On the Language of Reverence

I’m just old enough to remember when we students at St. Mary’s of the Assumption School in Whittier, California, would start our day at Mass. Each class had an assigned area – 16 in all, as there were double classes of about 50 kids each for each of the 8 grades. Our parents would drop us off at church, and we’d find our class, and join them. Nuns in habits would make sure we genuflected before the Blessed Sacrament, knelt, stood and sat at the appropriate times, and generally behaved ourselves. No talking, no slouching, and kneeling meant kneeling, not that weird z-shaped butt-on-the-pew thing.

I’m a weirdo – I liked it. I liked Mass, I liked the rituals, I liked the songs. I also learned – physically – what reverence meant, and how to show it.

Looked quite a bit like this. Even the 50s era church building. (Picture from The Catholic Key, a newspaper out of Kansas City)

Sadly, this all came crashing down about the time I hit 3th grade. But for a couple glorious years, I got to go to Mass a lot as a kid.

One error I think almost all of us make all the time, at least us older guys and gals who have some idea what reverence is, is to think of reverence as something reserved for Church. On the contrary, here’s a definition from Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary via CatholicCulture.org

The virtue that inclines a person to show honor and respect for persons who possess some dignity. There are four forms of reverence, corresponding to four forms of dignity: 1. familial reverence toward one’s parents or those who take the place of parents; 2. civil reverence toward persons holding civil authority; 3. ecclesiastical reverence toward the Pope, bishops, priests, and others in the service of the Church; 4. religious reverence toward any person, place, or object related to God. (Etym. Latin reverentia, awe, respect.)

This is a good definition, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough. For example, there must be an element of reverence in a family not just on the part of children toward parents, but between a husband and wife, and on the part of parents towards their children (and, by extension, all children) and even between siblings. On my best days, I do feel an awe and respect toward my wife. That she (and God Himself!) has somehow recklessly entrusted her life and salvation to *me* in even a tiny degree is awesome; that this woman bore my children deserves way more than respect. And I wept when the nurse handed me my first born – awe and respect hardly describe it, but are essential components of what I experienced and continue to experience as a father.

But what we feel is not the important part – that’s what the good sisters were trying to beat into our thick little skulls at Mass (figuratively speaking – the Dominicans were not violent in my experience). We needed not only to learn to be reverent, but to develop and own a language of reverence. The nuns were determined to teach us. In church, that language consists of gestures, postures and silence – and that’s exactly what was being enforced. The concept may be abstract, but the language in which it is expressed is concrete.

We’re suffering under a double whammy these days. First, few if any Catholics under the age of 50 even know what it would mean to be reverent, even in church. Nope – we talk, wander around, plop ourselves in the pews like we’re at a beach party. At best, there’s a sort of awkwardness, a feeling that maybe I should be doing something.* But even worse, and much more insidiously, we never learn to have reverence for each other. By failing to learn a language of reverence at the source – the awe inspired by the Living God – we have no words for the reverence that beautifies and enriches our lives. Without reverence for each other, much of the family life that is, after all, the image of the Divine Life, becomes desiccated, drab and at risk of death.

The reverence we should practice at Mass is another aspect of the gift of the Eucharist. It is something that is part of our mission that the dismissal send us on: Go! You are sent! Having a language of reverence gives us a way, a form, in which to speak the language of love to our brothers and sisters. Without a language of reverence in word, gesture and posture, life not only becomes crass and dull, it is gradually bled dry of love itself.

So, be reverent at Mass. Don’t make a show of it – kids can always tell – but, from the heart: genuflect, stand, kneel and sit as if you are in the presence of the Lord and Maker of the Universe – because you are. Our bishops here and in San Francisco are trying hard to make this happen, but, boy, is it an uphill battle. The chronological solution may be the only way. But we can do our part.

