emphasizing the need for Virtue and the things needed to become a free and virtuous society.

  1. Democratic Society
  2. Free market Economy
  3. Vibrant Moral Culture

It takes a certain kind of people with certain virtues to make the machinery of political and economic society work.

So taking all of the above into consideration, what heals a wounded culture? Mr. Weigle’s response: An encounter with great thinkers and great minds of the past.

Throughout the evening he mentioned books such as The Aenid, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Night by Elie Wiesel, and the Bible. And writers/thinkers such as Aristotle, Augustine, Dostoyevsky and Aquinas.

Weigel ended his lecture with the following closing remarks: Honor the wisdom of the past and extend it into the future.

There was a brief Q&A afterwards. I raised my hand to ask what we as parents could do to help facilitate this education for our children given the fact that so many universities no longer appear to back their professors who teach a classical education. Here I was going to allude to the goings on at Providence College and Dr. Anthony Esolen (you can get a good overview of it by reading this article and the links within it), but a man behind me was called on first and he asked essentially the same question. Weigel’s response was to reiterate what he’d said earlier about removing the screens from our children’s lives and not only having the classics within our homes but to model good behavior for our children and read them. Read them together and discuss them. He talked about one family he knew that had a weekly family movie night, and while they would watch popular movies together they would also watch classics such as A Man For All Seasons and talk a bit about them with their kids as well.

Bishop Conley's closing remarks.

Bishop Conley’s closing remarks.

An interesting question was posed by a woman in the audience: If you could give one book to everyone in America what would it be? After humorously hinting towards a forthcoming book of his to be published early next year, Weigel once more referred to a book he’d talked about early in the lecture that he’d enjoyed that was written by James Traub John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. At over 600 pages however Mr. Weigel that might be a tough one to get everyone to read. After thinking it over audibly for a minute he said that although it wasn’t a book, he’d give everyone a DVD set of the HBO miniseries John Adams, based on the book of the same name by David McCullough.

Once the Q&A was complete, our Diocese of Lincoln Bishop James Conley closed the evening with a few remarks and a closing prayer.

I plan to do a quick follow up to this blog next week to discuss reading the classics. I determined that it would make this article too long. My apologies for the outline/bullet point nature of what I captured during the lecture. I learned to take notes that way to survive my history and political science lectures in college and I still use them to this day.

Fighting back

There has long been a deep reservoir of hate in this country just waiting to be tapped. Now Hillary Clinton on the left and Donald Trump from wherever he comes have both tapped it – it is open and gushing, it is vile, and it is threatening to bring this country down.

The only thing that will stop it is prayer – the ONLY thing. – online commenter Terry at Crisis Magazine online

_______

The life of man upon earth is a warfare… – Job 7:1

***

Last night I entered the fray.

I joined the battle.

We established a beachhead.

I haven’t been writing much for more than a few weeks now. My efforts to continue with The Screwtape Letters project is, for now, on hold. I got tired of staring at an empty screen and will try to continue another day.

The bitter and honest truth is that I’ve been…how to say this…out of sorts.

Out of whack. Lost my equilibrium.

I’ve been under attack.

I’ve said before that I believe the great battle of our times is before us. I’ve also said that it will be a spiritual war.

After the events of the last month I stand behind those assertions.

It’s been a rough year. A year filled with self-doubt and second-guessing. A year of “what ifs”. Through it all I’ve struggled to keep my balance and maintain both my optimism and stay upright. At times I’ve come perilously close to giving in to despair. One beam of light guided me through this fog.

Prayer, specifically the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office.

We are living in strange times. Or hadn’t you noticed? Many have not. Distracted by the soft comforting glow of their various screens they are oblivious to history’s verdicts. How else does one explain our youth’s embracing of the culture of death and socialism? How else to explain the unhinged, vehement attacks levied at anyone who points out the obvious lack of conservative bona fides in the candidate widely embraced on the right as “the true conservative candidate”?

Thought and reason have no traction today because emotions and slogans have superseded them.

What the hell is going on?

And that’s the answer. Hell is going on.

***

Of late I’ve read many things online to ramp up my sense of urgency regarding this war. If the results from this survey by the Barna Group are in fact true, then I’m already to be considered an extremist in the eyes of many. The war is already being waged against me. I just as well fight back and make damn sure I live up to the evidence and label that may someday be used against me.

Society is undergoing a change of mind about the way religion and people of faith intersect with public life. That is, there are intensifying perceptions that faith is at the root of a vast number of societal ills.

Though it remains the nation’s most dominant religion, Christianity faces significant headwind in the court of public opinion. The decades-old trend that Christianity is irrelevant is increasingly giving way to the notion that Christianity is bad for society.

