Democracy without transcendent truth

Recently I had a discussion with a fellow Catholic regarding the founding of the United States. Her feeling was that the Founding Fathers introduced political ideas that were new and had never been thought of or implemented before, for example that all men are created equal and that our rights come from our Creator, and these ideas make or system the best that ever was. I questioned whether these were really new ideas. I’m suspicious of the idea of rights being given by God, yet remaining undiscovered by Christ’s Church for over 1,700 years, and then finally figured out by Protestants.

Depending on what you mean by “equal”, I think it can be argued that all men being created equal is an old idea. Obviously we’re not all equal in terms of height, weight, strength and various talents. We’re not equal in terms of our individual traits. What we’re equal in is our nature: we’re all human beings. As such, we’re equally obliged to obey God’s commandments. We’re obliged not to steal from each other, lie to each other, kill each other, be unfaithful to each other, etc. The flip side of these obligations is that we have a right not to be stolen from, lied to, killed, etc., on the basis of our human nature. Thus, we have always had rights that were given by God.

Of course, she was referring to political rights. And it may be true that political equality was a new idea at the time of the Founding. But are there sufficient grounds for saying that political equality is a God-given right?

In any event, I argued that the Founders made a critical error in asserting that the authority to govern comes from the people and not from God. If authority comes from the people, and I’m one of the people, then there is no authority above me, and I can think and do as I please. Obviously the laws (in theory) are imposed by the majority, and in that sense I am restricted by the majority view. But the point is that I have the right to try to persuade others to my view rather than the existing majority view, in the hope of creating a new majority view – and nothing and no one has the legal right or power to stop me. This right is vested not only in individuals but also in rich, powerful organizations such as corporations, foundations and universities, entities which have no obligation to base their views on divinely revealed truth, and are often active in opposing it.

Making the Constitution religiously neutral may have seemed like a good idea at the time, when the Founders could count on the country being predominantly Christian; or at least, possessing the Christian underpinnings of public morality. Maybe they thought the checks and balances built into the Constitution, and the rights guaranteed thereby, were sufficient: No one is powerless, but neither is anyone so powerful as to be a tyrant. But is that enough? Giving people the power to act as they see fit is good as far as it goes, and preventing domination by any one person or group as well. But none of this says anything about what people should or shouldn’t do with their rights or their power. The answers to those questions, at the time of the founding, were provided by centuries of Christianity being embedded in the culture. But how about now, when that is becoming less and less the case? I think this is a situation they utterly failed to foresee.

My interlocutor doesn’t see this as a problem. Apparently in her view, it’s best that the government have no say in what people should believe about the purpose of our lives and the best way to live them. I think she would say that if we want a Christian society in a democracy, then we need to work for the evangelization of individuals until we have a majority of converted Christians in society. A democracy will be good when the people in it are good, and it will be friendly to Christianity when most of the people are Christians. But I don’t believe that a converted Christian majority can happen. I don’t mean that God couldn’t convert a majority of any given country if he chose to, but that the scriptures clearly teach that the majority of the world will always be “of the world”, in other words opposed or indifferent to the Gospel.

Historically, the influence of Christian ideas on a society was not a bottom-up process wherein the society was changed because a majority of individuals had experienced a personal metanoia. The majority in these societies, at the time of their conversion to Christian countries, were illiterate. The Christian influence was imposed from above, starting with the conversion of Constantine, but in a process that was repeated over and over, when the ruler of a place was converted to the Christian religion, and as a result Christian ideas were taught to the literate, mainly the wealthy and the clergy, and then passed on to the masses via churches and schools.

The idea of the United States being converted by a bottom-up process involving mass conversions, does not seem realistic to me. I’m not saying I have a better idea for remedying our situation; I don’t. I just think the Founding Fathers blew it. They set up a very good system for their time but one which, in our time, has become hostile to Christian faith and morality, and in all likelihood will only become more so. The fear is not only that public morality suffers in our time, but I believe the Christian understanding of God, creation and human nature is what led to the establishment and success of stable democracies. The undermining and loss of that understanding, I fear will ultimately undermine the feasibility and success of democracy itself.

