Tag Archives: Ignitum Today

Short Discourse on Love

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

Disclaimer: I don’t like writing about love in a public forum.  It makes me feel vulnerable to public opinion.

Some time ago, I attended a conference in my home diocese.  Having connections with the organizers, I ended up attending the after-party as well, and had an absolute blast with some of the speakers and the other after-party attendees.  In the midst of the philosophical discussions that ensued (this after-party involved tobacco, alcohol, and Catholic people), I found myself talking to a group of young gentlemen a few years older than I about many heavy matters.  Along the way, we hit a number of topics, and spent quite a bit of time discussing love.  This is where I went a little crazy and got away from myself (it was late at night and I’d had an early morning; when I’m tired my mouth runs faster than my brain) and ended up lecturing this group of slightly-older-than-me young men on the nature of love and how it is more than an emotion; it is an act of the will.

“Well, we all agree on the fact that to love is to will the good of another, yes?”  Nods all around.  I shifted my sketchbook on my lap and gestured with my capped fountain pen as I spoke.  “And I’m sure you all have experienced that with your family.  Like, I love my little sisters and wouldn’t want any harm to come to them, but oh GOSH sometimes they drive me nuts and I don’t like them very much.  But I still love them.”

“Yeah, but I haven’t ever had that outside of my family,” one guy interjected.  I shook my head.

“Doesn’t matter, that’s the important aspect of love.  And some day you’ll find that person whose well-being you willingly–and happily–put above yours.  For that person, you’d do anything.  You’d give your own life if it meant they would be well and happy.  And each day it is a new wish for them to have a good day, or to smile, or to be well.  It is, as we’ve agreed, an act of the will.  You want nothing but the absolute best for that other person and will do whatever it takes to get them there.  You want them to be a saint.”

The rest of the story is unimportant and rather irrelevant; this discussion is what matters.  All that matters is this: you want the people you love most to become saints.

“How do you expect me to follow THAT?”

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

At daily Mass on Friday, the priest made a reference to this article in the Wall Street Journal.  The idea was that modern fiction is not, in fact, faithless, but contains faith in but a whisper–as opposed to the literary giants of the 20th Century whose faith was quite prominent: figures like G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, like the Inklings, the literary circle of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, or like the poet Roy Campbell and the novelist Evelyn Waugh.

The Inklings

This sort of a lull in strong Catholic writers hearkened back to something which we both said and heard while playing a new game we got for Christmas: Uncle Chestnut’s Table Gype.  Each of us has a copy, so we are hoping to share the joy of the game with others.  However, one of the special things about this game is that pieces can jump other pieces, Chinese-Checkers-style.  And when one player gets a phenomenally good series of jumps (often landing in the other home row), the next player whose turn it is hangs her head in her hands and goes, “How on EARTH do you expect me to follow THAT up?”  After a series of smaller, subtler moves, she may end up with a monumental jump, prompting the cycle to repeat again.

Such is the way of the world in the literary field now, it seems.  Greats such as G.K. Chesterton (whose writings about Table Gype are actually the basis of the game), J.R.R. Tolkien, and Flannery O’Connor have just gone before us.  We have hung our head in our hands and asked how we are supposed to follow that up.  And we are quietly moving our pieces around, setting the board for a most phenomenal move.

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.

Two Days, Two Ways

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

Tempting as it was to declare that we should write a Discovery-channel-spinoff in the vein of this xkcd (Quill doing the words, Ink doing the doodles), being wrapped up in family matters has made that logistically impossible. Plus, it seemed more appropriate to write a heavier post.

Funnier than Black Friday

In light of today yesterday [1] being Black Friday, our thoughts were drawn to the very strange contrast between a day like yesterday, where the mindset of sales, purchases, and consumption dominates, and a day like Thursday, whose spirit is one of thanksgiving (exactly as it says on the can), and the recognition that everything we have is first and foremost a gift [2].  It’s as if by an accident of human affairs– or by the strange shadow of crass commercialism cast by all that is finest in our calendar holidays– whether by one or by the other, Providence has drawn out examples of the same two choices He puts before us time and again in the Scriptures: today He has set before us two ways.

