The spiritual is higher than the physical, part 4

St. Thomas says the desire for wealth in a sense is infinite, because “it is the servant of disordered concupiscence, which is not curbed …”.

He is responding to the argument that man’s happiness consists in wealth. The argument starts with the premise that happiness consists in the sovereign good. The desire for the sovereign good is infinite. Since the desire for wealth is infinite, perhaps wealth is the sovereign good, and therefore that in which happiness consists.

St. Thomas replies:

‘[T]he desire for artificial wealth is infinite, for it is the servant of disordered concupiscence, which is not curbed, …. Yet this desire for wealth is infinite otherwise than the desire for the sovereign good. For the more perfectly the sovereign good is possessed, the more it is loved, and other things despised: because the more we possess it, the more we know it. Hence it is written (Sirach 24:29): “They that eat me shall yet hunger.” Whereas in the desire for wealth and for whatsoever temporal goods, the contrary is the case: for when we already possess them, we despise them, and seek others: which is the sense of Our Lord’s words (John 4:13): “Whosoever drinketh of this water,” by which temporal goods are signified, “shall thirst again.” The reason of this is that we realize more their insufficiency when we possess them: and this very fact shows that they are imperfect, and the sovereign good does not consist therein.’

S.T. I-II, Q. 2, A. 1.

The desire for wealth and the desire for the sovereign good are both infinite, in that we can never get enough of either — but for different reasons. We can’t get enough of temporal goods because they never satisfy. We want some physical thing, but when we get it the novelty quickly wears off and we want something else. “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again.” Whereas the reason we can’t get enough of the sovereign good is the more we have it, the more we love it, and the more we despise other things in its favor. It’s both satisfying and inexhaustible.

There’s no physical thing that’s both satisfying, causing us to despise all other things, and inexhaustible. Therefore the sovereign good is spiritual.

Thus, the spiritual is higher than the physical.

[See also this, this and this.]

The universe is alive

Lately I have taken to going out in my backyard and looking at the moon and the stars, after work and before bed. I live in an urban area so I don’t get the full effect of it, as some who are fortunate enough to live where you can actually see the Milky Way. But it’s inspiring nonetheless. I read once that getting out and seeing nature is good for your happiness, or your health, or maybe both, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day.

I noticed tonight, as I have before, that when you gaze at the moon and the stars, and the moving clouds, that the universe really feels alive. You’re not looking at dead rocks and empty space, you’re looking at movement and light, strength and persistence. I see the exact same moon that Aquinas and Aristotle saw, the same constellations. One of my neighbors has a stand of cypress trees, and tonight a half moon was visible just above and to the left of the cypresses. It was easy to imagine myself in ancient Greece, looking up at that very same moon in the midst of its cycle. What would it have felt like? I see the same things that they saw, but I doubt that I feel what they felt.

This set me to wondering, why do we feel so out of touch with the universe as living and moving in modern days? Then it occurred to me, it’s because it’s so noisy. I look up at the moon but I hear traffic. Street lights are as bright or brighter than the stars; cars are noisier than the breeze. I stopped up my ears with my fingers and then I felt it:  The moon was alive. The power of the universe speaks in a still, small voice. It’s always there, and it’s just as awesome as ever, even surrounded as it is with technological noise. I look at the sky and I think:  Modern technology can’t touch this. We can’t control the moon or the stars, or even the clouds. Technology is entirely dependent on nature.

My sister tells a joke that goes something like this:  God challenges three scientists to create life from scratch. One of them thinks he’ll go about it by gathering up some dirt, adding some moisture, putting it under a heat lamp and maybe charging it up with electricity. So he scoops up a shovel-full and God says: “Nah-uh, get your own dirt!”

Technology is nothing, nothing whatsoever without nature. It pretends to be above nature but it’s absolutely nature’s slave. Why should I serve the slave? Why be captivated and entranced by a cheap imitation?

I think this is why I’m fascinated with the “olden days”. I was reading recently of the American Civil War, and as interesting as those events are, what really fascinates me is to think that when those things were going on, there was no electricity. No electric light, no traffic noise, no amplified voices. Only horses-and-buggies and candlelight. In the evening you talked, told stories or played music, read a book or amused yourself with cards. When you looked up at the moon, now — what did you feel? Was it so much easier to feel the alive-ness of it, not being drowned out by artificial light and noise? Is it any wonder it was so much more religious an age?

[H]e who sends forth the light, and it goes,
    called it, and it obeyed him in fear;
the stars shone in their watches, and were glad;
    he called them, and they said, “Here we are!”
    They shone with gladness for him who made them.
This is our God;
    no other can be compared to him!

[Baruch 3.]

