Monday, 24 October 2016

On Outside History

The candidates are leaping, twisting, tossing like fish on the line. Welcome to democracy: can it endure? Are we mere players in the fantasies of omnipotent children? Are we outside history?

So many want to become citizens of no mean country. Greatness (nationalism) meets smallness. Does smallness keep you out of trouble? Unlikely. We know how greatness gets you into it. We’re standing waist-deep in history all the time.

Witnesses have been talking: the Russian Revolution, the dregs of the Reformation, the American Civil War. Outside history, we buy and sell, take baby to the doctor, measure up wedding shoes, worry about the body: weight, style, height and class. Jobs, money, travel; housing, transport, votes. Meanwhile, states are overturned, religions change colour, populations flee or are drowned in the sea.

The Greeks knew how strengths and even more flaws, afflictions of the powerful, cause transformations. The great to be downfallen, the small to be brought high. It can happen in our time. We are careful, and troubled about many things.

Ecclesiastes knows about vain worldly pursuits. Sit under the olive tree while it yet remains; eat good bread; drink fine wine. Fear God: honest fear is wholesome.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

On Concerned Citizens

Loss is felt more keenly than gain. Thus the dragon, confronted with disappearance of the smallest coin from its hoard, is more distracted than by the gain of wagonloads of gold.
            So with intangibles, like respect, admiration, love: the antique idea that all goods (worldly and otherwise) are in limited supply, so that your gain is my loss, is still alive and rhetorical in parliaments today. Concerned citizens complaining.
            Currently we hear of ‘hate speech’. Anyone who disputes my presentation of truth ‘hates’ me and the category to which I belong. ‘Preaching hate’ is the latest manifestation of this cant. One might, for example, belong like some on the Right of politics, to the rich, privileged, or superior category. One might belong like some on the Left to the poor, disadvantaged, or even, God help us, the gay category. Naturally enough, some of the rich are secure enough not to miss a filament of respect; some of the poor leap at the chance to keep bits of respect for themselves alone. As with the dragon, the loss of a fragment of privilege or exclusivity is felt deeply.
            The concepts ‘first’, ‘most excellent’, ‘unique’ are honorifics predicated on exclusivity. What I keep you can’t have.
            Of course, nobody is preaching anything. ‘Preaching’ refers to making known the Gospel, like John the Baptist, who said, ‘He must increase; I must decrease.’ Or as Luke insists in so many ways, the Lord raises the lowly, but casts down the proud.

Friday, 2 September 2016

On Knowledge

St. Paul thought very little of those who aspire to all knowledge and all wisdom. So where do I get off expecting to learn five languages ancient and modern when I can hardly keep out of trouble in English? Some knowledge, like the contents of tax papers ten or twenty years old, is obsolete; some, like the essays from five years of theological study, serve only to remind me of my ignorance.
            You see, I’m divesting my house of paper. Those boxes of precious thoughts from years ago, those financial quagmires, old letters, magazines, even some books — quite some books — have done their time in basement, studio, box and shelf. There’s knowledge I have or have not but hugging the dictionaries clings to a distant age.
            Actually, it might be necessary to know less. Why stop at paper? Do I read the news to be acquainted with every atrocity committed in the year, month, or day? Do the insults, offences, machinations of politics and celebrity intrigue, cheer or fascinate? Do I get a drop of peace here?
            Less knowledge might give a space for breath. Or for knowing, as Aquinas says, what can be taught by the senses.

