Oliver O’Donovan on Compassion

From Begotten or Made?:

“Compassion is the virtue of being moved to action by the sight of suffering….It is a virtue that circumvents thought, since it prompts us immediately to action.  It is a virtue that presupposes that an answer has already been found to the question, ‘What needs to be done?’, a virtue of motivation rather than reasoning.  As such, it is the appropriate virtue for a liberal revolution, which requires no independent thinking about the object of morality, only a very strong motivation to its practice.”

There is no Benedict Option


I write this from Iceland, where, around the year 1000, the nation´s lawspeaker declared that henceforth Iceland would publicly follow Christianity. In making this proclamation he struck a conciliatory tone, holding that pagans might continue in the old faith, including by exposing unwanted children (to the elements and death) and sacrificing (including at times humans) to their gods, provided they did so in private. The pagans chose to abide by the new rules and, in time, essentially died out. Of course, that was until the recent revival of paganism in the West; at this writing Iceland´s government is working on building a new pagan temple.

The parallel with recent Supreme Court pronouncements is stunning. Thanks to Justice Kennedy´s adolescent philosophizing in the same-sex marriage case, the public rule now will be that love, however one chooses to define it for oneself, will trump religious and traditional views of the needs of society, children, and conscience. Vague assurances of religious toleration have been made, but it is clear that the freedom of religious institutions and communities to govern themselves has been placed on the road to extinction. One no longer may refuse to engage with the culture on one´s own terms. Bakers, photographers, and various forms of ministers will have to actively participate in celebrations going against their most deeply held beliefs, actively undermining the society in which they grew up and in which they desperately wish to raise their children. Of course, certain individuals may receive certain individual exemptions (some ministers may, for now, be exempt from officiating same-sex weddings, provided they can prove the sincerity and insularity of their institutional beliefs). But the presumptions are against them, their public voice has been marginalized and forced out of most boardrooms, and the law has been shown again and again in recent years to be a mere tool in the hands of those now in power; it will not for long protect those who dispute its wielders’ logic and purpose.

We Could Use Some Fire and Brimstone

David Mills:

It was his senior year, said the oldest man sitting round the table in the pub, and the first day of religion class in his Catholic high school the teacher handed out thin paperbacks printed on cheap paper. They’d had a real textbook the year before. A younger man remembered studying doctrine one year and coloring pictures the next. And the youngest at the table, a new father in his late twenties, said that all he’d known in his CCD classes was the lite version.

My companions at dinner were all victims of a revolution in catechetics. What most struck me as they talked was how sentimental was the teaching, and how light and thin it was. It sounded frivolous. The teachers may have loved the Church and the Faith, but they taught Catholicism as if it were a subject they didn’t really care about and didn’t expect their students to care about either.

How Silence Works

From the Awl:

About two months ago I started reaching out by email to a group of people whose lives I wanted to know about and understand: The Trappist monks of Oka Abbey, in Quebec. Oka Abbey is the oldest Trappist monastery in North America. A century ago, it was a powerhouse; but in recent decades, the community haddwindled to a fraction of what it used to be. After leaving the Abbey to a heritage group, to be preserved as an historical site, the remaining monks relocated to a smaller retreat in the mountains north of Montreal.

Even if you’re not Catholic, you may have heard of the Trappists. They’re the monks that make those impeccably crafted beers. And the Trappist monks of Oka created a cheese worth drooling overthat’s still widely sold today (though now it’s made by a Quebec dairy company). The Trappists are known for one other thing as well: they’re the only Western-based monastic order that still actively practices the “vow” of silence. (I put quotes there because neither the Rule of St. Benedict nor the practice of the Order actually contains a specific vow of silence. As I understand it, it’s an edict, a practice that’s a part of their lives that the monks happily follow.) It was this element of their lives, their dedication to the enshrinement of silence, that drew me to them. Not really knowing how one goes about approaching monks, I located list of monasteries in addition to the former Oka group and started emailing. It took a few weeks of very slow introductions to find the right people, but I ended up in conversation with four monks, two in America and two in Canada.

Do Hipsters Make Good Disciples?

Benjamin Wood:

In his essay “Sympathy & Domination: Adam Smith, Happiness and the Virtues of Augustinianism,”Eric Gregory makes a fascinating observation about the role of desire in Christian life. Reflecting on the young and restless Augustine, Gregory writes, ‘The nice thing about desire, even consumer desire it appears, is that we never rest prematurely. I wonder if Augustine might hold that all desire, in a sense, saves us.’[1] The man who flirted with the followers of Mani, loved Epicurus and declared he was a Sceptic (before accepting Christ), was a spiritual consumer. Every bit as philosophically convulsed as the New Age seekers who fill their weekends with Shamanic workshops and Tantric Yoga, Augustine had tasted the religious diversity before becoming a beacon of orthodoxy. What might this observation mean for the way in which political theologians read consumer cultures they encounter daily? Instead of treating contemporary consumerism as a wholly negative phenomenon, Augustine suggests we look at the issue differently. The behaviour of the shopper or spiritual tourist is the way it is because of the deep structure of the human condition. The longing for fulfilment is at root an existential need: a secularized version of the call at the heart of Augustine’sConfessions: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’