“See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.  If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it.  But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”  [3]

These two different attitudes can be found everywhere.  Scripture, as seen above, is only one location.  Salvation history is an equally blatant example.  Our own lives, however, are just as subject to this very fundamental choice: good and life, evil and death.

English-Ancient Greek dictionary

Thanksgiving – ευχαριστειν (eucharistein): to give thanks.

–notice eucharistein can be broken down into eu-charis (charis being the word for grace): to give thanks is to respond well (eu) to the grace (charis) we have received.

At the Last Supper, even God found the time to give thanks.  On the night of the first and truest Thanksgiving Thursday, the night all His friends turned their backs on Him and handed Him over to His great suffering, He still said the blessing “and gave thanks” [4].  And on the same night we find Judas grasping for his purse of silver, like Adam grasping for the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, mirroring the hands of the soldiers grasping for God Himself, to destroy His body.

This then was the first Black Friday, when the sun hid for shame, an example then as every Black Friday is now of the grasping, seizing, devouring attitude: the one that does not so much say “I Do Not Want” to God’s gift– for there is nothing else out there to be desired but things which God has already given us– so much as say “I Do Not Want It to Be A Gift.”  We want to have it both ways, to receive and then to hold on to it as if we had created it ourselves, bit by bit to privatize the world away from God and then to dispose of it as if it had all come from us to begin with, as if we called it out of nothing, as if we earned it and every other thing back to our own birth– to dominate, in the strictest sense, everything that comes our way.

Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday–the days upon which we give thanks for our many blessings and then proceed to destroy ourselves with greed, not even a full 24 hours later.  The way that recognizes the gift, receives it in thanks, and gives back to others and to the Giver; and the way of consumption and possession, of appropriating what we come across and sealing it off from the world, until we turn in upon ourselves and away from the source of every gift: in a word, the choice between the way Our Lord went on Holy Thursday and the way the whole world went on Good Friday.

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[1] This was originally meant to be published on Friday but, again, life got in the way.

[2] All things, being in existence, are first gifts from God, who actively Wills all things and beings into existence.  Do you feel small yet?

[3] Deuteronomy 30:15-20

[4] Luke 22:17

Controlling Passion: Fire as Emotion and Desire

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(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

Remember that series we started? With this handy-dandy little reference sheet? Well, you’ll probably need the Fire Nation blurb for this post.

In the Avatar universe, fire plays the role of energy and passion, requiring balance and control to keep it from devouring everything in its path—and ultimately devouring itself. The fire-bender characters met in the series are often acutely aware of this and, by their attitude toward fire and fire-bending, serve as examples of different responses to the power and pull of our passions. The character known as the Deserter (properly called Jeong Jeong), a Fire Nation general-turned-hermit, captures the problem of the passions in his lament: fire is a powerful force with great creative potential and a pivotal role in human life; yet its very use predisposes the fire-bender to yield a little more room to fire. Without the proper discipline and moderation, even the best-intentioned and most vigilant bender could cause great destruction, even self-destruction. So too, the human passions are a great good and indispensible to human life; yet if simply yielded to passively at each opportunity, emotion and desire alone would certainly lead someone astray into great harm.

Some of Aang’s first attempts to fire-bend serve as a good example of this danger. In his need to master fire-bending in order to fulfill his mission as the Avatar, Aang seeks out the aforementioned Deserter, a great fire-bending master, to teach him this art. When Aang finally finds the Deserter and makes his request, the hermit reveal’s the great danger that comes from someone playing with fire. For someone like carefree Aang, childlike and sometimes childish, the power of fire would simply be too great to trifle with; for someone with less pure intentions, the consequences could be even graver. On these grounds, the Deserter initially refuses; but after great insistence, Aang finally secures the Deserter’s help, on the condition that Aang train with unrelenting discipline.