* One hilarious one – I have a dark sense of humor:  at daily Mass, two of the about 25 of us bring up the bread and wine at the offertory. It’s often amazingly awkward: the simple, direct, reverent thing to do is to walk up to the altar as a team, hand the priest the offering, then together, bow once to the altar and priest, and then return to your pews. Simple enough? But because of decades of bad catechesis and worse examples, people are baffled: they wander up more or less together, and wander off semi-randomly after having unloaded the gift they personally were carrying, with no bow or other gesture to punctuate and complete the action. They are afraid, it seems, to perform the obvious reverences, either because they just don’t know how or, sadly, because some Fr. Hippy-dippy has told them that all that kneeling and bowing harshes his mellow and they should just be *natural* or something. So they perform liturgical gestures like a herd of cats…

 

That Was The Week That Was

1. Got about 3 1/2″ of rain over the last 2 days. North of here, and at higher elevations, 6 or 8″ wasn’t unusual. Around here, that’s a LOT of rain. Most areas have already received 50% or more of season normal rainfall, and we’re way less than half way through the rainy season out here – January and February are when we tend to get most of our rainfall.

Now, before you laugh at us weakling Californians and our panic at getting slightly moistened, just recall how non-Californians react to earthquakes. Anything less than a 4.0 isn’t even enough to get a native out of bed, yet the non-natives have heart attacks if the light fixtures sway a little. .So, back off!

Spring bloom 1998

Death Valley in 1998, after a little rain.

Death Valley got 2″ of rain. The valley sits in the rain shadow of 4 different mountain ranges to the west, the last being the southern end of the Sierra – a pretty impressive barrier. Years go by sometimes with only a trace of rain getting through. When it does rain, however, amazing wildflowers bloom everywhere – the floor, the hills, all over the place. We’re thinking of taking the trip down – it should be awesome this spring.

The level of Lake Shasta, a gigantic reservoir up near the Oregon border rose 23′ in less than a month, and is still rising. Only about 100′ to go to full. Similar story at the other reservoirs. In other words, a half dozen more decent rainstorms, which would be pretty normal, and we can go back to panicking about something else besides drought.

2. Some distant day, I hope my kids can look back and say: “Then the old man lost over a hundred pounds, and lived another 30 years!”

3.”The Future is Renewable”. Um – what? This from the same rigorous thinkers who are out to “save the planet.”

Quick refresher, from a natural science point of view: The sun goes red giant in about a billion years, evaporating everything on earth, maybe even the planet itself. Everything goes poof, curtain comes down, and, in the highly implausible event that we’re still around, we (meaning our descendants who would be much farther removed from us than we are from trilobites) all die.

Well before that, we almost certainly become extinct. Mammals, while highly adaptive as a group, are made up of many short-lived species. A mammal species that last more than a couple million years is unusual. The longest lasting species of Homo was Homo erectus, which lasted a bit over a million years. By that standard, we’ve got maybe a few hundred thousand more years to go. So, I wouldn’t sweat that whole main sequence star stuff.

Finally, and more to the point: civilizations don’t tend to last more than a few hundred years, tops. What this means is, if you pick a point in time and space where there’s a civilization worthy of the name, then go back or forward a couple hundred years, you almost certainly wouldn’t recognize the place. So any particular civilization is like the weather: if you don’t like it, just wait and it will change. Usually to something more akin to the French Revolution or the Mongol conquests than to the American Revolution, but change it will.

So, all those Greens who think we’re doomed are correct – just not the way they think we are. If natural history also repeats itself, the worst case is that we do some damage to the environment, then die out – and, a million years later, it will be hard to tell we were ever here, and all sorts of new and interesting life forms will infest the planet, doing old and boring things like disemboweling their prey alive and casually driving other species to extinction on their way to their own extinction. Ah, the good old days, before we people messed things up!.

I suppose “It would be better if we used renewable energy instead of fossil fuels” wouldn’t fit as well on a T-shirt, and might do even more damage to Latin American national monuments if deployed in a similar manner.

4. Got all these great ideas for posts. When I’ve got time, my brain tends to be full of other business. Next week for sure!

Science! Marches On, Trips Over Its Feet, Falls On Its Face

1. This was just too funny, like it’s been run through Google translate twice:

Specialists suspect that Green house gases will change the environment of Africa Will Massive Threat

According to the Report from the scientist  suggests that the increased level of greenhouse premise was thousands of years ago was a critical factor in huge amounts of heavy rainfall in two key regions of Africa.