Maybe not. This situation is unprecedented. It’s never happened before that a society was Christianized, then became post-Christian. We don’t really know what comes next. Maybe the Christian principles that undergird our democracy will remain, even if no longer recognized as Christian. But I think Pope St. John Paul II might say otherwise. He seems to teach that there need to be overt governing moral principles that transcend mere human opinions, in order for a democracy to survive and thrive:

96. The Church’s firmness in defending the universal and unchanging moral norms is not demeaning at all. Its only purpose is to serve man’s true freedom. Because there can be no freedom apart from or in opposition to the truth, the categorical–unyielding and uncompromising–defense of the absolutely essential demands of man’s personal dignity must be considered the way and the condition for the very existence of freedom.

This service is directed to every man, considered in the uniqueness and singularity of his being and existence: only by obedience to universal moral norms does man find full confirmation of his personal uniqueness and the possibility of authentic moral growth. For this very reason, this service is also directed to all mankind: it is not only for individuals but also for the community, for society as such. These norms in fact represent the unshakable foundation and solid guarantee of a just and peaceful human coexistence, and hence of genuine democracy, which can come into being and develop only on the basis of the equality of all its members, who possess common rights and duties. When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the “poorest of the poor” on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal [God-given equality].

97. In this way, moral norms, and primarily the negative ones, those prohibiting evil, manifest their meaning and force, both personal and social. By protecting the inviolable personal dignity of every human being they help to preserve the human social fabric and its proper and fruitful development. The commandments of the second table of the Decalogue in particular–those which Jesus quoted to the young man of the Gospel (cf. Mt 19:19)–constitute the indispensable rules of all social life.

… Even though intentions may sometimes be good, and circumstances frequently difficult, civil authorities and particular individuals never have authority to violate the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. In the end, only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence, both on the national and international levels.

* * *

99. Only God, the Supreme Good, constitutes the unshakable foundation and essential condition of morality, and thus of the commandments, particularly those negative commandments which always and in every case prohibit behavior and actions incompatible with the personal dignity of every man. The Supreme Good and the moral good meet in truth: the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by him. Only upon this truth is it possible to construct a renewed society and to solve the complex and weighty problems affecting it, above all the problem of overcoming the various forms of totalitarianism, so as to make way for the authentic freedom of the person. Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others… Thus, the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate, no individual, group, class, nation or State. Not even the majority of a social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority, by isolating, oppressing, or exploiting it, or by attempting to annihilate it”.

Consequently, the inseparable connection between truth and freedom–which expresses the essential bond between God’s wisdom and will–is extremely significant for the life of persons in the socio-economic and socio-political sphere. This is clearly seen in the Church’s social teaching–which “belongs to the field… of theology and particularly of moral theology”–and from her presentation of commandments governing social, economic and political life, not only with regard to general attitudes but also to precise and specific kinds of behavior and concrete acts.

* * *

101. In the political sphere, it must be noted that truthfulness in the relations between those governing and those governed, openness in public administration, impartiality in the service of the body politic, respect for the rights of political adversaries, safeguarding the rights of the accused against summary trials and convictions, the just and honest use of public funds, the rejection of equivocal or illicit means in order to gain, preserve or increase power at any cost–all these are principles which are primarily rooted in, and in fact derive their singular urgency from, the transcendent value of the person and the objective moral demands of the functioning of States.

When these principles are not observed, the very basis of political coexistence is weakened and the life of society itself is gradually jeopardized, threatened and doomed to decay (cf. Ps 14:3-4; Rev 18:2-3, 9-24). Today, when many countries have seen the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world–Marxism being the foremost of these–there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics. This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible. Indeed, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism“.

Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (1993).


