Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Scripture Readings: The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter

First Reading: Acts 14: 21-27

After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” They appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith. Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia. From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished. And when they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

Second Reading: Revelations: 21: 1-5

Then I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”

The One who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Gospel: John 13: 31-33, 34-35

When Judas had left them, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”


In this passage, Jesus, just before His crucifixion, adds what we might call the Eleventh Commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

This is interesting: is this a new commandment? Didn’t Jesus earlier describe the two greatest commandments as “Love God and Love your Neighbor”?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because loving our neighbor is more or less synonymous with “love one another.” The difference here, though, is one of kind and degree. In the earlier commandments, we are told “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is putting a stronger and more defined emphasis on this: love one another as I have loved you. In other words, “whatever I have done for you, you must do for each other.”

This is His new commandment. I’ll have to double check, but I believe this is the only time Jesus calls one of His commands a commandment. The term infuses the command with a special power; a commandment is a core law. The Ten Commandments served as the basis for all moral and legal concerns in the Jewish community (and the Christian and…well, pretty much every subsequent community until very recently), and the two “Great Commandments” served as the basis for the Ten. Jesus is thus adding a new element to the foundation of His disciples’ religious and communal life, one that encompasses all the others: “do for each other what I have done for you.”

Now, not only does He present this as a new commandment (incidentally fulfilling His role as the new Moses), but He describes this as the sign and definition of His disciples: “If you are my disciples,” He’s saying. “You will love one another as I have loved you. That is what it means to be my disciple.”

So, the thing we need to do in this Easter season is to ask ourselves: are we Christ’s disciples? Do we fit this definition of loving one another as He loves us? I don’t know about you, but in my case the answer is a very definite “no” (if you said “yes” than you’re either a true Saint or you’re in need of a serious reality check).

But there’s hope for us, for in this war, as St. Francis de Sales said, “we are assured of victory if we only will fight.” The thing to do here is to remind ourselves everyday what Jesus has done for us and to look for opportunities to imitate Him. The world desperately needs an example of Christ-like love, and it’s our job to give it to them.

Vive Christus Rex!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Chesterton: An Appreciation

My sister Masha at Cyganeria recently posted a piece discussing her ambivalence towards G.K. Chesterton. I encourage you to go read it and the ensuing discussion, because I’m going to be referencing it in this particular article as I try to give a brief explanation of my intense fondness for him.

At the moment I’m re-reading Four Faultless Felons, a book that delves into one of his favorite themes, the innocent man wrongly accused. While his fellow British Catholic Alfred Hitchcock liked using this theme to create tension and horror, Chesterton used it to examine and challenge modern conventions and assumptions. In each story there’s a character who commits what seems to be a crime, but which actually turns out to be an act of virtue (except for one, which turns out to be an elaborate practical joke). The stories are mostly told through the eyes of a young heroine whom the felon falls in love with and ends by sharing his secret with (though usually she guesses it before the reader does). We’re told upfront that each story will end with the sinner turning out to be a saint, but Chesterton usually disguises it well enough that we’re left guessing how until the end (personally, I only guessed one of them, in part because I’ve heard of something similar happening in real life).

These stories are typical of Chesterton’s style; he takes an assumption – i.e. shooting people is always wrong – and turns it upside down so that we explore both why it is typically the case and where it might not necessarily be true. He digs around the commandments to find the principle that they’re founded on. In the meantime, he finds time to make cleverly phrased comments on property, self-government, pop-psychology, and a host of other topics.

There are a lot of reasons why I love Chesterton. I suppose the most important is the fact that he was never a snob. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s snobbery; the attitude of "this work/idea/person is no good because it’s too common, too obvious, too ordinary, too shallow, etc;" the praising of difficult work because it is difficult, or of ugly paintings because they are ugly, or boring books because they are boring; the assumption that Goethe or Joyce is always better and more worthwhile than, say, Lewis or Doyle or Chesterton himself.

My all-time favorite Chesterton quote, the one I would frame and hang on my wall to read every day, is “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” Because, dang it, sometimes you just want the clich├ęd, shallow, unpolished story that you’ve read a dozen times already and there’s nothing wrong with that. Chesterton understood this, and he never took own works of fiction very seriously. He enjoyed books with idealized heroines, sudden twists, exotic locales, and ingenious murders, so he wrote them. He could be profound and difficult when he wanted (see The Man Who Was Thursday), but mostly he wrapped his profundity in the kind of stories that he enjoyed picking up from the corner store on his way to work.

This openness to the common and unpolished also extended to philosophy, where Chesterton was much more likely to give credence to everyday maxims and assumptions than to advanced philosophical conclusions. This perhaps led him to overestimate the sense of common people, but it also helped him to avoid the fashionable ideas of the day such as Socialism, Eugenics, and all the other waste products of the modern intelligentsia. The principle behind this was sound; the ideas of the educated elite are mostly based on the thoughts of a handful of men of similar backgrounds and experiences. The ideas of the common man are based on centuries’ worth of ancestors living, working, loving, and dying in the real world. The latter has much better credentials than the former, however intelligent the intelligentsia is.

Interestingly enough, history has born Chesterton out. He remains almost shockingly relevant in his thinking on politics, social issues, religion, family, and the like, while Socialism, Eugenics, ‘the Life Force’ and so on have all been nothing but dismal failures, to the point that even fans of Wells and Shaw don’t buy into them (there’s a reason Wells is almost exclusively known for the his science fiction stories, which he mostly produced very early in his career).

