Monthly Archives: August 2016

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Camping for Old People

campgroundWhen you get old, one of two things is likely to happen. Permit me to qualify this bald statement (and baldness is, I suppose, also a possibility for getting old) before I even quite proffer it: I am projecting out a bit, I am making assumptions about the aging process that I expect to be true, but as I am not quite old or bald just yet, I cannot say with absolute certainty. Still, as I get older and older, as we all do, it seems to me that what I am about to assert is truer and truer, or at least more and more likely to prove to be true. But what precisely is my assertion?

It is simply this: you will either look back on your life with admiration for what you’ve accomplished or you will look back on your life with appreciation of what God has accomplished through you. Put in more human terms, you will either vaunt how you blazed a successful career, garnering the respect of others for your vast accomplishments, or conversely you will wish to be known merely as someone who chiefly cared about others, whose professional “success” or hobbies (e.g., having been a literary dilettante, animal lover, opera buff, sports enthusiast or even an epicure) pale in comparison to your attention to the lives of those around you. In other words, you will either feel proud of yourself or, instead, grateful for what God has done in your life, not in some mystical or deeply religious fashion but rather borne out of an outlook of humble gratitude and thankfulness.

men rushing sculpture
“The Race” by William McElcheran

Now it is probably not that simple, someone might argue, and they might well be right. But I’m not talking about all the nuances here, nor am I suggesting that a professionally prolific person can’t be positively winsome or thoughtful. Rather, I’m suggesting that when one looks—rather I should say you look back—on your life, you will either be in Camp A, in which you deem great the things you feel that God has done or Camp B, in which you are proud of the things you more or less feel you did yourself. If you see God’s hand in the professional accomplishments, well, that would put you in Camp A. But if you feel, as I think most people do, “Hey, look at what I did! It takes a lot of hard work to amass this kind of record,” or something like that, you are heading for, if you’re not already in, Camp B.

Now Camp B might be, I think, where many people want to be anyhow. They feel that they have every right to be proud. I have a friend like that. He tells me that God is the best story that anyone ever made up and that religion’s basic function is to control people. As he soliloquizes on this topic (and he does so quite often), he regularly pits science against a paper-tiger form of religion, and he makes sure that that tiger is vanquished before, of course, anyone might get in a word in edgewise. In fact, I think he engages in a strange kind of scientific conspiracy theory. He thinks that religion and those who “peddle” it are out to debunk science. He is rightfully proud of his accomplishments—he moved up in his company to the second or third highest level—and headed off into retirement with a giant nest egg, so he tells me.

Joel Osteeen
For what is going on in this picture, see Tim Engleman on Flikr.

Well, in his defense, there are many a peddler of religion these days—that can’t be disputed. One only need turn on the television to find a disingenuously grinning televangelist who, with teeth agleam, will gladly take your money “to sustain his ministry,” I recently heard one say; “we only stay on the air through the donations of the faithful.” He did not say, “… by the grace of God” or “… by the favor of the Almighty” but “… by the donations of viewers like you.” Not like me, I’m afraid. I sent him no money. I suspect, the ever-needy televangelist might just be in Camp B, with an even finer camp lot than the proud friend of the previous paragraph, and not even realize it.

Now getting back to your retirement home, which turns out to be a campground. You can be a happy camper, I suppose, in either Camp A or Camp B, so I am not writing about which is the happier camp. I am not suggesting that the proud person is miserable. Quite the contrary: he or she might well be happier than someone from Camp A, who sees very little benefit to what they have done in this life, feels that they did not glorify God the way they should have. I was speaking to an A-camper just yesterday who humbly (but unwisely, I think) was comparing himself to another Christian who had adopted children and, my friend said, “sacrificed time, talent, and treasure to do so” (though one can’t really sacrifice talent—one just uses it—and I can aver that he has used his). He felt, by comparison, he had done very little for humanity. I assured him that it was merely a matter of harkening to the unique calling each one of us has, and not everyone is called to adopt children.

