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Sentimentalism

We hear of the stark sentimentalist, who talks as if there were no problem at all: as if physical kindness would cure everything: as if one need only pat Nero and stroke Ivan the Terrible. This mere belief in bodily humanitarianism is not sentimental; it is simply snobbish. For if comfort gives men virtue, the comfortable classes ought to be virtuous—which is absurd. Then, again, we do hear of the yet weaker and more watery type of sentimentalists: I mean the sentimentalist who says, with a sort of splutter, “Flog the brutes!” or who tells you with innocent obscenity “what he would do” with a certain man—always supposing the man’s hands were tied. – G.K. Chesterton

‘Tis interesting this beautiful thought of Gilbert.  In one in the same statement, he says violent men and passive sentimentalists come from the same tree, namely ignorance of the human person.  Man is not merely the sentiment connected with human physical contact, not to deny its power, only to mitigate the popular belief in its power.  Nor does man need to be degraded as an ignonmous idiot worth nothing more than torture.

Man is worthy of being contemplated not for his own sake but to see that he is not the root of his existence or the power by which he lives.  He is immediately and brokenly contigent.  He requires both discipline and loving sentiment to become virtuous, insodoing he moves towards being fully human.

Cardinal Ber …. Oooo! a Squirrel!

Distraction is an interior fracture.  it will never lead the person to encounter himself, for it impedes him from looking into the mirror of his heart. Collecting oneself is the beginning.” – Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio (Pope Francis)

Odds are you are reading this on an electronic device. (If you’re not, please let me know who printed my writing without my permission.) Technology has been so great in helping provide society with great advancement. It allows for the immediate distribution of information. It allows one to acquire new knowledge at a much lower base cost. It admits for global communication, which means both communicating from one side of the globe to the other and communicating to a great mass of people. We find ourselves on our phones, tablets, and computers. More than any other time in history do we have a critical mass of distraction. Our phones notify us when our Trivia Crack opponent (people still play Trivia Crack right?) responds to his questions. It informs us of breaking news, an @ mention on Twitter, a like on Facebook, a comment on an Instagram photo, a weather warning, and the group texts between a group of friends who beating an inside joke to death. In fact, Dr. Taylor Marshall has said that each person we follow on Twitter, each friend of Facebook vies for our attention. “Read my post!” “Listen to ME!” “Look at me!” It’s like putting every single person you know in your pocket.

According to their statistics, there are 300 hours of video uploaded to Youtube every minute. Each, or most, vie for our attention when we go to see a grumpy cat video. Then, there are all those little games on our phone to occupy us in line at the grocery store. We score those little points here and there. We surpass this friend here, beat that friend in a game of intellect there. Then, there are the actual video game systems that can distract us for longer amounts of time until the next time we have a responsibility. Amidst all of this noise that is constantly being pushed upon us, our consciousness resembles Tokyo or Las Vegas, where lights are so bright that even the night feels like day.

Cardinal Bergoglio, in a conversation with Rabbi Abraham Skorka*, peers into this seeming perpetual motion with an insight coming from a place of rest. He calls distraction an interior fracture. It slowly disables our interior from functioning properly. Each distraction is its own micro-fracture slowly weakening the structure both of our intellect and our spirit. It prevents us from looking into the mirror of our hearts, he says. We do not even enter the bedroom to peer at the mirror.

Looking back into my own life, I can attest to this. The more I succumbed to distraction from my phone the harder it was for me to reflect, the harder it was to meditate, and the harder it was to contemplate. Part of the effectiveness of retreats, I found, was that I freed myself from distraction in so doing allowing myself to hear both the movements of my own heart and the movement of the Spirit with my heart.

In days gone by, the pace of life and the lack of immediate distractions gave the greater space for reflection and prayer. From this came beautiful poetry, art, literature (imagine Jane Austen writing Pride and Prejudice with an iPhone sitting next to her, nope she’d been all up on Pintrest.), and powerful mysticism. At the risk of assuming to much about you, my reader, we live in the relative economic ease that Jane Austen experienced, but unlike her, we so fill our time with distractions that our great creations are … memes (excuse my cynicism).

