Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Downside of Paganism

“You can’t believe the extra work I had when I was a god.”
— Shōwa tennō (Hirohito)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Where's the Outrage?

Three Sundays ago, Dr. George Tiller was shot dead by an anti-abortion fanatic while attending Holy Service in Wichita Kansas. I found out about it when I saw this posting on Facebook: “Eric Scheidler is utterly dismayed at the Tiller shooting. Reprehensible. A dark day.” Later that day, I got an e-mail of the press release from the Pro-Life Action League stating that “any act of violence in the name of protecting the lives of unborn children is a betrayal of the pro-life movement, which proclaims the sanctity of all human life." The next day, my buddy John Jansen despaired of the killing on his blog. Almost immediately, American Life League’s Executive Director, Shaun Kenney denounced the killing, and later that week, his associate Judy Brown abhored the killing and offered her condolences to the Tiller family.

I read a lot of Catholic/Pro-Life stuff. I’m on the e-mail list for several Pro-Life organizations, read most of the blogs of the members of the “Catholic Dad’s Blogspot,” have a number of friends who work full-time in the Pro-Life movement, and no one that I read regularly or know personally condoned the Tiller murder. So I looked further afield and found that the overwhelming majority of Pro-Life organizations, organizers, spokesmen, bloggers came out against this crime.

[Don’t bother citing contrary examples, because I already know they're out there. My point is that they are a statistically insignificant minority.]

Let me try to reduce all of those statements that I read into one sentence:

“I oppose abortion, but I can’t condone murder.”

And, was there a corresponding outpouring from the other side? Did anyone say:

“I approve of abortion, but I can’t condone murder.”

Because murder was what Dr. Tiller was up to. Say what you will about first (or even second) trimester fetuses merely being a “blob of tissue,” you are either a liar or a sociopath if you say that a third-trimester fetus is anything less than a baby waiting to be born. I’m not going to argue with you right now about when life begins, but by the third trimester, by any morally honest standard, we are talking about a real baby. I will concede that a morally honest individual might not think that a fetus is really a person before quickening, or before viability, but these landmarks are long past by the twenty-first week, and killing these late-term babies was what Tiller was up to.

[Don’t give me the “medical necessity” argument. By Tiller’s own admission only 8% of his cases were for “fetal indications.” And, think about it, if an abortion were really medically necessary, then it would be done in a hospital, by the woman’s own doctor, not by some hired-gun in a hick town.]

Where is the outrage?

If the “Pro-Choice” camp were really morally honest, when Tiller was shot, they would have qualified their grief over this instead of lionizing him. Instead, I read on Sister Anne’s blog that days after the murder, protestors were waling down Michigan Avenue with signs reading "abortion on demand without apology."

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Spiritual but not Mystical

I often work at night, alone, and I usually listen to a book on tape when I do this. Since picking up a book to listen to involves almost no effort, I routinely listen to books that I would never actually read. Sometimes this allows me an insight into what people who differ from me think (e.g. “Suicide of the West,” by James Burnham), sometimes I find hidden gems that I never knew existed (e.g. “Down and Out in Paris and London,” by George Orwell), sometimes this allows me to read classics that I never seemed to have the time for (e.g. “House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton), and sometimes it simply allows me to say “Yes, I read that, and it’s a piece of crap!” (e.g. [and especially] “Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand, and “Left Behind” by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, possibly the two most incompetent works of fiction and wrong-headed philosophical outlooks ever to get into print). Other times, is just gets me thinking.

“Tuesdays With Morrie” is a book by Mitch Albom describing his visits with Morrie Schwartz, his favorite professor in college, as he is dying of ALS. It was hugely popular and is held to be a work of great insight and wisdom. The dying Morrie lays stress on “human” values, like love, family, compassion, he bears up cheerfully in the face of death, which indicates his inner peace, and he counsels his student not to spend so much time pursuing transient successes like money, career, or fame. The trick here, is that fairly obvious insights are lent weight by the gravity of their coming from a dying man. If it were merely thin broth, then it would have bothered me no more than the uninspired sort of homily one gets at Old Saint Pat’s, that poster of the cat saying “hang in there,” or a mirror painted with the words of the “footsteps prayer.” But this book bugged me, and I thought about it for days.