Now a resident of the B-camp is not likely to experience this kind of melancholy, however misplaced it may have been for my friend from Camp A. Camper B is likely to compare himself favorably to that person, to say, “Well, that’s nice, but I did X, Y, or Z.” Indeed, I’ve known many a B-camper, and I’ll wager so have you, and that is precisely what he or she will say to you in common conversation. More worryingly, that is also what he or she is likely to say to himself as he reflects on his life sitting on his folding chair in Camp B. And, downright frighteningly, this is likely to be the speech he is preparing to present before God upon death: “Look, God, at all my fine works. Haven’t I been quite a good person?”

Yet Camper A knows this is a sorry plea and a mean hope, even though every true camper in the A-camp also recognizes that he himself has personally accomplished so very little. But he or she also knows God has made the little bit that has been done, even if it hasn’t been impeccable and the evidence of lasting success is not perfectly manifest in it, count, and more than count. Not by our sweat but by His very blood and tears, God, whom we rightly call Immanuel, has made it honorable, dignified, worthwhile, and beyond worthwhile: God has made it worthy of His kingdom.

And that is where I will stop, for I have not yet tottered into my retirement campground just yet. I expect that I have still a few years to go before that day comes. But when it does, save me a slender lot in Campground A where I can look back on God’s dignifying of my lackluster “best effort,” His straightening of my ways, His righting of my wrongs. Hope to see you there.

bars of color

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Handshake

handshakeYou may not know it but, when you shake someone’s hand, you are connecting with that person in a close and particular way and you are, as it were, touching with your own hand the embodiment and tangible representation of that person’s past.

Now I realize that the word “particular” in this opening sentence may sound, to an English speaker, vague. “Particular,” someone might say, “how so?” The response to that statement is, in many cases, something you can learn only over many years. I did a few days ago in Italy, in Farfa to be specific.

Farfa abbey courtyard
Courtyard of the Abbazia Benedittina di Santa Maria di Farfa

Farfa is not your typical tourist destination. It’s most enduring claim to fame is a monastery founded by a hermit known as Lawrence of Syria. That structure served for   years, as monasteries often do, as the principal school for the surrounding towns of Montefalcone, Salisone, and Castel San Pietro. Young children would walk over the hillsides from tFarfa streethese hamlets for miles to go to school there at the Abbazia Benedittina, to learn and, if they were lucky, to graduate from the fifth or sixth grade with what is, by modern standards, perhaps the level of eighth grade learning in the current (often too tepid) American educational system.

Fabio’s grandmother had been one of those schoolchildren, and he told me of her studying there in the very courtyard in which we were standing. The abbey chapel, still his family’s church, was also that of her family, a family which had to walk miles to church every Sunday from their countryside village as she did for her schooling. His grandfather came from another village not far away, and that selfsame grandfather was baptized as a baby near the turn of the century (nineteenth to twentieth) by Beato Placido Riccardi, O.S.B., then rector of Farfa, whose remains are on display in a glass-case reliquary in the church. He was eventually succeeded by the also beatified Ildefonso Schuster, an Italian with a Germanic name who welcomed, at first, the dawn of fascism in Italy[1] and was even

Beato
Beato Placido Riccardi O.S.B.

enthusiastic about the decision of the Italian state to invade Ethiopia, likening Mussolini to Caesar Augustus and seeing the invasion itself as an opportunity to bring the gospel to that nation.[2] (Perhaps he was unaware that Ethiopia, thanks to St. Phiip’s teaching in a chariot, is uniquely the oldest primarily Christian nation). Yet this dubiously beatified figure nonetheless did do the world the favor of writing a 447-page history of the Farfa abbey published in 1921.