Because we no longer have the luxury of limited distraction, unless you are cloistered or a mountain man, we have to make intentional distraction-free time for the building up of our intellects, hearts, souls, and sanity. I recall a conversation I had with some fellow bloggers a few years ago about using the iPad for prayer. It’s so filled with distractional possibilities it can, by its nature, nearly sabotage prayer, especially if you are as unvirtuous as myself.

Although it might be that you started reading this post as a distraction, I invite you, challenge you even to close the browser, app, or tablet and sit for a few moment in silence away from dings and chirps and closer to your your heart and the heart of God.

*On Heaven and Earth

image by Alex Valentine

Jimmy Fallon and the Comedy of Personhood

If you’ve spent more than 2 hours on Facebook a week, it’s likely one of your ‘friends’ has posted a video from Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He has take over the video-waves with a brilliant social media strategy that, fortunately for him, has the support of those in power at NBC. Although I am not usually awake when he airs, much less watching TV, I have been well introduced to his later night antics via Youtube.

I’ll be honest with you. I have fallen prey to the Lay’s syndrome as played out on Youtube. You can’t watch just one. So I have found myself, a few times, rolling through clip after clip of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Some of the lip-sync battles he has with his guests, although staged, still have this joy and goofiness that are Fallon’s trademarks. I particularly like how Fallon and his writers aren’t trying to be like their predecessors. He is paving his own path.

No one will expect from Jimmy Fallon the incisive yet comedic style of George Carlin. He won’t have the introverted comedic insight of Jerry Seinfeld. His humor won’t be the over-the-top physicality of Will Ferrell. Fallon is a goofy guy, who delights in the goofiness of others. He’s somewhat awkward and can never keep a straight face. What he has realized is that his comedy feeds off of others. I don’t know if it was because of his many years at SNL, but he’s at his best when he’s reacting to other people. His guest conversation seem less staged than Leno, but to, he find his stride when there’s a game.

You can tell he’s a competitive guy. When he’s playing a games of Catchphrase, Charades, or Pictionary, I’m usually on the floor because I’ve laughed so hard I cried and cried till I’ve fallen. What’s so great about these games is that he’s finding humor in the regular personalities in these ‘irregular’ people, i.e. Entertainment Tonight superstars. He’s revealing to his studio, TV, and internet audiences that these are normal people who make normal mistakes just like you and me. He’s, in a sense, demythologizing stardom, revealing that these idols are just persons. What makes it even bettter is that he is delighting in their personhood. He’s isn’t treating them like stars. He’s completely comfortable playing Pictionary with Jennifer Aniston, Lenny Kravitz, and CeeLo Green (that video is worth a watch because we all have a teammate like CeeLo). He looks at, speaks with, and delights in their quirks and little weaknesses. He is showing to his audience in a subtle way, the cult of stardom is misplaced. He’s also showing to the starts, yes, you can be treated normal in this overly public life of yours. You don’t have to hold this façade of perfection. You can acknowledge you are bad at guessing random words or drawing pictures.

It is also refreshing to see a comedian who, instead of constantly berating the mistakes and foibles of stars, uses his humor to show that they will always make mistakes. He de-romantizes them. None of these people are perfect, despite what the makeup department can do. Whereas the former comedy seems heavy, harsh, and condescending: “hey look at this person whom you thought was perfect. Well they aren’t. Point and laugh.” Fallon’s humor says, “Let’s delight in the fact that this person is human, and being human is rather comical.”

Tribes by Seth Godin

I remember in my second year of undergrad philosophy studying the writings of the pre-Socratic named Heraclitus. I found him most interesting. Whereas others in his era had though that the main element was one of the four elements, wind, fire, water, or earth, Heraclitus thought outside the box. He said the world was in constant flux; it was like a flowing river, no two moments would be exactly alike. Plato quoted him as saying, “Everything changes and nothing remains still and you cannot step twice into the same stream.” As a twenty-year-old, I could very much identify with this image of flux. Stability, even in the midst of a seminary run by Benedictine monks (one of who’s charisms is stability), I felt a constant movement. Maybe that’s what attracted me to Twitter five year later. Emotions certainly are in constant flux. Relationships had, after 20 years, come and gone, some willingly, some regrettably. Paradoxically, I found an idea on which I could hang my hat.

