Monday, December 31, 2012

"The Cake is a Lie"

            In action movies you sometimes hear the crooked police chief say something like “everyone has his price” to justify their coming in on the side of the corrupt Senator Mendoza (“MENDOZAAAAAAAAA!”).  Of course, the hero typically proves him wrong by shooting him…er, and occasionally by refusing to take a bribe when the time comes.
            There’s actually a profound truth in that familiar scenario; namely, that the real test of one’s character comes when they are faced with their ‘price.’ Will your ideals still hold when the money is on the table? If not, then did you ever really believe in them in the first place, or were they just moral preening; things you told yourself that you believed so that you could feel like you weren’t ‘like other men’?
             And this doesn’t just apply to money either; what if someone offers you sex? Power? Social change? Even life itself? Any of those could be your ‘price’ as well.
            Now, most of us will never meet Senator Mendoza, who will offer to make our dreams come true in exchange for looking the other way. We have the much harder job of facing this same question every single moment of every single day. The question of “what can I buy your soul with? Money? Pleasure? Fame?” This is the question that we face when we have to decide whether we will sleep in or go to church, or whether we will spread lies about someone at work to get ahead, or whether we’ll give in to the temptation to log on to that porn site.
            So, how can we resist when our own personal Mendoza comes and offers us our own personal price to look the other way?
            Remember this piece of wisdom from one of the best, most unique games out there:
            “The Cake is a Lie.”
            In Portal, protagonist Chell is put through a series of tests using a handheld portal device, with the promise that cake will be provided when she’s done. But in one of the test chambers she discovers a message left by a former test subject: “The cake is a lie.” Indeed, after completing all the tests, Chell doesn’t receive any cake, but is instead shipped into an incinerator (she escapes, but the allegory remains). 

Go left, Chell!

            You see, these things that we want so badly, that we think will make us happy, they’re lies. They can’t satisfy us. If we choose pleasure, we’ll eventually get board. Money? We’ll lose it, or waste it, or it’ll sit in a bank until we die. Fame? We’ll be forgotten, or become a hollow shell of a man elected on nothing but a false façade, bereft of anything resembling virtue or leadership or…sorry, what were we talking about? Oh, yeah. The point is that the Devil doesn’t want us to be happy; he holds out the ‘cake’ just to tempt us into the incinerator room.
            I think it’s a healthy spiritual exercise to picture that someone is offering you the thing that you want most in the world in exchange for your soul. How can you stand to resist? Well, think; imagine you have the ‘cake:’ what happens then? Imagine yourself finishing the cake, finding yourself still hungry. Imagine getting all that money and what you would spend it on, and how long the novelty would last.  Imagine giving in to the call to pleasure and finding yourself afterwards, with the sensation quickly fading and the shame starting to begin.
            I remember first really understanding the banality of greed when I watched the re-make of The Italian Job, seeing the thieves discussing what they would spend the money on, like huge speakers. Really? You’d sell your soul to hear your ‘music’ a little better? Then, after one of them takes it all for himself, he buys…a big house and an entertainment center so he can watch football. I mean, come on; you could get that at a bar for goodness sakes.
            Always remember, you’ll never taste that cake, and even if you do, it won’t last. Soon the cake will be eaten, and you will be left alone, hungry, and bored, with no more soul to sell. 
            “What profits a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul? Or what shall he give in return for his soul?”
Remember: The cake is a lie; only God satisfies.

Vive Christus Rex! 

Scripture Readings: The Feast of the Holy Family

First Reading: Sirach 3: 2-7, 12-14

Children, hear the judgment of your father, and so do that you may be saved. For God has made the father honourable to the children: and seeking the judgment of the mothers, has confirmed it upon the children. He that loves God, shall obtain pardon for his sins by prayer, and shall refrain himself from them, and shall be heard in the prayer of days. And he that honours his mother is as one that lays up a treasure. He that honours his father shall have joy in his own children, and in the day of his prayer he shall be heard. He that honours his father shall enjoy a long life: and he that obeys the father, shall be a comfort to his mother.
            Glory not in the dishonour of your father: for his shame is no glory to you. For the glory of a man is from the honour of his father, and a father without honour is the disgrace of the son. Son, support the old age of your father, and grieve him not in his life

Second Reading: Colossians 3: 12-21

Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, the bowels of mercy, benignity, humility, modesty, patience: Bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if any have a complaint against another. Even as the Lord has forgiven you, so do you also. But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ rejoice in your hearts, wherein also you are called in one body: and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you abundantly: in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual canticles, singing in grace in your hearts to God. All whatsoever you do in word or in work, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.
            Wives, be subject to your husbands, as it behoves in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and be not bitter towards them. Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, provoke not your children to indignation, lest they be discouraged.

Gospel: Luke 2: 41-52

And his parents went every year to Jerusalem, at the solemn day of the pasch. And when he was twelve years old, they going up into Jerusalem, according to the custom of the feast, and having fulfilled the days, when they returned, the child Jesus remained in Jerusalem. And his parents knew it not. And thinking that he was in the company, they came a day's journey and sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And not finding him, they returned into Jerusalem, seeking him.
            And it came to pass, that, after three days, they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, hearing them and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his wisdom and his answers. And seeing him, they wondered. And his mother said to him: Son, why have you done so to us? Behold your father and I have sought you sorrowing. And he said to them: How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my father's business?  And they understood not the word that he spoke unto them.
            And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was subject to them. And his mother kept all these words in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and grace with God and men.


Today is the Feast of the Holy Family, the day in which we meditate on the strange fact that Christ lived, and still does live, in a recognizable family unit comprised of a very human, very real mother and father, to whom He was and is obedient and responsible.
            You see, it wasn’t enough for God to become Man simply by taking on flesh. If He had simply dropped from the sky in human form, He wouldn’t have been an actual man. I don’t know what He would have been, but it wouldn’t have been a man. A man is not just his flesh and bone; a man is not just DNA or a functional body. All that matters, but it only adds up to a real person if it’s combined with experiences, chief among which is the family.
            The family is the primeval human institution. Before there were farms, before there was ritual, before there were nations or towns or religions, there was the father, the mother, and their children. The Book of Genesis describes Adam as unable to be fully human, unable to be all that God meant him to be, until the creation of Eve.
            Man, woman, and child is an image of the Holy Trinity; separate, distinct, yet equal parties, all necessary for the full unit. Neither man nor woman can create life on their own, but the union between them can never be complete unless they do, and a child cannot be all that he would be unless he has both mother and father in his life (as recent years have painfully demonstrated).
            It was into this primeval context that Jesus entered the world, beginning His earthly ministry by blessing the family with His presence. Jesus grew up knowing He was loved by His mother and foster-father. He grew up in the same way almost every other child did, being nurtured, instructed, inspired, and (in the memorable incident described in the Gospel reading) even corrected by His parents.
The mystery of the family, the interplay of love, honor, and obedience, is explored in the other two readings (confession: my church used alternate readings today, but I’m still using these ones, because I like them and I can). As Paul outlines it, the father’s primary virtue is love; putting his family before himself, giving all that he has for them. The mother’s primary virtue is humility (don’t freak out, ladies; it’s better than it sounds); setting her own will and wishes aside for the good of the family, trusting that her husband will do the right thing. The child’s primary virtue is obedience; being willing to learn from their parents, to follow their example, and to trust that they have his best interest at heart.
            Jesus, the Creator of the Universe, obeyed and learned from His parents; Mary, the greatest human being of all time, submitted to her husband; Joseph, an ordinary man, took responsibility for his extraordinary wife and son.
            So, what’s our excuse?
Vive Christus Rex!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Famous Catholic Friday: Bob Hope

He was acclaimed ‘the greatest entertainer of the 20th Century.’ He made dozens of movies and television shows. He entertained soldiers over the course of four separate wars. And he died a devout Catholic. Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Hope! 