 

Fabio’s grandfather was the personal adjutant of Rev. Schuster’s successor, working side by side with him during some of the most difficult years of the Second World War. While Schuster only eventually realized that Mussolini was not going to be a great leader and that fascism provided no real antidote to the world’s ills—the location of a concentration camp nearby the abbey may have been all the evidence he needed—his successor at the abbey proved a gentler man and, though he was never beatified, by Fabio’s account he even resisted the Nazis and Italian fascists.

Fabbio and family
Fabio and his family

Indeed, some of those held in the concentration camp escaped, in part through the agency of local folks like Fabio’s grandfather, who would give them food at night when those refugees slept in the fields. The food the Jews received and the access to the peasants’ land helped them for a time as they hid from the Nazis who were seeking to incarcerate them—particularly Jews of Serbian or Croatian descent, as Fabio recalled it—in the nearby concentration camp that marred the rolling Sabine hills, which lovingly encompass, like the great arms of God, the hamlet and abbey of Farfa.

Sabine hills
Sabine Hills

All this history, all this pain, struggle, sadness and finally joy at the destruction of the camp by the allies, with the help of those very locals, began with a mere handshake in 1979 when I met a very young version of Fabio on a bus in Rome. Now, all these years later, I visited his family homestead, his meager “fabbrica” on which is situated a modest but grand, in terms of its view, manor. I felt I had come upon the Corycian gardiner, though upgraded to modern times. There his lovely wife prepared a spectacular Italian luncheon—the primo of homemade pasta, secondo of both veal and chicken, a tasty insalata, an Italian tort for dessert, and then the treat of meeting his younger daughter, the great-granddaughter of his mother’s father, who had helped the fleeing Jews during the great war.

The next time I shake Fabio’s hand, I shall think of all this: his grandmother’s education and the courage of his grandfather, who had been baptized by Beato Placido; the slow learning curve of Father Schuster; the untold stories of the Jews who escaped; the tragic tale of those who did not. And the next time I shake your hand, I shall try to be ready to hear your story, for I learned from Fabio some 40 years ago, it all can so easily begin with a mere, but quite particular, handshake.Farfa church view 2

Farfa church

 

 

 

 

[1] Cf. e.g. http://es.catholic.net/op/articulos/61702/alfredo-ildefonso-schuster-beato.html.

[2] http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/article/25th-january-1997/14/doubts-about-schuster.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: True North and the Moral Compass

Gorgias
Gorgias of Leontini

Moral relativism is not new. It has been around since Gorgias of Leontini (in Sicily) arrived in Athens in 427 BC, and really even before that. In his Protagoras, Plato interpreted the teacher of the same name’s dictum, “Man is the measure of all things,” to be an advocacy of moral relativism, i.e., that any human being is capable of determining what truth is from a personal vantage point. In other words, from the mid-fifth century B.C. on, Protagoras’ view competing with the notion of a moral absolute was established, an early form of phenomenalism that suggests that a single individual deems true what is true for that person. It would quickly devolve into an essentially nihilistic view expressed by the Sicilian sophist Gorgias in his now lost (but preserved piecemeal in two other sources) treatise entitled On Non-Existence which suggests that nothing exists (i.e., being has no existence) or, if it were to exist, what it consists of would be impossible to know, explain or be understood.[1] (Coincidentally, these are the very opinions most of my agnostic friends advance about God).

Protagoras
Protagoras

The most important aspect of Gorgias’ argument—what he has successfully transmitted to the modern age—is that there is no such thing as an objective point of view, for each individual’s point of view is precisely that—individual. And that is where his argument dovetails with Protagoras, and it is on that confluence that I want to focus this blog, for I met a man in Italy who happened to be advancing essentially the same argument as that of Gorgias and Protagoras.