Truth, morality and martyrdom

Two things that I’m reading right now happen to overlap:

“Teach it to the simple, the learned know it well,
“TRUTH IS TREASURE, the best tried on earth.”

“Nay, but I know not,” quoth I, “ye must teach me better.
“How doth truth grow in me? Is it beyond my ken?”

“Thou doted daff, dull is thy wit,
“Little Latin hast though learnt in the days of thy youth.”

Woe for my barren youth days spent in vain.

“Thou knowest well enough. To love the Lord
“And rather than do deadly sin to die.”

Better die than live ill.

The Vision of Piers Plowman, “The Vision of Holy Church” (ca. 1370-1390).

The Church proposes the example of numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honor of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life.

* * *

Martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever “human meaning” one might claim to attribute, even in “exceptional” conditions, to an act morally evil in itself. Indeed, it even more clearly unmasks the true face of such an act: it is a violation of man’s “humanity,” in the one perpetrating it even before the one enduring it. Hence martyrdom is also the exaltation of a person’s perfect “humanity” and of true “life”, as is attested by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, addressing the Christians of Rome, the place of his own martyrdom: “Have mercy on me, brethren: do not hold me back from living; do not wish that I die… Let me arrive at the pure light; once there I will be truly a man. Let me imitate the passion of my God.”

Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 91, 92 (1993).


Spiritual Transport

A few years later, in January, my sister Aloise died, aged forty-nine, eldest of ten children, mother of ten. The family — her children and her siblings — were catapulted into a dumb grief. We took refuge in our conviction that our separation from her was impermanent. It was for us acutely the time not merely to recall the promises of Christ but to invoke their magical capacity to mitigate grief. We wanted to relive, in the funeral ceremony, the liturgical experience we had all grown up with — indeed, what had been the universal practice up until a few years before — the Mass in Latin. This request the priest we dealt with gladly granted.

And so on January 17, 1967, the weather in the little town in northwestern Connecticut, at subzero, in the homely brick church we had all known since childhood, the priest recited the Mass of the Dead and the organist accompanied the soloist, we sang the Gregorian dirge in words the mourners did not clearly discern, words which, had we discerned them, we could not exactly have translated; and yet we experienced — not only her family but her friends; not alone the Catholics among us but also the Protestants and the Jews — something akin to that spiritual transport which, in the late sixties, many restless folk were finding it necessary to search out in drugs or from a guru in Mysterious India.

William F. Buckley, Jr., Nearer My God: An Autobiography of Faith (New York:Doubleday, 1997).

I indulge my short attention span

Last night before bed I washed the little case that I keep my earplugs in and set it down next to the sink. When I woke up this morning, it was still too dark to see in the bathroom with the light off. I took my earplugs out, walked into the bathroom, and put my hand exactly where the case was, no feeling around for it, but reaching out and grasping it just as if it were broad daylight. I was surprised I even remembered exactly where I put it, let alone that I could put my hand directly on it without even seeing it. Our bodies are incredible.

I’ve been reading the book “Emotional Intelligence”. It talks about how the immune system learns and adapts just as the brain does. I would have thought that the immune system was controlled by the brain, but apparently they’re two different systems, so much so that the discovery that they are actually connected in some ways was newsworthy.

For the past year and a half or so, I have been blogging less. I don’t know why. I’m not having ideas, and when I have them I have trouble writing them down. That’s also about the time I changed jobs. Since then I seem to have a shorter attention span. Hence this rambling from one topic to another. It seems to be the only way I can write more than a paragraph at a time.