The obvious short-coming was that it was “spiritual without being religious,” by which I suppose I mean it dealt with matters of the spirit outside of any fixed system of spiritual duties. So I asked my son, Xeno, (who had to read the book for class) if the “spiritual without being religious” thing bothered him as well. He told me that he didn’t like the book either but that I didn’t really have the problem by the tail. “After all,” he said, “Your friend Karl is as spiritual a guy as there is, and he’s not religious.”

This was an excellent point. My buddy Karl the Anarchist left the Church years ago, isn’t really sure if there is a God or what sort of nature a god might have, yet he was profoundly spiritual. Every fiber of Karl’s being is devoted to working out his vocation in life, to social justice, to sanctifying mankind. He is a mystic.

By mystic, I mean he has a personal knowledge of God. I know this by how he walks the earth without fear or violence. By his refusal to value earthly things as much as by his complete practically in dealing with the world. I know this as much by his compassion as by his sense of humor. He spoke to my son once about the first time he was in prison (he has been imprisoned many times for civil disobedience). He was eighteen when he met Dorothy Day on a park bench and she talked him into joining her in refusing to participate in an air raid drill. They were both arrested and he was sent to Ryker’s Island to await trial. Immediately he was set upon by toughs who said, “I’m going to have your shit on my dick or your blood on my knife.” He thought for a moment, realized that no knife could ever touch his spirit, and told them to go ahead and do what they would. He was left alone, just as he has been in the dozens of times he has been jailed since, and the months he spent in federal prison for refusing to pay war taxes. You cannot intimidate a mystic because the world does not matter to them.

Reflecting on this, I realized that the problem with Morrie Schwartz’s “wisdom” was not that it was “spiritual without being religious,” but that it was “spiritual without being mystical.” In fact, this is almost always the problem with what we might call “secular spirituality.” Karl is just about the only person I’ve ever met who is mystical without being religious. And Schwartz is not a mystic.

[How do I know? Because I am a mystic. You will forgive me for this arrogant boast, but it is the only valid claim to knowing anything about mysticism. I have long resisted writing about mysticism, as it would involve divulging my own mysticism, and I don’t want to set myself up as some kind of
bodhisattva or something. I’m just a regular guy, who’s had the mystical experience. I’m not nearly the better person I ought to be for this either, so it probably counts against me in the scheme of things.]

It doesn’t take long to tell when you are talking to a mystic and not just a dying man with equanimity. Mystical detachment is simple (think of Descarte’s melting wax, or B
ridget of Sweden looking into Christ’s palm) yet its impact is beyond profound (think of Saint Teresa of Ávila saying how the love of God pierced her heart “like a flaming arrow.”). A real mystic never dwells on why the world doesn’t matter, he takes that as his starting point. A real mystic never tells you to work less, he tells you to find your vocation. A real mystic never tells you to “simplify your life,” he tells you to embrace mortification. A mystic never speaks of family as a “support system,” of marriage as a “partnership,” nor does he dwell upon “being a good person.” For just as faith without works are dead, so too is charity without love, for it will not do your soul a bit of good to give a hungry man a bowl of soup unless you love him. The mystic cares not for the accidents of this world.

So must a genuine spirituality always be mystical? No, and this is where religion comes in. Religion is there to allow the ordinary, un-mystical person, to live like a mystic. It demands that you do things out of duty that a mystic would do out of communion with God. Genuine religion demands that you forego the consolations of the world and focus on the spirit. Genuine religion demands that you spend time in prayer, time that a mystic might spend in direct communion with God. Genuine religion demands that you cherish your spouse as your own flesh, that you receive the Holy Spirit, that you act always out love, that you look for God’s hand in everything — and no mystic needs to be told any of those things!

“Tuesdays With Morrie,” however well-meaning it might be, is yet another attempt to give spiritual succor to those without either religion or mysticism. As such, it is a fraud.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A Shocking Admission

To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way—no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way—it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.

— Margaret Sanger