Now a disclaimer: normally these kinds of conversations happen to me on an aircraft but this time it was at a bar. Still, the argument, which I am paraphrasing here, was worthy of any aircraft: it was stated in very anti-platonic terms (but of course, as it is essentially a sophistic argument) that since there is no objective vantage point, all moral codes are constructs. No one can say whether any is better than another or, for that matter, which is good at all, since even the notion of good is a construct. Put metaphorically, there is no “north”; there is only an agreed upon direction that many folks say is north, but if even one person should say that north is not north, then there can’t be a true north. Or, even if there is a true north, it is not knowable, as each person interprets the direction “north” in his or her own way.

compassOn this view, the question of what north is ultimately becomes a preference—do I find north preferable or not? I may have my own ideas about north, but those are just my ideas, constructed for me, most likely, out of the worldview that I inherited. So, even if I say I prefer my interpretation of north I cannot discount another person’s interpretation of north, which might really be east, or south, or west, or some other direction. I cannot say to that person, “No, if you go west when you’re intending to go north it will be quite dangerous for you. I really want to dissuade you from taking the wrong direction.”

And the reason one should not do that, according to the view of the man at the bar, is because we ourselves actually can’t possibly “know,” however certain we may feel about it, where north really is; we only know what we prefer about what is called north and we may like (or simply be habituated to) our own “north” but we have to recognize that someone else’s west might serve just as well as a north as our own north does.

This sounds clever, and at first blush, even generous. Let’s start with the positive: it is generous and very “non-judgmental”—so much so, though, that even when it sees someone going the wrong way, it doesn’t intervene on the principle that true north is not a knowable concept. To press the north analogy just a bit, one might say, “AftWrong wayer all, true north is not precisely magnetic north, which itself differs from grid north. So, who is to say what ‘north’ really is anyway?” And thus it is that the person who has thoroughly adopted this mindset can’t intervene when someone is going the wrong way on the principle that he or she should not presume to know that his own way is the right way. He prefers his direction, but it is only a preference.

The only comfort I can find in this argument really is that it is an old one; as Solomon wrote (though obviously not in Latin), nihil novum sub sole, and he was right, there is nothing new under the sun. The relativistic argument has been recycled nowadays and fobbed off as new, sc. post-modern. But really it is very un-modern, a bit humdrum, and in any case very old. And it is also countered not only by the obvious—that we do exist and that there is a such a thing as life, liberty and happiness, honor, dignity and worth—but by the fact that north itself does exist, entirely independent of us, our point of view, or even whether or not our compass should be working properly. While what we call “north” may vary both in terms of precisely where it is (as magnetic north does move a bit) and by what it is called—the Chinese (Mandarin) word for north is Bei, Japanese is Kita (though the symbol [北] for both is virtually the same, since the Japanese calligraphic kanji is based on Chinese Hanji), Hebrew is tzafon, Hungarian is északi; yet despite all these differences, north is, in the end, indeed northward, however tautological that may sound. Since that is true, it is especially important to call attention to the direction in which north lies when we find a person heading west but thinking that he is going north, who we know is clearly sailing into dangerous waters.

Thus it is not ethnocentric cultural superiority to say to the cannibal that it is simply wrong to kill and eat one’s fellow human being. Nor is it a matter of going too far to say that if one sees a woman being beaten by a man, it is good, even necessary to intervene. It is not wrong to tackle a bad guy who is running from the police, not wrong to prevent a terrorist from being successful in his attack (if it should fall to one’s lot to be in a position to do so), not wrong to stop any act of sheer evil. It is not the case that we should say to ourselves, “But I can’t know what the precise motives of that person happen to be, nor can I say that this or that person’s version of right and wrong are the same as my own, so I can’t and shouldn’t intervene.” We are not hardwired to conform to the non-interventionist “prime directive” of the old Star Trek series—the consistent failure to do which, by the way, made Captain Kirk the admirable hero of the series; indeed, do we not innately wish to do precisely what Kirk does?

