The Atlas Complex

The unspoken burden of the modern teacher.


Atlas is a famous titan of Greek mythology, condemned to forever bear the weight of the world. He alone is responsible for holding it on his shoulders; if he falters for even a second, the world will fall away and perish, and he will forever bear the fault of it.

Today’s teachers stand in Atlas’ place. The educational success of each student that comes through their classroom rests entirely on their shoulders. It is fair to say that this was not always the expectation of society. In more recent years there has been an excessive attempt to standardize and systematize education so that all who participate may receive equitable profit, yet this mission is fraught itself with iniquity. Most importantly, here, is that the teacher becomes the focus point of education, and this is no good thing.

Standardization

Standardization was generally achieved through a few main channels. Standardized tests is the most recognizable, but textbooks are also significant for this process. Most importantly is the notion of Standards Based Grading (SBG), where students are graded according to content mastery rather than assignment completion.

Most definitely, at face value, we see that standardization really helps students. By establishing a system for better education and for more regular education, we find less educational performance gaps, regardless of where the students are living and regardless of who the teachers are. I personally have found that SBG really does seem to take away the “racing” mentality of school. Students are less focused on earning all their points and are more focused on mastering content knowledge.

At its root, standardization is an attempt to systematize what already existed. Standardization determined education to be a good thing and disparities in education to be a sad thing. That one child in rural Arkansas might not be getting the same level of education as a child in a well-to-do area of Washington D.C was not okay. By systematizing the medium of education (curriculum, grading policies, etc.) then education itself became systematized. The ultimate goal? To fine-tune the system of education so that every child, no matter of background, strengths, or interests, will come out the other side as a well-educated and well-rounded individual.

An Unintended Consequence

For a moment, I will lay aside some philosophical concerns about the nature of systemizing a civic institution. I instead want us to think about the effects of standardization and what it does with its participants. For the children, there are a mountain of benefits. There are, perhaps, some drawbacks when we think about creativity, but on the whole we find that more children are improved than not. But children aren’t the only people in this scenario: teachers are also in the midst of it.

Instead of an approach to education that begins with the unique qualities of all participants, standardization methods begin with predicting appropriate or inappropriate methods of instruction. With this understanding, teachers are part of the medium itself. Just as textbooks have to be standardized in order to deliver a standardized curriculum across broad circumstances, teachers also have to be standardized. This is necessary in order to truly establish a singular standard of education across the nation, but it has a serious side effect:

When teachers themselves are seen as part of the system at hand, that means that they are attributed direct causal authority over the outcomes of said system.

Your standard drip coffee maker has a filter holder, a filter that you insert, a water vat, a heating element, a switch, and an electrical plug. Each of these elements are arranged in such a way that they all have a causal effect on the outcome of the coffee maker. They are individual pieces, but there are a cascade of causes that make them work. If you have your coffee maker plugged in, and it doesn’t make coffee, what is to be assumed? Certainly that something in the middle isn’t working.

We can think about a standardized education system looking something like a coffee maker. We hope to design such a system that when used, produces expected results; if it’s plugged in, it should make coffee. When something goes wrong in the educational system, we can assume something similar to the coffee maker problem: something in the system failed. There could be a number of things that end up receiving the blame: the textbooks, the structure a school administration has put in place, or, most importantly here, the teacher.

Under the principle of subsidiarity, the teacher is the most significant element in a system of education, as they are the closest human element to the students. Being human means they are the most variable, and so the most problematic in the face of standardizing education.

The Teacher, Atlas

The teacher is the last domino to hit the children, so to speak. They are the final deliverers of content, the assessors, the troubleshooters, etc. Now, when I was teaching as a graduate student at the university, my role was extremely minimized into being a mere facilitator of content. I had no design authority and it was not my place to change anything; I was merely meant to deliver. My professor meant it when he said that we were not responsible for our students’ outcomes. Barring some major immoral act, the challenge of our university level classes was between our students and the content. We were not Atlas.

When I got my first public teaching job, I got the complete opposite message. It was told, albeit not directly, that my students’ performances were a result of my efforts. If my students failed, it was my fault. If my students succeeded, I had done my job sufficiently. The idea was that the curriculum and knowledge was already standard, and so any variance in student performance would be a result of my effectiveness as a teacher.

The first test I gave went very poorly for my Spanish students. I’ll never forget when a student asked me:

“Well you’re going to curve the grades, right? That’s what all the other teachers do.”
“No, absolutely not!”
“Why? It’s only going to look bad on you if you don’t.”

Even my students thought that their failure was actually mine.

The teacher, here, is the Atlas that holds up the classroom. Whereas my college professor told us that we were nigh an independent variable when it came to student success at the university, my new school’s policy was telling me that there were nigh any other variable as causal as myself. The most crushing reality of my new job was in this difference: that an entire world came down on my shoulders, and nearly swallowed me up.

“Oh, get over yourself Robert. You just don’t get it. One group is made up of university students and the other is made up of high schoolers.”

“You’re just upset because you finally took on a real job instead of babysitting university level students, and you don’t actually like having responsibility.”

Thankfully no one has ever said these things to my face, but I’m just anticipating the most likely responses to my article. They might even be comments I would have levied against myself, had I not experienced it for myself. Now, though, with more experience I am able to look back and realize that I had been thrust into Atlas’ place without warning. The newfound weight was unbearable.

The Difference

When teachers become part of the system, their individuality is forgotten: their strengths, weaknesses, and unique experiences are pushed aside in the interest of standardization. What is worse, though, is that children are almost forgotten, too. As previously discussed, children do indeed reap many benefits from standardized education, but by forgetting their individuality along with their teachers’, their learning is negatively impacted.