Monday, 15 August 2016

On Moderation

Temperance, or moderation, is the virtue that avoids excess, especially of the passions. Many of these lead to crimes: anger to murder, greed to fraud, gluttony to consuming the goods of others, lust to rape and rapine. Looking at that sorry spectacle, the news, I witness failure of moderation in persons and states.
            Making good decisions requires moderation. Wisdom, called prudentia or prudence, foresees the steps that must be taken to result in the good. Justice wills to restore to others what belongs to them and fortitude (courage) moderates both fear and recklessness. There’s a tendency toward a line of calm with the virtues, however stressed the situation.
            Today’s news about child abuse shows passions without moderation or justice, governors without wisdom or courage. News about asylum seekers shows governments without wisdom, courage, moderation or justice. The vices are more practiced than the virtues.
            While Paul states that one of the fruits of the spirit is self-control, we might be complete atheists and still aim for moderation, and avoid crimes of passion. Forgiveness and mercy belong to the wise. Courage faces what has been done, and is being done. We could have an adventure. We could live virtuous lives.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

On Terror and Pity

There’s an effort of will in committing a murder, or mass murders. By beginning with respect for the agency of souls even in the presence of mind-altering drugs whether natural or attained, I perceive that action results in guilt. Guilt is objective; it has nothing to do with feelings or motivations: we bathe in it every day. Hence the world’s redemption, accomplished through a judicial murder, to expiate the guilt of us all.
           Too much terror is about. Too many murders and mass murders: too much guilt. Too much fear for ourselves, for others. Terror creates consequences.Those of good will and sanctity pray for killers as well as victims: that is, the guilty as well as the innocent. ‘Troubled soul’ is the image.
            I’m reminded of Aristotle’s view that tragedy clarifies the emotions through pity and fear. To return ourselves to human scale, the appropriate emotion towards the guilty — whether through circumstance or design — is neither sympathy nor understanding, but pity. These individuals are in the hands of the powers of evil; that’s a deadly place to be; we confront human vulnerability.

            Lead us not into temptation, we pray, sed libera nos a malo. Pity and terror, O Lord.

Monday, 18 July 2016

On Visitation

‘One thing only is needful.’ I once knew a saint who died, as all saints do. He appeared to me in dreams, seated before a large book open before him on a table. He was correcting it in pencil, saying, ‘I’m editing the works of the poet here; it’s what I’ve returned to do. But I can’t be turned aside from it, because my time is limited.’
            As with Proust, who thought the world of sleep a separate room, into which we enter from daylight reality to meet another cast of characters, a different script, an altered life, I’m bemused to find the dead moving and speaking in dreams. Surely such visitations have meanings, beyond psychology?
            Do the beloved dead return, giving touches of comfort or understanding unhoped for in waking hours? Can warnings be given, answers to dilemmas, instructions, pleas? What is the one thing needful?
            Hundreds of bodies scattered across the road, in places far distant from one another, maybe. What was the one thing needful? From what must one not be turned aside? Where are the words of the poet, what are we here to do? We are not saints, but sinners, and our time is limited.

Monday, 4 July 2016

On Election

We struggle to elect a group of deeply flawed individuals to Parliament, whether of Left or Right: the Right can hardly come by a Leader definite enough to protect from the bath of anxieties wherein their followers float, while the Left may peer through windows of rosy glassiness distorting a landscape littered with dismaying realities. Do we get the politicians we deserve?
            In antiquity, you got the rulers you got. Mad Roman Emperors, corrupt hegemons, warlords, demagogues, ethnic strongmen, ruthless religions, relentless kings, unquiet queens. The word ‘demagogue’ comes from the ancient past, the original democracy.
            Preachers of ethnic election, universalism, internationalism or the narrowest aspirational nationalism: we’re not ruling you, we’re representing you. Many feel misrepresented, unrepresented or overrepresented, with consequent divisions, confusions, compulsions, implosions. The deeply corrupting influence of money lies over most historical events.
            That most idealistic form of governance, the Kingdom of God, was hijacked by the Roman state in the fourth century and has never been the same. It was a time not unlike the present, with massive changes in boundaries, nations, economies, and naturally, rulers. All the nations of the world were shown to Jesus at his Temptation: ‘To you I will give all their glory and all this authority,’ promised the devil, ‘if you will worship me.’ The deal is still the same.