Mother Theresa
Mother Teresa

Thus, we are born with an internal compass that suggests to everyone from every culture a sense of right and wrong and those of us who can recognize true north, actually have a kind of moral obligation—for we ultimately believe in morality, that morality is something given to us by a higher power, by God himself—to direct lovingly, wherever possible, those who are so far off track, whose moral compass is so broken, that they are likely to render harm to themselves or others. Is that ethnocentric cultural superiority? Someone might try to make that argument, but the moral code I am referring to as “north” has been transmitted by the votes of what G. K. Chesterton calls the “Democracy of the Dead,”[2] handed down in many cases by wise teachers like Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and, most recently, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  All of those individuals had a pretty good idea of the direction in which north lies.  And what has been demonstrated for us by their example is instilled in us, ultimately, by God.

In closing, what can we learn from my friend at the bar? Well, first, we should recall that his ideas are not new: they are very old. They devolve from Protagoras and Gorgias. Second, we can learn that while being empathetic and seeking to understand as best as one can, the point of view of another is certainly a good thing—love your neighbor as yourself is an unqualified command—that does not mean that to do so we must deny our God-given internal compass. (And one should be very careful here, for if we deny it long enough, we may corrupt it or simply lose it, as so many of those who have joined the ranks of ISIS clearly have.) Rather, let us gage our journey by the North Star which means, from time to time, if we are following the internal compass aright, we may even have to direct others trying to find their way on the same path on which we are going. I am heading north; please feel free to join me.

[1] This treatise, by the way, enjoys the highly ironic title Περὶ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος ἢ Περὶ φύσεως, which, when translated, means “‘On Not Being’ or ‘On Nature’,” the latter of which the former clearly undermines.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908), p. 85.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: “Just Sayin'”

just sayin

“Just sayin’” is not just a Philly expression, but it might as well be. I’d love to know where it actually started, because it sounds to me as Philadelphian as an expression can possibly be. Just sayin’.

But what does it mean? Once all the Philly-ease and Philly accent is stripped away—that is to say, when one translates it from the vernacular to the highbrow, mutatis mutandis it might be rendered, “If you will permit me to broach the subject” or perhaps more directly, “Might I take the liberty of mentioning…?” And a person who would use such language might feign not enjoying talking about what they are talking about, however prurient his or her interest in the subject might be.

Along the same lines but more negatively, another person might use the expression haughtily. Such a rendering might be “If one really must descend to such considerations” or the like. Now this person might in fact share the same immodest interest as the person in the previous example, but he or she would not want you to know it; hence the apparent disdain. The topic is portrayed, of course, as well below that person’s normal level of discourse. Yet by pretending to be compelled to speak about it in this way, the person has an immediate out. That person enjoys complete deniability for, with the modal verb of compulsion, he has cleverly redirected the blame for the topic of discussion to a fictional conversational interloper or, worse, to you yourself.

But we have not exhausted the full range of the seemingly innocuous but actually quite potent expression “Just sayin’.” For there is also a rather crusty, even crude and inappropriate aspect to that declaration. Beneath the surface lurks a certain incongruity. In such a case, its user is essentially stating “I shouldn’t mention this, but I will anyway” (along with an implied, “I don’t care what you think about that”). This occurrence, what I am calling the “crude” usage, may actually be seen as an improvement over the first two because, on the surface at least, it seems more honest. It seems fresh, even brash; it seems to be ignoring the rules of proper etiquette, and maybe even smacks of a kind of “truth and nothing but the truth” of the courtroom or barber’s chair.

barber's chairIndeed, this third category—the one involving the barber’s chair—seems to me the most interesting and is why I decided with this blog to broach the subject of the sometimes quite condensed but too often indelicate expression “just sayin’.” Don’t get me wrong: I like honesty and, like most people, I find forthrightness refreshing. But the bit about the barber’s chair, a place where sometimes truly complex problems are swiftly whittled down, whether to splinters or usable planks, that is the part that I would like to consider briefly here.