Right! I mean, What? Oh, here, this clears it up:

 As per information from the biologist and from the Supernaturalism Earth emerged from the last Ice Age, greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide and methane, increased significantly—reaching almost to pre-industrial levels by 11,000 years ago for reasons that are not yet fully understood.

It’s like those ‘tootle the horn’ level mangled English stuff that endlessly circulates on the web. The real problem is that it probably wouldn’t make much more sense even if it were written clearly, based on all the other stuff appearing in the press.

Love the random capitalization too. Why does Google’s news feed not have some sort of ‘is this even English?’ filter?

2. UN: $500 billion annually possibly needed for climate change fund

The article explains that this is money going from developed countries to developing countries, to help them cope with the evil effects of climate change.

I know I’m being cynical, but I feel I must mention that it’s barely possible that $500 billion, even if it’s not in the hands of evil corporations but in the hands of noble third-world governments such as are found in Venezuela and Sierra Leone and North Korea, with their century-long track records of honesty, integrity and financial prudence, could tempt people to behave badly. I feel a little dirty even suggesting this, but it might be possible that some otherwise good people might be tempted to lie or take bribes, and turn this whole benevolent exercise into a huge combo power grab/boondoggle having nothing to do with solving any possible problems climate change may cause.

I’m a bad man, aren’t I?

Dictators

You don’t trust these guys? They’re at least as trustworthy as the UN staffers who dream up this stuff.

 

On Money, Part 3: Where Money Comes From

See Part 1 for a brief, simplified history of money and Part 2 for how money comes to have value.

Now, where does money come from? First, let’s retrace and fill in the ‘family tree’ as it were of money:

  • Direct Barter: Somebody has something – a horse, a sack of grain, a cloak – that you want; you have something he wants –some pigs, a field, a month’s labor. You trade.
  • Indirect Barter: Somebody has something you want, you have something of widely recognized value, such as silver or gold, that he is willing to trade for *for the purpose of other trading*. He will take your silver or gold in trade, because he knows many other people, people who have goods he really wants, will also trade for it.
  • Money: Turns out it is convenient for everybody if the silver and gold (or seashells or cowhides or cigarettes or whatever) are standardized into units – makes trading simpler. So coins are stamped with a stated amount of the stuff of value in them – gold or silver, in this case.
  • Paper bills: but carrying around a lot of gold coins can be risky. So we give the gold to a trusted man who keeps it and defends it for us. He gives us a note saying: I, a trusted person everybody knows, have 100 quizotles of my buddy here’s gold. I’ll hand it over upon request to a respectable person bearing this here note.”
  • State currency: Once many of these banks get set up, it become hard to tell who is who, who can be trusted, if the notes are genuine or counterfeit. So the state steps in and creates its own bank and notes: for florins, guilders, dollars, whatever. Now, the acceptability of currency is backed by the state, which then (in theory) holds all that gold the notes represent.
  • Fiat currency: eventually, all states get bored with having to play the game of promising to hand over the gold or silver upon request, so they stop. This is the state we are in today: paper money is worth what it is worth because the state says so. Or, slightly better, maybe: money has value because we all agree it has value.

Money Printing

We’ve all seen pictures of printing presses cranking out unimaginable numbers of bills. We are witnessing the creation of money! When the government wants more money, they fire up the presses!

Not really. Here’s what really happens: Continue reading

Little Bit ‘o Philosophy: The Centrality of Friendship

Something to keep in mind: The foundation of Greek philosophy, that unsurpassed shining moment of human brilliance that was essential to the establishment of Western Culture and still permeates our lives, is -

Greeks. Hanging with friends. Having a drink. Yakking about something. 

Friendship.

The importance of friendship as the basis of philosophy can hardly be overemphasized. Because philosophy took place in discussions among friends, certain decadent tendencies of modern philosophy were avoided.  While there are very few material issues and problems in modern philosophy that the Greeks were not aware of, the simple fact that I would be discussing them among friends put a limit on any non-crank seriously holding positions that, if true, made it impossible or unreal to believe that you could talk over the such ideas with your friends.