A new major study conducted by Barna Group, and explored in the new book Good Faith, co-authored by Barna president David Kinnaman, examines society’s current perceptions of faith and Christianity. In sum, faith and religion and Christianity are viewed by millions of adults to be extremist.

A growing portion of society considers me an extremist by virtue of my actually professing and living by my beliefs as a Christian. As a conservative I’ve watched myself or anyone else who questions the candidacy of Donald Trump be labeled a “rich, establishment, power mad” fool who is not a “true conservative” and will get “what’s coming to you!”. Ummm…what? I’ve watched those members of the media who call themselves conservatives outed for the carnival barkers that they are, nothing more than shills looking to make a book for the candidate du jour.

I’ve seen spleens vented at Pope Francis and any Catholic who dares call him or herself Catholic while pleading for some decent human decency be shown the less fortunate or the poor.

Obama voters the past two elections just pissed me off. I laughed them off as unserious kids fawning over an unqualified leftist. Supporters of Trump who spew their hatred and bile towards anyone who dare point out the flaws in their reason or simply ask for clarification on their stance scare the hell out of me because this lot is filled with rage and they are looking for someone to pour it upon. And I get it. I’m as upset with the Republican party leadership as anyone on how they’ve said one thing to get elected and then done the opposite once in office, while sending out letters for more money. I stopped supporting the GOP in 2006 when despite having control of all three branches of government they did not one blessed thing about abortion in this country. But as soon as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid took over in 2006 the fundraising letters once more were filling the mailboxes of pro-lifers everywhere.

So I get the anger and disillusionment. But Trump? And to vent that anger out on not just your fellow citizens of either party, but against those who are in tune with the Constitution and our nation’s history?

It’s nothing new. History has shown us examples of a citizenry embracing anger during the Reign of Terror in France, in Puritan England, and  in pre-World War II Germany.

The lessons from this history is that it never ends well for the likes of people like me.

***

Already being bloodied from the blows received, I read the following from scripture one  evening while in prayer:

My brothers, count it pure joy when you are involved in every sort of trial. Realize that when your faith is tested this makes for endurance. Let endurance come to its perfection so that you may be fully mature and lacking in nothing. – James 1:2-4 (Evening Prayer for January 29)

The very next morning I read this during Morning Prayer:

In everything you do, act without grumbling or arguing; prove yourselves innocent and straightforward, children of God beyond reproach in the midst of a twisted and depraved generation—among whom you shine like the stars in the sky. – Philippians 2:14-15 (Morning Prayer for January 30)

I decided I needed to make a call.

***

During mornings or evenings above 30 degrees you will find me outside with these.

During mornings or evenings above 30 degrees you will find me outside with these.

It has been a long-time goal of mine to initiate the praying of Vespers, or Evening Prayer, at my parish. A few weeks ago I finally got around to setting up a meeting with my parish priest to discuss it. I say finally because I could no longer ignore what I see going on. I needed to stop fighting alone, and begin to form a squad to wage the only form of warfare that matters and the one for which I’m best equipped. My son is a United States Marine. He’s trained for the more conventional battles of this world. He has been raised to fight the other, too, but for now his task is elsewhere.

Mine, however, is not. Mine is against the “powers and principalities” of this world.

This is your fight as well.

I have prayed the Liturgy of the Hours for just about fifteen years, ever since I first worked up the nerve to ask our former assistant pastor Father Hottovy to show me the book he always carried with him. It was slow going and a struggle at many times, but I persevered until now my day feels unbalanced if I fail to pray at least Morning or Evening Prayers. Being a historian I researched its origins and revisions over the years, even purchasing an expensive set of pre-Vatican II era books containing the Divine Office in both Latin and English.

But mostly I have done so in order to sanctify time for God. Except for a handful of occasions I have prayed this communal prayer alone.

I wanted to change that. Father Johnson agreed. And we selected Wednesday evenings at 6pm immediately following 5:30 Mass. We agreed that instead of announcing it in the bulletin for now or at weekend Masses he would simply announce it at the end of last night’s Mass and invite people to stick around to join me.

***

About the same time that I first contacted Father for a Saturday morning meeting over coffee the attacks upon me intensified. As last night drew near they threatened to suffocate me. I struggled to smile or find happiness. Optimism about almost anything seemed to disappear. I found myself hit with dreams and visions in broad daylight…horrible and awful images of my family, especially my children, and at times my friends. I saw horrific scenes, too terrible to recount, that involved my children bloodied, in danger, or worse. I couldn’t sleep and had little energy. My despair would turn to frustration and in a flash my anger would flare with words against those who mean the most to me. Two days ago I was sitting at a red light when one flashed before my eyes and caused me to cry uncontrollably as the light turned green through my tear-streaked eyes. The devil knows our weakness. It has ever been so.