Take that much reviled cultural category of the ‘hipster’ in Anglo-American society. In what sense are the savvy kids with vintage clothes (drinking their Starbucks coffee) theological subjects? And to what degree does their post-modern irony and eclectic tastes in music and culture point us towards theological realities? These questions seem rather tongue-in-cheek until one realizes the pivotal role that cultural and material restlessness has in the Christian story. The Hipster in his dissatisfaction with mass trends and his obsession with buying the quirky, the fringe and the idiosyncratic represents an old cultural instinct. Like the intrepid Israelite who gives up ‘the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic’ of Egypt for the open space and possibilities of the wilderness (Numbers 11:5), the Hipster fashions himself as socially aloof, looking with distain on those who has stayed put in Pharaoh’s House (with MTV, Twilight DVDs and mass-produced pop). Admittedly these latter-day wanderers of the coffee-shop experience none of the radical scarcities of their religious ancestors. Their quarrel is not with hunger but rather with aesthetics. Yet their longing for something more than shrunken conformities of mass-culture has something of the prophetic and anti-idolatrous about it. When offered the false gods of conventional culture, these wry and skinny-jeaned Cynics look on with a smile at the grey ‘clone’ crowds. In their disdain for mainstream attitudes towards social success, the Hipsters echo not merely an Augustinian restlessness, but the desire for a countercultural community, which like all bohemia, thrives on its sense of separation from the ‘busy world’.

Acedia in the Digital Age

Brad Littlejohn:

Ours is an age of acedia. Indeed, though obviously not new, there is perhaps no sin so modern. Our pharmacies are full of drugs treating depression, our offices are full of motivational posters which try to persuade us our work is worth doing, and our films are full of characters who wander listlessly through life seeking petty pleasures to distract them from the meaninglessness of it all–Richard Linklater’s recent masterpiece Boyhood, whatever else we might say of it, is surely a powerful illustration of this modern condition. No doubt this is all partly a symptom of the death of God, and our culture’s uneasy conscience about our complicity in that death, and our incomplete efforts to bury Him. After all, Lewis begins this passage by suggesting that it is usually a “vague cloud of half-conscious guilt” that leads Christians into this slothful state.
But we should not overlook the role of our consumption patterns, in which a paralyzing proliferation of choices renders us increasingly indisposed to spend long enough on any one pleasure to develop a true and deep appreciation for it. We have been increasingly programmed to be semi-detached grazers and gazers, and with the advent of the internet and other digital technologies, this trend has accelerated dramatically, as Nicholas Carr documents in The Shallows. But if sloth is a spiritual sin, a matter of failing to seek the face of God, how exactly does this matter? To be sure, the compulsive shopper, or gamer, or Facebooker, may be trying to fill the God-sized hole in their life, or to drown out His summons with a white noise of frenetic triviality. But as with all vices and virtues, there is something of a feedback loop at work here. The more we take refuge in distraction, the more habituated we become to mere stimulation and the more desensitized to delight. We lose our capacity to stop and ponder something deeply, to admire something beautiful for its own sake, to lose ourselves in the passion for a game, a story, or a person. And as Lewis notes in the Screwtape Letters, every such passion or deeply felt pleasure, everything that truly draws us out of ourselves to contemplate the wonders that God has put into the world, is a step toward God, and makes the demons shudder.

Prayer, Post-Conversion

Leah Libresco:

Since my conversion, I’ve had a lot of awkward moments at the dinner table. It’s not that I’ve been having awkward conversations about my decision to leave atheism and be received into the Catholic Church. It’s that my friends keep pausing and looking inquisitively me at meals, and then saying, “Should I wait for you to say grace?” If I’m not reminded by others, I usually remember that Christians pray sometime before eating about halfway through my meal.

I know what to say and do at Mass; I’ve been attending since two years prior to my conversion, as a deal with my then-boyfriend. I went to Mass with him, and he went to ballroom dance class with me. But I’ve been less prepared for life after the Ite, missa est that closes the Mass.

When I started adapting my life to make room for God, I took to scheduling in religion the way that I’d schedule a dinner with a friend, or a movie night. I made sure to leave discrete blocks of time to do religion, whether it was going to Daily Mass at the church down the block or trying to pray the Morning and Evening Office on my subway commute to work.

But it’s been hard to remember to say grace at meals, because, when I’m eating, I’m not in a setting that I recognize as religious. The restaurant I’ve met my friend at may be dimly lit, but there are no smells and bells to signal an opportunity to be sanctified. It’s easy to try to infuse new habits with religion, but hard to hold on to the presence of God when I’m immersed in an old environment, where I have a long habit of just not thinking of Him. But all those new habits are in the service of inviting God in everywhere, even the times and places I’ve treated as secular.