The thing that surprised me most about Masha’s post is how she describes Chesterton as being harsh and uncharitable. From what I’ve read by and about him, Chesterton was a singularly gentle and charitable man. Two of his best friends were H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who disagreed with Chesterton about practically everything. They often debated publically about religion, politics, and everything else, and certainly took the debates private whenever they met. Nonetheless, he remained good friends with them, and would praise their works and character to the heavens at every opportunity (as they would his). He was the same with practically everyone else he ever met and engaged with. The only person I’m aware of that he legitimately attacked personally and publicly was a journalist who had been writing disparaging articles about Chesterton’s recently-deceased brother, Cecil.

He had and expressed ire, to be sure, but mostly he directed it at broad, general groups (“certain scientists.” “businessmen” etc) while his charity was reserved for individuals. For instance, he might spend paragraphs expressing disgust at Eugenics and the mindset behind it before turning around and praising the virtues of Mr. Wells (who was a committed Eugenicist).

It’s true that Chesterton’s writings are saturated with jokes and mockery, but I’ve never found them particularly mean-spirited. Certainly his friends didn’t take much offense (being mostly humorists themselves). I think what Chesterton intended to do was to follow the advice of his near-contemporary Oscar Wilde, who said that “if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.” He mocked because humor made the truth palatable. And a good deal of his humor was directed at himself; his poor research skills, his weight, his laziness (“I dare say that when I get out of this bed I shall do some deed of an almost terrible virtue.”), his bad memory, etc.

Chesterton could describe Shaw, for instance, as presenting “a bewildering welter of fallacies” right before praising his “real kindness of heart, which makes him tolerant of the humblest of the creatures of God” and rounding it all out with a joke about being knocked on the head with Shaw’s umbrella. Shaw and Chesterton remained friends precisely because they could joke about each other’s beliefs and laugh at those jokes. Shaw would mock Chesterton for his obesity; Chesterton would tease Shaw about his thinness. Shaw would make a joke ridiculing Christianity, Chesterton would reply with a joke mocking Socialism.

Coupled in this ability to joke was the fact that Chesterton assumed that Shaw and his other rivals really were honest in their ideas and intended well by them. He just saw their ideas for what they were – nonsense – and treated them accordingly. But his humor wasn’t limited to things he thought nonsensical; he made just as many jokes about Catholicism and everything else he loved and believed in. The idea that mockery implies disdain or judgment is one that he would have found shocking and absurd.

Chesterton is so popular (even among non-Catholics), I think, precisely because he could present his ideas in a simple, amusing form. He makes you laugh, not just as the sudden subversion of your expectations, but at the very obviousness of the subversion. You laugh because you realize that what he’s saying is what you’ve known all along, but couldn’t articulate. When he discusses the difference between contempt and simple forgetfulness, for instance, he notes that no one goes down the street “giving his mustache a haughty twirl at the thought of his superiority to a specimen of deep-sea fishes.” It’s funny both because it’s ridiculous and because it’s true.

There’s another element to his mockery, one which might account for Masha’s dislike of it. He used it, not only to help his ideas go down easier, but also to shock people into paying attention to things they otherwise wouldn’t have considered. For instance, he had a well-known habit where whenever he met someone who claimed that life wasn’t worth living he would pull out his revolver and offer to shoot them. “It always produced very satisfactory results,” he said (brandishing laws mean that, unfortunately, we can’t perform this particular act of mercy today). That’s the idea behind his love of paradox; by saying something so outrageous, he invites you to keep reading to see how he justifies it. He described this technique in a Father Brown story as “standing on your head to see what something really looks like.” Paradoxical, but true; familiarity with something tends to make us take it for granted. Making it suddenly unfamiliar – i.e. by turning it upside down – causes us to look at it as though it were new.

Masha calls Chesterton ‘loud.’ Perhaps it’s a matter of personal taste, but I find his joyful directness refreshing; the voice of a man so full of life and joy that he can’t hold it in and wants to share it with everyone. In contrast, I find the almost pained isolation and softness of someone like Rilke alienating. I may enjoy reading him and find his thoughts and poems profound, but I don't really enjoy spending time with him as I do Chesterton.

Perhaps this can be well expressed by contrasting Chesterton with a much more popular writer whom I don’t enjoy at all: Mark Twain. I hear people talk about how witty and fun he is, but personally I just see an old cynic who thinks a talent for words equates with brilliance. Twain’s humor is caustic and iconoclastic; Chesterton’s reverent and friendly. Where Twain would assume the worst and joke about trying to hide it, Chesterton would assume the best and joke about falling short from it. Twain rips the rug out from under you; Chesterton tosses you up like a father playing with his baby.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with a selection of my favorite Chesterton quotes:

“[I]t had been supposed that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by expanding our ego into infinity, the truth is that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by reducing our ego to zero”

“There is no way of dealing properly with the ultimate greatness of Dickens, except by offering sacrifice to him as a god; and this is opposed to the etiquette of our time.”
-Charles Dickens

“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.”
-The Ballad of the White Horse

“The great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad”
-The Ballad of the White Horse

“Art is the signature of man.”
-The Everlasting Man

"No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away…till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.”
-Father Brown, The Secret of Father Brown

“It seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions.”
-Father Brown, The Chief Mourner of Marne

“”But how hard it is for ugliness to rise against beauty. And we are an ugly lot!”
-Four Faultless Felons

“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”

“Children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshipers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

Vive Christus Rex!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Scripture Readings: The Fourth Sunday of Easter

First Reading: Acts 13: 14, 43-52

Paul and Barnabas continued on from Perga and reached Antioch in Pisidia. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and took their seats. Many Jews and worshipers who were converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to remain faithful to the grace of God.