Until, that is, I read Plato, then Aristotle, and finally Aquinas. I cam to realize that there are certain things that are unchanging, namely God, and things connected to Him like truth, goodness, oneness, and beauty. From those things, called universals, one could set principles from which to hold firm amidst the change that happens in a word still experiencing its creations. Spiritually we can hold fast to a God who is an eternal rock. He will not be moved. Intellectually, we can rest ourselves on these universals that guide, direct, and are the end of our thought.

My problem with Seth Godin’s leadership manual Tribes is that he so embraces the Heraclitian concept of change he discards anything that is immutable and unmovable. Inso-doing, he philosophically weakens his assertions, some of which are great insights into leading post-modern man. The core of the leadership ideal in the book is two-fold. 1) Tribes naturally arise in human communities and they yearn for a leader 2) That leader necessarily must be someone who bucks the status quo (he calls this person a heretic) to be a successful leader of a tribe. Both ideals are centered on the concept of the word in constant change and the leader is the one, who understanding this, effects the change instead of being effected by it.

By basing his whole ideal on the fact that everything changes means that, at some point, even what he sets up will no longer be relevant, which seems strange to set up a system that won’t be helpful when times change (other than to say, embrace the change). It seems odd and futile to make any definitive statements when everything is relative to what is beyond the status quo. When you set yourself contrary to something, you bind yourself to the contrary. Once the heretic becomes the status quo he/she is no longer relevant and has let down his/her tribe.

I’m sure he intentionally chose the word heretic because it is an incendiary word and is divisive and so, therefore, grabs the reader’s attention and is memorable. He elevates heretics into saints. Heretics are the good people, he says, because they embrace that change is what drives the world. Heretics, as a whole, looking through history, specifically within the Church,  have rather mucked things up. Arius was a heretic, but he wasn’t bucking a system because Christology hadn’t been fully fleshed out (no pun intended). His challenge to Christ’s eternal divinity ended up solidifying Christology in the Church. His effect was apophatic and so in bucking something he unintentionally solidified what we believed about Christ. Martin Luther, who Godin mentions multiple times, originally didn’t want to be a heretic. As he moved along in his own thought, based on faulty principles (see above), did he separate himself from orthodoxy. Yes, he bucked the system, but I wouldn’t consider his heresy successful only because it started a chain reaction of great division and great confusion in Christianity. It had the opposite effect of unity, one of the universals I spoke about earlier.

Inside of this faulty system though, Godin has some keen insights in sociology, which, in turn, effect the way one can lead. To settle for current operational standards without reflection is never a good thing. To work mindlessly, following the manager blindly, doesn’t build human excellence and is an offense both to human creativity and free will. Such stati quo are unjust to the worker and need reform, need new insight, inventive ways of solving problems, free of  the complacency that maintains what works just because it does. Leaders should and need to build up and effect change that will help their sphere (tribe) excel.

Godin says leaders don’t need to be in positions of power to lead. In fact, in reflecting on many of the Church’s greatest saints, very few started in positions of power. Francis was a hermit. Catherine worked at home. John of the Cross was imprisoned. Frederick Ozanam was a college student. They all saw that different parts of the Church had entered into complacency and so led by example and word. One started a religious order that change the face of religious life in the Church. Another called out the pope in his complacency. Another reformed a complacent religious order. Another saw the need to take care of the poor in Paris and so he filled that need forming a society (St. Vincent de Paul Society) to do so. None were heretics, although at various times some might have been labelled as such. The beauty of true orthodoxy is that is allows for a wide range of expression without ever becoming heretical.