I have thought sometimes that we should have one night a week where we ban electricity. Let’s just turn off all the lights and devices and light candles. Amuse ourselves with whatever is left. Read books to each other, talk, play games, sing songs. Be in tune with … what? Nature. God. Our ancestors.

This feeling of being one with my ancestors, I never feel so strongly as at Mass in the traditional Latin. Thank God, until now, the Mass is still primitive. That is, it must be done in person. It must use actual bread and wine; there’s no technological substitute. You put on your robes, climb the stairs, kneel, stand, read. You must use candles and not LED lights. No recorded music. Now if only we could get rid of the microphones …

Shepherds who feed themselves

We have talked about what it means for a shepherd to “drink the milk of his flock.” Now, then, what does it mean when he “clothes himself in its wool”?

To give milk is to give sustenance; to give wool is to give honour. These are the two things that pastors demand when they want to feed themselves rather than their sheep: the fulfilment of their bodily wants and the pleasure that comes from honour and praise.

*  *  *

See what kind of clothing Paul received from the good people of God: You welcomed me as an angel of God. I swear that you would even have gone so far as to pluck out your eyes and give them to me. But with all the honour that was given to him, did he spare the feelings of those who had gone astray, so that he could avoid being contradicted or being praised less than before? He did not. If he had withheld correction from those who needed it, he would have been one of those pastors who feed themselves and not their sheep. He would have been saying to himself, “What has that to do with me? Let them do as they like: my food is safe, my honour is safe – I have as much milk and wool as I want, so let everyone wander wherever he likes.”

St. Augustine, On Pastors. 

More prayers you don’t hear anymore

Glory be to the Lord, for ever;
  let the Lord rejoice in his works.
He turns his gaze to the earth, and it trembles;
  he touches the mountains, and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord all my life;
  as long as I exist, I will sing songs to God.
May my praises be pleasing to him;
  truly I will delight in the Lord.
Let sinners perish from the earth,
  let the wicked vanish from existence.
Bless the Lord, my soul!
From the Office of Readings.

Prayers you don’t hear any more

As in the days when you came out of Egypt
grant us to see wonders.
The pagans, seeing it, will be confounded
for all their power;
they will lay their hands to their mouths,
their ears will be deafened by it.
They will lick the dust like serpents,
like things that crawl on the earth.
They will come trembling from their lairs,
in terror and fear before you.

Micah 7:15-17.

Can a modern Christian say “amen” to that?

The Church’s indestructible core

My parish church is a liberal church. Which is funny since it’s not a liberal area, at least not as liberal as most of the surrounding metropolis. We moved here about 15 years ago and tried Mass at the church a few times, but just couldn’t take the “guitar-and-bongo” flavor of the liturgy. Then we discovered the Latin Mass about 20 miles away, and now we only come here for confession.

The parish is planning a renovation of the church in which the orientation of worship is changed from latitudinal to longitudinal. It’s not one of those old, beautiful churches built in the early 20th century that you sometimes see in movies and older sections of big cities. It was rather cheaply designed and built when it was new in the early ’60s. But it does have the traditional, cross-shaped layout, with a long nave and the altar set way back from where the communion rails originally would have been.

Before we got here they had built this hideous-looking, semi-permanent partition between the original apse where the altar was and the nave, and set up a new altar closer to the pews. Now they’re going all the way and turning the church sideways. I’m sure they would rather destroy the whole thing and build a new, church-in-the-round type of thing, but evidently the money isn’t there for that, so they’re just going to stick the altar against what is now a side wall, and build-out the opposite side of the church to make room for pews to be turned towards the new altar. The end result will be pews to the left of me, pews to the right of me, pews all around. That way we can stare at Christ in our neighbor during Mass rather than Christ on the altar.

Which goes to show that conservative politics and conservative liturgy are two very different things. A lot of Trump fans want nothing whatever to do with the Latin Mass (though lots of Latin Mass lovers love Trump).

And yet, this parish has a Eucharistic adoration chapel, with adoration going on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They literally built a separate building for this purpose. It’s a small building, sort of squeezed between the rectory and the parking lot. It has about six rows of pews, all set up facing the same direction, towards the monstrance in which the Blessed Sacrament is displayed behind a plexiglass barrier. It too is a cheap little building. They didn’t go all-out with it, but presumably did the best they could with the funds they were able to raise. The architecture leans slightly towards the traditional end of the spectrum, with pseudo-Greek style moldings and stained glass [EDIT: It even faces east!], though probably designed by an architect who mainly does houses and retail stores.