I honestly thought I was falling apart. Believe it or not thoughts of my own death and of not being a burden to my loved ones crept into my mind.

But then little pinpoints of grace would shine forth. Nothing huge, but small indications that I did have worth, that I mattered, and that I made a difference began to emerge. Two examples:

Two weeks ago my Marine and I were texting about his younger brother’s upcoming baseball season. Jonah is twelve and at this point in his young life already a much better baseball player than his older brother. Considering that Nolan was able to contribute and then start on two spring high school state champion baseball teams and compete for summer state titles as well, that’s saying a lot about his younger brother. A back injury almost cost Nolan his high school baseball career and deeply affected his attitude, causing lethargy and depression. Prior to his sophomore year he was going to quit and we argued back and forth about it for weeks before the treatment and work he’d been doing to heal his injury caused him to relent and play. Ever since 2012 I’ve beat myself up and wondered how much resentment my coaxing him to play had caused. I wondered if he’d ever appreciate all that he and his buddies had accomplished. Lately I’ve wondered if I would have the strength to do so again with Jonah should he travel a similar path.

It turns out I won’t have to get after Jonah. His big brother will. This is a part of our text exchange:

Nolan: Make him play at least through high school. He’ll be glad one day.

Me (after taking a big gulp): Are you thankful I pushed you to play?

Nolan: More than anything. I’ve been talking to some of the guys out here. We all want more than anything to be able to go back and play under the lights one more time. Whether it’s football, baseball, basketball, soccer, whatever…everyone wishes they could go back just one more time.

I hoped I would hear those words before I was 60, never dreaming I’d hear them at 48.

The last occurrence was the unexpected gift of a book from a friend. I had loaned her five books from the World War II era on the fate of Christians, including St. Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein to use as research for a college paper she was writing. Becky is my age but has gone back to school in order to finish up her teaching degree. Several weeks later she showed up unannounced and unexpected in order to present me with a copy of a book published late last year called Church of Spies. For fifteen minutes we stood outside as she talked about her research and thanked me several times for the use of books from my library. She couldn’t see it in the twilight, but I was so quiet because I was trying to keep from crying after being overwhelmed by her simple generosity. I’d been beaten down and was nearly exhausted, but her gesture was like a cool drink of fresh water.

And then yesterday I began to understand what was happening. While praying during my lunch hour at the Pink Sisters chapel and sitting before the Blessed Sacrament, I began to understand that I was under attack. Satan did not want me to introduce Evening Prayer at St. John’s nor did he want those I met with to understand they could use this great treasure of the Church themselves. The tradition of sanctifying time to God through the praying of the psalms goes back thousands of years before Christ when the Jews would pray them throughout the day. Jesus himself prayed these same psalms. The Catholic Church has done the same ever since. But not just Catholics. Anglicans, Lutherans and other Protestant denominations all have their own traditions that grew from the trunk of this tree.

While sitting slump-backed in that pew yesterday I was encouraged and renewed. Despite my self-doubt and fears I would press on. I was too close to quit now after wanting to begin for so long.

***

In the grand scheme of things it was hardly noticeable. After Mass last night I stood in front of the sanctuary with the booklets I’d printed for use. I made only ten, hoping for at least one or two people to join me. After a few minutes of thinking no one would I found myself suddenly surrounded by around 15 people. After a brief introduction on my part we began. Fifteen minutes later it was done. We finished while the church was filling for a 7pm First Confession service held for our second graders and their parents. I doubt very many were aware of us or what was going on.

But something did happen. A toe-hold was made. A command post was established.

Last night we began fighting back. In community. Communion.

I slept like a baby last night for the first time in months.

We will continue every Wednesday night going forward. We may grow in number or we may not. But I believe we will see an increase in numbers over time.

I believe there are many who want to fight back. They see the shroud of darkness descending and are hungry to learn about whatever weapons available to them.

Based on the comments and positive feedback received last night I stand by that belief. And I will be better prepared in the future for the spiritual attacks that I know will come. There’s always a counter-attack.

I’m hopeful that last night we struck a blow and that as we continue others will have their eyes opened to the beauty and power contained within the Divine Office. All are welcome to join us for 15-20 minutes of prayer. Perhaps in time we’ll extend it for 15-30 minutes of discussion. In the meantime I have made plans to include a sheet each week that teaches on some aspect of the Liturgy of the Hours and history of the Divine Office.

But I’m taking it slow. Better a start than none at all. For while we live in seemingly more desperate times and there is a sense of urgency, I feel a calm that tells me to not rush according to my own schedule.

It’s His time, after all. Sanctified.