The concept of building tribes, although not new, is very well articulated by Godin. It’s important for a leader develop a group that is aligned with his/her values vis a vie then goal he/she is trying to achieve. Francis ended up starting an order of religious. It’s wasn’t his original intention, but men began to follow him in the ideal of living simply. It was the same with John of the Cross in the Discalced Carmelites and Ozanam in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They sought fill gaps in what was needed in the church and men and women followed. They didn’t seek to start a tribe, a tribe organically grew around their leadership and so they effected changed, not for the sake of change but rather because change was needed.

I’m glad I picked up this book. I bought it to reflect on a different leadership practices and Godin seem to be a contemporary leadership guru. Although I think his concepts lack necessary philosophic depth, they aim at one thing, if not directly so, human excellence.

photo taken by Marco Derksen

Overcome with Paschal Joy

Happy Easter. It was a long and arduous Lent. Now we have just finished this 8 day celebration of one day and an entire celebration of one event. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. I don’t know about you, but this gets me super excited. I just want to dance and shout and overall look foolish. What was sadness has become joy. In and through Christ rising from the dead, WE HAVE ETERNAL LIFE. We have the great promise of the joy of heaven.

So often in the ending of Lent our merely comes from returning to that thing that we gave up, but that joy won’t last. Because the thing we gave up, won’t last either. Joy in being given eternity last much longer because eternity in joy lasts.

Over the course of the Octave of Easter, I, with every other priest around the world, was prayer the First Preface of Easter. It captures exactly what I’m trying to say.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation
at all times to acclaim you, O LORD,
but on this day to laud you yet more gloriously
when Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.
For He is the true Lamb
who has taken away the sins the world;
by dying, He has destroyed our death,
and by rising restored our life.
Therefore, OVERCOME WITH PASCHAL JOY,
every land, every people exults in your praise
and even the heavenly Powers, with the angelic hosts,
sing together the unending hymn of your glory,
as they acclaim.

Easter gives us the trust and best opportunity to be overcome by joy. No matter the circumstance you find yourself, good or bad, cause for joy or cause for sorrow. Let the joy of the Resurrection and what that act means for us permeate your heart. This joy will be for eternity.

Writers Read and Readers Write

A friend of mine has a blog by the title of Writers Read and Readers Write. That phrase has stuck with me since she started it. I want to affirm her statement as true.

The past six months have been the driest time for me in reading since I willing picked up a book to read in 4th grade. Reading is something that I love. I started this blog to share with others the great things I was reading. I enjoyed writing about the insights from what I was reading in seminary both for class and outside of it. School  was a place that fostered it and I devoured books (sometimes our of necessity for research). Now that I am in the real world outside of the rigor of academic life; I have found reading diminish, to my sorrow, not just in theological works but in novels as well. I can feel myself loosing my edge because of it.

You see, creativity is often sparked by the creativity of another. Plato to Aristotle. Stevie Wonder to Alicia Keys. Classical Greek sculpture to Michelangelo. Neo-Gothic architecture to Antoni Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia. (Yes, I’m comfortable putting Keys alongside Aristotle, Michelangelo, and Gaudí.) It is no different in literature. The wit of Shakespeare was anteceded by Chaucer and earlier playwrights. Despite many writers having new styles, like Hemingway, Twain, or Goethe; all were familiar with older styles and so knew what their deviation meant. Even Goethe though stood on the shoulders of the old story of the doctor Faustus.

My travel through the biblio-desert has consequently stunted my creativity. I have had no imaginative stimulation and so my own words have bone dry. I fave found myself a victim of my own exile from thought. I now know what if eels like not to read, like so many people who find the practice detestable except in 140 characters or 500 word news posts. It is a horrible way to live. My desire to read and therefore write has grown greatly during this Lenten time. Oddly enough, the self-imposed desert of fasting has revealed the desert state in which I was already living. So, here begins a new discipline from which I hope will spring new words, thoughts, ideas, songs, blog posts, and books.

“As a deer longs for running streams, so my soul longs for You my God.” “Parched lifeless and without water,” I will be no more. I will drink freely of the great cultural heritage we have in the English written word, in poetry, theology, philosophy (mostly translated, but still!) and literature. From that will spring what I hope will be things you will enjoy reading yourself.