Catholic Credentials: Married to a faithful Catholic, Dolores Hope, for nearly seventy years; entered the Church shortly before his death; frequent Communicant during his final days; donated an estimated $1 Billion to charity over the course of his life.

Nerd Credentials: One of the great screen comedians.

Leslie Townes Hope was born in London on May 29th, 1903 to a Stonemason and an Opera Singer. In 1908 the family immigrated to America, settling in Cleveland. Young Leslie took to street performing; dancing, singing, and cracking wise on streetcars for pocket change. In addition to his self-educational pursuits, he took dance and singing lessons. When he was twelve he won a ‘Charlie Chaplin impersonation’ contest, foreshadowing things to come.
                  After a few brief careers as a butcher’s assistant, soda jerk, pool hustler, and boxer, Leslie (he had changed his name to ‘Bob’ at this point, partially due to the fact that, during roll-call, his name (Hope, Leslie) sounded like ‘Hopeless’) started performing on Vaudeville as a dancer, singer, and comedian. He experimented with a few ‘characters’ (including performing in blackface) before discovering that he was much more successful just being ‘himself.’
                  Following five years on the Vaudeville circuit, he screen tested for a French film company. He failed.
                  His first real success came on the Broadway stage, performing in the highly successful musical ‘Roberta’ as a wisecracking character named Huckleberry Haines. Not only did the public finally notice him, but he noticed a young singer named Dolores Reade, then working at a nightclub. The two fell in love immediately, and after a brief courtship they married in Feb. 1934. 
                  That same year, he signed on with ‘Educational Pictures of New York’ and made the short comedy Going Spanish in 1934. His own opinion of the film was “When they catch John Dillinger, they’re going to make him watch it twice.” Educational Pictures dropped him, and he signed on with Warner Brothers instead, making movies during the day and performing on Broadway at night.
                  Meanwhile, Hope had started to have success on radio, where his witty banter could really shine through. He had his own regular show from 1937 all the way up until the 1950s, when radio was superseded by television. So, ever the opportunist, Hope transitioned to television, doing TV specials for NBC (his famous Christmas Specials were particularly popular).
                  While his radio and theater careers prospered, Hope’s film career was somewhat shakier. He worked in pictures fairly steadily, but his Warner Brothers contract didn’t lead to any big hits. He left Warner Brothers and signed on with Paramount in 1938, but on-screen success continued to elude him…until 1940, when Paramount’s planned George Burns and Gracie Allen vehicle “The Road to Mandaley” suddenly found itself without its intended stars. Looking for replacement performers, producer Harian Thompson noticed Hope clowning around with Bing Crosby on the lot and decided that they would work well together. Throw in the gorgeous Dorothy Lamour (whom Hope had discovered working as a nightclub singer), and The Road to Singapore (1940) became the first of a series of seven ‘Road To’ films featuring the trio that cemented Hope’s position as one of the luminaries of Hollywood, and led to a three-way life-long friendship (Hope was so devastated by Crosby’s death in 1977 that he couldn’t sleep for days and later called it one of the worst times of his life).

Here he is performing his signature song, Thanks for the Memories for the first time with Shirley Ross in The Big Broadcast of 1938.  

                  At the same time as he, Crosby, and Lamour were churning out Road pictures, Hope began to find success in solo acts as well, including the horror-comedy Ghost Breakers (1940) co-starring Paulette Goddard and Willie Best, and the spy-film spoof My Favorite Blonde (1942).
                  The latter film played on the grim events that now preoccupied the country. World War II was in full swing, and Hope embarked upon what would become his greatest role: the GI’s clown. Beginning in May, 1941 Hope began travelling to military bases, both at home and overseas, to perform for the troops. He would stage large shows before the assembled soldiers, or visit them in the military hospitals. Sometimes his wife, Dolores, would come too, as would his co-stars, Crosby and Lamour, among others. His job, as he saw it, was to make the men laugh, smile, and boost their morale, so he made it a firm rule for himself and his fellow entertainers that they could never cry, no matter how traumatic or horrible the things they witnessed. The men that they were entertaining had seen enough tears, Bob decided, and their job was to let them see some smiles and laughter again.
                  He himself only broke the rule once: when visiting a hospital in Italy, he stopped by a man who had been in a coma for two months. All of a sudden, the man opened his eyes, looked up, and said “Hey, Bob Hope! When did you get here?” Hope was so overcome by the apparent miracle that he had to rush out of the hospital to weep, determined that, even if he did cry, the men shouldn’t see it.
                  Hope was tireless in his determination to cheer up the troops. He travelled to Italy, England, Africa, and the South Pacific, risking disaster in every trip, and pushing himself to the limit of endurance to bring laughter to the men. After the Second World War, he did the same thing in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. His Vietnam efforts earned him the ire of many of his fellow entertainers (and even some of the soldiers) who viewed him as an enabler of the war, but Hope persisted. He saw it as his duty, and whether he succeeded or not, he would always try.
                  In recognition of his efforts, the U.S. Congress named him an ‘Honorary Veteran’ in 1997. Hope said, in response, “I’ve been given many awards in my lifetime, but to be numbered among the men and women I admire most is the greatest honor I have ever received.”
                  Hope’s three great passions, for most of his life, were his wife, entertaining, and golf. He himself said that golf was his real profession; “show-biz just pays the green-dues.” He was introduced to the game in the 1930s and it became a staple both of his personal life and his comedy routines (“President Eisenhower has given up golf for painting; fewer strokes, you know”), to the point that a comedian carrying a golf club on stage is considered a tribute to Hope. He is so associated with the game that he even has his own tournament: the ‘Bob Hope Classic,’ which he opened in 1995 with Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all playing a foursome.
                  Hope loved his wife and children very much, but he wasn’t exactly faithful. On the contrary, he was a notorious ladies’ man for most of his life, having numerous affairs, which Dolores patiently endured while praying for him. For decades, however, Hope resisted her efforts to draw him into the Church. He joked that he did “benefits for ALL religions. I’d hate to blow the hereafter on a technicality.” Nevertheless, he would attend Mass frequently, both with and without his wife. Then, as his life drew to its close, he finally gave in to the promptings of both God and his wife; he was baptized and entered into full communion with the Church, becoming a frequent Communicant. In 1998, the Vatican made him a Knight Commander of St. Gregory in recognition of his humanitarian efforts.
                  Bob Hope was, like all of us, a sinner. His personal life is marked with scandal, with adulterous affairs, self-absorption, and greed. But it is also marked by great acts of charity, self-sacrifice, and love. He was not what we think of as a Saint, but he brought joy, laughter, and, yes, hope to millions upon millions of people, including those who needed it most desperately. In the end, the prayers of the many who loved him helped the better angels of his nature win through, and he left the sinner behind to become a saint. He teaches us that, even if we sin and stray far from God, the good that we do and the love that we share can draw us back again.
                  In conclusion, here are two of Bob’s many, many friends expressing their appreciation for him on his 85th birthday; a fitting tribute to the greatest entertainer of the 20th century.