Think back to the coffee maker example: in order for the device to be effective, and for the resulting cup of coffee to be the same every time, the coffee grinds going into the filter need to be the same as well. If the grinds are different, you notice.

It goes without saying that children are even more diverse than coffee grounds.

Any perfected system of standardized education necessarily forgets that all human beings have free will.

For teachers, the issue of human will is a pretty easy variable to rule out. We want to be there, either intrinsically because we want to teach and we want the kids to be successful or extrinsically because we want to be paid for doing a good job. That means that our will power is automatically counted in and you don’t have to worry about whether the teacher is invested. There are, of course, exceptions, but by and large this rule applies.

Students are not equally incentivized. Students are not coffee grounds that can simply be placed into the machine: they have to will themselves to be educated. In application, standards-based education suggests that motivation is irrelevant. As long as students are put through the best system their motivation doesn’t matter, because the best system has accounted for their motivation and has provided the right tools to get the students engaged.

But this makes my analysis too shallow. I’m not just addressing the issue of intrinsic motivation in students. If that was my issue alone, I might get on board the “gamification” trend within education. What I am getting at is a deeper reality within the culture. Students are not only human beings that have will power that needs to be engaged at school. How they are raised at home to handle life’s challenges are dramatically more important than what they learn at school.

First and foremost, parents are the primary educators of children. 

This is a teaching of the Catholic Church. Part of the burden of parenting is that as a parent, you become the primary teacher and role model of your children.

Does the parent:

  • Care that students master content or only care that students bring home a letter grade?
  • Think education is about getting a good job or that education is primarily about self-improvement?
  • Care more about their own work and interests over their children’s growth?
  • Foster that inner moral compass innate to us all?

Teachers are sometimes recognized as spending more active time with children than parents, but this isn’t ever just one teacher. Usually it’s multiple, and even then it’s with a large group of children. The time that matters most is the time at home and the voices that matter most are the ones that feed them every night.

Not only are parents’ voices the ones that matter most, but parents’ actions are the things kids watch the most. We tend to think of our sins as private, but the reality is that our children are very perceptive of us at home. They’re very quick to recognize hypocritical tendencies. They know our habits sometimes better than we do. They hear what we say about government, about our own friends, about our worries, and about school. Sure, they know what you want them to do at school, but what do they think you would do if you yourself were sitting in a classroom?

It is said that actions speak louder than words.

When I talk about the unique human quality of will when it comes to understanding children, I do not exclusively mean intrinsic motivation. I instead mean the entire culture that students carry with themselves as they enter the school doors, and that is nothing a teacher has ordinary power over. It has everything to do with priorities in a student’s home life.

Upon the many goats and the few sheep.

Christ tells us in Matthew 7:13 that the way to hell is broad and easy to follow, while the path to heaven is narrow and difficult. Many will enter through the wide gate, he warns. Thus in an operative way we are obliged to have great hope that many will be saved, but we must live with the reality that this will probably not be the truth of what occurs. This is the shadow under which the Church operates. The most fundamental reality which we face, the existence of God and the necessity that we cooperate with the Church, is something that we don’t expect everyone to conform to.

Certainly we don’t expect that there is some miraculous system of evangelization that will convert the whole world, if Christ Himself didn’t even convert every person He came into contact with.

Education is a process that involves the human will, just like religious conversion. We might refer here to St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s notion of assent. As much as any human individual needs to assent to something for it to be manifest in them in a real way, education must reach past logical agreement and into a deep assent. But it will not reach into a real assent if the student never consents to receiving educational content.

If the Church herself does not assume that all she preaches to will be receptive of God’s word, why does educational policy assume that all it drafts into its curriculum will be receptive of its content?

By no means does this mean that the Church does not have hope that all she preaches to will be receptive. Similarly, too, it does not mean that the educational system itself must fail to hope to reach all of its recipients in an authentic way.

What I am trying to address in this article is the ultimate issue of the Atlas Complex. When we forget that the ultimate source and goal of education is a group of human beings, we might have the arrogance to assume that there could ever be a perfect system of education. Most importantly, when we forget that students are also human beings with will power, with their own ideas, with their own goals, with opinions, with problems, we think that they are all average and adequate recipients of educational formation. Thusly, and usually unfairly, we attribute student success and failure to the next most variable portion of the educational system: teachers.

When standardization is the primary organizing principle for education, and when it is allowed to play out, then teachers bear the weight of the responsibility for the success of their classrooms. If my student fails, it is my fault. If they are successful, it is due to my good effort. This is a detriment to the student because it forgets them and their inherent personality and ignores their necessary volition as a part of the educational process. We must not forget our students’ humanity. We must not be so arrogant as to assume that we can perfect human institutions and that we can solve all human problems with them.

No matter the system of education in place, students will fail. No matter the quality of teacher, students will fail. No matter the accessibility of knowledge, students will fail. We must always remember that public and standardized education exists at the service of parents, the primary educators. If parents raise and teach their children to be cynical and untrusting, then the children stand a good chance of becoming cynical and untrusting. If parents raise their children to value education (in and of itself, not for some further goal of money or status), then their children stand a good chance of making something of their education.

Of course, I would be remiss to leave it at that and possibly leave you thinking that parents are Atlas in place of the teacher. As much as a perfect system of education and the perfect teacher will not lead to 100% student success, I must also emphasize that perfect parents and a perfect family will also not lead to 100% student success. The nuclear family is just the most basic unit of societal structure and is where people are most affected by others’ opinions and beliefs. If anyone stands a chance to make a drastic impact on children, it is the people that exist within that unit.