On the following Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said. Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.”

The Gentiles were delighted when they heard this and glorified the word of the Lord. All who were destined for eternal life came to believe, and the word of the Lord continued to spread through the whole region. The Jews, however, incited the women of prominence who were worshipers and the leading men of the city, stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their territory. So they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium. The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.

Second Reading: Revelation 7: 9, 14-17

I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. Then one of the elders said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.“For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Gospel: John 10: 27-30

Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”


                  This week is given over to messages of Hope: salvation for the Gentiles, a vision of the time where God will wipe away every tear, and Jesus’ care for His sheep.
                  I’d like to focus on the second reading (since everyone likes to ignore Revelation…which, sounds worse than I meant it, but is sadly even more true). John has a vision of the Saints: the ‘great multitude of every nation, race, people and tongue.’ Here is the twofold definition of a Saint: one who has “survived the time of great distress” and who has “washed [his] robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” That is, they have persevered and they have received Christ’s Mercy.
                  It is interesting that perseverance is listed first in this instance. That, obviously, doesn’t take anything away from the necessity of the latter element, but rather, I think, is a kind of warning. It says “before you come forth to receive Jesus, remember that you are committing yourself; there can be no turning back. First take thought for yourself and your own actions.”
                  Again, this isn’t to say that our own actions and choices are first in importance or the primary sources of our salvation. It’s to say that this is what is most under our own control. It’s what we need to keep in mind.
                  But then again, and more importantly, the Saints are those who have ‘washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ Our perseverance is important, and it is what we need to focus our wills upon by its very nature, but before you can persevere you have to have something to persevere in. Hence, the primary importance to receiving God’s mercy and Grace, without which it’s impossible to either persevere or to be saved in the first place.
                  “Washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb” contains the three most important Sacraments within it. “Washing” calls to mind the act of bathing, that is, Baptism, which cleanses us from our sins and makes us White. The Blood of the Lamb, meanwhile, strikes me as an explicitly Eucharistic image; that we must have a partaking of the Sacred Blood of our Lord.
                  So far is fairly clear. But there’s one other Sacrament that I think is called to mind here; the fact that ‘washing’ and ‘being made white’ are separate clauses indicates that the one doesn’t necessarily ensure the other; that is, one may be washed, but may not remain white (as is the case for most of us). But both elements; the washing and the being made white, must be present for Salvation. Hence, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in which we are ‘made white’ over again, even if we have no need to bathe again (John 13:10).   
                  Let us all pray that we are among that great multitude, washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb.

Vive Christus Rex!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Famous Catholic Friday: Nicolaus Copernicus

(Sorry I missed last week; personal issues kept me from writing much at all).

From the world of music we travel to its estranged cousin, science.

Catholic Credentials: Cradle Catholic; Dominican (sources vary on whether he was actually a priest or not); dedicated his most famous work to the Pope.

Nerd Credentials: Produced the first working model of a heliocentric solar system; polyglot; doctor, artist, astronomer, mathematician, economist, and classics scholar.

                It’s one of the tragic ironies of history that a man who produced some of the most important astronomical work of all time, in addition to a myriad of other accomplishments, should be largely reduced to a footnote in the popular mind (“Galileo proved the Earth goes around the sun was persecuted for it! Oh, and there was some guy named Copernicus involved too”).
                In any case, Niclas Kopernik (Latinized into Nicolaus Copernicus) was born at Thorn, Poland, on the 19th of February, 1473. His father was a merchant who had come from Krakow and his mother was the sister of Lucas Watzelrode, who would later become Bishop of Ermland in Prussia. When Nicolaus was ten years old, his father died suddenly and his uncle took charge of him and his elder brother, Andreas. The bishop gave both boys a thorough university training, sending them to Krakow to study classics, mathematics, drawing, and astronomy. As they matured, the brothers Kopernik travelled to Bologna, Rome, and Padua in pursuit of their studies. During this time, they both entered the clerical life; Andreas as a priest, Nicolaus as a lay Dominican.
                More significantly, as it would turn out, Nicolaus was learning to combine what he knew of logic, mathematics, and the works of Aristotle and Ptolemy. When he did so, he started finding problems. The Ptolemaic system of spheres had grown and developed over the centuries as new discoveries and developments had been made in astronomy, to the point that the once simple and elegant idea had grown extremely bloated and convoluted trying to account for it all. During his trip to Rome, he gave a number of lectures on astronomy discussing this very point. And it was in the course of composing these that the germ of his masterwork awoke within his mind.
                But that would have to wait. After completing his university career, Copernicus worked as a physician in Heilsberg, and later the town of Frombork. Though he didn’t have a degree in medicine (he graduated as a Doctor of Canon Law), he was extremely successful, to the point that many rich and influential men, including bishops and princes, specifically sought out his services. Despite this, he spent most of his medical career servicing the poor, whom he treated without charge.
                During this quiet time in his life, Copernicus continued to pursue his scientific research. He translated a few classical and modern works (he could speak and write fluently in Greek, Latin, German, Polish, and Italian). His passion, though, was for astronomy, and he put the towers of the Heilsberg and Frombork churches and cathedral to good use in pursuit of his studies. Copernicus had already conceived the idea of the heliocentric theory, but before he could present it he had to gather more data. This would occupy him for the next twenty-five years.