A solipsist has no friends by definition – out. A radical materialist can’t give an account of what, exactly, is going on in a discussion between friends. Same goes for a determinist, Oh, sure, you could bat those ideas around – the pre-Socratics did that and worse –  but, at the end of the day, the friendship of the men gathered was of higher importance and more basic than any positions held. The immediate, tangible reality of a good friend was more real than any speculation.

Scholars mention an oddity: that, due to the vagaries of chance and the biases of copyists, the texts we have had handed down to us may give a much too cool and analytic view of the Greeks. The philosophical and mathematical works are comparatively plentiful and held in high esteem – only Homer, the two great historians Thucydides and Herodotus and the great playwrights seem to be held in as much honor as Plato and Aristotle and Euclid. For the centuries that Westerners have studied the ancient Greeks, it was traditional to start with Homer and the playwrights, to keep things balanced. Homer in particular, builds the bulk of the Iliad around the great friendship between Achilles and Patroclus. In a way, right below glory, what a Greek wanted most of all was friends. Even a cad like Callicles includes in his formulation of virtue the power to reward one’s friends (along with the power to punish enemies and indulge in every whim). Not much good if you don’t have any friends.

The second great flowering of Western Philosophy in the medieval universities, was built on the Greeks – and on friendship, again. At university, every student was part of a college, which was a sort of combination eating club, dorm and fraternity (similar to how its still done at Oxford). Your college was you home and family while at University. Classes more resembled Greek symposia than modern lectures – small numbers of students meeting with a master to work through questions. Many famous friendships were formed in medieval universities. Philosophizing, and learning in general, were activities by and among friends.*

This all began to change in the early 16th century. Philosophy became completely partisan. What side you were on determined what philosophy you learned. I’ve commented before on the contemptuous, near total silence with which the post medieval/early modern philosophers treat the scholastics. The almost never address any challenges directly at the school men straight on, but merely assume that their readers know Thomas was wrong, and that we’re here to clean up the (papist) mess. This has carried on to the modern day so much so, that if a person knows anything at all about medieval philosophizing, it’s that those benighted rubes worried about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

So it can be said that modern philosophy is built on antagonism, and not just antagonism to the past. A sort of fierce insecurity characterizes many modern professors in my experience. There’s often no real reason they have their job instead of somebody else (once had a comp lit professor at an uber-elite school admit he had his job because the department wanted at least one straight male), and if it weren’t for the solidarity – I don’t say friendship – between other academics in the same boat, they might not get any positive reinforcement at all. Who, outside the faculty and students, ever tells the philosophy teacher, or faculty in any of the ‘studies’ department, that  he’s doing anything important? Nope, college professors for the most part don’t really know in their hearts why they have their job or why it is that anyone would pay them to do it. Thus, the characteristic defensiveness whenever a non-academic places a toe on their turf.

True philosophy must start with the solid reality of love. You must know love of friend and family before you are able to know what it means to love wisdom.

* Then as now,. great friendships are opportunities for great hatreds as well, and enemies were almost as likely to be acquired as friends.The point is that the normal operation of education was not one of animosity but would have been impossible without a substrate of friendship.

Faith in Humanity Restored

At least a little:

Picked up my lovely and talented oldest daughter at the airport, where she flew in from Benedictine College for an aunt’s wedding over the weekend, and we talked about what she’s doing. She’s a drama/music major, so she just got around to taking a philosophy 101 type class this year.

Dad’s heart skips a beat: the concept of a philosophy survey class as opposed to just reading philosophers to see what they have to say in their own (translated, but still) words – near occasion of intellectual sin, at the very least; tiptoeing on the precipice of Hell in the wrong hands.

But: she said that the text for the class was the complete works of Aristotle, and that the first half of the class consisted of learning a bunch of key Aristotelian concepts right out of that test. Well, how novel! Introducing students to philosophy via real philosophy!

But it gets better: the second half of the class consisted of reading later philosophers, pointing out how they went wrong when the rejected the Aristotelian principles learned in the first half of the class. Locke, Hume – that crowd.

It almost literally brought a tear to my eye. Yes! That’s it! (how do you make the font bigger – oh, here)

YES!

Sure, it’s not St. John’s or Thomas Aquinas, but – YES! That’s how you should do it.