After 12/7/2011, this blog will no longer be updated, although content will remain. Please visit my new blog at Hidden Latitudes.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

G. K. Chesterton on Mysticism

   Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. 
   He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. 
If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. 
   His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. He admired youth because it was young and age because it was not. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.
—G. K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What I Learned From Atheists

Two statements: The Christian faith makes a significant, noticeable, and practical difference in a person's life. A person who is not a Christian is eternally separated from God. Either of these statements—both made by atheists—is a powerful argument for evangelism if we really were to believe them. If both are true, we need to throw off the influence of secularization, restore the Christian mind in our thinking, and unashamedly proclaim the truth of the Gospel.
—from Larry Stone at
(So many excellent thoughts in this article. Please read it all at the link above).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Kristof on Evangelical Christianity

   Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related. More important, go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.
   I’m not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way — and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.
—Nicholas D. Kristof, in the New York Times

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pat Conroy on words.

    Because I was raised Roman Catholic, I never feared taking any unchaperoned walks through the fields of language. Words lifted me up and filled me with pleasure. I’ve never met a word I was afraid of, just ones that left me indifferent or that I knew I wouldn’t ever put to use. When reading a book, I’ll encounter words that please me, goad me into action, make me want to sing a song. I dislike pretentious words, those highfalutin ones with a trust fund and an Ivy League education. Often they were stillborn in the minds of academics, critics, scientists. They have a tendency to flash their warning lights in the middle of a good sentence. In literary criticism my eye has fallen on such gelatinous piles as “antonomasia,” “litotes,” or “enallage.” 
     I’ve no idea what those words mean nor how to pronounce them nor any desire to look them up. But whenever I read I’ll encounter forgotten words that come back to me like old friends who’ve returned from long voyages to bring me news of the world. Often, I’ll begin my writing day by reading those words in the notebooks I keep with such haphazard consistency. Though I’m an erratic journal keeper, I admire the art form well enough to wish I’d had the discipline to master that sideshow of the writer’s craft. I lose most of the world around me when I fail to record entries in those notebooks that line my shelves.
     I could build a castle from the words I steal from books I cherish. Here’s a list I culled from a book I read long ago—“sanction,” “outlaw,” “suburbia,” “lamentations,” “corolla,” “debris,” and “periodic table.” I can shake that fistful of words and jump-start a sentence that could send me on my way toward a new book. But if I go forward a single page I can listen to a different reading self who cherry-picked words from another book and recorded “atlas,” “villainy,” “candelabra,” “tango.” Each file of words seems outfitted for a different story or novel. I hunt down words that have my initials branded on their flanks. If I take the time to write one down I want to get it right every time I form a sentence. I’ve known dozens of writers who fear the pitfalls and fastnesses of the language they write in and the glossy mess of the humanity they describe. Yes, humanity is a mess and it takes the immensity of a coiled and supple language to do it justice. Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself. I’ve amassed a stockpile of books in vaults and storage bins in attics and unfinished basements and tortoiseshell-colored boxes that I raid with willful abandon when I try to fix a sentence on a page. Words call out my name when I need them to make something worthy out of language.
—from My Reading Life

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Essential Fear of God

Religious fear, or awe, is an essential ingredient of all true religion, yet it has been systematically exiled from modern, “psychologically correct” religion. What irony!—the thing the Bible calls the “beginning of wisdom” is the experience modern religious educators and liturgists deliberately remove or try to remove from our souls: fear and trembling, adoration and worship, the bent knee and the prone heart. The modern God is “something I can feel comfortable with”. The God of the Bible, in contrast, is “a consuming fire”. (See Psalm 103[104]:4 and Hebrews 12:29).
--Angels and Demons by Peter J. Kreeft

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Fundamental Need for Fundamental Education

   School, in teaching the mastery of skills (the three Rs) gives the child faith in his ability to master other skills—schools devoted to the debatable (social studies, multiculturalism, and other moot topics) weaken the child—for, even as they seem to endorse some inchoate sense of “social justice,” they offer the adolescent hungering for certainty a curriculum of pabulum, and reward him for regurgitating the school’s positions. 
   College, once a predictable, practicable course of study designed to fit the individual for self-support, has become, at least in the Liberal Arts, an extension of the bad high school, which is to say, of the terror of adolescence. 
   The advertisement of “choice”—in curriculum, in behavior (in the glorification of “alternative lifestyles”), while a charming idea to the conscious (pleasure-bent) eighteen-year-old mind, is, actually, to him deeply unsettling. For the eighteen-year-old knows that at some point he must abandon even graduate school, and get on in a world which, he knows, the pandering cry of “choice” is not fitting him for. Gender studies, multiculturalism, semiotics, deconstruction, video art, and other such guff, while attractive to the child, as they seem to endorse his “adulthood,” are in truth, terrifying as his clock ticks on toward the school’s relaxation of its authority, that date on which it will spew the unschooled, confused, skill-less student into a world which, he must know, is uninterested in his capacity for bushwah, and wants to know what he can contribute to the common effort.
From The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, by David Mamet.

Monday, August 08, 2011

On brothers, birthdays and institutions.