                In the meantime, Copernicus’s beloved uncle, the Bishop, died in 1512. After the appointment of the new bishop, Copernicus was elected as administrator for the diocese, a position he held until 1522. The new position was considerably more strenuous and demanding than life as a simple physician, but it also provided him the opportunity to pursue a new discipline; economics. His studies in this field led eventually to his publication of his findings in 1526 under the title “On the Minting of Coin” at the request of King Sigismund I of Poland. In this work, Copernicus proved as foresighted in economics as he was in astronomy, discussing concepts like inflation and the difference between use value and exchange value, anticipating Adam Smith’s definitive work on the subject by some two-and-a-half centuries.
                While his reputations as a doctor, administrator, and economist were as robust as ever, he was, even then, most revered as an astronomer. Such was his prestige in this field that in 1514 the Fifth Lateran Council, called by Pope Leo X, requested his professional expertise on reforming the old Julian calendar. Copernicus examined the issue and replied that knowledge of the heavenly bodies was not yet sufficient for the task at hand and suggested the reform be put off until better data could be acquired. The Council accepted his findings, and Copernicus himself was inspired by the petition to redouble his efforts. And indeed, some seventy years later it was Copernicus’s research that served as a key basis for the Gregorian calendar which we still use to this day.  
                Copernicus’s work included carefully observations of Mars, Saturn, and especially the Sun itself. These forced him to revise some aspects of his own system, but also further confirmed his belief in the heliocentric model. He completed this work, in his own mind, around 1531. But he held off on publishing it for a long time. Primarily, this was because he was influenced by the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece, who believed that natural philosophy and scientific knowledge should be reserved only for a select few, for fear that the common multitude would scoff or abuse the knowledge. However, it’s likely that there was also a good deal of reasonable hesitation in the face of attempting to overturn virtually everything that astronomers thought they knew about the heavens and starting from scratch. In any case, he effectively sat on his theory for a while, confining it to private manuscripts and letters to friends.
                His friends, on the other hand, thought he was being silly and pressured him to make his findings public. One of them, Johann Widmanstetter, happened to be a secretary to Pope Clement VII. Perhaps to alleviate Copernicus’s fears (or simply to put more pressure on him to publish), Widmanstetter explained his friend’s theory to the Pope and a pair of cardinals, who were fascinated by it and rewarded Widmanstetter with a valuable Greek codex. Even after this (and other, similar incidents) Copernicus was adamant that he would not publish.
                In short, Copernicus was pretty much an inversion of the classic image of the renegade scientist; in the face of overwhelming personal and professional support, he still refused to publish his revolutionary findings. For ten years after he completed his research he resisted all requests to make it public.
                Meanwhile, life went on. Copernicus published his economic findings (apparently he believed that was a more practical and hence ‘lesser’ discipline, so his Pythagorean conscience didn’t bother him as much). He served as a diplomat during the Polish-Teutonic war of 1519-21. He was nominated to be elected bishop of Warmia in 1537 (which indicates that he was indeed a priest at this time), but lost to a friend named Johannes Dantiscus, whom he served as an unofficial physician. And, of course, when he had time he kept up his studies of the heavens.
                What finally changed his mind about publishing was a young man from Wittenberg named George Joachim Rheticus, a student of mathematics who in 1539 came to learn at the master’s feet. Only a few months had gone by before Rheticus sent an enthusiastic letter describing the ‘new solar system’ to a friend in Nuremberg, a letter which the friend soon had published. Rheticus then managed to convince Copernicus to publish at least the first chapter of his great work, the one that dealt with plane and spherical trigonometry more than with astronomy as such. With the theory leaking out, and with himself nearing seventy, Copernicus finally wrote Pope Paul III to announce that he was going to relent at last. He surrendered his manuscript to young Rheticus for editing and publication.
                Rheticus initially intended to publish Six Books on the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs in Wittenberg. But the Protestant-aligned University was outraged by the theory and refused to publish anything except the first chapter (they also refused to allow Rheticus to return and teach there). So, he turned to his friend in Nuremberg, who accepted the charge of publishing it. However, the published, a Protestant all too aware of the reception the theory received in Wittenberg, inserted a preface pleading that what was presented was not necessarily true, since astronomy was so very unreliable, but might be useful to those interested. He did, however, include the dedication to Pope Paul III and left the text of the work intact.
                The work is dense and complicated, but can be (and is) summarized in seven ‘assumptions:’

1.       “There is no one center of all the celestial circles or spheres.”
2.       “The center of the earth is not the center of the universe, but only of gravity and of the lunar sphere.”
3.       “All the spheres revolve about the sun as their mid-point, and therefore the sun is the center of the universe.”
4.       “The ratio of the Earth’s distance from the Sun to the height of the firmament (outermost celestial sphere containing the stars) is so much smaller than the ratio of the Earth’s radius to its distance from the sun that the distance from the Earth to the Sun is imperceptible in comparison with the height of the firmament.”
5.       “Whatever motion appears in the firmament arises not from any motion of the firmament, but from the Earth’s motion. The Earth together with its circumjacent elements performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion, whil the firmament and highest heaven abide unchanged.”
6.       “What appear to us as motions of the sun arise not from its motion but from the motion of the Earth and our sphere, with which we revolve about the sun like any other planet. The Earth has, then, more than one motion.”
7.       “The apparent retrograde and direct motion of the planets arises not from their motion but from the Earth’s. The motion of the Earth alone, therefore, suffices to explain so many apparent inequalities in the heavens.”