The issue in this article is that teachers, especially in public education, have been encouraged to have an Atlas Complex. If the main factor contributing is that the educational system has shifted all responsibility of success onto the teacher, the antidote is to successfully remember the place of student assent. Instead of further questioning teachers and encouraging an Atlas Complex, we should focus on supporting families and fostering a culture that values education for its own sake. Then, of course, remembering that nothing we do will establish a perfect system for success, we must incorporate an expectation of failure into our systems of education, and do our best to accommodate those failures with compassion and charity.

Kyrie, eleison.

A Home Altar

Protestants may shudder at the mere mention of the word altar, a word that is inherently tied to the notion of sacrifice, perhaps supposed to be a relic of an ancient Israelite past. Yet every Catholic church has an altar within it, where we believe that the same sacrifice Christ offered which was Himself to the Father and is as eternal as Himself, is re-presented during every Mass. In other words we say, by Christ’s own authority, His flesh is made present to us in the Eucharist. Since this is His sacrificed flesh which we are called to consume, as the Jews of old were to eat the sacrificial lamb, then the Altar in a Catholic Church is the dignified place where the very flesh of Christ is again made present.

Now this Holy Sacrifice is only ever had under the authority of a priest, as he has particularly been handed the authority through Apostolic Succession, an authority which is sourced  first in Christ at the Last Supper. Lay Catholics may not do this on their own as they have not been handed the authority to do so, but we are all called to present ourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1), and so we ought to find ways to do this. One way we can do this is by offering our prayers, which St. Paul suggests we do without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). At home we can have our own altar dedicated to prayer, and this is what I have done in our own home.

Of course the first place I had to begin was by planning. I drew up some rough plans:

Now, this is where I began:

Incredibly modest, using what was available around the house we had just moved into, it was enough. Using a table leaf on top of storage boxes, I set it up with some basics: A diptych as the central focus as well as a few appropriate candles. Of course, this is highly unsustainable. It was only a matter of time before my infant crawled and pulled something down!

Initially we found a local craftsman who was putting together custom tables from pieces of a building that fell in Nashville after a really large tornado. Ultimately, for a couple of reasons, the plan fell through. Yet nearly as soon as we forwent our deal with the craftsman we stumbled across a lovely buffet table on Facebook Marketplace. That, combined with a crucifix and icon of the Theotokos, really made a big difference.

With the buffet table serving as a base I was finally ready to begin on the back, which I generally have referred to as a retable. This is because it sits primarily on the back of the table rather than having support from the ground.

I went to the local hardware store and picked up my next supplies. My plan? Use a smooth-sided piece of plywood as the base and find some molding pieces to serve as columns. I would find a jigsaw to cut out the main shape of the retable as well as form my own molding for the arches from the remaining plywood.

When I got there, I actually found newel posts that had been cut in half length-wise. It was perfect!

The first thing I did was cut the newel posts down by taking off the heads and most of the bases.

Having a general idea of where the pieces would lay and what I wanted the arches to look like, I went ahead and stained the columns. I also drew out the arch shapes onto the plywood.

After getting my hands on a jigsaw, which was most generously gifted by a new friend, I got to work cutting.

My cuts were far from perfect, but I also knew I would be layering it with some higher trim pieces, so I let it be okay…not that the trim pieces were much better!

Using paper towels I made stencils for the trim pieces.

The trim pieces…well…required much trimming. But the result was pretty neat! I prioritized the fullness of the outside arches while cutting the middle arch pieces into finer tips so that the result was a mostly-seamless  connection between the arches.

Next was putting stain on the trim pieces and the back of the retable!

In line with the design I began with, I also painted the face of the plywood with a light blue in honor of our Blessed Mother.

With an extra set of hands (clamps), I held the columns and trim pieces to the board while I screwed them in from the back.

Once the pieces were on I used wood putty and stain to fill in those cracks. I also put wood putty on areas of the plywood that had knots, painting over it once it was dry.

Once it was put together, it was just a matter of using trim screws to secure the retable to studs and rearranging the altar pieces.

Just in time for Advent!

Sovereign Mother – A Sonnet

Adornéd maid, never lacking in beauty,
Within and without, life ever begetting,
Her veil her virtues, by Him ever breathing,
Highest of all by fulfilling her duty.

She is ancient and worn, her gown just now rags.
Vain children, forgetful, grown into their own,
Cast aside their life-giver to play, then groan,
Treasures of her bosom sit out in dead bags.

Here, as much as then, does her splendor abound.
Only the wise, between Mother and Daughter,
Can discern, and then, understand and behold.

For none is her love concealed, though she offers.
Her prayers, her tears, unceasing aid through night’s hold,
Caressing this vine planted in her womb’s ground.

Too Much Religion For Me

“I’m sorry, that’s too much religion for me.”

“I wanted to make sure my kids had enough religion, but not that it consumed their whole life.”

“Christianity is about faith, not about religion” or “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.”

I’ve had about enough of this statement. Let’s look at a bit of a hypothetical conversation.

Michael: Here, sir. Consider the Catholic faith. We go to Church every Sunday, we receive the very Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we go to confession to restore our relationship with God every time that we cause God pain through sin, we hold that sacraments have literal effects in the world, we formally pray about five times a day, and we hold that God wants to invade every part of our lives. Won’t you join us?