History.

His story.

***

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-4

There is No Other Stream (How We Forgot our Song)

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

T.S. Eliot
Burnt Norton (1935)
Four Quartets

*************

A few hours ago I was sitting in a pew near the rear of the Eucharistic Adoration Chapel of the Sister Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration (we know them as the “Pink Sisters”), listening to them sing Midday Prayers before the presence of the exposed Blessed Sacrament. I come every Friday…to pray, to think, or to simply sit in silence. Today I came for the silence, seeking a respite from the angry, hurting and confused voices we all have heard over the past week since the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere last Saturday. We’ve heard them again soon after as the debate about whether or not to accept Syrian refugees into the United States rages on.

[As to that specific question I have decided not to enter into the fray here. If I were, however, I would surely quote extensively from what I consider to be the best response yet to the question by Dr. Taylor Marshall, who takes the most clear-eyed and pragmatic approach that I’ve found so far. You may read it here: Islamic Refugee Crisis: Good Samaritan or Maccabean Response? Or both, and in fact I encourage you to do so. As Dr. Marshall writes in the introduction: This article is politically incorrect and says things that might shock you. Please read the entire article until the very last two paragraphs before making a judgment or writing incendiary comments. This might be one of the clearest things you’ve read on the topic, because it draws on virtue ethics of Thomas Aquinas – something generally ignored in our day and age.]

I’ve found it difficult to even begin to write something to make sense of it all. The need to place blame. Or offer solutions. As if I could do any of that. What I sought at the chapel today was peace with a side order of clarity. I found some today.

Without getting into specifics I will say that some of the fog that has lifted is the quick-trigger response I often have to blame Islam. Before you think I’ve gone off the deep end please hear me out. While Islam is a heresy, and often a dangerous ideology, I do not lay the blame for the terrorist actions or the growth of ISIS solely on Islam. For the conclusion I’ve arrived at is simply this: Islam is one of many ideologies competing to fill the void left by the West’s abandonment of its Judeo-Christian heritage. And before we lose our minds over Islam we need to recognize that we’ve got an even bigger problem to confront at home.

isis-terrorists

I’ve read that great civilizations held their course and their prosperity as long as its people knew its story. That story is what provided them with common purpose. Vision. It gave them their song.

We in the West have long ago abandoned our story and have lost our conviction. We have forgotten our song.

They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger and honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.

G.K. Chesterton, The Secret People

I began to connect the dots as I watched the BlackLivesMatter movement spread like wildfire across the campuses of our nation’s universities. Watching the videos, reading about their demands, and marveling at the speed in which they are filling a vacuum left by the lack of purpose felt by the youth in our country has led me to this theory. Our nation abandoned its traditions and began to tear down the institutions that made it strong long ago, but especially after World War II.

The sexual revolution begat the pill, unlimited abortion, the desecration of the sanctity of marriage by way of adultery and no-fault divorce, the destruction of the family, multitudes of single parent homes, the feminization of men and the epidemic of fatherless children, not to mention the rampant glorification of porn and unfettered access thereof. Pornography itself leading to the objectification of others, an inability to connect and maintain personal relationships and the constant pursuit of the orgasm over everything else (not to mention sex-trafficking and prostitution). All of which creates the majority of the ills we face as a society today; the ills we tells ourselves we must find solutions to at the costs of millions upon millions of dollars and social programs. We throw buckets of money at the problem but never dare address the solution that would cost us nothing. I’ve often thought that a great subject for a book would be about what the consequences are of doing the exact opposite of each of the Ten Commandments.

Our nation is increasingly becoming a citizenry without purpose. Men and women seek adventure. We yearn for a deeper purpose and contribute something during our time on this earth to help bring order and clarity. But we have removed that sense of belonging by way of Cultural Marxism and Critical Theory. We are committing suicide while wandering through a fog of our own choosing. And while we stumble aimlessly, threats to our existence and our civilization are growing stronger inside (Cultural Marxism) and outside (Islamic extremism) our culture because they are helping many to find a purpose, nihilistic though it may be.

despair

Writing in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher brought to my attention an interview between Sophie Shevardnadze of Russia Today and Scott Atran, an anthropologist who studies terrorism that was an eye opener. Among the more interesting parts of the interview was this exchange:

SS: Dr. Atran, I know that you’ve mentioned that even if ISIS is destroyed in Iraq and Syria, it will spring up elsewhere and you’ve said, Africa, for instance, and Asia. Is the potential of this movement limitless? How many people can there be who want to live in a blood-thirsty, genocidal state run by psychopaths? I mean, I know, you’re saying it’s a repetition of history…