                Copernicus never lived to see the reaction to his work. He had suffered severe apoplexy and paralysis in the weeks leading up the publication, and he only held the complete, printed edition of his masterpiece once: on the very day he died. It’s reported that he was in a stroke-induced coma, but when the book was presented to him he awoke, looked at it, and then died peacefully. He was buried in Frombrok Cathedral, beneath the very towers which he had used to study the heavens.
                And what was the result of his literally Earth-shaking new theory? At first, very little. His book was widely read by the learned, but his findings were largely doubted. It is, after all, not easy to simply throw away a thousand-year-old scientific system. Protestant scholars tended to be particularly vicious towards it (for all that it’s editor, Rheticus, was a student of Martin Luther) due to its apparent contradictions to scripture, a position that a few Catholic scholars shared as well, most notably Copernicus’s fellow Dominican, Giovanni Tolosani. But whether Protestant or Catholic, it’s fair to say that most of his detractors based their objections on science and reason. They pointed out a number of observable discrepancies in his theory, such as the lack of phases in Venus or Mercury (they wouldn’t be observed until Galileo, some seventy years later) and the lack of stellar parallaxes (lateral shifts in the positions of stars; the first of those wouldn’t be observed until Friedrich Bessel, some 300 years later). Copernicanism (as it was dubbed) didn’t become widely accepted until Sir Isaac Newton put the most important pieces in place with his universal law of gravitation and laws of mechanics. With that, Copernicus’s great work changed from a theory into scientific fact more than a century after its composer’s death.
                But, of course, before that it led to an ugly little incident involving a hot-tempered scientist named Galileo and a vain Pope named Urban VIII, which temporarily left Copernicus’s masterpiece on the index of forbidden books. But that’s too complicated an issue to get into right now.
                Copernicus’s theory had many detractors, but it also had its share of supporters, including Pope Paul III, Rheticus, and Christopher Clavius, one of the key authors of the Gregorian calendar (who was a contemporary and friend of Galileo and helped confirm some of his findings). They hailed his as the next Ptolemy, which, as adoring compliments go, is pretty accurate. Copernicus rocked the study of astronomy to its core (literally). He paved the way for Galileo, Newton, and all the other great men who studied the heavens to this very day. He was a man far ahead of his time, one of the great geniuses of history. Priest, diplomat, classicist, physician, polyglot, mathematician, artist, economist, and astronomer, Copernicus reminds us of just how much one man can accomplish in his life.
                He also teaches us to be open to the truth wherever it leads us. It surely cannot have been easy for him to have even conceived the idea of overturning the Ptolemaic system, just as today it would be hard to conceive of overturning atomic theory. Yet he zealously pursued his findings wherever they led him, and neither Ptolemy, nor Aristotle, nor all the scholars of Europe could alter the evidence of his own eyes. In this light, it’s interesting to note that while he was on the cutting edge scientifically, religiously speaking he stood resolutely in the stronghold of tradition. Despite having numerous Protestant friends and colleagues, Copernicus never wavered in his devotion to the Catholic faith. He teaches us that neither dedicated scientific inquiry nor a myriad of worldly accomplishments are incompatible with the Christian faith.    

Vive Christus Rex!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Liebster Award Nomination

Congratulations to my friend Liz over at The Trenchcoat Introspective for her first blogging award!

First off, if you haven't already be sure to pop over and check out her blog; Liz is an extremely smart and quirky person and her writings are always worth a look, particularly her profiles of obscure Angels and Saints.

As part of her Liebster Award, Liz had to nominate other bloggers with 200 or less followers, one of which was your humble scribe! (let's see, I'm at...none. Okay, I qualify). The requirements are that she poses eleven questions which we then answer. The questions and my answers are below:

Why are you Catholic?
-Because it’s true. The only two Christian denominations with even the slightest claim to historical legitimacy are the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches (throw in the Coptic Church as well, since I’m not really up on what they’re status is). I’m Roman Catholic because I think the Pope’s claim to authority is much better than the Patriarch’s.

Who is your favorite author, and why?
-Well, my favorite book was written by J.R.R. Tolkien, but as for my favorite author, that is, the author I return to the most and reliably enjoy the most, I’d say it’s either G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis (lot of initials here).

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
-Invisibility. It’s not the best power out there, but I’ve always been drawn to it. It isn’t overpowered, so you wouldn’t feel the need/be tempted to use it to fix everything. It would require some thought and skill to use properly, but if you could use it properly it would be absolutely devestating. As the evil sorcerer Kora reminded us in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, “What you cannot see, you cannot kill!”

