Friday, November 30, 2012

Famous Catholic Friday: J.R.R. Tolkien

Fridays are Famous Catholics Day!

Every Friday I’m going to do a profile of a famous Catholic to provide a sample of the vast diversity that is found in the Universal Church.

To kick things off, we have one Catholic that every nerd knows about; Prof. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings.

Here seen shortly after his marriage looking dashing in his army uniform

Catholic Credentials: Raised by a priest from the age of 12; lifelong devout Catholic; devoted husband and father of four children; author of the greatest work of Catholic literature of the 20th century.

Nerd Credentials: Polyglot and first-rate scholar of Philology and Medieval Literature; champion of fairy tales and monsters; made up his own languages and a mythology to match; author of The Lord of the Rings; creator of the modern fantasy novel.  

‘Ronald’ (as he preferred to be called) was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa to English parents. His only souvenir from Africa was arachnophobia brought on by a large spider. When he was three, his father died, necessitating him, his mother, and his younger brother to remain in England (where they were visiting family) without any income. Not long afterwards, his mother converted to Catholicism, earning her the ire of her Baptist family and removing the last financial assistance they had. She died shortly thereafter, when Ronald was twelve, leaving the two boys in the care of Father Francis Morgan.
The two boys would rise early every morning and toddle along to help Fr. Morgan say Mass before going off to school. Ronald had proved himself a bright pupil early on (he could read and write fluently at age four) and soon excelled at studying languages.
As he grew into young adulthood, however, his studies encountered an unexpected distraction in the form of a raven-haired fellow boarder at the lodging house where he lived named Edith Bratt. By Ronald’s seventeenth year, the two were in love, despite the fact that she was a Protestant.
Fr. Morgan was not impressed. Angry that Ronald was falling behind in his studies and worried about his romancing a Protestant girl, he forbade Ronald to see her until his twenty-first birthday. After a few attempts to find a loophole (e.g. by wandering around town for hours until he ‘happened’ to run into her), Ronald settled down and obeyed the order, diligently working to complete his studies under his guardian’s watchful eye. Midnight on his twenty-first birthday, however, Ronald wrote to Edith asking her to marry him.
A few days later, he got his reply: she was engaged to another man.
After Ronald had (presumably) finished wailing in despair, he discovered that things weren’t quite as bleak as they appeared. Edith had admitted that she had only agreed to marry the other guy because she had thought Ronald had forgotten about her, and it was more a match of prudence than of love. They agreed to meet and, after talking it over, renewed their love. Edith gave back her fiancé’s ring, converted to Catholicism (though a little more hastily than she would have liked, at Ronald’s insistence), and the two were married at long last.
Unfortunately, their honeymoon had to be cut short. By the time they were married it was 1916, and Europe was at war. Ronald had resisted pressure to enlist straight away in 1914 (as so many of England’s youth did), opting instead to finish his studies before entering a junior officer program. In June 1916, just two months after his wedding, Ronald shipped out for the killing fields of France, arriving just in time for the Battle of the Somme.
For those who are unfamiliar with the First World War, let me describe it this way; if you took every battle in every war ever fought and tried to make a list of the top ten worst, bloodiest, most nightmarishly horrific battles of all time, the Somme Offensive would be somewhere near the top of the list. 
The battle (which lasted for almost five months) was a nightmare for all involved, junior signal officer Ronald Tolkien no less than anyone else. At the same time, however, Tolkien was always grateful for one aspect of the battle; it taught him a profound respect for the ‘Tommys:’ the enlisted soldier whom, in Ronald’s own words, “was far braver and more noble than I was.” As with many other officers, Tolkien learned to disdain the divisions of class and to revere the common man.
Before the end of the battle, Ronald came down with trench fever, causing him to be shipped back to England to recover. All but one of his closest school friends, however, would never return to England at all.
Ronald spent the rest of the war alternating between guard duty and sick leave, but during his down time he began to write stories; stories based on languages he had developed. You see, Tolkien was a firm believer in the power of languages, and their inseparable connection with culture and folklore. So, having come up with languages, he naturally needed to create a culture for them to exist in.
Meanwhile, the war ended and the impoverished young scholar with his growing family first got a job working on the Oxford English Dictionary, then took a teaching job at the University of Leeds before finally settling down as Professor of Philology (the study of languages, for those who don’t know) at Oxford, a position he held for the rest of his life.
In the course of his scholarly work, he translated Medieval works such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into English and convinced the rest of the academic world to take the former seriously for the first time. He also championed the serious study and reading of ‘Fairy Stories,’ wrote on the power and meaning of the storytelling instinct, and helped convert his atheist friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity (though, to his disappointment, Lewis stopped just short of Catholicism).
Oh, and when he was 45 years old he also pounded out a little children’s book that you may have heard of; name of The Hobbit. Then, when his publisher asked for a sequel, he spent the next decade or so composing the greatest literary work of the twentieth century: The Lord of the Rings.
Having achieved a work of artistic genius, sparked a literary revolution (which he was not entirely happy about), and made major contributions to the fields of Philology and Medieval Literature, Tolkien pretty much continued as he ever had; teaching his classes (until he retired in 1959), attending meeting of “The Inklings:” a small society of authors who met at a local pub to share their works and views, raised his family, and set to work compiling his many, many other writings about Middle-Earth into what eventually became The Silmarillion.
 His works and his life reflect his devout Catholic faith. His writings are laced through with Christian philosophy and beliefs: the parasitic nature of evil and the primacy of good, the dangers of pride and greed and the greatness of humility and love, the need for mercy and repentance, the imperfectability of mankind. In life he was a frequent communicant and was especially devoted to the Blessed Virgin (Galadriel, and Gimli’s love for her, was intended as an image of Marian piety). Of course, as a philologist and lover of languages, he didn’t much care for the changes of Vatican II and would continue to loudly use the Latin responses at Mass for the rest of his life.
In 1971, Tolkien’s beloved wife Edith died; a blow that he never recovered from. Twenty-one sad months later, Ronald joined her. On their tombstone, under their respective names are inscribed “Beren” and “Luthien:” the subjects of Tolkien’s romantic masterpiece, The Lay of Lethian, which tells of how Luthien, the most beautiful of all living things, forsook her immortality to marry the mortal, Beren.
Tolkien teaches us that we can and ought to imbue everything we create with our faith, and that we can love the things we are suited to love while still finding God in them.