Vive Christus Rex!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Scripture Readings: The Fourth Sunday of Advent

First Reading: Micah 5:1-4

And you Bethlehem Ephrata, are a little one among the thousands of Juda, out of you shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler in Israel: and his going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity. Therefore will he give them up even till the time wherein she that travails shall bring forth: and the remnant of his brethren shall be converted to the children of Israel. And he shall stand, and feed in the strength of the Lord, in the height of the name of the Lord, his God: and they shall be converted, for now shall he be magnified even to the ends of the earth. And this man shall be our peace,

Second Reading: Hebrews 10: 5-10

Wherefore, when he comes into the world he says: Sacrifice and oblation you would not: but a body you have fitted to me. Holocausts for sin did not please you. Then said I: Behold I come: in the head of the book it is written of me: that I should do your will, O God. In saying before, Sacrifices, and oblations, and holocausts for sin you would not, neither are they pleasing to you, which are offered according to the law. Then said I: Behold, I come to do your will, O God: He takes away the first, that he may establish that which follows. In the which will, we are sanctified by the oblation of the body of Jesus Christ once.

Gospel: Luke 1: 39-45

And Mary rising up in those days, went into the hill country with haste into a city of Juda. And she entered into the house of Zachary and saluted Elizabeth.
And it came to pass that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost. And she cried out with a loud voice and said: Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold as soon as the voice of your salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed are you that have believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to you by the Lord.


What we have this week is one of those key passages that especially point to the unique roll of Mary in Salvation. Mary, after receiving Gabriel’s message and accepting her role in God’s plan, goes off to stay with Elizabeth, her relative. Remember, she had been told by the angel that Elizabeth too had been miraculously made pregnant in her old age, so presumably they would have a lot to talk about.

Now, as soon as Mary arrives, literally bearing Christ, John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb. But note; he leaps at Mary’s voice; Mary’s arrival is the signal that Jesus has arrived. Where Mary is, Jesus must be. So here, John’s first act as the prophet of Christ’s coming is done in response to Mary’s arrival; John first points out Jesus by pointing out Mary.

At which point, Elizabeth is ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ and begins to prophesy in her own right, declaring Mary to be ‘Blessed among women, and blessed is the fruit of [her] womb’ then identifying her as ‘the Mother of my Lord.’  

Here’s another interesting point: John can’t very well prophesy while he’s in the womb, or at least, he can only prophesy to one person; his mother, who then acts as his spokeswoman. Now, Scripture doesn’t record Jesus doing anything similar within Mary, but it does make an interesting point; the mother is ‘in tune’ with her child. That is, the person that a child has the closest connection to, and the most perfect communication with is his mother, who is the very first person he can communicate with. Hence, Mary can rightly be called the very first Christian; she is the one who first received Christ’s message, even before He left her womb.

Just as John the Baptist first found Jesus through Mary, so it is even to this day; Mary is the first and most immediate means to encounter Jesus.  

Vive Christus Rex!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

In Layman's Terms: On Evil

And the Serpent said to the woman: “No, you shall not die. For God knows that on the day you shall eat the fruit, your eyes shall be opened; and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.
-Genesis 3: 4-5

                  In our last post on the Catholic Worldview, we talked about God. Today, we’re gonna talk about the opposite of God: Evil. 

                  Thomas Aquinas said, correctly, that the problem of evil was the strongest argument for the non-existence of God. If God exists and if God is all good and all powerful, then how can evil exist?

                  Before I delve into this question, I would like to just note an interesting fact; the reality of evil is axiomatic. No sensible person would ever deny it, and if he did no one would believe him. Now, the question arises: what does that do to the idea that morality is not objective? If evil is so real that it is the best philosophical weapon against God, then moral standards must be equally real (since evil is nothing but a failure to meet moral standards). Evil might or might not disprove God, but it certainly disproves Relativism.

                  The indispensable G.K. Chesterton wrote of people who denied evil: “If it is true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”
"There is no cat...there is no cat..."

                  So we shall waste no time proving that there is such a thing as evil. Instead we have to ask two questions; what is it and why does it exist if God is all powerful and all good?

                  The answer to the question “what is evil?” is, to put it bluntly, nothing. Evil is nothing. It’s non-existence; unreality.

Catholicism is an encounter with Reality. It’s a striving to become more and more ‘Real:’ more as we ought to be. As Jesus says, “I have come that you may have Life and have it more abundantly” (John 10: 10). Last week we discussed how God is the core of Reality, the absolute principle of existence. The more like Him we become, the more ‘Real’ we become.

                  Evil, therefore, is a kind of corrosive unreality; something that makes an object less ‘as it should be.’ It’s like rust on metal, progressively weakening the thing until it’s corroded away entirely. 

This is your soul on evil; any questions?

There is no such thing as “positive” evil: no Ahriman, no ‘It,’ no monolith at the center of the Earth that the Legion of Doom can re-purpose as a laser-cannon. Evil is entirely a negative force, involving the removal or rejection of some good. Nothing is created evil, and nothing is ‘pure’ evil, not even the Devil. To exist itself is good, because to exist at all is to be, to some extent, like God. Evil is always parasitic; it can’t exist on its own. As Frodo says in The Lord of the Rings, “The Shadow…can only mock; it cannot make.”

Frodo’s point is emphasized in the climax to A Nightmare on Elm Street. At the end of that picture, it’s revealed that Freddy doesn’t actually exist at all. He’s just, well, a dream; a parasitic force dependent on the frustration and disorder of his victims for existence. Once Nancy refuses to keep ‘feeding’ him, he vanishes into nothingness. 

"I'm your boyfriend now, Frodo!"
 As noted, therefore, nothing can be ‘pure evil.’ However, something can be so entirely corrupted that it is irretrievably evil; so twisted and corroded that it hates the very thought of good. Creatures like that long for non-existence, both for themselves and for everything else.