This morning while praying the rosary I experienced a sort of timelessness. I don’t mean anything mystical, just that the usual time pressure that I feel was absent. Usually from the time I wake up until I go to bed, I’m feeling the pressure of too many things to do and not enough time (as everyone does, I assume). Even when I’m relaxing, or trying to relax — which, believe me, I do enough of — I’m still feeling time pressure. But this morning, possibly because I woke up so early, I had the sense of there being plenty of time. With my windows open to let in the cool morning air, I could hear the mourning doves cooing back and forth outside, in stereo, one on the left and one on the right. I could hear my son stirring in his bedroom next to mine, then settling back down. My wife outside turning the water on and off to water her “pets”, which is what she calls her plants. I have things to do today, but if I don’t get started for an hour or two it will be fine. So these next two hours, and especially the next 20 minutes or so while praying the rosary, are pressure-free. I can meditate and pray and praise God for the cool breeze through the window, my healthy wife and her healthy plants, the birds cooing and chirping, my son enjoying a late sleep on a Saturday morning.

This is one thing that I think will be precious to me in heaven — no time pressure. Plenty of time to meditate and praise God without the feeling that I’m neglecting other things. The one thing necessary.

Some Mormons have told me that they believe heaven will not be a static state, not a place of rest and timelessness but of continued activity, continuing marriage and being given in marriage, continued child-bearing and raising of a sort, continued striving for this goal or that, and even worrying and suffering. If it’s all these things, I can’t help thinking that there must be time-pressure as well, or at least the potential for it; more things to do than there is time in the day. If not, why not?

In the traditional concept of heaven, our peace and happiness have a source: our spiritual union with God. God being eternal and infinite, we can enjoy timelessness to our heart’s content. We don’t have to be anywhere or do anything, since there’s nothing that will wither and die without our attention, like our plants or our pets, our children or our car. If my meditations are fruitful — and they will be — I can feel free to continue in them for the next 20 minutes, or hours, or years, without anything else suffering from my lack of attention.

This evening we’re having my Mom and her boyfriend over for a late Mother’s Day brunch. It’s neither Mother’s Day nor brunch since it will be at dinner time. We don’t take my Mom out for brunch on Mother’s Day, since the restaurants are crazy crowded. Instead we invite her over and cook for her, which she likes since she prefers home-cooked food anyway. We postponed it this year since we were out of town on the actual Mother’s Day, attending my son’s graduation from college. If I don’t stop this scribbling pretty soon, I won’t have time to change the spark plugs on my car, balance the checkbook, and go to the store to buy some good Irish whiskey to serve before or after dinner. Things will suffer. There are limits. In heaven at last we’re spared from limits, at least as regards time and things suffering and decaying.

Do animals go to Heaven?

Fr. Sharkey had been approached some weeks earlier, he told us, by a devout elderly woman who asked him whether dogs would be admitted into Heaven. No, he had replied, there was no scriptural authority for animals getting into Heaven. “In that case,” the lady had said to him, “I can never be happy in Heaven. I can only be happy if Brownie is also there.”

“I told her” — Fr. Sharkey spoke with mesmerizing authority — “that if that were the case — that she could not be happy without Brownie — why then Brownie would in fact go to Heaven. Because what is absolutely certain is that, in Heaven, you will be happy.” That answer, I am sure, sophisticated readers [will find] jesuitical. Yes. But I have never found the fault in the syllogism.

William F. Buckley, Jr., Nearer My God: An Autobiography of Faith (1998).

Some believe strongly that animals will be in heaven. I don’t know that the Church has ruled on the question. My feeling, based on St. Thomas Aquinas, is that animals don’t go to heaven because they don’t have spirits. In a nutshell, every living thing has a soul, in the sense of the vivifying principle of a body. But a spirit is a soul with an intellect. God is a spirit, as are angels. The human soul is a spirit, but animal souls are merely souls. Since spiritual union with God is the essential component of heaven, and animals can’t enjoy spiritual union with God, they can’t experience heaven in its essentials.

As far as I can see, this doesn’t definitively dispose of the question. The Bible speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, and we will have resurrected bodies; all of which seems to imply that we will live a physical existence in heaven, and not merely a spiritual one. Can’t animals then be physically present in the “new earth”?