Vive Christus Rex!

The Existence of God Song

This morning I was thinking about doing a post about the existence of God, but couldn't find a good hook. Naturally, I did what any sensible person would do, called up Thomas Aquinas and Julie Andrews, and said "I'm trying to come up with a good blog post; can you help?" So, they put their heads together, and this is what they came up with:*

                Let’s start at the very beginning
                A very good place to start
                When you read, you begin with ABC
                But where to begin in Theology?
            Don’t ask me!
                We start with the fact that we happen to be
          That’s Philosophy!
               I know it is; just work with me!
                I, I am, I know I am
                But there wasn’t always me
                The same is true of everything;
                It is, but doesn’t have to be

                But something had to have to be
                Or else existence would be odd 
                Something exists necessarily
                It is that that we call God!

                I, I am, I know I am
                But, I didn’t make myself
                Everything that is was made
                And every cause has an effect
                But this can’t go on eternally
                And effects cannot exceed their cause
                A perfect prime mover must be
                And it is that that we call God!

                I, I am, I know I am
                And I know it’s good to be!
                I call things good and evil
                And can recognize beauty

                But, if there’s beauty and justice              
                And I can call things bad or good
                A perfect standard must exist
                It is that - that - we - call - God!

*Note: Ms. Andrews and St. Thomas may not have actually been officially involved here.

Vive Christus Rex!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"My Man Godfrey" Presents: The Dos and Don’ts of Manliness

  (Inspired by the 'Lessons in Manliness' feature from The Art of Manliness)

Follow these instructions and you can be the man in that mirror!
                  I am assuming you’ve all seen the wonderful 1936 comedy My Man Godfrey, starring Carole Lombard and William Powell, right? About the ditsy-yet-sweet society girl who hires a “forgotten man” from the city dump to serve as butler to her insane family? Well, if you haven’t, go see it now. For one thing, it’s a great movie with excellent performances by its two stars and entire supporting cast. For another, the sight of Carole Lombard dancing around her bedroom in a soaking wet dress screaming “Godfrey loves me; he put me in the shower!” will add years to your life (for another, it's available for free on YouTube).
                  For today, however, I want to focus on what might be my favorite character in the film: Carlo (played by the great character actor Mischa Auer). Carlo is wealthy Mrs. Bullock’s ‘protégé,’ which is a nice way of saying that he mooches free room and board off of the family in exchange for repeatedly playing a single song on the piano and swooning in agony whenever anyone (usually Mr. Bullock) mentions anything practical; like money, and why they’re paying for this bizarre little milquetoast con-man to live with them.

