Author Archives: Quill

Queen of Hearts

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

As we are sure you all have noticed, faerie tales are making a media comeback, bit by bit and day by day.  Not that they hadn’t, already, since Disney pretty much owned that part: they are just making their way into everything now.  Two Snow White films (Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror), a Hansel and Gretel film (although let’s admit that one appeared to be nothing more than a pretext for another grisly action movie), and the upcoming Jack the Giant Killer (which looks more promising and actually quite interesting).  Best of all, however, is the ABC Family show Once Upon A Time, which both of us are completely hooked on and watch religiously every Monday when it comes out online.  It’s like a tribute to all faerie stories, playing our best-loved tales so straight that the truest themes show through: true love, redemption, hope, faith… and so on.  These themes lead us from the stories, through the culture which produced them, and back to the story which produced their culture: that of the Cross; more importantly for faerie stories, the story of the victory of the Cross–the Resurrection.

For those who aren’t familiar with Once Upon A Time, it is a  TV show which airs every Sunday at 8 (or is it 9?) on ABC Family.  The premise is that the world we know is not the only world that exists: it just happens to be one of the only worlds without magic.  An evil queen cast a curse on her own world, which contained many characters from many stories within it who all knew or knew of each other, and transported them all into Maine, in our world, where they lost their memories of who they were and loved and lived in a frozen state for 28 years, until their saviour came along and broke the curse with the help of a little boy who believed in fairy tales.  That is, in short, the summary of Season One, and Season Two (airing now) gets much more complicated, but many characters from many different stories all come together and become likely–or unlikely–friends.

Because of the nature of its content (faerie stories), Once Upon A Time has many themes upon which we could reflect and hearken back to the fact that faerie tales are rooted deeply in Christian culture.  Given the latest episode, however (titled Queen of Hearts, and we will give you no more spoilers), it is appropriate for us to consider the theme of hearts.

That doesn’t mean the muscle which drives your circulatory system, nor does it mean the cute little shape on the end of a Cupid arrow: it is the depths of our character, the whole of our personality and moral psychology.  It is the “place” which is the source of the actions we choose, the thoughts and feelings we entertain, and the direction we give our lives.  Most importantly, it is the place where we actively decide to follow or turn away from God.

That is the “heart” in Saint Augustine’s famous line, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, o Lord” and in Pascal’s pithy observation, “The heart has reasons reason cannot know.”  It is the same meaning of “heart” referred to in the “Sacred Heart of Jesus”–and here is the key.  What is so special about a heart?  Only people have hearts.  Human persons and the Divine Persons both have hearts.  But nonetheless, only people have hearts.  Animals do not, and neither do plants.  It is debatable whether angels do, either.  But persons have hearts.

Hearts are the source of love.  Whether the heart itself is pure or distorted then dictates the kind of love capable by it.  Calling back to Once Upon A Time, there are two perfect counter-examples here: Snow and Charming have pure love for each other, while Regina’s love for Henry is rather distorted by the fact that she was never actually taught how to love (which is a topic for another, more spoilerific, post).

–Spoiler warning: Season Two spoilers below this point.  Continue reading at your own risk.–

Okay, now that you’ve had enough space to turn away if you have not yet seen Season Two, we return to our regularly scheduled analysis.  Somewhere in the midst of the first season, it is revealed that Regina has her own vault of hearts, where she stores the physical hearts which she has taken from now-helpless creatures and people.  Controlling the heart of a creature is somewhat elementary, albeit quite dark magic, since creatures can be easily trained.  It is the people hearts which matter most in the series and in the overall scheme of things.  When you control a heart, you control the whole person, even against their will; and sometimes, they won’t even know that you’re controlling them.

The inevitable twist in the storyline is that the vault of hearts isn’t Regina’s.  It belongs to her mother, Cora, who has been ripping out hearts since long before Regina was born.  Her obsession with power, control, and the idea that “love is weakness,” counterpointed against Snow’s love, compassion, and absolute adoration for Charming, epitomizes the time-honoured debate: is it better to rule with love, or with fear?  Cora’s MO is very clearly fear, to the point where she is almost controlling people to force them to love her.  She wishes to rule the desires of others, rather than allow them to freely choose to love.  In some sense, she is the evil inverse to the Virgin Mary, who is nothing but the purest love and compassion.  Cora’s pitiful attempt to rule the hearts of all around her by force is a striking contrast to the true Queen of All Hearts, reminding us that it is, indeed, better to rule with love than with fear.

So what might this brief reflection on a TV show villain lead us to conclude?  At least this: that the way to true happiness (another great theme of the show!) lies not with the rule of force, with trying to steal and cling to as many hearts as one can, but with emptying one’s own heart to fill the heart of another.

