During my visit to Israel, ahead of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion conference in Austria, I spent two days as the guest of the Sisters of the Rosary in the village of Ein Karem. This is the place traditionally associated with the ‘hill country of Judea’ to which the Virgin Mary went in haste after her interview with the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:39) where she learned of her own and her relative Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy. Here it was then that the two pregnant women, one old, one young, met carrying in their own bodies the infant bodies of John the Baptist and Jesus. So much of my daily prayer life began in these environs, the Magnificat and the Canticle of Zechariah.
While exploring the area I found this poem posted on an exterior wall in an alley way written in Hebrew and English.
Sometimes to reach heaven above
You have to descend
And the valley spread before you
Shall appear as an ancient wonder
From the book of Genesis.
The grass and the colorful flowers
Will seem to you as holy letters
In the handwriting of God
While the wind will guide your heart to the words
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.
And a young Yemenite shepherd girl
With seven white goat kids dancing around her
Decorate each biblical verse
With dark eyes, golden flute and curls..
In commemoration of America’s celebration of Independence Day Gil Bailie posted a link on the Cornerstone Forum’s Facebook page to a book review written by Tim Rice of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay. I haven’t read the book, which Rice describes as a more thoughtful and fair alternative American history text than what most secondary school students are offered these days. Howard Zinn’s victimology of american self-loathing being one example. However, I have read Walter McDougall’s Freedom Just Around The Corner, which is not a text book overview of American history to 1828 but a Bailie-esque reflection on the people and events that led to the American founding until the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (who both died on July 4th, 1826). It is Bailie-like in that McDougall begins his reflections with a review of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, which I’ve also read, and makes reference to Melville’s novel throughout his work, the title of which is taken from a Bob Dylan lyric in his song Jokerman.
I think of all this as I am now visiting friends in Jerusalem. On the 4th of July we attended a ‘festival of light’ in the Old City, a rather strange laser and special effects laden display on the ancient walls attended by many thousands of the denizens of the Holy City and its surrounds. The vibrant energy of the crowd reflected all the various ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and age groups from the Arab security guards checking the attendee’s bags for bombs (my Israeli host pointed out to me the paradox of this) to tattooed youth and Haredi families pushing infant laden strollers. I thought the closest thing to this in America might be New Year’s Eve in Times Square – but this was a warm evening with street buskers and food vendors everywhere.
A relative texted me a question, “How does it feel to be an American on the 4th of July in Israel?” I must say I feel very much at home here in the only democracy in the area. Israel is not without many of the same pathologies of democracy as my home country but the cultural roots that bind the soil to its inhabitants run much deeper here in ways difficult to describe. Freedom…real freedom, and its blessings may always be ‘just around the corner’.
The brilliant philosopher, Edith Stein, found Catholicism to be – not the alternative to her Judaism, but its fulfillment. It is conceivable that the genesis of that conversion occurred quite by accident (or was it providence) when she happened to stroll into the Frankfurt Cathedral. There she saw a woman with a shopping basket kneeling for a brief prayer. She later wrote: “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.”
Perhaps in this time when the Church is being shaken from top to bottom, we her faithful might follow the example of the nameless and humble woman who helped bring the great philosopher to Christ without ever realizing that she had done so.
Posted inBlog|Comments Off on An intimate conversation
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country … the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.
Why does it feel like going back? Why does the longing feel like a vague memory? Perhaps the answer can be found in something that the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar regarded as the biographical foundation for a child’s subsequent sacramental experience: the effect on the newborn infant of his mother’s smile. In Balthasar’s view that moment is pivotal, as are its many repetitions in the early stages of an infant’s life. By Balthasar’s account, the mother’s smile gives the child her first experience of the goodness of existence, and it is the origin of her subsequent longing to retain or regain access to the “place where all the beauty came from.”
Hans Urs von Balthasar:
The little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother. … everything – “I” and “Thou” and the world – is lit up from this lightening flash of the origin with a ray so brilliant and whole that it also includes a disclosure of God. … This awareness is joined to the primal experience that one has arrived at participation in the world-fellowship of beings by means of a summons coming from outside one’s own “I”. It is not through the perfection of one’s own power that one has entered this fellowship.
The mother’s smile carries ontological weight. With it the child enters a world loved and affirmed at the deepest and most ineradicable level. Without it, the most promising mitigating efforts notwithstanding, the child’s ontological circumstances are impaired.