The Best Books Read in 2014 no. 8

The LineupLooking over the whole list, this year was a year of non-fiction. Only three novels top the year. #8 is a sort of hybrid. Otto Penzler, at least at the time of the publishing of the soon to be mentioned book, was the operator of a mystery/detective fiction bookstore in New York. Such a store is quite a niche, so to help with profits and hopefully bring new business Penzler asked some of the best detective fiction authors to write essays about their detectives, inspiration for, reasons why, etc. He brought them all together in a collection called The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives. 

You can tell from previous top tens that I’m a big fan of detective fiction, especially the old school stuff, and have latent hopes of creating my own detective one day. This was fascinating to hear behind the scenes stories from the authors about how they got in to crime fiction and what brought them to the particular character that made their writing famous. It was fun to see the different minds of writes. Some wrote personal stories. Some wrote short stories about their character, not even breaking the fourth wall. Despite my enjoyment of the genre, many of these authors and detectives were new to me, which spurred some desire to pick up a few more characters other than Holmes and Poirot.

If you are at all into crime fiction, you would enjoy this book.

The Best Books Read in 201 no. 9

Part of the reason I read fewer books this year is that I took on two massive books of near to or over a thousand pages, the first of which shows up in today’s #9 spot. Due to HBO, popular culture is well aware of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and the quasi-medieval world he builds therein. I don’t have HBO nor do I have any desire to watch the series, but a good friend recommended the series of books a few years before “Winter is coming” became a phrase of geekery jumping in with “May the force be with you” or “Beam me up Scotty.”

So I figured I would pick up the first in the series and see if I like it. Martin has created some indelible characters both protagonist and antagonist and no-tagonist, characters you love instantly like Ned Stark and characters you grow to love, Tyrion Lannister, and characters you hate, Little Finger. He sets up his characters and just lets them play out in this world he created. He writes a dramatic and compelling story that leaves you wondering what will happen next, and who will die next.

It does have some, to me, unnecessarily graphic sex scenes that do nothing to advance the plot, that could have be written more tastefully. I will probably end up reading one of the series a year. We’ll see in the future if Martin remains on the top ten next year.

Best Books Read in 2014 No. 10

So it’s been a long time since I’ve been on here. I took an unannounced leave of absence for no particular great reason, but for those of you who are still reading this blog, I am back and hope to be producing more regular content. To that end, it’s that time of year again, for my top ten books of the year. Last year was a weak reading year for me. I didn’t read much at all. In fact, I would say 75% of the books I ‘read’ were audiobooks. Some normal authors that show up on this countdown every year, Mr. Chesterton and Ms. Christie, will be absent in the list this year. I didn’t even have time or take time to read my favorite authors. Hopefully, this year will hold a better time for reading. It is one of my ‘resolutions’ for this year.

I was planning on publishing this series earlier, but I hesitated because I came into reading some great books during the last few days of 2014 (I had time.), which change the shape of the list I had originally devised. So without further ado …

#10 isn’t the genre of book you’d normally find in my top ten, but it was so insightful and thought provoking, I couldn’t leave it out. I picked up The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership: Achieving and Sustaining Excellence through Leadership by Jeffery Likes and Gary Convis because for a little over two years I was in a leadership program for priests, and it seemed like good supplemental reading. I was glad I did pick it up because it provided a good supplement and also gave some good philosophical and theological background towards the importance of leadership with any organization.

The Toyota Way to Lean LeadershipNeither Convis or Likes are theologians, and honestly, I don’t even know their religious affiliation. However, as they began to outline the leadership practices and structure of Toyota, theological lightbulbs started flashing in my head. Toyota is an interesting case study because in their entire history as a company they have run in the red only twice in something like 60 years. Most other years they have turned a substantial profit. Businesses tried to imitate their practice so as to stabilize their own companies and increase their profits. The key to Toyota’s success, though, isn’t in its processes, although they are very good. It isn’t in the hiring, although, that too, is good. It isn’t in how they budget and plan, although, that too is good. It’s success comes from its formation of its employees into leaders. It is, first and foremost, a person-centric company. Yes, many of the processes are automated to construct the cars they make, but Toyota realizes that is is only as strong as its people who design, maintain, and operate that equipment. Toyota takes great pains and many, many years forming its leaders. It sees the importance in forming good individuals who can think critically, think reflexively, and think creatively about problems.