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Pagans and the Passion: Conflict or Concord?

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Pagans and the Passion: Conflict or Concord?

(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today.)

I’ve often seen it said that the classical virtues– first enumerated and analyzed by pagan thinkers like Plato and Aristotle– and the Catholic virtues found in the teachings of Our Lord don’t fit together the way moral theology makes it seem: either the two sets of virtues hold together in tension at best or else they directly oppose each other, leading to two different moral ideals.  Pagan virtues, they will tell you, did have to do with channeling our emotions and desires toward human flourishing, but this kind of flourishing had nothing to do with the Beatitudes.  A man of complete virtue, in the Aristotelian sense, might willingly make sacrifices for the sake of his friends, at the limit of things– but then, the friend of a completely virtuous person could only be someone else completely virtuous, alike in excellence and achievement.  Nothing could be further from such virtue, and the ideal way of life it points to, than terrible dishonor and ignominious, slavish death; much less would our Aristotelian gentleman stoop to suffer for those beneath him: the man of foreign race, the slave, the vicious and weak-minded.  What could such virtue have to do with imitating the One who died for all sinners while they were still His enemies, in Whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female?

The whole problem seems clearest in the supposed contrast between Aristotle’s Magnanimity and Our Lord’s Humility.  Magnanimity is a disposition to undertake the kinds of deeds that bring the greatest honor: the person of complete virtue, Aristotle says, will recognize her excellence, seek to express it as fully as she can, and demand that her excellence be afforded the recognition it deserves.  Our Lord’s Humility, on the other hand, speaks not a word for itself, not even in defense: it receives false accusation and unjust punishment with patience and longsuffering.  Alone among all men, surely, Our Lord deserved the honors and acclamations of Aristotle’s magnanimous man.  Yet He did not stretch out His hand to grasp them but willingly divested Himself of every semblance of honor and dignity for the sake of those who had made themselves His enemies.  How could these two virtues ever coincide?

The answer may be seen in Christ Himself, above all in His Passion.  Our Lord shows us, as Aristotle wrote, that true magnanimity is concerned not so much with honors but with the heroic deeds which merit honor.  Indeed, the magnanimous person may even be said to despise honors for the sake of doing what would rightly be honored– just as Our Lord willingly performed the most heroic act possible, the act which is the very exemplification of all virtue, even though it meant embracing the scorn of the world.  In fact, magnanimity is not a kind of arrogance but a great willingness on the part of the virtuous person to do her very best in acts of virtue; and the true opposite of magnanimity is not humility but pusillanimity, a small-souled aversion to acts that demand our all.

Thus the great 20th century Dominican theologian, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, writes in his Three Ages of the Interior Life: “The magnanimous man… seeks great things worthy of honor, but he considers that honors themselves are practically nothing. He does not let himself be exalted by prosperity or cast down by difficulties. Is there anything greater on earth than genuine Christian perfection? The magnanimous man dreads neither obstacles nor critics nor scorn, if they must be borne for a great cause. He does not allow himself to be at all intimidated by freethinkers, and pays no attention to their utterances. He pays far more attention to truth than to the opinions of men which are often false. If this generosity is not always understood by those who wish an easier life, it has, nevertheless, a true value in itself. And if it is united to humility, it pleases God and cannot fail of a reward.”

Our Lord shows us how this magnanimity can be united to humility, and in recognizing this union and exemplification of all virtue in the life and Passion of Our Lord, we also come to see how Christ’s outstretched arms embrace and sanctify all that is best in the natural man, elevating it and perfecting it in grace to participate in the very life of the Divine Nature.  May we also share in that unending life of sanctification.

Works of Love

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“How could one speak properly about love if you were forgotten, you God of love, source of all love in heaven and on earth; you who spared nothing but in love gave everything; you who are love, so that one who loves is what he is only by being in you!  How could one speak properly about love if you were forgotten, you who revealed what love is, you our Savior and Redeemer, who gave yourself in order to save all.  How could one speak properly of love if you were forgotten, you Spirit of love, who take nothing of your own but remind us of that love-sacrifice, remind the believer to love as he is loved and his neighbor as himself!  O Eternal Love, you who are everywhere present and never without witness where you are called upon, be not without witness in what will be said here about love or about works of love.  There are indeed only some works that human language specifically and narrowly calls works of love, but in heaven no work can be pleasing unless it is a work of love: sincere in self-renunciation, a need in love itself, and for that very reason without any claim of meritoriousness!”

~ Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love

Run the Race of Grace

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“Grace gives an immense scope to our aims and desires and leaves them the freest possible play.  At the same time grace has this great advantage: we need only to desire it in order to find it; to receive grace, we need only to love its Donor.  By this ardent desire for grace and for heavenly happiness, and by a sincere love for the Father, we acquire and merit all good gifts, and that according to the measure of our love and desire.  Why do we not manifest here a holy greediness and importunity?  Why do we not, like St. Paul, forget the things that are behind and stretch forth our hand to those that are before us?  We should measure the soul’s profit and advantage not by the treasures already in our possession, but by those which are to be acquired.  The Apostle ran the course of perfection with rapid stride, but we do not hurry; we often pause in our course, as though the smallest part of the eternal and highest good were already sufficient.  The Apostle considers himself as not yet perfect; and yet in his good works, in his countless sufferings and glorious miracles, he has the best pledge and evidence of extraordinary perfection; still, he always seeks something higher and more perfect.  That which we still lack is without limit; that which we already possess is little and insignificant.  But God, who is most liberal in dispensing His gifts and Himself, ceases to increase our small fortune only when we tire of our progress.  Why do we commit such an injustice against God and His grace, and against ourselves?  Let us remember the wife of Lot, who instead of looking forward looked behind her and was turned into a statue of salt.  Let this example serve to make us prudent and to spur us on to a holy zeal.”

~ Fr. Matthias Scheeben, The Glories of Divine Grace

To Know and to Love

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today.)

It’s a commonplace we’ve all heard in one form or another: “Love is blind.”  But is it really?  It may be true that our passions, in their uncultivated condition, can color falsely our way of seeing, but even this has in itself the seed or material for seeing truly and bears within itself a truth about human nature, indeed about reality itself.  Even uncultivated passion and desire show that human beings cannot live “within themselves”: we are always looking beyond ourselves for what will complete us and give us rest, and this thirst reaches down to the roots of our being.  We might even call our existence a “going out of ourselves,” an ex-istence.  However, following this thread to the kind of love that sees rightly requires us to go beyond the imperfect, damaged love that comes so easily.  In this condition such love remains, in part at least, a “love for me,” a self-love in which I go out of myself just to take hold of what I love and to keep it for my own satisfaction– a love, in short, which is also part exploitation.  Insofar as love remains of this kind, it grows back in upon itself, frustrated from its proper outward orientation and blossoming-forth.  Only a love that has been purified of this imperfection, as free of the alloy of exploitation as possible, can begin to see what it loves without the damaging factors that have given love the false name of “blind.”

This kind of love, though it acknowledges its need for the one it loves, does not thereby reduce the beloved to an object of exploitation for its own satisfaction.  Rather than oppressing or disfiguring the beloved in this way, such love first gives room for the beloved to be as she is—to show herself forth as she truly is, not as selfish intrusions would objectify her.  This first step of “going out of ourselves,” then, does not reach out to exploit what we love but instead watches and waits with attentiveness, even with reverence.  The first step of love is not a step forward but rather a step back.

This reverential letting-be, in which the lover sees what she loves as it shows itself, involves a recognition of what is loved as purely given– whether it be a moving musical masterpiece, a beloved spouse, or the Giver of all that is good.  Ultimately, to gaze with loving eyes (true-loving eyes, that is, formed by a love purified of self-love) is to see the truth about what we gaze upon, to recognize it as gift, as sheer gratuity and thus as beautiful.  This goes for all things but holds true in a particular way for that particular kind of love which is romantic: in the midst of the myriad imperfections and flaws that damage our actual loves, in itself this kind of love embodies with radical intensity something of the reverence, the wonder, and the awe which arise from recognizing things as gift.  Through this kind of love, unique in how vividly it impresses itself upon so many of us, one person begins to see the irreplaceable beauty and splendor of another—the full richness and goodness of the creature God creates in love.

We might say this represents the only true way to know something as it really is, as loved into being by God.  Since our own acts of knowledge are themselves but the faintest retracing of God’s own knowing the created order into being, and since this act of God’s knowing is the same as the one act of God’s love, we only begin to know things as God knows them—as they are in reality—insofar as we begin to share and participate in that loving-knowing-creating which is God’s one eternal act.  Real knowledge, then, is not a matter of some imagined neutrality (coldness)—all too often a mask for the will to power, for the desire to exploit—but rather of reverence before the face of the beautiful, gratitude for the gift, love for a beloved creature of God.  The philosophical traditions of the West have posited two categories for things, corresponding to the different ways we relate to them as objects of knowledge: sensibilia— sense-ables, things we first come to know through our senses– and intelligibilia— intelligibles, things we come to know only through our abstracting intellect.  With this insight about love, however, we might say that both meet as amibilia— lovables, to be received and cherished in gratitude because recognized as the sheer good gift of God, who alone is Creator of both “things visible and invisible.”  To know a thing rightly requires us above all to be able to see through eyes that recognize things as unmerited gifts, gratuitous expressions of God’s bountiful love.

