Holidays and Holy Days

What are we to make of this year’s overlapping holidays and holy days? Lent began February 14th, Valentines Day with Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday will coincide with April Fools Day. (Technically, April Fools is not a holiday. But perhaps we should rethink that and consider making it Federal holiday.)

Ash Wednesday and Valentines Day would seem at odds with each other. Some priests even encouraged their parishioners to perform their amorous displays on the day before so as not to interfere with the appropriate attitude of repentance and sorrow for sin when receiving the ashen mark on their foreheads. Even so the Gospel reading prescribed for the day enjoins us to ‘not look gloomy’ while performing our fast. Sacramentality asks us to see and experience the inexplicable union of spirit and flesh whose source is the Incarnation and whose end is subsumed in the Resurrection. No doubt there is a tension between the secular understanding and expression of Valentines Day and the Christian self-examination and humiliation in hearing ‘remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. But it is a good tension, the kind Kierkegaard likened to the tension of the stings of a musical instrument. Without it there would be no music, no love songs or hymns like the Dies Irae.

Risking sacrilige, how might the combining of the great Easter feast of the Resurrection and the rather goofy pranks of April Fools Day be viewed together? St. Paul provides a  segue in the first letter to the Corinthians chapter four when he upbraids some of those in the church of Corinth for their haughty manner and rivalry saying that he and the other Apostles “…are fools for Christ…to this very hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clad, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are vilified, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer gently. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.” Then St. Paul privides fatherly advice to his arrogant children in the faith…”I urge you to imitate me.”

Shall we?

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The Predicament

“There are still countries today where, even in the Catholic Church, the individual is in a situation reminiscent of that in which Kierkegaard found himself, in a national church that had fallen into liberalism: however willing the individual is to submit to the Church’s direction, he can no longer find a firm representative of ecclesiastical authority; as for having recourse to the Pope’s teaching, the latter may become almost inaudible and practically inaccessible. Those he finds around him acting the part of the ‘Church’ and of the ‘clergy’ are under more than just suspicion of having made a pact with anti-Christian power-structures; or, what comes to the same thing, though more covertly, they are subject to a system of terror within the Church herself that does not allow the bishops freedom to act responsibly as they see fit. Or alternatively – and again these features are related – they are caught in a net of ideological slogans that has entangled both the hierarchy and a large proportion of the Catholic people too (to say nothing of the intelligentsia).”

– Hans Urs von Balthasar

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Big Data & Human Sacrifice

The following comes from an article posted on The Atlantic magazine website:

In 1598, a European miner working in the Bolivian highlands stumbled across a 10-year-old Andean girl who was still alive, despite having been walled up inside a funerary tower three days earlier. Several decades had passed since the Inca Empire—the most sophisticated in the world at that time—had fallen, but its practices lived on among the Incas’ descendants in the region, including human sacrifice. The practice held on a little longer after this incident. Around 20 years later, a boy, who had escaped from local chiefs attempting to bury him alive, took refuge in a Spanish community in the Peruvian Sierra. But the tradition was incompatible with the moral outlook of the new Catholic regime, and die it did, eventually.

The question scientists are debating now is: Did our modern world spring from the beliefs of those who buried the girl alive, or from those of the miner who freed her?

To put that question another way, were human societies able to grow so large and complex because cruel practices like human sacrifice shored them up, or because human sacrifice was abandoned in favor of other forms of social glue—notably, major religions like Christianity?

What seems clear is that the author of the article and, likely, the scientists in the debate are unfamiliar with the work of one scholar who spent most of his life studying violence and religion and the origins of human culture, René Girard. The article describes research being conducted by teams of university based scholars mining the data from anthropological studies of thousands of primitive cultures both living and extinct and pooling the information in vast databases. Without the tools that Girard’s work provides it is not surprising that the researchers fall into the materialistic and utilitarian hypotheseses regarding us humans and our social interactions. Perhaps you have heard of ‘big data’ and, like many, have relegated that term to the realm of topics too vast to spend much time worrying about; while at the same time finding it somehow worrisome. I have my own qualms in this regard, however it is possible that big data may in this instance provide another layer of emperical support to Girard’s mimetic theory of the origins of human culture.