DR.SA: Well, first, I don’t think they’re psychopaths…

SS: …and you know, it’s like French Revolution or Bolshevik revolution – but you’d think that we’ve learned something from history, no? I mean, I don’t want to be back in Bolshevik revolution times…

DR.SA: No, I don’t think so. Look, George Orwell in his review of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” back in 1939 have described the essence of the problem. He said: “Mr. Hitler has discovered that human beings don’t only want peace and security and comfort and free from want. They want adventure, glory and self-sacrifice, and Mr. Hitler’s appealed to that –  and while the Oxford student union at that time vowed to never fight again, Mr. Hitler has 80 million people fall down to his feet, in one of the most advanced countries in the world.” How did that happen? Again, ISIS is appealing to the same sort of sentiments, that have been appealed to throughout human history… and no, I don’t think we’ve learned much from history about that.

[snip]

SS: But, you know, we’re used to think that young people, teen in transition, like you say, they want freedom. They want to have fun, they want to have sex and drugs and drink. What we see with ISIS is forbidding this, for young people and for everyone – yet, there is this flock towards ISIS. I still don’t understand why, because whatever they’re trying to convince young people of, it’s pretty obvious there is no freedom where they are going. And young people usually strive for freedom…

DR.SA: Yeah, but I believe they do think they’re getting freedom. Instead of freedom-to-do-things, it’s freedom-from-having-to-do-things, where a life well-ordered and promising. I mean, again, they appeal to people from all over the world. I got a call from head of Medical School telling me that her best students have just left to set up field hospital for ISIS in Syria, and she was asking me why would they do this; and I said, “because it’s a glorious and adventurous mission, where they are creating a Brand New World, and they do it under constraints.” I mean, people want to be creative under constraints. A lot of young people just don’t want the kind of absolute freedom you’re talking about. The choices are too great, there’s too much ambiguity and ambivalence. There are too many degrees of freedom and so one can’t chart a life path that’s at all meaningful, and so these young people are in search of significance, and ISIS is trying to show them a way towards significance. Again, we have to take it very seriously, that’s why I think it’s the most dynamic counter-cultural movement since WWII, and it’s something I don’t think people are taking seriously, just dismissing them as psychopaths and criminals and… this, of course, is something that we have to destroy. I think, we’re on the wrong path in terms of the way we’re going to destroy it.

The West became bored and complacent with its story and wandered from the path. A new siren song has been whispered into the ears of the culture and is having an affect. Need proof outside of the headlines of the day? Easy. Wade into the comboxes. Engage someone in a simple back and forth. It is nary impossible as everyone has dug their collective heels deep into the fatty flesh of their malaise. Forgive me for sounding arrogant, but it’s like trying to talk reason to a room full of pre-Kindergarten toddlers. It’s pointless.

Now before I get accused of comparing college students to ISIS terrorists, read the boldfaced print in that portion of the interview again, but do by thinking not of ISIS, but of those college student movements. I don’t know how much of the video or accounts of the confrontations at the University of Missouri, Yale or Dartmouth that you’ve read, but I saw most of them. And when I read of the storming of the library at Dartmouth in which protesting students yelled at their peers who were only there to do what college students usually do—study—and demanded that their peers stand and chant along I got an ill feeling. And when those same protesters then got in the faces and screamed horrible things and threats at those students who refused to stand I did get ill. Because anyone who has studied the history of fascist countries has seen that behavior before. It started with students in Nazi Germany. It evolved into much worse. The Taliban took it even further, putting a gun to the back of the heads of those who did not stand in solidarity with Islam or renounce Christianity. Then they pulled the trigger.

People, we have seen this before. Too many times to count. Don’t tell me I’m going down a slippery slope. We’ve already skidded far below that slope’s bottom.

The West is a body that is sick, if not approaching its deathbed. ISIS, the worst sort of Islamic extremism, is simply filling the void.

There is a new book out called The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, written by Michael Walsh. It is currently the #1 in Education Reform & Policy on Amazon. I used to read Walsh for years when he wrote for the National Review under the pseudonym David Kahane, but I’d lost track of him. Earlier I referred to Cultural Marxism and Critical Theory. So what is that exactly?

The Cultural Marxists of the Frankfurt School believed economic Marxism would fail because of the resistance of the working classes. They believed Marxism could only ever be achieved by undermining the institutions, all of them. They began what they called the long march through the institutions. Who would have thought even a few years ago that the Boy Scouts would go gay? The Frankfurt School would have.

Critical Theory is central to their plan. More than likely, whether you knew it or not, this is what you got in college and probably even in high school. This will sound familiar to you, as familiar as the bromides you now hear from the students at the University of Missouri. Critical Theory seeks societal transformation through the emancipation of mankind from all forms of slavery. The slavers happen to be the Church, the family, and the free market.