Imagine you could travel to any time period without consequences. Where would you go, and what would you do there?
-Oooh, tough question! I think I’d go to, say, 1904 (or thereabouts). First, I’d have breakfast with Teddy Roosevelt (where, among other things, I would inform him of Cousin Franklin’s future antics and advise a good preemptive beating). Then I’d nip up to Maine to get Gen. Chamberlain’s autograph before hopping on a steamer bound for England, where I’d take tea and discuss religion with the Chestertons before meeting with Winston Churchill to talk about the current political situation and why, if there’s a great war in the future, he should try to avoid the Gallipoli peninsula. Then, if there’s time left over, I’d drop by Archduke Ferdinand’s place to discuss the many, many benefits of cast-iron plates as a fashion accessory and I’d finish up by finding Lenin and kicking him in his proletariats.
            Alternatively, I might just go back to the Mesozoic era to observe dinosaurs in their natural habitat (I’m assuming the ‘without consequences’ includes insurance against being eaten, right?).

What is your idea of a perfect burger?
-Buffalo, lots of bacon, sharp-cheddar and Swiss all on unfried buns and nice and big.

Why do you blog?
-Because bringing up how I believe the Godzilla series to be essentially Catholic in it's worldview in a normal conversation usually doesn’t work out.

What’s your favorite mythological creature, and why?
-Probably a dragon, since they’re so cool with the wings and the fire and scales and whatnot. Depending on the story, a dragon to me is either symbolic of the sinner about to be redeemed, or the evil counterpart to a heroic dinosaur (i.e. King Ghidorah to Godzilla).

What are your thoughts on angels?
-They’re awesome, scary, and I love the fact that they’re real.

What was your very first blog post (on your first blog) about? How do you feel about that post now?
-I don’t remember and the blog itself is now lost, but the earliest one I remember was my picturing what would happen if you combined the endings of King Kong and James and the Giant Peach. That image still makes me laugh: squish!

What is your dream job?
-I suppose being a professional author; sit at home and just write away for hours and hours…sigh.

If you were canonized, what would you want to be the patron saint of?
-The United States, guns, and fantasy writing. Do we have a patron saint of guns? If not, I nominate St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was converted in part by taking a cannonball to the knee.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Famous Catholic Friday: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

And Famous Catholic Fridays are officially back on line with our first foray into the musical world. 

Catholic Credentials: Cradle Catholic; wrote a lot of sacred music that makes you realize just how lame the songs in your hymnal are.

Nerd Credentials: An insanely gifted child prodigy.