The One and Only
                  Carlo is, in short, a compact collection of “don’ts” for being a real man. He’s lazy, dishonest, thin-skinned, entitled, and weak. At one point, at Mrs. Bullock’s request, he ruffles up his hair and starts climbing all over the room imitating a gorilla, to which Mr. Bullock (the inimitable Eugene Pallette) snaps “why don’t you stop imitating a gorilla and start imitating a man?”
                  In our attempt to be the best possible versions of ourselves, we must avoid the trap of becoming a Carlo. To avoid this most terrible of fates, keep these six simple rules in mind:

                  Mooch off of other people
                  Be it your parents, the government, or the rich idiots who adore you for no reason, a real man pays his own way. Oh, yes; in hard times he may be obliged to accept a little help here and there, but he hates it and gets out of it as soon as he can. A real man can take care of himself and his own, and he will make any sacrifice and run any risk in order to do so. If you’re living in another man’s house, eating another man’s food, or having your life paid for by another man’s taxes, you’d better have a damn good reason for doing so (Good Reason: the company I worked for has just gone under and I need help. Bad Reason: I’m taking time off until I ‘find myself’) and be working your ass off trying to get out of there.

                  Get a job
                  One thing I’m struck by in Depression-era flicks is that, while they tend to scorn the rich and idolize the poor, they always show the unemployed as wanting jobs; not charity. They hate having to take hand-outs. They really want to be able to take care of themselves; they simply don’t have the opportunity to. “The difference between a man and a derelict,” says Godfrey, “is a job.”
                  A real man is either holding or seeking a job. Yes, times are tough and jobs are scarce. But keep trying; work on your resume, develop new skills, and keep knocking on doors and asking for work. Brainstorm ideas to form your own business. Build a flippin’ lemonade stand if you have to. Do whatever it takes to stand on your own feet.
                  A Carlo wants a hand out; a real man wants a job.

                  Exaggerate your talents
                  Carlo presents himself as an intellectual artiste. In reality, his skills consist of a single (incomplete) piano piece and a fair gorilla imitation. Basically, he’s just talented enough to make foolish people like Mrs. Bullock believe he’s more talented than he is. Sensible people, like Mr. Bullock, see through him in an instant but, of course, the former group won’t hear a word against him.
There’s a word for this, and it’s called ‘lying.’  Carlo’s basically running a con where, for a sappy piano number a night he gets free room and board. Real men don’t lie, and they don’t make themselves out to be something they are not.

                  Be humble
                  A real man doesn’t have to boast and doesn’t have to exaggerate; he knows what he’s capable of and knows that, if his skills are called for, he can produce them. He doesn’t put on an act to convince people he’s something special and that they should defer to him; he simply does his duty to the extent that he is able.
                  Godfrey is a good example of this. It’s no spoiler to say that he’s more than a simple derelict, or that he’s got a few secrets up his sleeve, but the point is precisely that he doesn’t make a big deal out of it. He’s engaged as a butler, and he performs his duty as well as he is able. When the need arises, he showcases some of his other talents, such as his gift for witty repartee, or his financial astuteness, but he doesn’t draw attention to them; he doesn’t need to. He knows who he is and where he’s going, so why would he put on a show for people?
                  A Carlo creates the illusion of competence; a real man doesn’t have to.

                  Play the victim
                  Carlo has two responses to any criticism from Mr. Bullock; the first is to sit in wounded silence and glower. The second is to affect an agonized swoon and lament the insidious effects of “money! The Frankenstein monster that destroys souls!” prompting Mrs. Bullock to remonstrate her husband with “you’re upsetting Carlo!”
                  Of course, being Carlo, he can’t very well respond suitably to Mr. Bullock, since there is no suitable response; Mr. Bullock is completely in the right to despise Carlo. So, since he lacks the courage to either do the right thing or to at least stand up for himself, he plays the victim and leeches off of other people’s sympathy.