How does that happen? It happens because the world isn’t as they would want it. The first sin, you see, is always, always Pride: the desire to put oneself before God. When we steal, we are saying “I’d rather God made the laws governing property differently.” When we kill, we say “I wish I had the power over life and death.” Most of us do this unconsciously; justifying our sins with things like “oh, who could it hurt?” or “well, he deserved it, didn’t he?” But such decisions are not ours to make; we don’t get to personally decide that, say, this person is undeserving of life, or my need of this money is greater than his, or I should be able to enjoy sex without worrying about what it might lead to. God made the world and made us a certain way. If we live the way He intends, we will be happy and whole as we can never imagine. But for most of us, it is so hard to live as God wants, and it’s so much easier to live as we want.

So, we try to ‘cheat;’ to get around God, to ignore or deny the reality of creation in favor of something more amenable to our own wishes. It’s similar to those “scripture scholars” who try to explain that most of the Gospels were later additions, and that the only ‘genuine’ sayings of Jesus are the ones that (by an astounding coincidence) agree with their own views! In the same way, we like to find reasons to ‘cut out’ the bits of reality that we don’t like in order to do, well, pretty much what we’re doing right now! Therefore we do things like overemphasizing the ‘fun and bonding’ aspects of sex while trying to cut out the (rather vital) ‘makes babies’ aspect. Or we ignore the fact that it’s wrong to take innocent lives because, well, it’d just be so convenient if that little village weren’t there! Or we deny the right to own one’s own property because, damn it! Why does he have so much and I don’t?

                  This ‘cheating,’ this attempt to get around God, is amateur evil. Oh, it can corrode our souls and send us to Hell, all right, but only if it graduates into what we might call ‘mature evil.’ Those who are in ‘mature evil’ are smarter than we are. They recognize that you can’t get around God; you can’t pick and choose the parts of Reality that you want to follow any more than you can choose the parts of the Gospel you want to believe. It’s an all-or-nothing deal; the world is as God has made it and you have to either accept it or rejected. So, rather than submitting to a world in which they are not God, they will have nothing; no world, no God, and not even themselves. As Nietzsche put it, “If there were a God, how could I stand not to be Him?”

 In other words, some men just want to watch the world burn.

You knew I'd get to him at some point in this post, didn't you?
                   The Joker is a good image of ‘deep evil.’ Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane are amateurs; they think they can cut out bits of the world to make it as they would like. The Joker just wants chaos; non-existence. That’s why he only laughs when Batman beats him, why he practically wants Batman or Two-Face to kill him; what’s pain or death to someone who longs for non-being? The world, as he sees it, is cruel, meaningless, and corrupt; just like him. So he wants is to tear it to pieces as much as he can before dying. He doesn’t want anything to be at all. Everything is meaningless, so everything burns.

                   Another example of this comes in The Lord of the Rings from a character who is not actually evil himself, but who succumbs to evil: Denethor. Faced with what he is convinced is the inevitable victory of Sauron and the end of his own reign even if Sauron is defeated, Denethor declares that if he cannot have things as they were, he will have “nothing.” And so he kills himself.
             In the end, this is the choice we will all have to make. When we face God, we will see the world as it truly is and ought to be, and almost all of us will see something we won’t like. Will we accept reality as it is, or will we prefer unreality? If we can’t have things as we would like them, will we accept them anyway, or will we declare that it is either “our way or the highway”?

                  When we last left our story, God was poised on the act of creating Heaven and Earth by His Will. At the uttermost beginning of beginning, in the very first act of creation, God made the creatures that we typically call ‘Angels.’ Angels are beings of pure spirit; pure intellect. They have no bodies, only minds (though they can assume bodies when they need to, in the manner of what you might roughly call “uniform”), and they participate in God’s act of Creation as secondary causes.

J.R.R. Tolkien, writing to his son, described an image he had of his own guardian angel while praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament. He said that he envisioned it as God’s own concern and love for him personified into a separate being of its own. That, I think, is as good a description of the angels as any; they are God’s ineffable love for every aspect of His own creation made into beings themselves.

Or, another helpful image comes from one of the villains of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, who (after his materialistic fashion) called them ‘macrobes:’ the opposite of microbes; beings as far above us as we are above bacteria, and who influence the world even more than microbes do, but just as invisibly. 

In any case, for our purposes it might help to think of angels as being ‘lesser gods;’ something akin to the pagan deities (with a lot less sex and a lot more contemplation).

Aren’t I getting sidetracked from the subject of evil? A little, but I have a point. You see, the angels exist in a hierarchy. No two angels are alike, and they are arranged each in their own place in creation. The greatest of all the angels; the being closest to God in power and beauty, was called Lucifer (which means ‘light bearer’). Now, as part of their contemplation of God, the angels each discerned part of His plan for creation. Lucifer, together with many other angels, foresaw the coming of man. Not only that, but they foresaw that they, the glorious creatures of light and spirit, would one day be required to serve and even worship a certain Man.

To Lucifer, this was intolerable. Here he was, the beautiful, glorious first work of creation, and he was expected to submit to something made out of dust; something that sweated and ate and excreted. Something born out of a woman, that nursed and played and worked in the dirt. Moreover, he foresaw that in addition to having to worship a man he, Lucifer, the bearer of light, would one day be considered lower in the celestial hierarchy than a mere woman.

Dazzled with his own greatness and furious at the thought of relinquishing it, Lucifer rebelled; he refused to go along with the plan. Together with many other angels who shared his indignation, he tried to attack the others who wished to remain with God. But there was another angel named Michael from much lower down in the hierarchy, who rose up in righteous indignation against Lucifer’s pride. Asking “Who is like God?” Michael drove Lucifer out of Heaven.

Unable to corrupt or harm the other angels, Lucifer and his angels turned their sights instead upon ‘earth:’ the physical creation, introducing corruption, death, and decay into the world and, once man came on the scene, inducing him to fall as they had fallen (but all that will have to wait until next week).

The above is a crude, symbolic outline of an event that is simply beyond our knowledge or comprehension. Don’t worry about taking it too literally. The important thing to take away is that Lucifer’s fall happened because he preferred himself, or his own vision of reality, to God. In so doing, he was embracing a false vision of reality; one in which he was the center of the universe. And if he couldn’t have that, he’d rather have nothing.  

So, what happens then? What does the image of being ‘driven out of heaven’ mean? Well, the way I like to think of it is that a fallen angel (or demon) is like a black hole. A black hole is a star that has collapsed upon itself and grows progressively smaller and smaller by the force of its own gravity. It’s black because its gravity is so strong that light can’t escape its pull.

Wisconsin farmer Harold Swanson took this photo of an actual demon. Anyone with information about the current whereabouts of Mr. Swanson is encouraged to call...
A demon is a ‘collapsed’ angel; it’s an angel that is so wrapped up in itself that it actually ‘shrinks;’ becomes progressively smaller, less Real for all eternity. Like a dead star it compacts upon itself. It never ceases to be (since God never ‘unmakes’ the things He has made), it just progressively ‘decays;’ a little like how even if you divide by two an infinite number of times, you will never reach zero. You can only reach zero by removing exactly as much as was put in, and God is the only one who can do that.