Furthermore, problems also are attribute to Toyota’s success. They look for problems and address them with the best solutions they can devise. Then, they address the next problem and so forth. They recognize that no process, nor person, and no car is perfect. It can always be made better. It is seeking through its leaders to better reform itself to produce what is best. I have no doubt that is why the Camry is such a fantastic seller.

Finally, it follows the principle of subsidiarity. It puts its trust in its leaders. If a lower leader, closer to the source of the problem can address it, then he should address it. Only when a problem gets beyond him does it go above him to the next level, and even then, the next level guides him, but still allows him to come up with the solution. This allows for more knowledgeable problem solving and less micro-management. That kind of philosophy builds up the human resources even more.

Whether you’re a in business or not, whether you are in a leadership position or not, I would suggest this book as a theological reflection on the  practical application of the dignity of the human person and the principle of subsidiarity.

Parker Duofold (or How a Pen Can Reveal the Unconditional Generosity of God)

In the previous part of my “pen” series, I reflected on the gift and the joy of writing letters. It has drawn me closer to a unique community of people who collect and use fin writing instruments. I have connected with one particular gentleman named Peter through Instagram. He sent the first letter and I was surprised to find attached to the letter some beautiful paper with which I could continue the correspondence. looking back now I too that gift for granted. I thought it a nice gesture from a new pal, and nothing else. I responded to him and sent my small little letter to Peter 3/4 of the way across the world to the mysterious place called Australia.

Time moved on, days passed, other letter to other pen pals were written. Then, one day I receive a package in the shape of a pen box. My first thought was, “I don’t remember ordering a pen.” As sometimes can happen in the life of a pen addict, I figured I have forgotten about a quick purchase from eBay of some cheap Chinese pen. Then, I noticed the Australian postage and Peter’s name on the return address label. I wondered what it could be? So I open up the package and there before me was a pen box that says Parker. My mind began to wonder, “What’s inside?” I open the box to find a gorgeous black Parker Duofold with Gold trim. Barrel Bands

Now rewind to a month or two previous, my original pen pal and I were discussing on Instagram our dream pens, our Grail pens as they are called. These are the pens that are beyond our budgetary constraints and would need to be saved up for or are wholly impossible or impractical to buy. The first pen on my list was part of the latter, a Montblanc Albert Einstein Limited Edition pen, which is both stunning and costs about the amount of a down payment on a car. My #2 pen was the Parker Duofold, which, to me, was and still is, the quintessential classy fountain pen. It is larger. It is sleek, and yet with the gold trim still a little showy. It just oozes class.

Much to my surprise, I found this very pen before me. I read and reread the attached letter due to my shock. I took me a good ten to fifteen minutes to glean a reason why he would send me such an extravagant gift. Finally, I found a small paragraph toward the end of the letter where Peter explained his reasoning. He saw it on my Grail list and had resolved to give it to me.

I’m not going to lie, and you may think me both crazy and overly emotional, but I cried. I was overwhelmed by such a great gift, but I was even more overwhelmed by the generosity of the giver. I deserved no such gift. We have not even become that close exchanging a mere letter each. He did it out of great generosity of heart.

I cried also because I realized that Peter was imaging to me the unconditional generosity of the Father. This is how the Father loves me. He gives me extravagant gifts. He showers graces on me which I do not deserve. He knows what I truly desire, and He set things up that I may receive what I desire.

Peter even showed me how the Lord prepares my heart. He gives me smaller gifts, like the paper, to expand my heart to receive His love even more. He knows I won’t be able to receive well, without a larger heart, He who is infinite.

Never did I think that correspondence would evoke such a reflection on God’s unconditional love. Never did I enter this correspondence journey hoping for so great a gift. Yet, there I was a grown man crying over a pen. At least it wasn’t a sniffly snotty cry.