For human beings united in a bond of love, this recognition of gift means each is constantly re-discovering the other, reawakening to the amazement of first recognition.  Here our relationships, fallen but redeemed by Christ, can at their best echo something of that vision of Beauty Himself, in which the blessed are ever discovering anew greater depths of God’s love.  Just as true lovers are drawn toward each other through the transcendent Third who sheds His love upon them both, the blessed are ever drawn out of themselves in ecstatic abandon toward the God who by His love makes all things new.  Far from being “blind,” love alone lets the scales fall from our eyes so that we can contemplate the truth, wherever it is found, in ever greater depth.

Quote of the Day – “Self-denial”

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“If we would be followers of the great Apostle [Paul], first let us with him fix our eyes upon Christ our Saviour; consider the splendour and glory of His holiness, and try to love it.  Let us strive and pray that the love of holiness may be created within our hearts; and then acts will follows, such as befit us and our circumstances, in due time, without our distressing ourselves to find what they should be.  You need not attempt to draw any precise line between what is sinful and what is only allowable: look up to Christ, and deny yourselves every thing, whatever its character, which you think He would have you relinquish.  You need not calculate and measure, if you love much: you need not perplex yourselves with points of curiosity, if you have a heart to venture after Him.  True, difficulties will sometimes arise, but they will be seldom…  So shall self-denial become natural to you, and a change come over you, gently and imperceptibly; and, like Jacob, you will lie down in the waste, and will soon see Angels, and a way opened for you into heaven.” – Blessed John Henry Newman, “The Duty of Self-denial”

Divertissement and Distraction

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

Weariness.--Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.

Diversion.--When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

Blaise Pascal, French mathematician and Catholic apologist

These piercing words of Pascal, perhaps the first modern Catholic apologist writing to an emerging modern world, have grown sharper as the world has grown more modern.  I mean this in that peculiar sense, distinct from chronology, in which we can call the 17th century modern although it already lies in so many ways beyond our historical horizons.  We could describe this modernity in many ways by looking at its art, its literature, its philosophy, its theology; but for the purpose of Pascal’s thoughts here it suffices to say that in the conditions of modernity the opportunities for distraction proliferate.  This should not be very controversial and at first glance perhaps does not look very worrisome either; however, as these two quotes from the Pensées indicate, Pascal discerns in this condition a peculiarly vivid example of the maladies afflicting humankind after its Fall.  What’s more, this symptom has grown only more severe in proportion to our knack for invention: now, as then, we might still work, play, go to the theater, gamble, hunt, go traveling, or pursue honors, esteem, and affection; but we also watch television, play video games, fool around on the internet, fiddle with our cell phones or iPods or iPads or Droids– and read and write blog posts.

Of course these pursuits have their rightful roles to play in human flourishing.  Yet even then, wherever the proper proportions for such activities may lie, we often go far out of our way to keep ourselves entertained– to kill the time, or stay busy, or shorten the wait.  Can we not withstand even a moment without something to do?  The lengths we will often go to fill the stillness sometimes take on the complexion of a quiet but desperate escapism.  Yes, escapism– not of the day-dreamer who yearns to ride off into the sunrise of some more fantastical life, but of the addict who will fix his gaze on anything to keep from having to look into his own face.  Indeed, the language of addiction would not be far from Pascal’s pen in this case; he would likely say that we are dependent upon our myriad diversions as upon sedatives.  Deprive ourselves of them for but a short while, and we become restless, perhaps anxious.  Why should this be?  Our 17th-century friend would locate the answer in our reluctance to face some of the more dreadful elements of our present condition: the brevity of our lives, the frailty of all our loves.  Pascal offers for our examination the many woes which we would sooner cover over than confront.  We might easily accuse Pascal of morbidity, but if that is our immediate response, doesn’t it attest to his point?  Why should we pass over the topic because it’s “too morbid,” “dreary,” “depressing,” when by confronting it we might hope to improve our lot beyond a mere self-induced sleep of denial?

Rather, let us get up and stir each other to wakefulness.  Once we do, we will begin to learn to recognize the brokenness of our condition, not as a meaningless blight to be covered up with endless hollow dissipation, but as a sign of our profound need for healing and an encouragement to press on along the way of redemption in Christ.  For on that journey alone shall we find the everlasting peace which comes, not from diversions of our own invention, but from the love of Our Lord.