                  Stand up like a Man
                  In contrast to Carlo, Godfrey doesn’t take disrespect from anyone. When Cornelia (Gail Patrick) the elder, more snobbish Bullock sister, rudely tries to coerce him into helping her win a scavenger hunt, he plays the “dangerous homeless man” card for all its worth, scaring off her and her boyfriend. Later, when Cornelia asks Godfrey to tell him what he really thinks of her (expecting him to lavish her with expressions of affection), he lays it on her:
You belong to that unfortunate category that I would call the "Park Avenue brat". A spoiled child who's grown up in ease and luxury... who's always had her own way... and who's misdirected energies are so childish that they hardly deserve the comment, even of a butler on his off Thursday.”
Godfrey is always ready and willing to tell people exactly what he thinks, and doesn’t care tuppence for the consequences. He’s been at the bottom of the heap, and he’s survived it. He knows men who really are victims, but who take it in stride. He’ll be damned if he feels sorry for himself or lets anyone else push him around.
A Carlo plays the victim; a real man stands up for himself. 

Be a Man: upset Carlo! 
Now that's more like it, right Irene?
                  Vive Christus Rex!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Follow Freeman!

     The world is dominated by an oppressive, atheistic regime. It rules through a combination of incessant propaganda, a charismatic figure-head, oppression, and terror. Its methods include enforced sterilization, torture, mechanized warfare, and the swift and vicious suppression of any dissenters. Its supporters willingly condone and encourage brutal crimes in the name of a future utopia that is ever more clearly a lie.
But enough about the Obama administration.

I kid, I kid; everyone knows the Obama administration doesn’t dominate the world. Obviously, I’m talking about the Combine; the inter-dimensional alien empire that conquered the earth in a 7-hour war and now rules the once-free world with an iron fist as it strips it clean of its precious resources (just to be clear: still talking about the Combine.
I knew it!
                  Against the cruel hand of these usurping monsters (the Combine) has arisen a rag-tag resistance group fighting to reclaim their world. In every conceivable way they’re outclassed, yet they fight on bravely, with or without hope, using whatever weapons they can find or cobble together.

                  Now, why do I bring all this up? Because Half-Life 2 is a great game? Well, that’s true, but it’s not my point. Because I’m still bitter about the 2012 election? I am not bitter; I take solace in my sarcasm (and faith. You know what, let’s just go with faith; forget what I said about sarcasm). Because I’m trying to justify the picture of Gordon Freeman that serves as the site’s banner? Actually, yes.

                  Gordon Freeman, you see, is the supremely nerdy and badass de-facto leader of the resistance. A theoretical physicist who was caught in the middle of the experiment-gone-wrong that allowed the Combine to invade in the first place (don’t you hate when that happens?), Gordon’s wholly improvised escape from the Black Mesa Research Facility (defeating a separate alien invasion and a Marine death squad in the process) has made him a legend to the futuristic freedom-fighters. So, when he returns after a twenty-year absence, he’s immediately taken as a sign to begin the uprising.

                  A couple weeks later, the city’s been leveled and the Combine is re-strategizing.

"Okay; in Phase One we break his glasses..."
                  Now, why is Gordon our unofficial mascot?

                  Because in many ways, we’re in the same position he is.

                  The world we live in is dominated by the Enemy. I don’t just mean the secular culture that tells us to shut up, go say our silly prayers, and buy them birth control like good little boys. I don’t even mean the increasingly-oppressive governments of major countries like China, the UK, and the United States. I mean the Enemy: the Emperor to whom they are just puppets and deluded quislings. I mean the Devil.

                  The Devil is the ‘Prince of this World.’ He’s assumed control and demanded we all pledge allegiance to him and go along with his attempts to make us less human. We live under an occupying force.