And it is this state of ‘progressive unreality’ that is what we mean by “Hell.” Some people try to rather sneeringly claim that God made Hell, but Hell is not a thing or a place that needed someone to make it. Hell is a state of mind; a state of being so wrapped up in yourself that you basically fade into near-nothingness. The Devil wasn’t thrown out of Heaven; he fell out because Heaven could no longer hold something so insubstantial.

But there is one point I need to make before we move on; a black hole may be smaller than the star it once was and may create darkness rather than light, but the interesting thing is that it has just as much mass and, consequently, just as much gravity as it ever had. Even so, a collapsed angel is just as powerful and as intelligent as it ever was. The devil may be an infinitely ‘small’ creature now, but he’s still unfathomably dangerous.

Another point is this; the devil’s fall didn’t just affect him, it also affected all of creation. Somehow the fact that the angels turned away from God caused a change in the world. Death, decay, and disease, the progressive dissolution of all that is, became a fact of life. The angels, therefore, are intimately connected with the world as we know it.

So, that’s a broad view of what evil is. Now the bit question; why does evil exist? Why does an all-powerful, all-good God permit evil to exist?

The first thing to remember is that God does not see things the way we do. For instance, we generally consider death to be the worst thing that can happen to us. When someone dies, particularly if they die young, we see it as a great disaster. For God, however, death is not the worst thing; sin is the worst thing. Death can bring us to Him; sin separates us from Him. Hence, when someone dies in the State of Grace (in communion with God) He sees that as a good thing because it means that that person has been saved and will be with Him for eternity. We see it as a bad thing because we miss that person and don’t know whether we’ll see them again.

This is not to say that death itself is good, or that life on Earth is bad, or that we shouldn’t mourn the passing of loved ones. It’s merely to remind us that sometimes we are wrong to call a certain event evil in the sense that God could not have willed it.

But that only delays the issue; what about genuine evil? What about the evil committed by men, or demons, or seemingly by God Himself? Why does He permit genocide, or war, or the abuse of children? Why does He send hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters?

I must warn you, there are no easy answers to this. Nothing that I am going to say here will make you say “oh, well that explains it! I’m not bothered by X event anymore.” The ideas I am going to present may be philosophically and theologically sound, and they may even be comforting (I tend to find them so), but they are not a ‘cure all’ for grief or anger or anything like that. In short; there’s an answer, but you’re probably not going to like it.

There are, as far as I can tell, three reasons why God permits evil: in order to give us Free Will, in order to chastise us, and in order to bring about something better.

Whenever someone asks the question “how could God allow this to happen?” I always want to answer “Well, what would you expect Him to do about it?” If a man decides to murder his wife, do you expect God to turn the knife into rubber, or make the gun misfire, or cause the poison to fail? Do you expect Him to stop the man’s brain from forming the plan, or conceiving the desire to carry it out? And if so, what would that make of the world? If every time someone tried to do something wrong the world altered itself to prevent him, that would be a pretty chaotic world, wouldn’t it? And why stop there? Wouldn’t it be neater if God simply prevented the synapses of the brain from forming in such a way as to conceive of evil thoughts?

You see, if God stepped in to stop us from ever doing anything wrong, we would cease to be free. God permits us to do evil because He is willing to risk sin in order to grant us freedom. God always knew that, given the choice, some would prefer their own will over His. He thought that the chance for the rest to freely choose to love Him was worth it. God creates us to love, and love can only exist in freedom. If He didn’t make us free, He wouldn’t have bothered to make us at all. And since He made us free, we can freely choose to reject Him.

The other question people typically ask in the face of a disaster is “why? Why did this happen?” Typically, there is no clear answer to that, but even on the rare occasions that there is, typically we don’t actually want to know it. Think about: what’s your response whenever you’re being punished for something? Isn’t it usually to protest that the whatever it was wasn’t that big a deal anyway, or it “wasn’t what you think,” or that you’re sorry enough as it is? Have you ever once greeted an explanation for your punishment with “Oh, I see. Yes that’s quite reasonable and just; carry on”?  If you have, I’m impressed.

God punishes us for the same reason parents punish their children: to draw attention to an unacceptable situation. It’s a cliché to say that the ‘God of the Old Testament’ (as if there were two Gods for the two parts of the Bible) doesn’t sound like a very loving God. I wouldn’t vouch for everything in the Old Testament, but the idea that a loving God would never send the punishing plagues or earthquakes or exiles to his people simply doesn’t square with what we know of love. Fathers may punish their children. Mothers may order their sons to go cut them a switch. Coaches make their players run laps. Drill Sergeants ‘smoke’ their worthless maggots cadets. Punishment is hardly contrary to love, and punishment of a whole nation must necessarily involve disaster.

Now, what I want to emphasize about God’s chastisements is that He does them to make us see that something is not right. He  “whispers in our pleasures, but yells in our pains” (as Lewis puts it). God let’s evil happen to us because we can’t really ignore evil. We can ignore good; we can pass by a beautiful garden with our nose buried in our iPhone. But if one of the plants suddenly started sending feelers in your direction and singing “Feed Me” in the voice of the late Levi Stubbs, you’d forget about your iPhone pretty quickly and start taking notice of your surroundings. Evil gets our attention in ways that most other things do not. So, when God wants to wake us up and snap us out of our atrophy, he lets something bad happen.

"Change your ways, Seymour!"
In C.S. Lewis’s delightful Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape complains about how whenever the forces of Hell manage to make the majority of men despise virtues like courage and self-sacrifice, God sends a war or an Earthquake, ruining all their work. Once you actually see extreme virtues like that on full display, as happens in almost every disaster, they become so obviously good and admirable that all the selfish, materialist lies of the Devil are blown away. In the same way, God sometimes allows us to hit absolute rock bottom before He brings us out of it. That way the illusion of self-sufficiency is destroyed, and we can fully understand just how absolutely we need Him. That’s why it’s fairly common for people to have conversions in jails, or half-way-houses, or warzones. Faced with the full brunt of their own helplessness, it’s only natural for men to turn to God.

The final point is related to the above, but is the hardest to understand. That’s because the first two reasons are familiar to us; we do them ourselves sometimes. We allow someone to rant about “the Jews” because we think a few assholes are worth Freedom of Speech. We punish those we are responsible for in order to help them grow. But this last point is something we can’t and shouldn’t do.

The final reason God allows evil to exist is so that He can bring good out of it. Think back to what I was saying about the Devil’s fall: he didn’t want to have to be counted as less than a mere woman. But his fall is precisely what led to Mary’s position as the Immaculate Mother of God. Now, I wouldn’t want to speculate what might have happened if the Devil had never fallen, but the point is that because he rejected God, he helped bring about the very scenario he found so repulsive. It’s the classic prophecy storyline: in attempting to prevent a dire prediction from coming true, our protagonist has inadvertently brought it about.