The father’s responsibility is threefold: First, his obligation to both the child and the mother is to foster and safeguard an ordered and peaceful domestic environment, one in which the love and promise awakened in the child by the mother’s smile can grow into an enduring predicate for the child’s life. Beyond the task of preserving and protecting the home from whatever forces antithetical to its spiritual tranquility might threaten, it falls to the parents, and traditionally at least to the father of the family, to influence to the degree possible the larger social and cultural environments, with a determination equal to the proximity and spiritual efficacy of these influences. No less important is the need to provide children with a link to their cultural, religious, and family history, their spiritual patrimony. There is nothing inherently either masculine or feminine about this task, save for the danger of turning attention to political and social matters at the expense of those features of the domestic environment that will have greater and more enduring consequences in the lives of the young. On the other hand, the fact that we use the word patrimony for the spiritual treasures received from prior generations should not be dismissed as a vestige of gender inequality.
The Cornerstone Forum webstore is now adopting the ‘industry standard’ for online sales of audio materials. All sales of CDs will come with free downloadable MP3 audio files. When a customer completes an order for any CD material from our webstore they will receive an email receipt containing a link to a downloadable MP3 version of the same material.
Not only that – we are making our offer retroactive – anyone who has purchased CDs from our webstore in the past may receive links to downloadable MP3 files of the materials they have purchased. Just contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and request the MP3 version of the CD(s) you purchased and I will email you the link(s).
In the coming months we will be adding more items from Gil Bailie’s Audio Archives to our webstore including Reflections on TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, The Hollow Men, Ash-Wednesday, Murder in the Cathedral, and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. We will also be adding more audio-book titles to Audible and other audio-book vendors.
“Sooner or later, all nihilism destroys itself from within with the frightening question, ‘What for?’ And sexual nihilism with, ‘And then?’ The insane and the maniacs are multiplying; how distressing it is to accept their vision as the norm because of their sheer number. The uniform banality causes even Eros to yawn with boredom.”
– Paul Evdokimov
“In the so-necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the Logos, from creative reason, which, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.”
I gave a short talk at the Good Friday service at my parish on the question of vicarious suffering. I spoke from notes, but I began with this:
In the David Mamet film Heist, the dubious character played by Danny DeVito says: “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.”
We might turn that around and say that nobody wants to suffer; that’s why they call it suffering.
We humans have always suspected that suffering has some uncanny meaning. Many pagans thought it was the work of evil witchdoctors. Until the story of Job called that belief into question, Jews thought suffering was punishment for sin. As the Old Testament began to prepare itself for the New Testament, the Suffering Servant Songs in Second Isaiah introduced the idea of vicarious suffering: one person’s suffering mysteriously became a blessing for others. The prophet shocked his people by announcing that: by his wounds we were healed.
And finally, as Pope John Paul II said in his 1984 Apostolic Letter on suffering, “with the Passion of Christ all human suffering has found itself in a new situation.”
Occasionally, one catches a glimpse of that new situation. I will mention two occasions when I did.
. . . (I then spoke of an old friend who died in the 1980s and my wife, Liz, who died in 2007, each finding great consolation in offering their suffering for others.)
For Frank and for Liz, suffering was a participation in the Cross of Christ, a sharing in the drama of salvation. Each saw the suffering they experienced as efficacious in the lives of others – whether known or unknown to them.
Hans Urs von Balthasar insisted that to be a Catholic is to know that somewhere someone unknown to me is suffering on my behalf.
Our lives are interwoven into an unimaginable system of exchange, connecting us with others across the expanse of time and space, and within that matrix suffering and grace, sin and redemption, isolation and intimacy become indistinguishable. And the great switchboard where that exchange is forever taking place – the Grand Central Station in that mystery of grief and grace – is the Cross of Christ. And at every Mass we are invited to make that place our true home. For as Paul says in 1 Corinthians:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor 10:16-17)
Listen to the streaming audio recording of Gil Bailie’s Emmaus Road Initiativepresentation given at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in 2009.
Without the bodily Resurrection of Christ, Christianity would not exist, and where this article of faith is diminished – by condescendingly referring, for instance, to Resurrection “experiences” – faith itself slowly dissolves or degenerates into some form of Gnosticism. The antidote to this and the key to rediscovering the gigantic meaning of the Resurrection is to recognize its Trinitarian backdrop, and for that in this session of the E.R.I. we will turn to the Holy Saturday theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.
The oil for extreme unction must be blessed On Maundy Thursday, so the rule has ruled, And by the bishop of the diocese. Does that revolt you? If so, you are free To squat beneath the deadly manchineel, That tree of caustic drops and fierce aspersion, And fancy that you have escaped from mercy. Things must be done in one way or another
You might be tempted to eat the fruit. Do not eat the fruit. You might want to rest your hand on the trunk, or touch a branch. Do not touch the tree trunk or any branches. Do not stand under or even near the tree for any length of time whatsoever. Do not touch your eyes while near the tree. Do not pick up any of the ominously shiny, tropic-green leaves. If you want to slowly but firmly back away from this tree, you would not find any argument from any botanist who has studied it. . . . This is the manchineel, known sometimes as the beach apple, or more accurately in Spanish-speaking countries as la manzanilla de la muerte, which translates to “the little apple of death,” or as arbol de la muerte, “tree of death.”