                  Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born on January 27th, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria. It was a time of transition; the ancient Holy Roman Empire had disintegrated into loosely independent states and city-states, the Archduchy of Austria was one of the many regions ruled by the formidable Empress Maria Theresa (might do a piece on her sometime; she makes Queen Elizabeth I look like Betty Crocker), and the Seven Years War was only on year two. In short, Mozart was born and grew up in what we call ‘interesting times.’ 
                  He was the only surviving son of Leopold and Maria Pertl Mozart. Leopold was a successful composer and violinist in his own right at the Salzburg court, and Wolfgang, together with his beloved sister, Maria Anna (“Nannerl”), began to study music very early. When Maria was seven, their father began teaching her the keyboard. Three-year-old Mozart watched in fascination and, by mimicking her playing, quickly picked up the art himself. Leopold, realizing this, started instructing the precocious little dickens as well. Under his father’s tutorship, Wolfgang produced his first composition at age five.
                  When Wolfgang was six and Nannerl eleven, their father took them on a whirlwind tour of Europe, from Munich to Paris to London to Zurich, where they performed and mixed with established musicians, including Johann Christian Bach (the son of Johann Sebastian Bach), who was especially influential to the no-doubt awed Wolfgang and helped him compose some of his first symphonies.
                  By the time he was thirteen, Mozart was not only fluent in the musical language, but he could even imitate the different ‘dialects’ of the various regions of Europe. That is, he could give his music an Austrian tone, or a Bavarian note, or a Parisian flavor as he saw fit. Also by this time poor Nannerl’s musical career ended due to her approaching marital age. Nevertheless, the siblings remained very close friends and correspondents for the rest of their lives.
                  It was about this time that Leopold took Wolfgang down to Italy to show him off some more. While in Rome, Wolfgang listened to Gregorio Allegri’s soaring Miserere performed in the Sistine Chapel. After hearing it performed once, he wrote down the entire score from memory; something that caused a bit of a stir, since only the Sistine Choir was permitted to know or perform the piece. So, to summarize; when he was still a teenager, Mozart memorized and copied the most exclusive musical composition in the world after a single hearing.
                  Mozart made a number of other Italian journeys during his teenage years to study, compose, and perform his music. When he returned from his final trip in 1773, it was to find that his father’s benefactor, Archbishop von Schrattenbach, had died and been succeeded by Hieronymous von Colleredo (who was probably already bitter over his ridiculous name). Archbishop von Colleredo hired the young Mozart as his assistant concertmaster for a small salary. While working under the Archbishop, Mozart composed his only five violin concertos in a three-year obsession. Once he had gotten his wild violin concerto phase out of his system, he turned to piano concertos, producing his exquisite Piano Concerto Number 9 in E flat major in 1777, just after his 21st birthday.
                  While all this was going on, Mozart and the Archbishop were growing increasingly impatient with one another. Mozart was restless and dissatisfied with his low-paid, unglamorous position. He wanted to get out, to shine, to excel outside of the crummy little town™ of Salzburg. The Archbishop, for his part, was sick of his constant whining and bad attitude. Finally, not long after completing his piano concerto, Wolfgang resigned his post and set out to seek his fortune, accompanied by his mother (after an earlier trip nearly got him into trouble with a young lady). They traveled from Munich to Paris to Mannheim, but each time it looked as though he was about to find work, the deal fell through. Mozart started running low on cash and had to pawn his possessions to make ends meet. Then he hit absolute rock-bottom when his mother fell ill and died in Paris. Depressed and grief-stricken, he turned down the job offer he had finally managed to receive in Paris and returned to Salzburg, where his father managed to snag him a position as court organist.
                  In this capacity, he composed a number of Church pieces, including his famous Coronation Mass. He also crafted another opera: Idomeneus, King of Crete, which he performed in Munich to great acclaim.
                  While he was in Munich, the Empress Maria Therese died and Mozart was summoned by the Archbishop to be part of his retinue to the coronation of her successor, Joseph II, in Vienna. The Archbishop’s opinion of the young man hadn’t improved at all in the intervening years, and he treated him as a servant. Mozart, who had just produced a successful opera and was used to mixing freely with noblemen, was furious. He resigned. The Archbishop initially refused, then abruptly accepted and had the composer literally thrown out of his room.
Having pretty neatly burned his bridges in Salzburg, Mozart determined to remain in Vienna, where he lodged with old friends he had made during his job-hunting tour. He had success in the capital; taking on students, writing music, and playing in private concerts (concerts in those days were often given in nobleman’s homes).
Yet, even as his career began to rise, he ran into a problem. It seems the family he was staying with – the Webers – had a very attractive daughter named Constanze. Not only was Mozart drawn to her himself, but her mother very much liked the idea of the girl marrying a brilliant musician.
So what was the problem? Marriage would mean more burdens on the still-struggling artist and possibly considerable damage to his career. This made Mozart wary. It made his father flatly forbid him to get married. When Mozart finally wrote to ask for his blessing, Leopold refused. Despite this, the couple became engaged, and after a long, angry correspondence between father and son, Leopold finally consented in time for their wedding on August 4, 1782. The couple had six children, only two of whom survived infancy.
                  As his star rose and his personal life settled, Mozart began to live lavishly on his musical prowess. He lived in a magnificent apartment, sent his son to the finest boarding school, and, of course, kept up an active social life among the elite of Vienna. To pay for all this, he redoubled his musical output, producing operas such as Die Entfuhrung and Le Mariage de Figaro, as well as numerous concertos, sonatas, and Masses. In 1784 he joined the Freemasons (which was not yet forbidden by the Church). That year was the most prolific of his life; in one five-week period, he appeared in twenty-two concerts, a number of which  were essentially one-man shows that he had produced and performed himself.
                  Even so, his spending habits, coupled with the fickle Viennese public, soon put him in dire financial straits, a situation made  worse by the fact that, popular as he was, he couldn’t win a court appointment. The Emperor’s taste in music ran more towards the Italian style, particularly that of a composer named Antonio Salieri, with whom Mozart had an intense, though entirely professional rivalry (the idea that they hated each other personally is a myth; each respected the other’s talents and admired the other’s work).
                  Finally, the Emperor deigned to recognize Mozart’s skill by appointing him “chamber composer.” It was only a part-time position, but it came not a moment too soon, as Mozart was now swamped with debt. To make matters worse, the Austro-Turkish War was now in full swing, meaning there was little money to be spared for musicians. Mozart was now borrowing money to make ends meet, though he was always prompt at paying it back when he managed to snag a concert or sell a piece of music. He began to travel, seeking ways to improve his fortune. But neither Leipzig nor Dresden nor Berlin held any opportunities for him.
                  With his troubles surmounting, Mozart slipped into dark depression. He would alternate between periods of moody, reflective idleness and frenzied activity.
                  Then, all of a sudden, he rallied. He began churning out piece after piece all throughout the first half of 1791; concertos, string quintets, the opera The Magic Flute and, finally, his great unfinished Requiem Mass. The success of this massive outpouring of effort began to restore his family’s fortune at last.
                  These pieces tended to show a more marked spiritual nature than his previous works. It seems that, during his long “dark night” he had experienced a spiritual revival. His faith, which had always been sincere, appears to have rallied in that final, tremendous year of his life.
                  And it was the end. On September 6th, 1791, while in Prague for the premiere of his opera La Clemenza di Tito, Mozart fell ill. He rallied and managed to keep working, including conducting the premier of The Magic Flute, but his health steadily diminished. His wife nursed him as he struggled to complete his Requiem, foiling her efforts to maintain his health in the process. He died, his final masterpiece still incomplete, on December 5th, 1791. He was thirty-five years old.  
                  Mozart was a genius of the kind that only appears once in a hundred years. As his contemporary Johann Woflgang von Goethe put it, “A phenomenon like Mozart remains an inexplicable thing.” The soaring beauty that poured from his mind and fingers from the very earliest age reminds us of the reality beyond the mere world of sight and sound. Mozart could channel heart-rending beauty through his person and lay it down complete with the power to move us centuries hence. This talent was so complete, so inexplicable that it can only point us beyond itself to the Reality that it so often praised and celebrated.             

Vive Christus Rex! 

You're My Kind of Nerd If...