   Today is my youngest brother's 50th birthday. We will have a party, and celebrate this milestone with him. But he will not have his wife, his children or their spouses here to celebrate with us.
   There are none.
   Jeff suffered carbon monoxide poisoning when he was seventeen years old. After being in a coma for months, it took him over a year to relearn how to walk, talk and do the most simple tasks.
   But it all didn't come back. He has an IQ in the mid sixties. Physically, he is as feeble as an eighty year old man. Perhaps the most devastating effects of his injury are the total inability to remember or think logically. He has lived with us for seven years (since our mother's death), but still comes down to the kitchen in the morning and opens several cabinets looking for his coffee cup, which has been in the same place since he came to us. When we suggest he fix a bowl of cereal, he will look through the cabinets until he finds the bowls, take it to the table, then go through more cabinets to find the cereal, take it to the table, come back and look in the freezer for the milk before opening the other door, and then prepare his bowl of cereal. Only after he has stared at the bowl for several moments will he realize he needs a spoon, which prompts another hunt through the drawers. Afterwards, unless we suggest he clean up, all will remain on the kitchen table. It is this way every day. 
   He will do anything we ask of him, but we must ask. And only one thing at a time.
   Needless to say, possibilities for work, even volunteer work, are non-existent. A well-meaning friend suggested being a "bagboy" at the local grocery. I explained that the ice cream would melt before being placed on top of the bread.
   Yet two things began to become obvious. One, Jeff needed an experience, or better yet an environment, that stimulated him more, that kept him busy. And two, I needed to do something else besides spend my day with him. I felt myself being slowed, becoming as lethargic and unmotivated as my charge. I felt guilty about not doing the former; and guilty for feeling the latter.
   So we began looking at alternatives. But the prospect was daunting, and not a little bit frightening. I had visions of some dark and dreary place where "undesirables" were shunted off to be barely kept alive. It used to be that way.  Laura Hillenbrand, in her book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, describes such a time, not so long ago:

In the 1930s, America was infatuated with the pseudoscience of eugenics and its promise of strengthening the human race by culling the “unfit” from the genetic pool. Along with the “feebleminded,” insane, and criminal, those so classified included women who had sex out of wedlock (considered a mental illness), orphans, the disabled, the poor, the homeless, epileptics, masturbators, the blind and the deaf, alcoholics, and girls whose genitals exceeded certain measurements. Some eugenicists advocated euthanasia, and in mental hospitals, this was quietly carried out on scores of people through “lethal neglect” or outright murder. At one Illinois mental hospital, new patients were dosed with milk from cows infected with tuberculosis, in the belief that only the undesirable would perish. As many as four in ten of these patients died. A more popular tool of eugenics was forced sterilization, employed on a raft of lost souls who, through misbehavior or misfortune, fell into the hands of state governments.
   Not a pretty picture. Of course, insane asylums no longer exists, but there are nevertheless some frightening places still around. 
   But a serendipitous (i.e. God-inspired) comment from a new friend led us to just the perfect place. Annandale Village is a community in Suwanee, Georgia (45 minutes northeast of Atlanta) which offers a bucolic, community style setting for adults with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries. After visiting, we allowed Jeff to stay a week. We were unsure of how he would react to the place (His first comment the first day: "Is this a nursing home?") but he thrived. He was led into a dizzying world of events, field trips, and a sheltered workshop. We told him this was no nursing home; it was more like perpetual summer camp.
   Jeff will soon be going back for his second week-long stay, and we are trying (along with my middle brother, Charles) to work out the financial arrangements for him to become a permanent resident. 
   We are grateful to be able to offer him the chance to be a more productive and self respecting man. And we don't feel like we are "institutionalizing" him at all. 
   Yet he will always be a part of the most important institution of all: our family.
Happy Birthday, Jeff.  

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Chesterton on Books about Success

The bookstores of today are full of "self-help" books. I naively thought the genre began near the middle of the last century with Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. But they had been around long enough that, by 1908, G. K. Chesterton, the English writer, had already had his fill. Listen, as in his inimitable style, he excoriates both the writers and their advice: 
 There has appeared in our time a particular class of books and articles which I sincerely and solemnly think may be called the silliest ever known among men. They are much more wild than the wildest romances of chivalry and much more dull than the dullest religious tract. Moreover, the romances of chivalry were at least about chivalry; the religious tracts are about religion. But these things are about nothing; they are about what is called Success. On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed. They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books. To begin with, of course, there is no such thing as Success. Or, if you like to put it so, there is nothing that is not successful. That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey. Any live man has succeeded in living; any dead man may have succeeded in committing suicide. But, passing over the bad logic and bad philosophy in the phrase, we may take it, as these writers do, in the ordinary sense of success in obtaining money or worldly position. These writers profess to tell the ordinary man how he may succeed in his trade or speculation--how, if he is a builder, he may succeed as a builder; how, if he is a stockbroker, he may succeed as a stockbroker. They profess to show him how, if he is a grocer, he may become a sporting yachtsman; how, if he is a tenth-rate journalist, he may become a peer; and how, if he is a German Jew, he may become an Anglo-Saxon. This is a definite and business-like proposal, and I really think that the people who buy these books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back. Nobody would dare to publish a book about electricity which literally told one nothing about electricity; no one would dare to publish an article on botany which showed that the writer did not know which end of a plant grew in the earth. Yet our modern world is full of books about Success and successful people which literally contain no kind of idea, and scarcely any kind of verbal sense.
From All Things Considered.