My problem is not with the idea of animals being there per se, but that the same animals we have known and loved will be there, i.e. our pets. In other words, that they are to be resurrected like us. This seems absurd when taken to its logical conclusion. When we say animals will be resurrected, do we mean all animals? Not just all kinds of animals, but every animal that has ever lived? Not only every cat and dog, but every cow, chicken, snake and rat that has ever lived? How about insects — every beetle, fly, ant and cockroach? All animals that have ever lived through eons of time, living on the same planet at the same time?

If not all these, then where are we drawing the line, and on what basis? Are we allowing only mammals?

Aquinas’s position provides a reasonable place to draw a non-arbitrary line between creatures that can go to heaven and those that can’t: Those that are capable of spiritual union with God can; those that aren’t, can’t. Any other line that you could draw, between these animals and those, seems arbitrary.

Maybe we only mean animals that were important to people in some way, i.e. pets. That takes away some of the absurdity of including all animals that have ever lived. But in that case aren’t we saying something like, our love for our animals gives them eternal life? If an animal pleases his master he may go to heaven but if not, he is doomed to annihilation? If so, that seems like an unjustified doctrinal assertion absent any revelation on the matter.

I’m willing to stay openminded on the issue, but I’m not convinced that it’s something we should believe in or tell others to believe. What do you think?

On making the worst of the past

Now, do not do me the injustice of thinking that I am by nature or inclination a laudator temporis acti [one who praises past times]. I am not the man to be looking for the golden age in the days gone by. God forbid ! But I count it the worst form of scornful ingratitude to indulge in boastings over our advance by making the worst of the past, and speaking of the generations behind us as if they were conspicuous only for their ignorance, their grossness, their vices, and their brutality.

” For we throw out acclamations of self-thanking, self-admiring,
With— at every mile run faster— ‘Oh, the wondrous, wondrous age ! ‘
Little heeding if we work our souls as nobly as our iron,
Or if angels will commend us at the goal of pilgrimage ! “

Augustus Jessop, England’s Peasantry and Other Essays (1914).


You’ve been planning this for weeks. Not exactly planning, they all follow the same pattern by now, you’ve given so many. It’s just pulling it all together once again. You expect maybe 25 or 30 people; sometimes you worry it will only be 15 or 20, and then what about all this food? There’s always a disagreement with your wife over how much food. “I want it to be a real feast!” she says, planning on enough for 50.

You hire a taco guy, who alone makes enough food for 50; that’s his minimum. But your wife makes 4 or 5 dishes on top of that. Soup, a vegetable dish, a fruit salad, some shrimp. Your sister is bringing chicken. The night before the party, your wife suggests buying tri-tip and ribs from the local market; they barbecue in the parking lot every Saturday and it’s really good. Another fifty bucks.

That’s all fine if we really have 30 or 35 people, but what if there are only 15 or 20? Even 10 to 15? We’ll be sitting around, wallowing in food. It’ll be ridiculous.

You’re not much for RSVPs. First of all, most people don’t do them. People change their minds at the last minute: We can’t make it, so sorry. I’m coming after all, if there’s not enough food we just won’t eat, haha. Don’t be silly, we’re delighted you’re coming!

You always get anxious in the days leading up to it. Not so much all the work, you don’t mind the work. You’ve got it down to a science. Just the time pressure, and the worry, will people have fun, or will it be a flop? Lord, don’t let something happen like a political argument that gets out of hand, or someone getting seriously hurt or something, making the party memorable for the wrong reasons. But it never happens. It’s always great, so stop worrying.

The night before, you polish all the brassware in the house. You’re a big fan of the Master and Commander series of naval historical novels, where the sailors want to polish every bit of brass on the ship and keep the paintwork neat and trim. The captain once painted a brass cannon brown, to save people fussing over it. But the sailors manage to find a small chip in the paint and they rub at it, and the paint gradually wears off bit by bit, and they start polishing the underlying brass. A few weeks later the paint’s all gone and the gun is shining in all its golden brass glory. The sailors can’t help themselves, it’s for the honor of the ship to beautify it. That’s how you feel about the house. You don’t know if people notice the little brass things you polish — a small, solid brass clock, a bell, an old copper teapot with brass handles — but you figure, these little shining objects here and there throughout the living room, dining room, entry hall, they add to the overall effect, the warm glow of the place, like candle flames in an old church.