John: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, receiving Holy Communion, participating every so often in the sacraments, pray five times a day, but just ask Jesus to forgive your sins personally.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, participating every so often in the sacraments, pray a few times a day, and we won’t worry about regular reflection and repentance.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, we’ll extend the preaching so you don’t have to study Scripture on your own, pray every once in a while, and just make sure you’re baptized at some point.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then consider going to Church every Sunday, and make sure you say some prayer at some point during the week.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well…come to Church every Sunday?

J:

 

What is the notion of ‘religion’? Where does that come from? Even in ancient Rome the origin of the word was not exactly known. St. Augustine considers multiple, good, potential etymologies, but the most significant one he entertains is connecting the word to religare, which means ‘to bind together again’, ‘to reconnect’.

People who have fallen away from Catholicism or people who would never in their right mind consider it as a legitimate expression of Christianity (much less the expression of Christianity), see the notion of religion as a stumbling block.

“It’s just a bunch of stuffy rules.”

“It’s not authentic.”

“If you are following a religion, you are trying to work your way into heaven. That’s not faith.”

Let’s walk through a little exercise together, if you don’t mind doing a bit of work.

John has, for some personal reason, accepted the Lord Christ into his heart. He believes He died and rose again, won victory over Sin and True Death, and that He truly loves him.

Great! Now what? Does John lie back and wait for Christ to come again, or until death takes him?

I should think not. He should engage his faith! React to it! But how?

He could start by going to Church every Sunday. He could start by joining a community. This way he is not practicing his faith in isolation, something very counter to the nature of God. By going to Church every Sunday he can also open his heart and mind to hear the Word of God, to increase his faith in previously unknown ways. At what point, though, is prioritizing this important faith activity and regularly participating in it then “too religious”?

He could pray more. Prayer is not an act that changes God, as God does not change, but primarily an act that draws us closer to Him! Be it the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), a Hail Mary (Luke 1:28, Luke 1:42-43, James 5:16), singing/chanting/meditation on any of the 151 Psalms, or spontaneous prayer, these are all opportunities to engage with the Lord. St. Paul exhorts us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). All of these are ways for John to do that. At what point, though, is prioritizing this important faith activity and regularly participating in it then “too religious”?

He could follow Christ’s commands.

Christ said for His disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So John could participate in baptism.

Christ said “This is my Body” and “This is the Chalice of my Blood” and “Do this in remembrance of me” (wherein remember means more than just recall the fond memory). He said whoever does not eat His flesh and drink His blood will have no life in Him (John 6:53).

Christ told His disciples that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in Heaven and whatever they loose will be loosed in Heaven. This is the power Christ gives to His disciples to bind and loose sins, not in their own power, but as avatars of Christ on Earth.

At what point, though, is prioritizing these important faith activities and regularly participating in them then “too religious”?

I’m sure you understand my point, but let me make my point clear:

One may shove off religiosity in the name of faith, assuming that these elements are contrary to each other. But in the act of faith, seeking and trying to bind ourselves to our Creator and Sustainer, what better way is there to join ourselves to our God than through regularly practice and custom, or even ritual?

I think there is a misconception against religion that begins with an understanding of God as unchanging and immutable. Because He is unchanging, then we assume that our participation in His saving grace is similarly unchanging and immutable. But remember the dynamic of prayer: it is not about changing God, it is about changing us. While here on Earth our mission as Christians is not about passive participation in faith, it is about actively approximating ourselves to God, it is about sanctification and justification.

A faith without works is dead (James 2:17), but works alone does not save. The Catholic Church has long recognized (since the beginning) that one must receive faith and then respond to the faith with works of love.

The truth of the matter is that religion is a tool wherein one can deepen their faith, their hope, and their charity.

The other truth of the matter is that even those who say they do not like religion, yet have deep faith, actually practice religion. They have habits that actively deepen their faith. They have habits that protect them from sin and from breaking away from God. They have habits of learning more things about God. They have habits of participating in Community around God’s love and grace.

The phrase “I’m sorry, that’s too much religion for me” is a dangerous slippery slope.

Even if one maintains proper religiosity, but utters this phrase or expresses it in some way to the people around them, they promote an air of disregard for the Faith. It tells people that “you can do what you want, so long as you acknowledge God,” yet doing whatever one wants is exactly what drives us away from God.

Don’t be afraid of religiosity. Embrace it.

Watch out, it’s a Trad!

I’ve only been a Catholic for two years. Two years. That’s not long, in Catholic terms. And of course, when you enter a community, you don’t begin by first understanding every nuance of their people. You get to know the surface level of the people and the core tenets of their bond. But as you sink in longer, you start to see more and more sides of people, their delights, their frustrations, their arguments, etc. Since I came into the Catholic faith already barreling through books and podcasts at a million miles an hour, I didn’t stop, and these two years have been almost as enlightening as the one leading up to my conversion.

One thing of interest to me is the general Catholic community’s response to traditionalists (rad-trads, glad-trads, etc). Ironically, since I converted from a pretty vague and liberal non-denominational Christianity, I’ve seen it in other people’s faces as I myself have approached them. My goal in this article is to offer a method of healing conversation in this rift between modern Catholics.