The Perils of Constant War

Leah Libresco:

There is a real danger, in endless war, that we will never experience a peace to grow dissatisfied with.  This is a reason I’ve sometimes been optimistic when groups like Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood win elections, since, once they are asked to govern, they are being asked to serve their community in a different and more fruitful way than just by ousting the current government.  It’s easier to expose the contradictions of an ideology when it exists in peacetime, amid the unglorious work of maintaining drainage pipes and coordinating schoolbuses.  It stands on its own, instead of in contrast to the philosophy of the enemy.

Endless war footings distract us from the peace we were seeking at the beginning of hostility.  And the pressure of being constantly in conflict can leave us excusing the flaws in the peace we’ve been working towards and the ideology that taught us to desire it.  There is no moment of rest to live in the peace we keep talking about and to notice whether or not it is truly stable and restorative.

Mourning in the Age of Skype

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig:

On my final day in the United Kingdom, I took one last walk through the courtyards of my college at Cambridge. Its walls were the remains of a medieval abbey, some of the oldest operational buildings on campus. At its center, a green courtyard filled with jonquils gave way to a high brick wall split by a narrow arch, through which stood the heavy, dark door of my dissertation supervisor.

Given the hours I’d spent on my master’s dissertation—a long slog on Reinhold Niebuhr and Saint Augustine—I knew that door better than any other on campus. I couldn’t pass it by without knocking on the old wood and poking my head inside for a final time.

I was fortunate: John, my supervisor, was in. As the college’s chaplain and a much-beloved instructor, his days were usually booked tight with church duties and teaching appointments, but I happened to catch him at his desk that spring afternoon, squinting against the sunlight as he typed something up. Engrossed as he was, he still smiled when I called out to him from the open doorway.

Sorry, I said, I just wanted to say goodbye. I’m headed out today.

Is it today? John asked, and stood to meet me at the door. For a moment I thought he was going to shake my hand, which seemed like an oddly formal gesture for someone I’d spent the last nine months studying with, often late into the evening.

We both hesitated a little, trying to shape a suitable farewell out of my typically American effusiveness and his patently English subtlety. I said I would email him all the time, more than he’d like. He said he would see me soon enough at an upcoming conference. I stumbled through all sorts of thanks, increasingly blubbery and emotional, which John managed with modest reassurances that it really wouldn’t be long at all before we’d meet again. It all culminated in a hug, which felt more symbolic of my growth at Cambridge than, say, the submission of my dissertation. The warmth of it soothed most of the ache of leaving as I crossed under the ancient iron gate of my college for the last time.

* * *

Less than a month later John was killed in a car accident. He was thirty-five.

The Complexity of Being a Sinner

Eugene Peterson:

My mother was a colorful but not always accurate storyteller. I have no outside source for any details of her family life, except for a newspaper clipping of her brother, Sven. He was her favorite. He was twenty years older than she and lavished her with attention. He would throw her in the air and twirl her in a dance. He took her riding on his horse and told her stories of Norway and the trolls in the Jotunheimen Mountains. He was charismatic, adventurous, always laughing, always playful. And he was the town’s milkman. He ran alongside his horse-drawn milk wagon, grabbed the bottles of milk, and placed them on the porches of his customers, then ran back to the wagon for a fresh supply. He never rode the wagon, always on the run, laughing and greeting the neighbors. Everybody loved him. His cheer was contagious.

A newspaper clipping from our local paper, The Daily Inter Lake, gives a different portrait of her favorite brother. It is the report of Sven’s murder by his wife, Myrtle. The murder trial was a sensation in our small town. It played to a packed courtroom for a week.

From there, Peterson goes on to describe the crimes Sven was accused of, which would lead to his wife being acquitted of all murder charges. It’s brutal reading. Sven was never faithful to her and routinely became violent. When Myrtle shot him, the jury found that she did so in self-defense. Peterson closes the chapter with this reflection:

When I finally did become a pastor, I was surprised at how thoroughly Sven had inoculated me against “one answer” systems of spiritual care: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong” is the warning posted by H. L. Mencken.

Thanks to Sven, I was being prepared to understand a congregation as a gathering of people that requires a context as large as the Bible itself if we are to deal with the ambiguities of life in the actual circumstances in which people live them. If the life of David that comprised prayer and adultery and murder could be written and told as a gospel story, no one in my congregation could be written off. For me, my congregation would become my work-in-progress–a novel in which everyone and everything is connected in a salvation story in which Jesus has the last word. No reductions to stereotype: not my grandmother’s desperate reduction of her son to a death-bed repentance, not my mother’s affectionate reduction of her brother to a fun-loving, devil-may-care naif, not the jury’s legal reduction of Sven to a drunken wife abuser, not the detached reduction by a psychiatrist of Sven to a narcissistic sociopath.