God integrates evil into His plan so perfectly that we cannot conceive of the world without it. The devil introduces death and decay; God uses it to bring about his creatures through evolution. Pharaoh hardens his heart against the Israelites; God uses him to show His saving Power. Christ is killed; God opens the gates of Heaven.

Does this seem impossible or contradictory? It shouldn’t. Imagine playing chess against a master. No matter what you did, no matter what move you make, he could integrate it into his strategy. He doesn’t make the moves for you, or tell you what to do, but everything you do unwittingly serves his purpose, and in the end the only one all your bluster and attempted cunning will hurt is yourself.

"Oh, come on! How about best 51 out of a 100?"

Likewise, from God’s perspective no one can do true, lasting harm to anyone else. They can hurt, kill, and take, but unless the other person rejects God it’s all temporary. The only person truly harmed by sin is the sinner. That’s why Jesus reserved some of His harshest condemnations for those who tempt others to sin (Luke 17: 1-3), and that’s why God permits men to sin; in the end, they’re only hurting themselves, and He will use them to bring others to Him. 

                 This faculty of God to bring good out of evil is necessary, because God would not be God if anyone could thwart His Will. Not that He wills men into Hell, but the fact that some choose Hell does not subvert Him (since He wills that men have the free choice to reject Him). He will use them, even in Hell, to bring others to Heaven. 

                  Before I end, I should say a little more about Hell, since that’s one of the doctrines that tends to scare people away from Christianity: “I don’t like the idea of a God who would send people to Hell!” (they never seem to ask whether “I don’t like” is in anyway shape or form related to “it is philosophically unsound”). 

                  The truth is that God doesn’t send people to Hell; people choose to go. “The gates of Hell are locked from the inside.” It’s what I was talking about earlier: Hell is filled with people who would rather have their own vision of Reality than Gods, and who are perfectly willing to suffer in Hell for all eternity rather than not get their own way. A Saint is someone who prefers God to everything; a damned soul is one who prefers nothing to God.

                  Remember, damned souls become more ‘unreal’ for all eternity. In fact, to enter Hell you have to be pretty unreal to begin with. In The Great Divorce, Lewis described Hell as being infinitesimally small compared to Heaven; so much so that the Saints are literally unable to fit inside.

This is due to the nature of sin. In the act of committing evil, we are always accepting some ‘untruth;’ that we have the right to murder this person, for instance, or that sexual urges are uncontrollable anyway, or that all the world’s problems are the fault of (insert group here). In so doing, we invite a little ‘nothingness’ into ourselves; a little bit of unreality that unmakes a tiny part of us. And, of course, the more we ‘unmake,’ the easier it is to continue ‘unmaking’ and the closer we come to breaking down completely (going all the way back to the ‘rust’ analogy).

How many of you have seen Batman Beyond? Do you remember the episode “Sneak Peek,” the one with the tabloid reporter who could make himself intangible? As time went on and he used his power more and more often, the effect slowly became permanent. In the end, unable to touch or hold onto anything, he sank through the ground itself into the center of the Earth.

                 I think that’s a good metaphor for Hell: the more you embrace sin and make it a part of your life, the more unreal you become, until finally you’re lost forever. God tries to hold you, but there’s nothing there to hold; you simply slip through His hands into near-nothingness.

                 Next week: the Coming and Fall of Man.

Vive Christus Rex!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Famous Catholic Friday: St. Joseph of Cupertino

I thought this week I’d have a little fun with Famous Catholic Friday and profile not only our first Saint, but one of the most enjoyably odd Saints of them all: Joseph of Cupertino.

Catholic Credentials: An incredibly devout, humble soul; a Franciscan priest; lived a life of extreme penance.

Nerd Credentials: Possessed real-life superpowers, including the ability to fly, read minds, and heal; that’s gotta count for something.

                Giuseppe (Joseph) Desa de Cupertino was born on June 17th, 1603 in, well, Cupertino, Italy to an extremely poor family. His father died shortly before he was born, which allowed his mother to inherit his debts, obliging her to give birth to Giuseppe in a stable (sound familiar?).
When he was eight years old, young Giuseppe had an ecstatic vision: a sudden perception or understanding of the Divine that leaves the viewer insensible to everything around him. Unfortunately, he had it while he was at school, in the middle of class. No word on what the teacher did to him once he finally came out of it, but his classmates, seeing him gawp at mid-air, nicknamed him “Bocca aperta” (“open mouth”). Needless to say, this did not help his popularity. But then again, Giuseppe was never very popular, being a skinny, awkward, hot-tempered child. He was also somewhat lacking in intellect. These days we might call him ‘developmentally disabled.’ His teachers called him stupid (teachers were allowed to be honest in those days).
He was apprenticed to a shoemaker, but when he was seventeen he determined to join the Order of Friars Minor Conventuals (a branch of the Franciscan Order), probably to the relief of both his irascible and long-suffering mother and whatever poor soul was engaged to teach him shoemaking. The Friars turned him down for being too stupid. He tried again, this time with the Capuchins, who accepted him. They soon came to regret it. Giuseppe couldn’t do anything right. He would fail at even the simplest tasks (“Giuseppe, take this pile of dishes into the rectory.” *CRASH*). He kept forgetting what he was supposed to do. He meant well, but his stupidity made him a menace to the whole community.
Think “Gomer Pyle O.F.M.Cap” and you’ll be in the right ballpark.