The source of conflict seems to arise from the Second Vatican Council, started in the early 60s, generally concluding around 1965. This council was different than many, primarily being *more of a pastoral council, rather than being a doctrinal council, as almost all others in the past had been. One of the documents from this council was Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document that addressed the shape of liturgical life within the Catholic Church. In and of itself it left a lot of wiggle room, but the idea was to remember the way that the early Church adapted itself to the many cultures it was evangelizing to, and the way that it married the sacred and true, within the church, with the beautiful that was found uniquely expressed in the people it was preaching to. Pretty soon after the Second Vatican Council, however, came up a group called the *Concilium, who took it upon themselves to respond to Sacrosanctum Concilium‘s demands and modify the regular Catholic Church’s liturgy so that it conformed to the Council’s demands. It is generally agreed that the *Concilium was much more left-leaning than the Council Fathers themselves, and modified the liturgy in much more extreme ways than anticipated. The result? The *Missal of Paul VI, or the Novus Ordo Missae, the New Order of the Mass, standing in contrast to the Tridentine Mass of old. As you can imagine, not everyone was happy with the new changes.

Imagine Father Michael, a priest at a pretty normal parish. He knows most of his parishioners well. One of the parishioners, John, has talked with Fr. Michael often about the Liturgy and traditional elements of the old Latin Mass. But John is not the only trad that Fr. Michael has known. He’s encountered many trads in the past who are angry, perhaps vitriolic in their speech, and who waste no time in correcting Fr. Michael or his fellow priests on ‘abuses’ of the liturgy. John has never himself demonstrated these negative behaviors towards Fr. Michael, but he has been talking more and more about traditional liturgy and traditional Catholic practices.

One day, John approaches Fr. Michael with a calm smile on his face, excited to talk about a new element of traditional liturgy he learned about the other day. Fr. Michael sees John coming and immediately tenses. What will he do this time? Is he finally going to be angry? Reprimand him with false authority? Call him a bad priest? Fr. Michael steels himself, puts up a wall to genuine conversation, and hopes the barrage passes soon.

Sadly this reaction is not uncalled for. Recently Bishop Barron directed a video to trads who, while claiming to uphold a better example of the faith, are spewing vitriol all over the internet and social media, committing the mortal sin of calumny. Despite the novelty of my own Catholicism and the staunchly different origin of my conversion, I have encountered the same measure of ‘shut down’ from priests and other church leaders that I have directly spoken with. Once they learn that I’m even interested in elements of older liturgy, they seem to stop listening, and steel themselves against whatever I might say next. It seems to me that this conflict of the recent past has erupted into mountains of pain and ill-speak. The result? Liturgy has almost become a taboo topic within the Catholic Church. People put themselves and others into camps, they don’t open themselves up to hear what other influences might offer, and nothing productive seems to be done.

My goal here is to offer a bridge of connection, a way for non-trads to understand trads.

Firstly, why are trads always so angry? Why do they hurt people so recklessly? There may be a mountain of reasons, but one thing most trads have in common is this: a desire for beauty.

Think about walking into a beautiful old Cathedral, that has stood since the time of the Roman Empire, but has been burned down and abandoned. What is that pain that you feel, watching something so beautiful be cast to the wayside?

Recently I walked into St. John’s Episcopal Church for the first time in Tallahassee, Florida. BeautifulStunning. Compared to the Catholic Cathedral of St. Thomas More down the street? A hundred times more beautiful. But when I thought about that Church not being in Catholic hands? When I thought about the Catholic Church just down the street not having the same level of beauty? I felt a pain in my chest. A heartache.

The main source of anger, or, if more vulnerably revealed, sadness and hurt, is having a high expectation of beauty and reverence in every aspect of the Catholic faith, but not having those expectations fulfilled.

The Catholic Church is nigh 2,000 years old. It’s traditions are old and beautiful, and have had much time to refine themselves and become elevated to all new levels. Architecture, music, art, iconography and liturgy have all had so much time to be taken to such high levels of sophistication that the trad has many expectations for the current Church. Yet when a trad walks into a Church shaped by the Novus Ordo Missae, he typically does not find these things. Along with many of the adaptations of the Novus Ordo in the late 20th century, architecture became increasingly simplified. Music was taken in from local cultures, and Gregorian Chant was all but deleted. Art was infiltrated by modernists and postmodernists. Liturgy had many elements of mysticism erased, and, comparatively, can be incredibly less reverential.

When a trad looks at a ‘progressive’ Catholic Church, they feel pain from the lack of fulfillment of their expectation.

Regarding Vatican II

Certainly, yes, there are trads who actually have beef with the Second Vatican Council documents themselves. They think the Church has somehow ‘protestantized’ itself, abandoned Church teaching, and is living in some sort of apostasy. But not all trads are that way. I, for one, enjoyed the Vatican II documents. Were it not for them, I don’t think my article here would be very welcome by clergy. Even understanding Sacrosanctum Concilium, while I admit has been difficult for me, is something I can get by. But in processing that document and coming to terms with it, it has helped me understand something about the relationship between more progressive and conservative strains of Catholics.

The Sacredness of the Liturgy

What I think non-trad priests and clergy may not understand about the trad movement is that the manner of celebration of the liturgy and conformity to the Second Vatican Council are not a unified identifier for trads. In other words, just because I as a trad do not like the Novus Ordo Missae as much as I like the Tridentine Mass, does not mean that I don’t agree with the Second Vatican Council. These things are separate.

Bishop Barron, in a video (1:20) recently about the Second Vatican Council, reminded viewers that the Novus Ordo Missae spiritually fed the lives of saints such as Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II. While it might be easy to retort that the Tridentine Mass spiritually fed almost all of the other saints in Catholic history, it is important to recognize what Bishop Barron is getting at. In many ways this is what a lot of non-trad clergy would wish for trads to understand. Since the Novus Ordo is valid and licit, it means that Christ is present just as much there as it was in the old Mass. It is an objectively good thing. We don’t need to return to an older liturgy just to find Christ’s presence, or to be reverent when praying the Mass. Reverence is just as possible in the Novus Ordo as it is in the old Tridentine Mass.

