Tag Archives: Last Things

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.

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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.

The one thing I can do

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It’s easy to be overcome by worries and cares, whether considering one’s own affairs or those of the wider world. This is especially the case, in my experience, when occupying one’s thoughts for any considerable amount of time on the present condition of the Church and of the wider culture in the West. Be it keeping up with blogs about the great spiritual and moral crisis we face today, or embroiling oneself in one of so many popular (and often quite heated) debates, it becomes easy to focus exceedingly on the wider, big-picture problems of today, often to the detriment of what God places immediately before us. Many of us will never engage with these culture-wide or international problems on a scale comparable to their own. Rather, for most of us our direct sphere of influence– at least as far as we’ll ever notice– will only ever extend to those whom we will meet face to face, those tasks which are given to us simply as duties to state. But once we remember that, each one of us must act on that knowledge: the decisions we make that will ultimately have the greatest range of consequences will often be those made closest to home.

That’s above all the case with how our actions affect us as images of God created to enjoy everlasting life. Each generation faces a different set of problems than the last, but the strong, loving hand of God guides each of them through its course. Throughout it all, what will never change is what I’m capable of: in the end, the only important thing I have any say in is what happens to my soul after I die. My actions may affect a great deal more, yes, but my actions must be framed by the knowledge that the best thing I can do with all my life is cooperate with God, who will provide all things for our salvation. Even if I spend my whole life in activism for all the right causes (all very good as far as they go, truly) but neglect to love the Lord with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength– then at best everything I have done will have counted for nothing. But if I live in total self-giving to God, doing my best to seek Him and not myself, trust Him and not myself, love Him and not myself– then no matter of what little consequence my life will have appeared to be, if I have loved Him with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength, I will have done the only thing worth doing; and, more likely than not, I will have given my neighbor the best kind of help there is.

There’s just no replacing personal sanctity. And, as the poet Charles Péguy once wrote:

“Life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint.”