When you hear someone badmouthing American history that is Critical Theory. The incessant intonations against the Crusades? Critical Theory. The patriarchal family, rape culture, multiculturalism, political correctness, speech codes; all Critical Theory. The idea is to make you question everything and in the questioning institutions fall.

You can read the entire review by Austin Ruse of Walsh’s book here. Like me, you may also want to pick up a copy, and the Amazon link is here. I have already ordered mine.

It was after I spent some time thinking more about the book’s subject, the protests at universities and the Islamic terrorism/Syrian refugee issues that I read this soon after the Pink Sisters finished their Midday Prayers:

It seems that there is an almost ubiquitous denial of anything sacred in our contemporary world. In our day, a very false opinion is popularized which holds that the sense of religion implanted in men by nature is to be regarded as something adventitious or imaginary, and hence, is to be rooted completely from the mind as altogether inconsistent with the spirit of our age and the progress of civilization.[10] How striking it is to note that the propagators of these ideas, who claim to be themselves so highly cultured, receive with such credulity the prognostications of computer programming. Everybody believes that there is ‘Someone’ ruling the universe, ‘Someone’ who is not bound by human knowledge or technology. They have no faith, but they do have superstitions.[11]

[10] Pope St. John XXIII, Encyclical, Mater et Magistra, 15 May 1961, 214
[11] St. J. Escrivá, The Way, 587

From In Conversation with God, Vol. 5, by Francis Fernandez, page 517

I believe with all my heart that unless man returns to God, the faith and the traditions of the earliest Christians that all will be lost. The modern citizen of the West lacks that ability because it is no longer taught or revealed to him or her. No longer do we live in a society where it can be taken for granted that the person you’re talking to has any inkling of the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments or what the Beatitudes involve. There is no common or agreed-upon foundation upon which to build consensus or understanding. Our house is literally built on sand. We suffer from poverty, but not of a solely economic nature. We suffer from a poverty of spirit and attempt to fill that emptiness by singing that most inane and vapid of post-modern anthems, “Imagine” by John Lennon.

stuckinarutBut Western man still wants to believe in something. He has retained his capacity for superstition and myth, misguided though they may be. But his stories are nothing more than comic books and his songs pop ditties compared to the incredible legacy and canon of thought and song bequeathed to him. He has laughed at, scoffed at, and disowned the heritage left to him, brushing it aside as mere foolishness and folly.

Will Western men and women drink once more from the one true stream of life? Or will they return to comic books and refuse to have their thirst for life, purpose and meaning quenched because of stubborn pride?

The future of our nation, and in turn the world itself, will be determined by their answer.

******

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.

“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

“May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis. Chapter 2.

A parable for our age

My favorite parable for many years has been the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Anthony Esolen has cleverly re-written that venerable parable as one that more accurately reflects the age in which we live, or at least the age that our cultural betters would force upon us. Esolen wrote it as a commentary on the recently completed 2015 Synod on the Family in Rome. I believe it can applied further, into the very culture of death, decay and anything goes that we live in today.


A Parable for the Synod
by Anthony Esolen

Much has been made at the recent Synod of the parable of the Prodigal Son. People who try with all their hearts to honor the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage have been cast as the elder son in Jesus’ parable, who resents his brother, the penitent wastrel. That is uncharitable and unjust. Allow me a parable that more accurately portrays our situation:

A man had two sons.  And the younger said to his father, “Give me my half of the estate, quick.” So the father divided the estate, and gave half to his son, who took the proceeds and went to live in a far country, where he spent half upon drink and whores, but invested the rest in a business importing fish, so that when a famine struck the land, he became wealthy.

After he had lain with a score of women, he married and divorced, and took a curly-haired Greek lad into his home, lying with him as with a woman.

One day he recalled the holy feasts he had enjoyed at his father’s house, and he shed a tear, which he wiped soon, and said to his bedfellow, “Pedophilus, let us arise and go now unto my father’s house, for there they enjoy holy feasts, which this land is empty of.” So they set forth.

When they were yet a distance away, his father saw him and came running, and threw his arms about his neck and kissed him.  And the son said, “Father, I have grown rich in a far country. Here is my friend, with whom I lie as with a woman, and to whom I have given rings and shoes and fine robes. Now go slay the fatted calf, for I am famished for celebration, and long to see the holy things again.” But the father hesitated. “Be off with you,” said the son. “I have returned!”

So the father did as he was commanded, with a troubled mind and a heavy heart.

When it came time to pray, the younger son bowed his head and squeezed the hand of his bedfellow. “I shall go in unto the altar of God,” they said, “of God, the joy of my youth.” The younger son shed a tear, because he had returned, and then wiped it soon, and gave his friend a wink.