(Dan Nosowitz, “Do Not Eat, Touch, or Even Inhale the Air Around the Manchineel Tree,” Atlas Obscura, May 19, 2016.)
This warning is obviously based on bitter experience over a long period of time. It comes not only as a warning but as a gift to those to whom the manchineel tree looks perfectly appealing and who don’t suspect just how deadly the tree actually is. This is how a living tradition operates. Long experience provides each new generation with warnings it would have to learn the hard way all over again. This is especially helpful when behavior or principles of action that might seem unproblematic to one generation produce dire consequences for subsequent generations. Those who do not wish to learn the hard way about “the little apple of death” will be grateful for the tradition that warns them, and they will, in turn, make it their business to warn those who come after them.
Alas, we fallen creatures inhabit a world where multiple species of “the little apple of death” are found, each as seductive to the unsuspecting. But those who live in a self-consciously progressive age learn in a thousand little ways that traditions constrain our freedom, and those who are bold enough to strike out on their own, ignoring the warnings of their ancestors and predecessors, are valorized for doing so.
It has been over 50 years since Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, we are now in a position to judge the accuracy of its warnings about the consequences of the widespread acceptance of artificial means of birth control. The encyclical was widely mocked as hopelessly out of date, the fears of an aging celibate about matters on which he lacked the experience to “pontificate.” That he was drawing on millennia of experience by the oldest institution in history seemed to many all the more reason to ignore his warnings: that easy access to artificial contraception would lead to a breakdown in sexual morality and undermine the stability of the institution of marriage, to casual sex, abortion and the hardness of heart required to imagine it to be morally acceptable, and not least to the demographic winter which will ravage our civilization and drastically compromise the cultures our children and grandchildren will inhabit.
Who would have thought a tree as lovely as the manchineel or something as seemingly innocuous as artificial forms of contraception would be so fraught with dire consequences? Almost no one knew based solely on his or her experience, but the accumulated experience and wisdom of our forebears very often knows such things. The chief reason we need such a tradition is because some of the mistakes we are likely to otherwise make are not only virtually irreversible but their terrible consequences will fall on our children and grandchildren, whose welfare largely depends on how we conduct ourselves, personally and culturally.
Just before entering into the spirit of Holy Week, however, I am prompted by a piece about the retrofitting of the Lord’s Prayer by a group calling itself the “Non-Theistic Liturgy Resources Working Group” at St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton, Alberta.
The rephrasing is perfectly predictable. It could have been written in one’s sleep. The “welfare of the Earth” — complete with a upper case E — admission of our “shortcomings,” and so on.
The author of this vacuous catalogue of platitudes is Rev. Dr. Charles Bidwell. Dr. Bidwell is anxious to point out that: “… at no time does this indicate a petition to an external force to intervene and do the work which only we can do.”
Which brings me to this from Benedict XVI:
The temptation to reduce Christianity to the level of a type of moralism is very great in our own day. For we are all living in an atmosphere of deism. It seems that there is no room for God himself to act in human history and in my life. And so we have the idea of God who can no longer enter into this cosmos, made and closed against him. What is left? Our action. And we are the ones who must transform the world. We are the ones who must generate redemption. We are the ones who must create a better world, a new world. And if that is how one thinks, then Christianity is dead.
On a related theme, speaking of the Cross of Christ, the future Benedict XVI wrote this in his now-classic Introduction to Christianity. The Cross, he wrote, “expresses the primacy of acceptance over action…”
Accordingly, from the point of view of the Christian faith, man comes in the profoundest sense to himself not through what he does but through what he accepts. [my emphasis]
One of the persistent themes in the writings of the great French theologian, Henri de Lubac, was captured in the title of one of his books: The Paradoxes of Faith. It is precisely these paradoxes that are lost on those who have lost the faith that keeps the paradoxes from turning into crude antitheses. Cardinal Ratzinger spelled out one such paradox in Introduction to Christianity:
The primacy of acceptance is not intended to condemn man to passivity; it does not mean that man can now sit idle. On the contrary, it alone makes it possible to do the things of this world in a spirit of responsibility, yet at the same time in an uncrampt, cheerful, free way, and to put them at the service of redemptive love.
Let Holy Week begin . . .
(this is an edited version of a post originally made on March 31, 2007 on our old blog site gil-bailie.com)