So far so good! After much training, Aang learns to control his breath.  (For the most part.) Under constant pressure from Aang to be allowed to play with fire, the Deserter leaves him with an ember, burning a hole through the middle of a leaf which, in true Japanese style, Aang is to keep from burning out to the edges.  In his excitement, Aang expands the ember into a whole flame and begins to manipulate it freely and playfully. Katara, who stands nearby watching, recognizes the danger Aang is playing with and warns him; but her words of caution fall upon deaf ears until Aang accidentally burns her hands with his fire-bending tricks.

Such an example of the danger that comes with fire-bending may not be so serious; in fact, Katara is able to heal herself with a water-bending technique she soon discovers. But, for fire-bending and the human passions alike, a more unhinged person might let loose something much graver through rampant desire and emotion. Admiral Zhao, the Fire-Nation leader of great ambition, personifies this more serious danger in his obsessive hunt for the Avatar—much like the imperialism of the Fire Nation as a whole. In the climax of the same Deserter episode, Admiral Zhao tracks Aang down to the Deserter’s location and leads a group of Fire-Nation gunboats to secure both fugitives—a perfect means to satisfy his ambitions. But when Aang confronts Zhao, he shows himself to have learned his lesson as well as he shows Zhao to be self-destructive in his heedlessness: by simply allowing Zhao to expend himself in fire-bending attacks, avoiding them with graceful control, Aang successfully leads Zhao to destroy his own ships with his reckless assault. In this way, the inferno of unchecked passion or fire-bending ultimately undermines and extinguishes itself.

The dangers of unrestrained emotion or desire are thusly displayed in fire-bending. However, more positive examples of properly cultivated passion exist as well. The Deserter, in his great sorrow over the rampant destruction caused by fire-bending, shows a path of self-denial and resignation in his refusal to fire-bend except for the most serious reasons. On the other hand, Uncle Iroh leads a more harmonious life as a fire-bender, informed by well-ordered passions. Far from abandoning the art of fire-bending, Uncle Iroh perfects it in his mastery of lightning-bending, a very demanding technique possible only for the most disciplined masters. Yet this expertise does not come from heedless indulgence but from great self-mastery: a trait also on display in Uncle Iroh’s personality as a whole. Rather than fixating upon the great objects of ambition common to the series’ unbalanced firebenders—power and wealth and honors—Uncle Iroh is most memorable for his great Chestertonian appreciation for the simplest of goods: innocent pleasures like a cup of tea or a game of pai sho. So too does his humble demeanor, good-humored and self-effacing, contrast sharply with the feverish personalities of Admiral Zhao or Fire Lord Ozai, who are so consumed by self-destructiveness and self-import. In these ways Iroh shows that with fire-bending—like the human passions—rather than needing to be unequivocally renounced altogether or extinguished, a life of full flourishing embraces both the intensities of emotion and desire as well as the fundamental vision of the true good needed to shape these into a force which can be genuinely creative.

Click for image source

Goodness in the Media: The Series

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Goodness in the Media: The Series

(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

After reading the positive comments on our post on Ignitum Today, Quill and I have decided to turn it into a full-fledged series, starting with Avatar: The Last Airbender–from the beginning.  The purpose of this post is to do two things.

1. To announce that we are, in fact, turning it into a series (and we’ll post as regularly as we can; no promises though, since the school year has started up again) and are very excited to begin.

2. To open the discussion to readers who are familiar with the series (and maybe with our past writing) and tell us what they’d like to see.  A scholarly analysis?  Drawing out the implicit moral system?  Just a review?  Remember–this isn’t a zero-sum situation, and it will be constantly growing.  If we write a post about something and a commenter on that post raises an interesting point to discuss, we can do another post on it.  On a similar note, what point of departure would be preferable?  Start with an important topic in Catholic life and see how the series relates to it?  Or instead, start with the series itself and see what themes emerge that are resonant with the Faith and life of the Church?

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.