So it was for many years. Every Sabbath the father presided over the feast, and his mind grew a little soft and his heart grew a little hard. Meanwhile, the customs of the far country spread into that land, and it was said that they lived like the angels, neither marrying nor giving in marriage, but lying with one another all the same. Still the father wished it were not so.

Through all these years, the elder son tended his father’s fields, draining the meadows, sowing the barley, clearing the weeds, reaping the stalks, winnowing the fruit from the chaff, milling the grain and hauling it in sacks back to the estate. He had married too, a good and patient woman. They had one child, a son. The boy loved them dearly, and from his earliest years followed his father about his work, lending a hand whenever he could. He grew in wisdom and stature, ruddy in the cheek and broad of shoulder.

“Father,” said the boy, “why does my uncle do what he does?”

“He does not understand,” said his father, the elder son. “You must pray for your uncle.”

One day a girl from the far country came to the boy and said, “Joshua, you are as handsome as a stag. Come lie with me.” And her eyes glanced like sunlight upon the waters. The boy walked past, and she laughed at him and called him an evil name.

“Father,” said the boy, “why does my grandfather allow it?”

“He is old and weary,” said his father, the elder son. “You must pray for your grandfather.” So he returned to his work, more alone now than ever.  But the people mocked him, and called him a broken stone from a ruined house. And the boy burned in shame, and he defended his father. Sometimes he came home in tears, bloody and bruised, with the flesh raw on his knuckles.  Still the girls beckoned to him and said, “Joshua, Joshua the handsome, come lie with us.”

But the grandfather grew accustomed to the new ways. One day he threw a great feast, and invited all of the harlots of the land to enjoy their harlotry, and he set up a golden calf in the midst, and a statue of a god with crisped hair, and another with the body of a man and the head of a dog, and he cried out to all, “Come feast with us, for the Lord has blessed us with abundant riches!” And there was the noise of licentiousness and revelry.

"The people called him a stone from a crumbling house..."

“The people called him a broken stone from a ruined house…” (photo source)

And it came to pass that the elder son and his boy were coming from the fields, filthy to the knees with mud. When they heard the noise of the feast, they asked a servant what it might be. “Your father has slain a dozen calves, because he has come to his senses, and has decided to take into his home one of the women from the far country.”

Then the elder son shed a tear, and he beckoned to the boy. “Come, son,” he said. “Let us go home and pray.”

But Joshua said, “No, I will not go with you.” And he walked with the servant toward the great house.

“Son,” pleaded the father, “do not abandon me! You are with me always, and everything that I have is yours!”

“Father,” said Joshua, “I have loved you all my life.  But you have nothing, and you are a fool.” And he turned and went.

Removed

monalisa-selfie

Heather King has been in Rome for a few weeks. A few days ago she wrote about something that’s been on my mind a lot: our ongoing obsession with screens.

Never have I seen the throngs of folks wielding selfie sticks like the throngs at St. Peter’s in Rome. The whole scene was too much for me and I gave away my tickets to the Papal Mass and a Papal Audience in favor of wandering elsewhere, in particular along the banks of the Tiber.

[snip]

I’ve thought a lot about the phenomenon of posting our life instead of living it. On FB, no-one says I’m having a bad time, this place sucks, I feel lonely, depressed, and unloved, I just ate a ripoff meal. We don’t travel. We just move our body to a new place so we can have a different background for our Instagram pix.

I know, I know. Not another blog about how self-centered we all are with our phones. It’s been done to death and I agree. But I want to continue in the vein not of selfies, but of how we’ve become together alone. I’ve noticed this when walking around downtown, eating a meal at a restaurant, or even at a red light in traffic while looking into the car next to me. Literally no one is looking at their surroundings or at the people with them, usually the people we purport to love and care for the most. And, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve noticed the same in my own living room at night. After supper we’ll sit down for a little while together as a family and as I pause to look up from where I’ve been catching up on my Twitter feed, my wife is looking into her phone, as my son is staring at his iPod and my daughter into her tablet. I look over at the dog’s bed in the corner of our living room and he’s looking at all of us, waiting for…something. I’m not sure. A discussion maybe? For someone to laugh and communicate in some manner? I imagine it all looks rather lonely to a beagle. Imagine how it would be to be a toddler or young child in a family who’s attention is not on each other, but on some handheld device. A cold, impersonal device.

“We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles …. The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable.” — Pope Francis, Laudato Si (2015)

On Oct. 21, 2015 I received an email letter from President Kevin Roberts of Wyoming Catholic College. I’m on this list because at one point I’d hoped my oldest son would attend school there. I’m going to quote parts of it.