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Part 6 of Gil Bailie’s Reflections on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Part 6 of Gil Bailie’s series on Romans is now available on our web store. Click on the image to the left to go our store. In this part Gil Bailie covers chapters 9 through 11 of Romans. In these chapters there is a sense that St. Paul is trying to elucidate a number of troubling issues one of which is our propensity to develop our moral acuities at the expense of those whose moral failures we observe and repudiate. Another theme is the problem of God’s irrevocable covenant with Israel and the Jewish rejection of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and their complicity in Jesus’ death.

The final two parts of this 8 part series will be available on our web store in the coming months.


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Last Sunday I happened to watch an hour long CSPAN interview with Robert P. George and Cornel West. It was not what I expected; which was verbal combat between scholars occupying opposite ideological perspectives. Over the years I had read a number of articles by Professor George, who teaches at Princeton, and knew him as a gifted Catholic scholar whose outspoken pro-life, natural law, politically conservative positions have influenced my own thinking. Professor West of Harvard, on the other hand, I knew only from news media accounts, having never read anything he had written that I can recall. However, by his reputation as a political progressive of the left I felt the CSPAN program would provide some verbal fireworks, at least.

What transpired surprised me. I encourage anyone who despairs of high level respectful discourse between ideological opponents to click on the image above to watch the program. It will not be lost on the viewer that both of these men are Christians whose views have been formed by their faith. But it is also evident that the manner in which they hold their differing views on many issues is saturated by a grace that enables them to live and work together as brothers in Christ.

Merry Christmas!

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Autumn & Advent


In preparing the digital audio for part 4 of Gil Bailie’s Reflections on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans I heard Gil recite the Rilke poem ‘Autumn’…


The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
as though above were withering farthest gardens;
they fall with a denying attitude.
And night by night, down into solitude,
the heavy earth falls far from every star.
We are all falling. This hand’s falling too —
all have this falling-sickness none withstands.
And yet there’s One whose gently-holding hands
this universal falling can’t fall through.

I will leave it to the reader to ponder how the poem relates to St. Paul’s understanding of the ‘new aeon’. For those intrigued by this, the downloadable MP3 will be available in mid-December in our web store…and as we are in the midst of our Fall Appeal, for our friends who support our efforts with gifts of $60/year or more – a complimentary MP3 of Part 4 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans will be sent via email around the same time. And for those contributing $300+/year – in addition to the MP3 we will mail a  complimentary CD of the audio materials. If you find our work of value please help us by supporting our efforts with your tax-deductible donations.

The Rilke poem at first reminded me of the song ‘Autumn Leaves’, a lament of lost love and longing, not really in ‘tune’ with Rilke’s more metaphysical direction. However, it was the last lines that brought another image to mind, one that had been in the news recently on account of the astounding price for which someone paid to possess it. The image, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci entitled ‘Salvator Mundi‘…

  Because Christ’s visage and gaze are what strikes the viewer most powerfully it is easy to miss, in the lower right corner, the universe is depicted, held in its creator’s hands…

And yet there’s One whose gently-holding hands
this universal falling can’t fall through.

As we enter into the Advent season this Sunday we will have opportunity to reflect on how it was that the creator of this universe became a helpless infant, born of a woman on a cold night in a cattle shed on the dusty fringes of the Roman empire two millennia ago and how this event has changed everything since.

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Making Friends & Supporting Our Efforts

The recently concluded conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture was a wonderful time for us to reconnect with old friends and make new ones.

The conference explored the perennial problem of good and evil, the significance of this distinction for human flourishing and the common good, and the place of good and evil in the theory and practice of various academic disciplines. Featured speakers included Gilbert Meilaender, Alasdair MacIntyre and John Finnis among others. The theme of the conference, “Through Every Human Heart” was taken from Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago:

“…the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.”

Gil’s talk at the conference was well received, and he attended a number of outstanding presentations over the 3 days of the conference. Meanwhile, Randy was promoting Gil’s latest book, God’s Gamble, at the Angelico Press table in the book publishers display area. We sold almost all the books we brought with us.