You like candles, too. Not too many, but a couple of brass sconces in the dining room, a couple above the fireplace; some on the dining table, on the piano, and one little candle on each table out on the patio. Warm glow, that’s what it’s all about, along with all the antiques and the golden oak floors.

You’re not rich. You don’t have a lot of really old and valuable pieces. But ever since you got married, you and your wife have agreed on one thing at least, that you’d rather have old stuff in your house than modern stuff. Old things have character, and they don’t have to be expensive. You have a rule that you both have to like them or you don’t buy them. You had no overarching plan, you just went shopping when you felt like it, and bought what you liked, assuming you could afford it and had a place for it. They’re all over the place chronologically and stylistically, but somehow they go together and people think you planned it all. Even if you had meant to plan it, there’s no way you could have come up with this. There are just too many things. You have four buffets in your house: One belonged to your late sister, one to your best friend’s late mother, one to your late grandmother. Only one of them was bought by yourself. You would never have planned a decorative scheme with four buffets. But they work. Four different ages and styles, the only thing in common being that they’re old and you both like them.

You hang lights on the patio, a string of “Edison lights”, old-fashioned-shaped lights with a glowing filament inside; globe lights; colored lantern lights. For good measure you put a string of lights on the apple tree in the yard. Golden glow.

Your wife is cooking up a storm, rushing about, reading directions, stirring, chopping, blending. She’s crazy, you think. She doesn’t have to do all that work. She’s gotta be as tired as you are. But it’s gotta be a feast, she says, and she does it cheerfully.

You’re getting tired, and there’s a ton of stuff to do tomorrow, so you start getting ready for bed, but she keeps working. You’re in bed by 11:00 but she’s up past midnight. You’ll sleep till 6:30 but she’s up by 5:30, back at work. Crazy. How does she do it? You’re getting crabby with the anxiety and all the things to be done and time running out, but she’s unfazed.

You go to the store to buy flowers, then to the other store to order the barbecued meat she decided she wanted. You gave in on the meat because she always ends up being right. People enjoy it, most of it gets eaten and you’re glad you didn’t skimp.

You want people at the party to have whatever they could want, nothing running out, everything to hand and plenty of it. Soda, regular and diet, caffeinated and non-caffeinated; beer; bottled water; white and red wine; your best whiskey. People give you whiskey as gifts because they know you like it, because you always serve good whiskey. Therefore, you always have good whiskey on hand to serve, and because you always serve good whiskey, people give you good whiskey because they know you like it. Works out well and costs you nothing.

You set up a table where people can smoke if they want. A couple of people smoke cigarettes, two or three smoke cigars. You’ve taken up cigar smoking recently. You don’t always like them, sometimes they’re too strong or bitter in the mouth. But there’s something about the smell that makes you want to acquire the taste. When the party’s coming up, you imagine the taste of whiskey and the smell of cigars, and you can’t wait. It’s the only time you smoke, once every couple of months or so, when you’re giving a party or attending one at someone else’s house in your small circle of friends.

After buying the flowers and ordering the meat, it’s 10:00 a.m. and people are going to start arriving in a few hours, so you’ve got to jump on your to-do list. You have to move all the stuff out from the side patio and sweep out the accumulated leaves and dirt, then put everything back so it looks neat and tidy. Not that people go over to the side patio, but if they did they’d see it’s clean. Honor of the ship.