A single series of posts featuring Spider-Man, Gollum, Prince ZukoGodzilla, George Bailey, and Gordon Freeman makes perfect sense to you.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Easter Reflections

            In lieu of my usual scripture reflections this week, I’d like to present some thoughts on a very odd fact.
            The odd fact is this, succinctly put; Christianity stands and falls entirely upon a single historical event – the resurrection of Jesus. This event is, by all known laws of nature, impossible. Yet no one has satisfactorily explained the existence or rise of Christianity apart from it.
            As to the fact that Christianity depends entirely upon the resurrection, St. Paul says as much in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not risen, our preaching is worthless and your faith is in vain.” (1st Corinthians 15: 14). The earliest Christians depended heavily upon the resurrection in their preaching, as shown in the Acts of the Apostles. No, there’s really no question that this is the crux upon which the whole system hangs.
            Well, that should be easy enough, right? People don’t come back from the dead, especially not in the strange, superhuman manner that Jesus is described as. But the problem is that it becomes very difficult to explain the events otherwise. First of all, where was Jesus’s body? It obviously wasn’t still in its tomb, since if it were the Romans or Pharisees could simply have taken the people down and showed them. So, one or more of His followers must have stolen it to perpetuate the myth of the resurrection. That and the absurd idea that He actually did rise again from the dead are really the only two options that would explain the fact that Christianity was able to gain any traction at all.
            But now we run into two major problems; first of all, it’s quite a leap from ‘the body is missing’ to ‘He’s risen again!’ The Gospel accounts don’t have the Apostles making the leap until they actually see Him. Indeed, when Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb, her first thought is, quite sensibly, that someone moved the body. It wasn’t until she actually met Jesus face-to-face that she realized what happened.
            People fall into a strange trap here when trying to avoid the resurrection; on the one hand, they seem to say, the Apostles were so fanatical and ignorant that they immediately leapt to the conclusion that an empty tomb = a resurrected Jesus when, as they are eager to point out, there are plenty of other explanations for that particular state of affairs. On the other, the Apostles were shrewd and cunning enough to write the Gospels in such a way as to make themselves look incredulous and doubting so as to lend psychological weight to their evidence. You really can’t have it both ways; someone gullible enough to leap to assuming the resurrection on the sole basis of an empty tomb would not simultaneously be clever and subtle enough to realize how feeble that evidence was and build it up with imagined doubts that were only dispelled by hard evidence. And they certainly wouldn’t keep reemphasizing the existence of eyewitnesses and declaring that this event is the one thing upon which their faith lives or dies on.
            In short, to lay the kind of emphasis upon it that they do, the Apostles and Evangelists would have had to honestly believe in the resurrection, but if they honestly believed in it on the sole evidence of an empty tomb, they wouldn’t have been clever enough to simply make up the other evidence that they present. 
            That’s the first problem. The second is this; let’s assume the Apostles (i.e. a bunch of poor fishermen and tax collectors) actually were just that clever and decided to fake the resurrection somehow, complete with witnesses and stories of initial doubts removed by encounters with the risen Christ. I’m sure that if you really wanted, you could finagle a nice little conspiracy theory that would cover all the bases. The question emerges, though, of why? How do they benefit? Well, you might say, it was a power play! But what power? The Church had no power for the first three hundred years of her existence! Most of the first generation of Christians were executed by the authorities, including all but one of the Apostles themselves. They never got rich or acquired any kind of political or military power. So what was the point? Did the Apostles get together and say “well, it’s entirely possible that several hundred years down the road the Church will grow large enough that some members of the hierarchy will be able to acquire wealth and political power through it, so let’s take our little conspiracy to the grave”?
            So, in summary, in order for the Apostles to have faked the resurrection, they would have had to be extremely cunning and bold men with a deep understanding of human psychology, and who valued the worldly power and prestige of men who might exist several centuries in the future over their own lives and welfare.
            Ah, you might be saying, but what if they did it in order to keep the teachings of Jesus alive? What if they really believed in Christ’s teachings, despite the lack of a resurrection?
            Well, a couple things there. First of all, if they believed that Jesus was the Son of God – was, in fact, God incarnate – the lack of a resurrection would seem to disprove that idea (as, indeed, the Gospels show it to; after Christ’s death, the disciples assumed that He wasn’t the Messiah after all until He appeared to them (e.g. Luke 24: 13-24)). Okay, so throw out the Messianic claims to divinity then; wouldn’t it be worth keeping the ‘spirit’ of Jesus alive for His moral and theological teachings?
            The trouble is, you could do that without the resurrection. Rather than inventing a resurrection account that never occurred and basing the entire faith upon it, wouldn’t it be much easier and safer to simply present Him as a prophet and cut out or provide alternate explanations for His talk of rising from the dead?  Wouldn’t that be the most logical way to ‘keep the teachings of Jesus alive,’ especially for orthodox Jews?
            That is the way with most anti-resurrection accounts: they sound good at first glance, but once you start thinking about them and comparing them with the evidence, you find that they break down (I’m not even going to deal with the ‘Jesus was just a myth’ nonsense here: that’s worth a whole post on its own). There simply is no way to explain why the Apostles made their teachings entirely dependent upon this event except that they honestly believed it actually occurred, and their description of the event is too subtle and rings too true to have simply been concocted by ignorant, gullible peasants to lend credence to their own foolish beliefs. 
            No, judging by the historical record the only rational conclusion is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. Glory to God!

Vive Christus Rex!