It was especially encouraging to meet representatives of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and learn how they are using Cornerstone Forum materials in curricular resources intended for schools. Taking part in this and other conferences like it is only possible with the generous support from our donors and supporters.

In the coming days, our Fall Appeal will be going out to those who have shown an interest in our work. We ask that you look kindly on our request for support. If you find our work helpful, please enable us to continue our efforts by making a tax deductible donation. Thank You!

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Gratitude and Sorrow

Our street on Monday morning

Looking down our street yesterday









Yesterday my wife and I awoke to the news of a fast spreading fire in our home town of Santa Rosa. We are 2,500 miles away visiting our daughter and her family in Maryland. There was nothing we could do but watch and pray. We were comforted to hear from friends that we were being supported in their prayers as well. As of today the fire still is raging in the hills but our home and those of our neighbors are safe for now. However, we have learned from many other local friends that their homes were completely destroyed. There is no inherent justice or meaning in this. It is just what fires driven by 50 mph winds do in lush wooded hillsides and valleys.  After we return we will be living in a very different town from the one we left.

The local parish priest here in Maryland mentioned in his homily on Sunday an incident where a stranger stopped him on the street and asked, “Father, after all these natural disasters that have occurred recently, have you seen more people coming to church?”  He hadn’t noticed any crowding in the pews recently. But he did ask his parishioners to make personal sacrifices to help those who have lost homes, family members, and livelihoods in the recent disasters.

My gratitude for having a home to return to is mixed with sorrow for all those who have lost theirs. We will be working to assist our neighbors who need help through the coming difficult days. And I ask our friends to find ways to share the burden as well.

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New from the Audio Archives – Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Now available in our webstore: Part 1 in an eight-part series of Gil Bailie’s Reflections on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans

We have been continuing to add to the digital Audio Archive each month titles from Gil Bailie’s presentations from the past. Recent additions have been W. H. Auden’s New Year’s Letter, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Troilus & Cressida.

We hope very soon to make some of these insightful and inspiring talks available on where they can be accessed as ‘audio books’ by a much larger audience than visits the Cornerstone Forum website. Also, the Audible audio book format can make listening to these presentations easier for those who enjoy the convenience of listening to audio books on their mobile phones or MP3 players. We will continue to offer these titles here on the Cornerstone Forum webstore as downloadable MP3 files.

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The school year has begun and many high school and college students are beginning the study of calculus – the mathematical study of continuous change.

In the present age, if one lives through all the intimate and personal changes from infancy to adulthood, one will continue to experience change in many areas beyond those studied in mathematics.

Much of political rhetoric and personal conversation revolves around the need for ‘change’. Calls for change can be found everywhere. Ideologues of every stripe have a prescription for changes in regime, policy, administration, personnel, et cetera. We all have our opinions about what most needs to be changed.

Even within the Church, we hear calls for change in doctrine or the liturgy, the list goes on and on. Yet one of the foundations of our faith as Christians is the understanding that each of us must change. We are called, like the first disciples, to change from being in one way to being in another. In confessing our sins we are to be prepared to change from sinful ways of life. Repentance reflects this transition.

All of the foregoing was precipitated by my reading the headline in the British magazine website The Catholic Herald, “Catholics Go Out And Change Britian!” It is a bracing piece situated within England’s current cultural and political life. I encourage you to read it not for its subtlety or finer articulation of issues we are unaware of, rather it reminds me of the passion and tone of many of the fundamentalist Baptist sermons I listened to as a youth wherein the Gospel’s saving truth imposes an obligation on each of us as in Jesus’ final words recorded in Matthew’s gospel, “Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

I suppose we all know, like Heraclitus, the paradoxical permanence of change.  If you are like me you also know how difficult real change is whether personal or social. We often do not want to change ourselves and do not want others to change. So we focus on the change of fashion in external and ephemeral things that will put on a good show. But even then we can be caught off guard like Rilke, who while regarding the ‘The Archaic Torso of Apollo’, found he could not avoid some internal grace of aesthetic beauty emanating from the headless sculpture’s eyes, “for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”

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