Fr. Michael O’Loughlin, a Byzantine Rite Catholic priest, once said something that made me think about this. He highlighted on the podcast Catholic Stuff You Should Know that the Novus Ordo may not be as outwardly obvious when it comes to portraying reverence for Christ, but does not negate it. It just means that the responsibility for reverence lies more within the heart of the mass-goer to seek out and give that worship. This, compared to something like the Tridentine Mass, where directions for reverence and general beauty are simply more obvious and easier for people to understand. Fr. Michael’s point here is that it actually demonstrates a stronger faith if someone is able to find Christ in the Novus Ordo, as much as that person is able to find Christ in the heart of a homeless person, because they don’t need all of the outward beauty in order to carry their minds into the deep heart of Christ’s love.

A bridge between these two perspectives.

Wise trads will legitimately recognize the validity of the Novus Ordo, and should even agree that reverence is just as possible. But how do we find a path forward between self-identified trads and non-trads? What do we talk about?

The first point is that just because reverence and beauty are possible does not mean that they are effectively implemented. In order to make the Mass adaptable and understandable to the many cultures it has reached out to in this globalized world, many optional instructions had to be introduced. Even though the general structure is the same as the old Tridentine Mass, there are many ways to adapt the Novus Ordo Missae that may make it look very similar or incredibly different.

One of my firm beliefs, and this may be the most important section of my articleis that there are many ways that the Novus Ordo Missae can be implemented that would actually form a bridge to those trads that people seem to be so afraid of. My suspicion is that upon implementing these changes, or at least seriously entertaining these more traditional aspects, many may find that rad-trads will be plenty appeased. As I previously said, the source of pain in a trad’s heart is usually about a lack of beauty within the Church. When the only people offering these elements of beauty are those offering the Tridentine Mass, should we be surprised that people would flock to that? *After listening to a recent episode of the Burrowshire Podcast, I would even go so far as to say that the Novus Ordo Missae can be done incredibly reverently.

Here is a list of things (in no particular order of importance) that should not bring any conflict, and, if implemented reverently, may inspire all to a deeper beauty and reverence for the Mass, all the while *properly and actually conforming to the demands of Sacrosanctum Concilium:

A. Reception of the Eucharist

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, the Eucharist is primarily received on the hand, while standing. After receiving, the communicant steps to the side and then crosses themselves. They then receive the Eucharist under the species of wine from a common cup. Communicants alternatively may receive the Eucharist, under the species of bread, directly on the tongue, usually while standing as well.

More traditionally, the Eucharist is only received on the tongue while kneeling at an altar rail. Yes, many elders find it difficult to kneel, and an accommodation seems to be in order, but on the whole, what is the best way to receive the sacrificed corpus of the King of the Universe? Tradition says that we should kneel before our King. By receiving directly on the tongue, we are letting the hands that consecrated the Eucharist, the hands of the priest, be the only hands that are worthy of touching something so precious. This posture of receptivity, more reverential towards the magnitude of God-made-flesh, communicates this reality not only to the communicant, but the whole community around them. Then, the communicant does not cross themselves. Why? When crossing oneself, we are calling to us the presence of the triune God in our prayer. In the reception of the Eucharist, have we not received the most perfect earthly presence of God into ourselves? At best, crossing oneself is redundant, and at worse, it is border-line heretical, not acknowledging the true presence of Christ within the Eucharist, thinking that there is some ingredient further necessary in the reception of the Eucharist.

Lastly, regarding the common cup containing the Eucharist under the species of wine, we traditionally find that the laity does not regularly consume it. The Catholic Church teaches that the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist under each species. If you only receive one form, you receive it all (hence during this time of pandemic, we do not commonly find the distribution of the common cup). At times of importance in one’s life (confirmation, first communion, marriage) it is encouraged that the laity may receive under both species, but certainly not every Sunday. Some of the reasons are for logistic purposes, but generally it is so that the Eucharist is handled as carefully and reverently as possible.

B. Celebrating Mass Ad Orientem

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, the priest celebrates Mass while facing the people. More things are typically pronounced aloud so that the people can hear and generally feel more included in the act of consecration.

More traditionally, the priest celebrates Mass while facing away from the people, typically facing the crucifix that the laity themselves look at. Did you know that Catholic Churches are typically constructed so that the laity faces the east (oriens)? The idea of the Mass is that the priest, as the representative of Christ, offering up the sacrifice of our Lord, is doing so with the people. In the modern sense this would seem to suggest that the priest face the people, as an act of cooperation, but in tradition the priest also faces the east (ad orientem). With everyone facing the same direction, it helps everyone call to mind that what is happening during the mass is not something that is internal to the Church; it is directed towards something Heavenly, something outside of the Church.

An often circulated idea around the internet is this question: Which way would you prefer your bus driver to face? Towards the passengers, or away from the passengers, leading them as they travel on?

C. Using Gregorian Chant

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  Sacred Music takes on the form of hymns in the local language, or in the language of most of the parishioners. Sometimes other music like popular Christian Rock songs may find some adaptation into the liturgy as well. Many instruments are potentially used: guitars, violins, trumpets, keyboards, pianos, etc, in addition to the traditional organ. There are many ways that the ordinaries of the Mass can be sung, usually with one overriding melody that repeats throughout the ordinaries.