                  Christians are the Resistance, working to undermine the Empire from within. This involves telling people the good news; the True King has landed in secret and hamstrung the Enemy. Victory is now assured; the forces of the King are gathered and they delay only long enough to give us a chance to join in on the right side. It is our job to do what we can to bring as many people in on the right side as possible, and to work to hasten the Empire’s overthrow. Holy Scripture is our strategy and manifesto; the Sacraments are the smuggled supplies that enable us to fight. The Church Hierarchy is the underground government-in-exile; the duly-appointed representatives of the King. When we attend Mass we are assembling for duty to hear our orders and receive strength for the battle ahead. When we go to Confession or the Anointing of the Sick we are being healed of our wounds. When we are Baptized and Confirmed we are sworn into service. When we are Married or Ordained we are volunteering for special duty.

                  Like Gordon and his friends, however, we’re outclassed; we can’t defeat the Empire alone. But, also like them, we aren’t alone. They have the mysterious and probably-sinister G-Man on their side; we have the King of Glory and Creator of the Universe on ours (much more reassuring than the G-Man). Our job is to prepare the way for the King’s forces by raising hell for the…er…forces of Hell.

                  To be Catholic is always to be a rebel. There are no more daring or scandalous words than “I believe in one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” To attend Mass is an act of subversion; to pray is to claim your freedom. Because in doing these things we are utterly rejecting all that the Devil tells us: that this world is all there is, that we are the center of the universe, that to love another is to compromise oneself. To all these we Catholics, we members of the Resistance say “lies and propaganda! We shall not be tricked! We are free subjects of the King and bow to no foreign ruler!”

                  Follow Freeman: join the Resistance!

                  Vive Christus Rex!
                  Long Live Christ the King!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Our Patron and Our Aim

                  There was a young man living in France in the latter half of the sixteenth century named Francis. His father was a rich lawyer and, naturally, expected his eldest son to become one as well, so he sent Francis off to the current equivalent of Harvard law-school. Francis, however, had a Dead Poets Society style experience and decided that he’d much rather become a priest. So he quit his job as a lawyer, rejected the stuffy society chick his dad had picked out for him, and entered the seminary. His father tried to intervene, but fortunately Francis had the very cool (and presumably Robin-Williams-esque) Bishop of Geneva on his side, who managed to convince Francis Sr. to give in.
                  Not content with his cushy office in the Diocese of Geneva, Francis decided to go off and evangelize the region of Le Chablais AKA Huguenot central. Ever see the movie The Warriors? It’s basically like that, except there was only Francis and his cousin, they were unarmed, and they went there on purpose to evangelize (also, the villain here was Calvin, not Luther). 
"Catholics! Come out and plaaaaayyy!"
                  After camping out in the winter, hiding from wolves, and a couple of assassination attempts, Francis’s cousin said “screw this!” and left. Francis himself, meanwhile, was having trouble getting his message across since people kept slamming their doors in his face:
                  “I’d like to talk to you about the Eucharist-” *SLAM*
                  “Historically speaking, the Papacy-“ *SLAM*
                  “Wolves tasted my blood and I think they want more-“ *SLAM*
                  So, unwilling to give up, Francis took to writing out his sermons, copying them by hand, and slipping them under people’s doors. In this way, he slowly evangelized the entire region and, eventually, brought a large chunk of the population (read: a couple thousand) back into the Catholic Church, all while pioneering the first crude form of blogging. That is why today Saint Francis de Sales is the patron saint of writers, journalists, and (presumably) bloggers.
                  He’s also our patron saint here at the Catholic Nerd. See, Francis was famous for more than just an insane determination to evangelize; he also championed the uniqueness of each individual. After his adventures in Huguenot-and-wolf land, he came back and succeeded sixteenth-century Robin Williams as Bishop of Geneva, in which capacity he set about writing books on how anyone from any walk of life could become a saint. He wrote about how you can still have fun and be yourself while serving God. “Be who you are,” he said. “And be that well.”
                  Here at the Catholic Nerd, we seek to become the best possible versions of ourselves. We intend to integrate our particular interests, talents, and experiences into the life of Christ. We constantly seek improvement in our personal, spiritual, and professional lives. We eagerly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as handed on through the Apostles and their successors, the Bishops. And we seek to baptize the culture around us by our words, works, and examples.
                  St. Francis de Sales, pray for us.
                  Vive Christus Rex!