At Wyoming Catholic College, we recognize the immense distractedness that cell phones create. Our policy requiring students to check-in their phones at the beginning of each semester fosters an environment in which we are truly present to others. From visitors to campus to employers of our graduates, many people remark at the joy and presence of our students. Though many factors can be attributed to those characteristics, we can attest to the absence of cell phones being a significant contributor.

Outside our WCC community, there is mounting evidence that we’d all would be well-served to untether ourselves from cell phones, even if for just a short while each day. From legitimate concerns about brain health to a recent report about teens’ posture being affected by overuse of cell phones, it is not an exaggeration to say that immoderate use of a tool has impacted humans negatively.

The most profound evidence of that problem may be photographer Eric Pickersgill’s new project, “Removed.” Pickersgill’s series of photographs capture the most normal of moments: families in the dining room, a couple reading at bedtime, and friends enjoying a barbecue. What’s captivating about each picture is that Pickersgill used software to remove the cell phone from each person’s hand, creating a stark image of how focused we are on our phones.

I’m going to break in here and urge you to click on the link to Pickersgill’s project right now. Here is that link again. I haven’t placed any of his photos in this blog post for copyright reasons. But these are among the most powerful, even haunting, photos I’ve ever seen. This is what we are saying is important to us. This is our priority. This is our downfall.

On his site Pickersgill says he got the idea while sitting in a café one morning and wrote the following observation:

Family sitting next to me at Illium café in Troy, NY is so disconnected from one another. Not much talking. Father and two daughters have their own phones out. Mom doesn’t have one or chooses to leave it put away. She stares out the window, sad and alone in the company of her closest family. Dad looks up every so often to announce some obscure piece of info he found online. Twice he goes on about a large fish that was caught. No one replies. I am saddened by the use of technology for interaction in exchange for not interacting. This has never happened before and I doubt we have scratched the surface of the social impact of this new experience. Mom has her phone out now.

The image of that family, the mother’s face, the teenage girls’ and their father’s posture and focus on the palm of their own hands has been burned in my mind. It was one of those moments where you see something so amazingly common that it startles you into consciousness of what’s actually happening and it is impossible to forget. I see this family at the grocery store, in classrooms, on the side of the highway and in my own bed as I fall asleep next to my wife. We rest back to back on our sides coddling our small, cold, illuminated devices every night.

President Roberts continued:

If you have doubted the naysayers about cell phone overuse, or questioned the wisdom of WCC’s cell phone policy, take a few moments to view and contemplate the photographs in “Removed.” They will convince you of the disordered obsession with our phones, which comes at the expense of the people in our company.

As I mention frequently, solutions to most of our social, cultural, and political problems begin with each of us taking small steps. Consider, therefore, what you can do to improve our genuine, face-to-face engagement with others. Imagine a dinner, a conversation, a meeting where each participant decides to put away their phone. Call instead of sending a text message.

We may very well learn again to prioritize the human persons in front of us, rather than the ephemeral appeal of a text message, Facebook post, or e-mail.

Back to Heather King’s blog for a minute to catch her ending:

Ticking, say, the seven basilicas of Rome off my checklist doesn’t make me a Catholic. What makes me a Catholic—a follower of Christ; fully human—is the way I see the world, experience the world. My poverty and need. My imagination, that sees the whole world as consecrated, redeemable. My human heart that, as all human hearts must be, is pierced through with a sword.

Chesterton said that “Culture is the art of growing things.” There is no growth if we do not cultivate and nurture our relationships with the people around us. There can be no family, no neighborhood and no community. There can be no culture.

This is what we miss when engrossed in our screens. We miss that part of our humanity in which we interact with and see the world. We are not just not communicating with those other humans that are with us, we are not communicating with nature, and by extension, the world itself. We do not see the world through our eyes, but through the eyes of an interpreter on the other end of that screen. We have abdicated our humanity and, ironically, our ability to have the choice we so ardently demand and desire. Any chance at having a mystical experience is removed, as is our ability to make our own mere observations.

Two years ago this November our household disconnected the satellite cable. Not only have we saved $2500 in two years but we haven’t missed it at all. I don’t feel that we and our kids are luddites, disconnected from the world. To be fair, into that vacuum rushed a different screen, proving that there will always be a vacuum if you are not careful. This is our next challenge as a family. This is the thing-that-must-be-removed. And then we must be prepared to fill that space.

Simply stated, we must be prepared to replace what we remove.

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In the modern world the individual no longer faces silence, no longer faces the community, but faces only the universal noise. The individual stands between noise and silence. He is isolated from noise and isolated from silence. He is forlorn. ~ Max Picard, The World of Silence, page 65