I begin with a disclaimer. I love barbers, I really do, and I love conversing with them. I shan’t ever forget Jerry, my favorite barber—though he is no longer a barber, so I’ve heard, and no longer attends my church—who gave me a haircut just before my eldest son’s wedding. Though I tried to pay him, he wanted it to be a gift to me for the wedding. I’ve never forgotten his kindness, and the touching simplicity of that gift. Nor shall I ever fail to remember the barber of my childhood in the “Four Seasons Mall” in New Hope, Pennsylvania. There I would go by myself as a child, for I had no father to take me, and I would sit in the waiting chair next to all the magazines and newspaper, glutting my eyes on The Sporting News, memorizing baseball players’ statistics and reading the articles that speculated how the Phillies might wind up their season. Then up into the chair I would hop, for it was a very large (or so it seemed to me at the time) chair. I had to do all the conversing with my barber myself, as I hadn’t a father to take me or to engage Mike—for as I recall his name was Mike—about sports, or the weather or politics. But that was years ago and a world away from where I now am, Italy.

Bologna

Nevertheless, I was reminded of such erstwhile conversations when I arrived in Bologna, almost two two months ago now, to stay for a few days with my dear friend Piergiacomo and talk about hot peppers and Renaissance art (separately, of course) in his temporary “Man Cave,” for his lovely wife, Annamaria, and daughter, Margarita, were out of town. There the first thing I did, even before getting over jetlag, was seek out a barber to get a haircut, for I hadn’t had time to get one before I left. Somehow I found myself in the dingiest barber shop I’d been in for years, with music distortedly flooding the small square room through an iPhone speaker echoing off the high-walled ceiling. The lyrics seemed to me to be in Arabic—not exactly Rossini or Mozart—and the music surprised me by being in the rather modern sounding rap-style. Various magazines, well-thumbed and colorful, all in Arabic, adorned the small table next to the uncomfortable waiting seats.

straight razorI did not have to wait long. Kalam stood at the ready, inviting me with a less-than-welcoming glance to sit in the barber chair. A single light bulb on a wire string dangled above my head like the sword of Damocles. He held in his hands the implements of his trade, a straight razor and electric clippers. In very broken Italian with a thick Pakistani accent he told me he had come from Islamabad just a few months before. He didn’t like Italy much, he said, but you eat well here.

Kalam then asked me where I was from. I said Texas. He hadn’t heard of it. I said it’s a part of America, the south part of it. Ah America, he said, wielding his straight razor in a fashion that made me just a little uncomfortable. He went on to tell me of his hatred for Americans, but since I came from South America, he said, “That’s okay.” (What I had actually said was that Texas is in the southern part of America; he took that to be South America.) “I don’t hate South America,” he continued, “Just the USA. That is the great Satan.” As an accidental representative of what was to him a Hellish empire, I decided not to say much more, noting well the discomfiting combination of his palpable animosity toward America and the blade in his hand. Needless to say, I did not fuss over how ridiculously short he cut my hair, as bald fear in me produced in the end, a nearly bald appearance. Just sayin’.

Now will merely that expression “just sayin’ ” actually justify a story that might be deemed as Islamophobic? Indeed, it is thoroughly and quite literally Islamophobic, or at least Islamobadophobic. I was honestly scared as I sat in his chair, alone in such an off-the-beaten-track and quite shabby barbershop, while an insufferable coiffeur, in the course of reducing my head to little more than a lunar landing spot, wielded his blade, scratching away this and that bit of hair while he spoke between scratches of the evil decadence of the West and the great Satan, assuming all the while that a “South American” like me would agree with him.

But I leave that all aside to say that however baldly honest we may want to be whether about our political or our religious views, perhaps we would do well to recall that every once in a while it is good to leave them aside, every once in a while just to keep them to ourselves, especially when our most welcome allies accidentally, thanks to a minor misunderstanding, come from South America or, quite beyond that, in an election cycle when the candidates themselves are all too baldly dishonest in their honesty and vice versa. You never know when you might find yourself in the chair of an uncivilized version of the barber of Seville—no Figaro, him. Anyway, I’m just sayin.’

12092_JustSayin_Flat