Then you move stuff around and sweep the main patio. It’s a big patio with a big pergola over it. It was here when you bought the place, and it’s perfect for parties. You set up one table in the middle on top of an outdoor rug, with a loveseat and four chairs around it. Another long table on another rug. You have a bunch of old wooden chairs that you use rather than plastic folding chairs. You keep the chairs in the shed that you built, that looks sort of like a little craftsman house. You have your sons pull them out of the shed and dust them off. You set up a third, smaller wooden table with chairs, and yet a fourth, yet smaller table, just in case. You want plenty of seating so there’s no shortage of chairs and people can move around and sit wherever they may want. You put table cloths on all the tables, a small vase of fresh flowers, a little candle. Beauty and golden warmth.

You set up your stereo on the patio. You like to have music going constantly during a party. You hate going to a party at someone’s house and it’s silent. Music affects people differently. You and your best friend find that it makes or breaks the party spirit; but others are indifferent to it, your mom, your wife, don’t even notice if music is playing, and it doesn’t affect them either way. But your theory is that people are affected by the music, just as by the polished brass, the candles, the flowers, even if they don’t know it. It all adds up to a good feeling, of warmth, neatness, beauty, the goodness of God’s creation.

Your stereo, like everything else in the house, is old. You bought it cheap on ebay and repaired it. It’s a high-powered Sansui receiver from the early 70s. You’ve also built a pair of speakers from plans on the Internet, and they sound awesome, even if you didn’t do such a great job on the woodwork; that’s a skill you’re still developing. You set up the stereo and it has a green-and-gold glowing radio dial.

You’ve spent hours creating a playlist of the music to be played. You do this for every party. You try to imagine who will be there, and what kind of music will appeal to them. But it’s gotta be old music, nothing newer than the early 70s or so, and mostly 30s and 40s, with a song from the 20s on occasion. Old music, like old furniture, has got character and charm that’s lacking in most new music. But even if you could find new music with that charm (which you probably could), you still like the old because it creates a timeless atmosphere. You want people to walk into your house and feel like they’ve stepped out of their workaday world, and entered a warm, comfortable place of indeterminate time; to see things and hear music that they don’t see and hear every day. Like a one-day vacation.

You put the beer and soda on ice in the coolers. You put water and coffee in the coffee pot so that later on, you only have to plug it in to start it brewing.

You get all your work done, jump in a hot shower to soothe your weary muscles, shave so you don’t look haggard later on from fatigue and from alcohol. Dress up slightly but not too much; there’s no need to dress up, it’s just a casual party. But some of your guests might dress up and you don’t want them to feel overdressed.

People start to arrive and you offer them a drink. You pop a beer and the blessed alcohol warms you and starts to calm you down. You turn on the music and ask your son to light the candles. Because it’s unseasonably overcast, you even light the fireplace.

It’s a little awkward at first, as it always is. The first few guests arrive and you don’t know them. They’re friends of your wife’s and she’s busy cooking. You don’t quite know what to talk about, and there are still a few loose ends that you want to get done before most of the people arrive. They don’t want anything to eat or drink. But it always gets better as the party develops. Each party has a different feel to it and they’re all good in their way.

They keep arriving, and you start to relax and eat some appetizers, greet people, thanks for coming, thanks for having us. Your house is beautiful! Well, thanks! You know it is, but it’s nice to hear. You know it is because people keep telling you so. You’re not so sure that it’s tasteful, the mixture of styles and periods you think might be too much of a mish-mash. You’ve read that eclecticism can work, but it’s not easy to pull off, you have to know what you’re doing. But people rave about it. “It’s soooooo nice, I’m overwhelmed! So many nice things to look at. I would LOVE to have a house like this but I wouldn’t know where to start.” “You don’t think it’s kind of a mish-mash?” “Not at all! It looks just like you planned it this way. It looks like you took a lot of loving care putting it all together.” “Wow. So nice to hear, thanks! We like it but we figured it’s just our taste.”