“Giuseppe, sei cosi stupido! Come si puo essere cosi stupido?!”
Also starring Francesco Suttano as Father Carrettiere
After eight months, the Capuchins decided to send Giuseppe away while there was still a Capuchin order to be sent away from. His mother was not at all pleased to have him back menacing her house with his attempts to help, so she dragged him back to the Convent of La Grotella (where he had been rejected the first time) and badgered the abbot (who happened to be her brother, and hence was heartily afraid of her) to take him on as a lay brother. Reluctantly, they did so, setting him to work in the stables where, presumably, he could do the least amount of damage.
                Giuseppe resolved to try harder this time (he really didn’t want to be sent home to his mother again), and set about learning his tasks. Slowly, his work improved and he became humbler and worked to control his temper. He also began what would become a life-time of austerity and penance; he would impose seven ‘Lents’ a year on himself (meaning he would take the season of Lent, a forty-day period of penance and fasting, and repeated it seven times each year. He probably would have done more, but he ran out of year). During these times he would only eat on Thursdays and Sundays (among other things).
                His hard-work and penance paid off; four years after being admitted to La Grotella, his superiors were impressed enough in his improvement to have him study for the priesthood.
                Giuseppe’s piety was more than sufficient, but his knowledge was…less than sufficient. But he studied hard, and by some sort of miracle his examinations happened to revolve around the few things that he managed to learn (forget flying: this is the real miracle of his life). So, he was made a deacon and, three years later, a priest.
                In between diaconate and the priesthood, odd things began to happen. His bouts of ecstasy, which had been happening steadily since he was eight years old, became more frequent. It became so almost anything that reminded him of God could set them off: church bells, an image of the Blessed Mother, or a reading from scripture. I can only imagine how he got through the Divine Office and Mass every day; the only thing that could bring him out of an ecstasy once he was in it was a command from his superior (I can just picture it: “Credo in unam deum…” “Giuseppe!” “Pater Omnipotentem…” “Giuseppe!”). When I say the only thing, I mean the only thing; even sticking him with needles or burning him with candles couldn’t rouse him once he got going (though he had to ask his fellow friars to stop doing that, as it left scars that he would only discover afterwards).
                But then things got really interesting; he began levitating while in ecstasy. While saying Mass or praying he would frequently end up kneeling three or four feet above the ground. On one occasion, while attending Christmas mass, he flew straight to the top of the high alter and knelt there while carols were sung. On another occasion he passed some workers were struggling to raise a thirty-six-foot stone cross into place. So, Giuseppe took the massive cross and simply flew it into place. Yet another story tells of him meeting the Pope (either Urban VIII or Innocent X, no word on which) and bending down to kiss the Holy Father’s feet. At which point both Giuseppe and the astonished Pope began to levitate (I can only imagine what happened next: “sorry, Your Holiness: I do that sometimes”). Sometimes when he and his brethren went out to beg, Giuseppe would suddenly end up in a tree. 

                His levitation was of great interest to everyone else, naturally, but not so much to him. To him, it was just one of those ‘things;’ the point wasn’t that he could fly, the point was that he serve Jesus.
                And flying wasn’t his only superpower either. He could heal people by touching them. He could read minds (his fellow friars would sometimes go up to talk to him, only to find that he knew both what they were about to say and what they weren’t telling him).  He also could talk to the animals (just imagine it!). Once he sent a sparrow to a nearby convent of nuns to “help with their singing.” Later, after one of the sisters shooed it away, he dropped by and was told that the bird hadn’t returned. “Quite right,” he said. “He didn’t come to you to be insulted! But I will try to make amends on your behalf.” Not long after, the bird returned.
                I suppose I should talk a little about miracles here. It may seem far-fetched to us that Giuseppe could fly while contemplating heavenly things. Perhaps, but the question then becomes why? Why is it so hard to believe? True, men do not usually fly, but no one’s claiming that they do; they’re just claiming that this one did, and there seems to be good evidence to support them. He was witnessed to fly at least seventy times during his life, often by large crowds. The stories about him flying didn’t emerge centuries after his death, but during his lifetime. He lived in a sophisticated, well-ordered society, mid-way between the Renaissance and the ‘Enlightenment’
Regarding this last point occasionally invoked explanation that people ‘back then’ were more apt to believe miracles because they knew little or no science, well, that’s bunk. For one thing, ‘people can’t fly’ is not an advanced scientific idea that we have only recently begun to understand; everyone who saw St. Joseph fly was entirely aware that he really shouldn’t have been able to do that. A man is not more apt to believe that someone can fly because he doesn’t know the principles of aerodynamics. If anything, he’s less likely to believe it. People may have been more apt to see the Hand of God in the world while St. Joseph lived, but they were hardly more apt to accept reports of a flying monk during a time when neither man nor anything he made could fly. 
And that’s another thing; we call them ‘Miracles’ because they are things that don’t seem to follow the ordinary laws of nature. Knowing more of those laws doesn’t make miracles more unbelievable. If anything, it makes them more likely (since the more we understand of how nature works, the more apt we are to notice when it doesn’t work the way we expect it to). Faced with reports of St. Joseph’s miracles, we can conclude one of two things; that a large number of both lay and religious people (including the Pope) decided to enter into a conspiracy of lies about this random, rather stupid priest for the sole purpose of putting one over on the believing public, or the man actually did levitate. From what we know, those really are the only two explanations. Saying “it was a long time ago and people were stupid back then” isn’t skepticism: it’s snobbery.
Giuseppe’s levitating caused problems both for him and for the order. People kept flocking to see the flying friar, which rather spoiled the monastic seclusion. Not to mention having one of the congregation (or even the priest) suddenly go into a trance and take off into the sky was a somewhat disruptive event to occur during Mass or prayers. It got to the point where Giuseppe’s brethren responded to the miracles with less “Praise be to God for this sign!” and more “Oh, no; not again!” So, for over thirty years they tried to keep him hidden. They moved him from one convent to another, trying to keep the crowds away (quite apart from the spectacle, he was an excellent confessor who inspired many people to live truly Christian lives). But people kept finding out where he was, somehow, and then they’d have to move him again. Giuseppe was given his own private cell and chapel and had to take his meals alone.
Despite this seclusion, Giuseppe remained irrepressively cheerful all his days. His ecstasies and flights became more frequent as he grew progressively more and more detached from the Earth and developed a Heavenly perspective. He said that all the wars and troubles of the world were nothing but the “play battles of children with pop-guns” (this was right in the midst of the thirty-years war). Finally, at the age of sixty, after a severe period of fever and near-constant ecstasy, Giuseppe died on Sept. 18, 1663. A little over a hundred years later, in 1767, Pope Clement XIII canonized him a Saint. Today, he’s the patron of pilots, air-travelers, astronauts, and the mentally-challenged.
St. Joseph reminds us that God does not necessarily ask for intelligence or even basic competence; He only asks for faith and love. St. Joseph had that faith and love in spades, to the point that he was gifted to see things that the greatest scholars on Earth could never comprehend. He was so unbounded by earthy concerns that he couldn’t even be bothered to obey the laws of gravity. In this way he also shows us that the concerns, trials, and problems that plague as are, really, not worth troubling over. Seen from a Heavenly perspective, they’re nothing more than temporary inconveniences; just like gravity.
St. Joseph of Cupertino, Pray for Us!

P.S. for an only semi-historical, but very entertaining look at St. Joseph’s life, try to track down The Reluctant Saint, starring Maximillian Schell and Ricardo Montalban.

Vive Christus Rex!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Four Life Lessons from "The Hobbit"

        As some of you may have heard, the first movie of The Hobbit came out last week (see my review here). In recognition of this momentous occasion, we’re going to look a little closer at the story. Tolkien (as you may remember) was a devout Catholic and always infused his stories with his faith. As you can imagine, you can learn a lot from one of the most brilliant Catholic minds of the twentieth century. For now, however, we shall limit ourselves to the ones that can be found in the first third or so of the book (corresponding roughly with what’s in the movie).