More traditionally, Sacred Music exists in the form of Gregorian Chant or Polyphony. Many people find this daunting because of the use of Latin, but more on Latin in a second. Polyphony is when multiple voices come together and harmonize around the traditional Gregorian Chant music. This music has, intentionally, a more solemn tone than much modern music. This is not contrary to the Christian image, it is to be encouraged! The documents of the Second Vatican Council say that Gregorian Chant should be the golden standard of Sacred Music. This does not mean to cast it aside: it means that Sacred Music should conform largely to the form of Gregorian Chant, excepting some differences for how it can be localized in different regions. One example of this is how we might view chant in the High Anglican Church or in The Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (The rite within the Catholic Church that is an Anglican celebration of the Mass properly ordered under the rule of the Catholic Church). Because of a more intimate familiarity of the use of the English language within a holy setting, the Ordinariate and the Anglican Church, I believe, contain more Sacred Music that is in the form of Gregorian Chant, but which properly recognizes the way that it interacts with the English language. In the end, this is what I think Vatican II wanted to see, not upbeat guitar music in Mass.

Unfortunately when the Norvus Ordo was implemented, the standard of Gregorian Chant materials for it were delayed and not fully implemented. The result is that Gregorian Chant has fallen to the wayside in the modern Church. It needs to be revitalized!

D. Using Latin for the Ordinaries of the Mass

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  Latin is not used. It might be used on occasion during extra solemn occasions (during Lent or Advent). Even then it might only be used for the penitential rite and for parts of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, like the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. When combined with some sort of chant, the music tends to have a simple tone (compared to a highly variant tone).

More traditionally, Latin is used for the whole of the Mass, except for the Homily. Vatican II documents call for, at the very least, that Latin be used for all of the Ordinaries of the Mass. These are the parts of the Mass that don’t change week to week. The goal is that the laity learn what the Latin is for these parts of the Mass and don’t have difficulty encountering them on the regular.

Further, by using Latin, a language not commonly used by the laity, the Mass becomes a place of extraordinary difference. It becomes the most out-of-place element of our lives. It stands out. By using this different, albeit common, language across the same rite, the liturgy itself helps Catholics remember that the world they are living in is a passing and fleeting place, that the reality of Heaven is more beautiful and other compared to the world that we currently live in. Latin helps draw the Catholic out of the haze of this world and encourage them to seek what is holy, which is often considered illogical by the world.

The goal is not to alienate the laity from the Church, it is to remind the laity that they are aliens to the world and the world’s ways.

E. Bowing when certain names are pronounced during the Liturgy

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  everyone bows during the pronunciation of the Nicene Creed, when acknowledging the conception of our Lord by the Holy Spirit through Mary. Entering the Church, and ideally every time that someone crosses in front of the altar, all genuflect.

More traditionally, in addition to the elements above, everyone bows at the pronunciation of the name of our Lord and when the Trinitarian doxology is pronounced, and during the Nicene creed everyone genuflects instead of bowing. These extra gestures of physical movement, which are inherently reverential, direct the worshiper towards Christ and towards God many times throughout the liturgy. Call it Active Participation, if you will.

F. Forgoing the assistance of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  there are a regular squad of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, who help distribute the Eucharist and, ideally, speed up communion. They make the whole process more efficient. These are especially necessary when considering the distribution of the common cup, as the priest alone cannot effectively distribute both forms of the Eucharist in a timely and careful manner. By distributing the work out, it is possible to help everyone receive under both species in a safe way.

More traditionally, the laity do not receive from the cup. They only receive the Eucharist under the species of bread, except for special occasions. Calling back to the idea of receiving the Eucharist in a more reverential way, the use of Extraordinary Ministers presents conflict for the traditionalist. Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist are not able to consecrate the Eucharist itself. They have not been ordained to consecrate it. The priest’s hands, by virtue of his priesthood and by virtue of the hand cleansing that he does prior to the consecration of the Eucharist, is particularly disposed to handling the Eucharist in a reverential way. No matter how much hand sanitizer an Extraordinary Minister uses, it does not change that they do not share themselves in the priesthood and that they do not set aside their hands for holy purposes the way that a priest does, especially during Mass. They are not as “set-aside” as the priests intentionally are. You will also find trads become uncomfortable if they see a priest touch his face after having consecrated the Eucharist, prior to completing the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Ironically, while Extraordinary Ministers are Extraordinary, they are a pretty ordinary staple of most Novus Ordo parishes.

G. Vestments for Lectors and Cantors

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  Lectors and Cantors (much less Extraordiary Ministers) are not vested. They are not marked as set aside for the purpose of Holy Mass. I have always seen Altar Servers vested, but I have only ever seen Lectors vested in one Church, and I have only ever seen Cantors vested in one other.

More traditionally, anyone directly supporting the flow of Holy Mass, be it lectors, cantors, or altar servers, are all vested. By having some kind of vestment, however simple, it helps all involved recognize the measure that the Holy Mass is “set-apart.”

Something else about these roles that disrupts an air of reverence is how the altar is approached and treated by these figures. In the Tridentine Mass the priest spends a significant time in prayer before ascending to the altar to begin the Mass, yet in the Novus Ordo Missae lectors, cantors, and extraordinary ministers seem to simply walk up to that area around the altar with a simple bow, if any reaction at all. My wife and I first served as lectors at our Church, but thinking about how casually we were able to enter the area of the altar put us in a place of great discomfort. We initially thought that our Pastor’s restriction of needing to wear fancy clothes was a burden, but we came to think that even that wasn’t enough.