The main idea of liberal liturgy, as far as I have been able to make out after years of pondering the subject, is to de-formalize worship, make it casual, accessible. Vestments were simplified and made soft and flowing rather than stiff, with simple, modernistic designs replacing the intricately embroidered classical motifs of the old fiddlebacks. Priests begin Mass with a big “Howdy!” and end with a shout-out to all who made it possible. They wander around the sanctuary and up and down the pews during their homilies (as if lecterns were somehow forbidden by the rubrics). The tabernacle gets a mere nod or a slight curtsey as people walk by, because Jesus is our buddy, not our boss.

How then do they build a traditionally-oriented adoration chapel and, more importantly, get people to man it 24 hours a day?

My guess is that there were a core of people who wanted it, and the pastor said, “If you can raise the money I won’t stop you.” Either that or they had a conservative pastor for a short interval. Still, they have kept the all-day adoration going until now.

I suppose this may be a metaphor for how the Church will survive. To my mind it’s been slowly committing suicide, mainly by losing confidence in itself; either that or deliberately declining to maintain and propagate itself as itself. It does this by declining to preach the Gospel as the Gospel. It no longer preaches hell, and therefore nothing to be saved from. It doesn’t preach sin, except maybe the sins of racism and harming the environment, and being mean to homosexuals and adulterers. And it no longer preaches marriage the primary purpose of which is childrearing. The few kids Catholics do have are catechized in accord with the above, so that they grow up wondering what the Church has to offer that they can’t get anywhere else, other than corny liturgy and wimpy platitudes.

And yet these people, adoring Christ in the Eucharist at 3:30 in the morning …

I have this idea that we adherents to the old Mass are the remnant who remain true to the Faith; and I don’t doubt that’s true. But it seems there are remnants even among the mainstream. The new Mass and accompanying doctrinal wishy-washiness aren’t destroying the Faith entirely, only making it harder to find and therefore harder to follow. But it is after all indestructible, whether we like it or not. The silliness and stupidity, the ugliness and wickedness, the indifference to the welfare of souls can’t kill it.

Someone said recently in a lecture, “The Church will come to life again.” Just that simple and in passing, as if it were a mere matter of fact. And I thought, “That’s right. It will, won’t it?” After all when did it not?

Intellectual and moral capital

Modernity, it now becomes evident, has been all along eroding its own foundations; its projects and comforts have depended on an inheritance to which it has itself been inimical. Walter Lippmann spoke of “the acids of modernity”; as it turns out, the stones attacked by this acid have been those on which the modern world was itself erected. Analysts from all relevant disciplines converge on one insight: Modernity has lived on a moral and intellectual capital that it has not renewed, and indeed could not have renewed without denying itself. They moreover agree that this intellectual and moral capital was that built up by the Christian church’s long establishment in the West, [even] if they themselves do not share the church’s faith or even admire it.

Robert W. Jenson, “How the World Lost Its Story,” First Things, March 2010.

A Pro-Life Case For Elizabeth Warren

Ha! Did you think I was about to endorse a Democrat? Nah. That’s the title of a post by Mark Gordon at Vox Nova, a Catholic writing on a Catholic blog.

For some reason Gordon chose to keep comments closed, so I had no choice but to respond here if I wanted to respond at all.

In a nutshell, Gordon argues that it’s not only OK, but a good thing to vote for a stridently pro-abortion politician, if she also supports policies which one believes would result in fewer actual abortions.

But suppose the same argument were used to justify voting for someone who favored the right to own slaves, on the ground that he also favored subsidies to farmers, which would decrease their dependence on slaves to make a profit, and therefore reduce the actual number of enslaved persons?

I wonder how many modern liberal/leftists would have advocated a slow, gradual reduction of slavery by way of government incentives, rather than an absolute, principled opposition which left no choice but to end it immediately by fighting a war?

I have noticed that when a political position is heretical to the left, the very fact of someone advocating that position is said to disqualify him from public life, let alone public office, regardless of how good he is at his job. Yet when it comes to abortion, we’re told we should be practical and not get so bound up in our principles.

For the holy laws of our fathers

Let us stand fast in what is right and prepare our souls for trial. Let us wait upon God’s strengthening aid and say to him: O Lord, you have been our refuge in all generations.
Let us trust in him who has placed this burden upon us. What we ourselves cannot bear let us bear with the help of Christ. For he is all-powerful and he tells us: My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Let us continue the fight on the day of the Lord. The days of anguish and of tribulation have overtaken us; if God so wills, let us die for the holy laws of our fathers, so that we may deserve to obtain an eternal inheritance with them.
St. Boniface, Martyr.

Are we morally obliged to eliminate poverty?

I was reading an Anthony Trollope short story recently. It’s set around Christmas time, and part of it relates how the pastor of a parish tries to make sure the needs of the poor are met and, if possible, that each of them is provided somewhat more than the necessities, so that they can feast a little on Christmas Day.