No one mentions the brass items that you spent so much time polishing. But they see it. It’s all part of what makes it nice. You can’t put your finger on what makes it nice. Nothing individually is spectacularly beautiful, it’s just the overall effect. Not to mention that your wife cleans the daylights out of it, so that on the day of the party it’s immaculate. Cleanliness brings out the godliness.

Your wife signals that the food is all ready, go ahead and round the people up to say grace. “Lord, thank you for giving us this chance to get together, we thank you that everyone arrived safely, we pray for our guest of honor, our beloved son, on the occasion of his graduation from college. Grant him your grace and guidance to decide on his next step. Bless our loved ones who couldn’t be here and have mercy on the souls of the faithful departed. Bless us, O Lord, and these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive from they bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Throughout the party people keep saying “What a great party, you guys really overdid it, look at all this food!” You go around filling people’s wineglasses, offering them a beer. They appreciate it when you wait on them. They’re at their ease. Something to eat? Something to drink? Boom, it’s there. Something savory, something sweet, hot, cold, you got it, and plenty of it. “Oh, you don’t have to open another bottle.” “Don’t be silly, there’s plenty.”

You plug in the coffee pot because as people eat and drink they might start to get sleepy, plus some of them have a long drive home. The smell from the percolator fills the air in the kitchen. You break out the china cups and saucers for the coffee and wait on people some more. The coffee is good and hot and perks you up, helps to refresh your palate after all the rich food and drink.

You sit and talk and munch and drink and smoke. The wine lifts your spirits and loosens your tongue. People laugh out loud. Kids are running around or playing with the pool-slash-air-hockey table you set up on the patio. There’s a portable firepit in the middle of the yard. “You guys give the best parties!” It was expensive and a lot of hard work, but it’s always worth it. You worried a lot of people wouldn’t show up, but you got over 30. You worried there was way too much food, but all of the dishes you made got more than half eaten. You’ve got plenty to give away. You have lots of ziplock bags from Costco and you fill them up and put them in plastic grocery bags and send people off heavy-laden. A lot of people brought wine and there was too much for you to drink it all, so you got free wine out of the deal.

“I just love coming to your parties, it’s so warm and inviting here and the food is wonderful, and the people are so nice and so interesting! I loved meeting your family, your friends! Such a warm, friendly atmosphere! Make sure you keep me on your list. When’s the next party? There must be something we can celebrate! God is good, we love you! So glad we’re family!” That’s what you want to hear. Makes it all worth it.

God is good, warm and gracious. Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we have received from thy bounteous goodness. Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overfloweth. One day in your house is better than a thousand elsewhere.


After writing the above I had an argument with myself:

That all sounds nice, but isn’t it rather hedonistic? Well sure, if we lived like that every day, but this was a special occasion.

Fair enough, but should you rely on all those sensual pleasures to have a good time, pleasures of the eyes, ears and palate? The only essential thing is the people, isn’t it?

You sound like someone who doesn’t put a lot of work into his parties. : )

But seriously, you sound like a Protestant. No offense intended, but I’m thinking of some of the old-line Protestant churches I saw in New England. They were nice-looking churches, but the insides were plain, white-painted wood, with maybe a simple wooden cross behind the altar (that is, where the altar would be if it were a “real” church).

Whereas traditionally, Catholic churches were filled with things calculated to give glory to God, and to be conducive to worshiping him: Carved wood and stone, arches, vaults, statues, candles, censers, altars, crucifixes, kneelers, railings, lanterns, tabernacles, organs, stained glass. Can you worship without all those things, as in those old Protestant churches, or in today’s more spartan, commercial-looking Catholic churches? Surely. Is it the same? Surely not.

We and the beautiful things of this world are all part of the same creation. We’re made for each other. Ours is an incarnational, sacramental religion. God manifests himself in his creation. To place and arrange beautiful things in such a way that people may enjoy them is, in a sense, to make God present to them. He gives us this capacity that we may do as he does. To use creation as he intends, for good purposes and in good order, pleases him and makes us happy, and shows forth his glory and his love for us.