1.     Leave Your Comfort Zone

When we first meet him, Bilbo Baggins is a solidly ‘respectable’ Hobbit. You could know exactly what he was going to say on any subject without bothering to ask him. His concerns were primarily eating, reading his mail, and keeping his lovely hobbit hole nice and clean.
Then, one day, he meets Gandalf the Wizard who is looking for someone to share in an adventure he is putting together with 13 dwarves intent on reclaiming their kingdom of Erebor from the dragon Smaug. Bilbo, at first wants nothing to do with it…until one of the dwarves voices the opinion that he is “more like a grocer than a burglar.” That, coupled with the dwarves song of gold and adventure, makes him determined to go and prove himself.
These days we’re often told that we’re “okay, just the way we are.” Bilbo and I are here to tell you that’s nonsense. Of course you’re not okay just the way you are; if you were, you wouldn’t be telling yourself that! It’s like what Tolkien’s friend Lewis said about the phrase “I’m just as good as you:” it’s one of those things that no one would say if they actually believed it. Do you think any saint, or any great man: Peter, Francis of Assisi, Francis de Sales, Theodore Roosevelt, or John Paul II ever once in their lives said “I like being me; I am comfortable with who I am”? Of course not! They were great precisely because they were always uncomfortable: because they were never satisfied with themselves, they were always seeking to improve.
The fact is, there is always something you need to improve, always boundaries you need to cross. If you’re comfortable with your life, it probably means you’re doing something wrong. God doesn’t want us to be comfortable; He wants us to be Saints. An insular, respectable life is generally not a sign of great sanctity.
I hardly even know where to begin with the awful word ‘respectable.’ Christians should never be respectable! To be respectable means to be in line with the times, to be a thoroughly normal child of the Xth-Century, and God forbid we be that! We ought to be a sign of contradiction to the world; we ought to be obnoxious, non-conformist, and improper. In other words, we should never be a perfectly ordinary person of our times. If we are, it means one of two things: Jesus has come and again and the world has ended, or we’re not living as we should. Trust me, you’d know if it were the former.
At the beginning, Bilbo really is more like a grocer than a burglar. He’s (let’s face it) a pampered, upper-class wimp: much like many of us. But he has the desire to be something more, and it is that desire that sends him running out the door without his pocket handkerchief.
What’s your hobbit hole? What comfortable, easy refuge is keeping you respectable, and what’s the desire that will drive you out of it?

2.     Honor Your Responsibilities

 Bilbo and the dwarves are, at first, not what we might call ‘friends.’ They don’t like each other very much. The dwarves are apt to dismiss Bilbo as useless, and Bilbo is, well, apt to be useless. Yet they are friends, because ‘friends’ is what they have committed to be. They’re comrades; mess-mates. And however they feel about each other, they have responsibilities towards one another.
Thus, when Bilbo escapes the goblin mines without his friends, he makes up his mind that, if he can’t find them outside, it’s his duty to go back in and look for them (“and very miserable he felt about it”). The fact that he probably won’t be able to find them (magic ring or no magic ring), that they might be dead for all he knows, and that they don’t even like him very much anyway doesn’t matter; he committed to them, now he has to fulfill his duty to them.
But then, he stumbles across them in the woods to find that they are discussing the very same thing: going back in to look for Bilbo. And, unlike him, they adamantly don’t want to. They complain to Gandalf that Bilbo’s useless anyway, and that they won’t be able to find him, that he should have kept up, and so on and so forth.
Once again, Bilbo shows us the right thing to do, while the dwarves (who are ostensibly the more experienced and dedicated adventurers) show us what not to do. Bilbo knows his duty and sticks to it, no matter how much he’d prefer to do otherwise. The dwarves, on the other hand, plead changing circumstances to excuse themselves. Duty does not change with circumstances or with feelings; it is constant no matter what, and our only concern should be to do it to the best of our abilities.

3.     Get Creative

That isn’t to say, of course, that changing circumstances don’t need to be taken into account. Our duty may remain the same, but our situation does not. So, the effect is something like this; we have two points: the fixed point of our responsibility and the moving point of our situation. In between is the shifting, Cube-like maze of circumstance. So, we have to get creative.

This is my default solution.
Bilbo finds himself alone and lost. His responsibility is to find and (if necessary) rescue his friends and escape the mountain. In addition to the fact that he’s stuck in a labyrinthian cave network with goblins prowling around and no light source, he meets Gollum, who thinks he might like to eat Bilbo. So, Bilbo improvises and when Gollum suggest they have a game of riddles to decide whether he will show Bilbo the exit or having him for dinner, he agrees. The only way to the outside is through Gollum, so Bilbo accepts the situation and tries to find a way to make it work for him. Then, when it looks as though he might lose the game, Bilbo accidentally hits on the solution; to think outside the box and ask a question Gollum couldn’t possibly guess: “What have I got in my pocket?”
                  Now, the clever thing about the pocket question is that the important thing is less to make Gollum guess wrongly (since the only way he could guess correctly is by sheer luck), but to make him try to answer. Once he tries to answer, it shows he accepts the question and thus binds him to his promise. Gollum, less adept at such things than Bilbo, takes the bait and loses (it’s the same principle behind things like roulette and shell-games: the trick isn’t in making the other person lose, it’s in making them play at all). 
                  When circumstances seem overwhelming, sometimes the best thing to do is to get creative and try something completely different. To ‘cheat,’ as it were.

4.     “Vanquished Enemies Should be Spared”

G.K. Chesterton listed this as one of the things no sensible person ever has or ever will question. If you have beaten someone and have a chance to finish him for good, you should always ere on the side of mercy.
After Bilbo has won the riddle game (“pretty fairly”) and, in fleeing the enraged Gollum discovered the power of the Ring, he finds himself in a position where the only way he can escape is to somehow go through or around Gollum. Remembering Gollum’s willingness and intent to murder him, Bilbo considers simply killing him. But his basic decency wins through; it wasn’t a fair fight by any stretch, and besides Gollum was already so miserable and alone that Bilbo couldn’t find it in his heart to kill him.
Bilbo’s mercy, note, was done because he could sympathize with Gollum. He “caught of glimpse” of Gollum’s miserable, lonely life and it made him feel for the poor creature. It is easy, in these days of the internet: of faceless names comprised of odd phrases strung together with random numbers, to lose all sympathy for other people. Whenever we’re tempted to lash out, to make crass, hateful comments, or to attack people who disagree with us, we should pause and try to imagine what their life, their mind, their world is like. In short, we should show pity to those we meet.
                  Much later, at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo (seeing the tremendous damage Gollum has done in the mean time) wishes that Bilbo had killed him when he had the chance, earning him a rebuke from Gandalf:
                  “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand! Pity and mercy: not to strike without need…I daresay he does deserve [death]! Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment, fearing for your own safety.”
                  All too often we find ourselves far too eager to pass judgment, to ‘strike without need,’ to take what seems to be the easiest, safest way out, regardless of how it affects others. At such times we should remember Bilbo and the pity he showed an enemy that he had every reason to despise.

Tune in next year for part two: Never Laugh at Live Dragons!
Vive Christus Rex!