The pastor does this by taking up subscriptions for the purpose from the local gentry and farmers. At one point it is said that the pastor is not a rich man, so when the farmers don’t cough up quite enough, he doesn’t have the means to take the burden entirely on himself. As a result, one of the poor families must resign itself to having just enough to eat on Christmas, but not enough extra to constitute a feast.

Meanwhile the pastor lives in a nice, comfortable house, with servants.

The pastor’s complaint is not that some people are rich, while others are poor. His complaint is just that those who are better off, aren’t offering enough to let the poor have something extra for Christmas.

Which got me thinking:  Why didn’t the pastor feel guilty that he lived in this nice, probably relatively large house, with servants and a yearly stipend that enabled him to live in relative luxury, while others, including widows and orphans, were just getting by?

It appeared from this story, that the obligation felt by the pastor and the farmers and gentry, was not to make poor people no longer poor, but merely to make sure they didn’t go hungry — as well as making sure they had enough to celebrate with during Christmas, presumably so that they themselves could celebrate in good conscience.

And it seemed to me that this was correct:  In all the exhortations to almsgiving in the scriptures and the writings of the saints, I don’t recall anyone abhorring inequalities in wealth per se. What is abhorred is rich people living in splendor while others go hungry or die of cold or what have you. You don’t have to make the poor not poor, you just can’t let them starve.

I drafted the first part of this post long ago, but was brought back to it by this post on the Vox Nova blog. The same author had previously written a post titled something like, “Is it a mortal sin to be wealthy?”

We will always feel a tension between what we are doing and what we could do. No matter how poor we are, we can always do more for others than we’re doing. We can always be kinder, more patient, more generous. Does this mean we must all become paupers as long as paupers exist? If anyone is poor, is it therefore a sin to be well off?

I decided to check St. Thomas Aquinas, who seems to have analyzed everything about good and evil and religious obligations. What St. Thomas has to say on the matter is basically the following:

1.  It’s more important to give “spiritual alms” than corporal alms. Since it’s more important to take care of the spirit than the body, therefore the spiritual works of mercy are of more importance than the corporal works of mercy. It’s more important to turn someone from his sin than to relieve his hunger.

Now obviously, if someone’s hunger is extreme — i.e. he is sick or dying from lack of food — you need to succor his health before anything else. But once he has enough to eat and is not in imminent danger or extreme pain, the top priority should be to make sure he is instructed if he is ignorant; counseled if he is doubtful; reproofed if he is living in sin, etc. In other words, it’s more important to improve his spiritual condition than his economic condition.

2.  Corporal alms nevertheless have a good spiritual effect, on both giver and receiver:  On the giver when they are given out of love, and on the receiver when he is moved to pray for his benefactor.

3.  Almsgiving is a matter of precept — but only to a certain extent. (By a “matter of precept” is meant something that we are specifically instructed and required to do.)

St. Thomas says that almsgiving is a matter of precept insofar as one has surplus from which to give, after taking care of his own needs and the needs of those for whom he is responsible (and “needs,” says St. Thomas, includes maintaining one’s station in life); when someone’s need is extreme, in other words he is in danger of illness, injury or death if he doesn’t receive help; and when without our aid he will not receive the help he needs. In those circumstances we are obliged to help as a matter of precept, since to let a person die when we could have saved him would be like killing him ourselves.

Otherwise, almsgiving is “a matter of counsel” — we may or may not give alms depending on our inclination or the circumstances.

(See S.T. II-II, Q. 32.)

It’s easy to become scrupulous when there isn’t a clear “yes or no” commandment on a given issue. The Gospel doesn’t require us to give a fixed percentage of our income, such that if we give less then we feel guilty, but if we exceed it our conscience is clear. We can always give more; and if we don’t, why not? Don’t we love our fellow man? Wouldn’t we rather be among the sheep than the goats?

The solution to the conundrum, I think, is to remember that Jesus came to free us, not to enslave us. If we can’t escape guilt no matter how much we give, then we must be looking at it the wrong way. I think St. Thomas puts us on the right track. Giving is an obligation to the extent that we have the means and someone else has the need, and beyond that it’s an option. And by “need” he means need, not mere relative poverty. If you look at the parable of the sheep and the goats, the scenarios Jesus names are extreme:  I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was in prison; not, my clothes weren’t as nice as yours and my food was very basic while yours was fancy, therefore off you go to the everlasting flames.

I feel sure that God doesn’t want us to be scrupulous or to feel constantly guilty. That’s not what the Gospel is about. The more we give the better, if charity so moves us; but guilt and fear of punishment are not charity.