H. Incense. All the time.

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  incense is used on special occasion, typically in times of solemn celebration.

More traditionally, incense is used

every.

single.

Sunday. (and every sung mass)

’nuff said.

In Summary

Should all of the more traditional elements of the liturgy, as lain out above, be incorporated into the Novus Ordo Missae, I imagine you would find many trads happily cooperating and participating in non-Tridentine Mass. I truly believe that much of the unrest in trads’ hearts lies with the way in which the Liturgy is reverentially treated.

These suggestions are not somehow contrary to the Second Vatican Council. They are very much in line and are able to be used in the Novus Ordo Missae. The desire for their inclusion is not bad, either. The desire for the more traditional implementations of these elements of the Mass are holy. We are an institutional Church. We desire not only to be more holy at the individual level, but also as parochial , diocesan, national, and global communities.

Don’t be afraid talking to a trad. Some are scary, I give you that. Some are spiteful, hateful, and are in deep need of love, just as much as anyone. But if we, as Catholics, were more unified and more reverential in our conduct of the Mass? I think we would find this source of division to be a source of holy unity and power in the modern world. Church isn’t where we go to be comfortable. It’s where we go to seek that which is out of this world, which is truly “set-apart,” or holy. Let’s treat it like that.

The most important thing is that we celebrate one Eucharist, and that we know Jesus loves us.

Yes, yes, we know. We get it! But more and more young people do not platitudes. We don’t want to be appeased. We don’t want to be handheld through the faith and through the liturgy.

We want to be challenged.

We want the liturgy to put us in our place.

We want to worship God.

We want to break that jar of perfume for our Lord’s feet.


Post Script

Resources:

#011 – What You Need to Know about Vatican II – Burrowshire Podcast

This podcast, hosted by Brandon Vogt and Father Blake Britton, delicately and profoundly engages the meat of the Second Vatican Council. They address the notion of the Para-Council which dramatically affected the Post-Conciliar Church, especially when considering the Liturgy.

*Based on listening to the Burrowshire podcast, I made a number of edits to this article. Any changes will be noted by this asterisk note.

Have you tried Language-Bending?

Did you ever wish you could firebend like Uncle Iroh? Airbend like Aang? Metalbend like Toph? Then maybe you should think about learning a language.

Learning a language is a lot like learning to bend any of the four elements.

Just like many of you out there, my family and I have been rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender ever since Netflix managed to get it put up (and save their revenue numbers, let’s be real). As we have rewatched this series I have had a whole slua of thoughts, but one big one is the connection that it has with language.

Besides the incredible amount of world building, character development, and awesome plot line, there is a basic element of awesomeness about this show and it’s fictional universe: people can control and bend the natural elements, namely Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. With gestures of the human body and movements of the will, people can make the natural elements conform to their desires. It is the subject of pure awe and wonder. I imagine you, as I, feel incredible envy when watching this. How awesome would that kind of power be?

Of course, one has to walk away sad from watching this series (not just because of the emotions that it really wrenches out of the audience) but because you know you will never be able to have that kind of power in the real world…

or can you?

Let me now draw a number of comparisons between language and the ability to bend the elements.

It is an ability confined to a specific group of people. The basic premise of the show is that if a person can bend the elements, it is a trait that is passed on genetically. So you end up with not a conglomeration of different element benders in the same place, but a divided set of nations, each with it’s own relationship to one of the elements (Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, Water Tribe, Air Nomads). Additionally, a bender can only bend one element. If you are a bender in the Earth Kingdom, you likely are only an Earthbender.

Languages are also (typically) confined to a specific group of people. It is passed on, albeit non-genetically, from parents to children. There are of course exceptions which I will address later on, but the principal of language is that it has existence first within a defined community. Typically, also, we see that amongst most nations there is one overriding language that is either the norm or is simply used in the majority.

It has a unique manifestation within the people that use it. Bending is not any sort of willy-nilly movement of the body – it is a cultivated art. It is clear from the show that for a bender to become a master of their ability, they need to cultivate purposeful forms and learn to direct their abilities through refined and designed forms of body movements. Once someone has really learned the rules and principles of it, they can push the limits and even come up with new expressions of bending (like how Toph creates metalbending).

Scientists know that different language users have different biases, or skews, that affect how they view the world. More than that, the body has to become accustomed to contorting features of the mouth so as to produce specific sounds of a language. Every language is made up of different structures, and the body has to conform to these various structures. These language-specific conformations become so ingrained in the users that the users don’t even think consciously about how they do it – it becomes like breathing.

It has a unique relationship to culture. Even though not everyone is a bender in each of the societies, the nature of the element has a specific relationship to the people that, at the very least, live around it. It affects the way they dress, what kinds of values they hold, non-bending rituals, nomenclature, everything. In many ways, bending becomes a lens through which the entire people sees themselves.

Language, conversely, is used by nearly every single human being within a society. But certainly language is intimately married with every cultural expression found within the society that uses it. Language becomes the condensed expression of that culture, and is the entry point for looking into the culture and society that uses it.

While each bending ability is unique, it is centered in a common motion. At one point, Aang (the main character, the Avatar), learns from a Guru about chakras and about how spiritual energy flows through the person. It’s a bunch of hullabaloo in real-world terms, but the Guru gives a lot of insight into how this fictional universe is constructed. At one point, especially, he teaches Aang that even though people are bending different material substances, all benders access their abilities and manifest their abilities through the same motion of energy. Essentially, the stuff that makes up the different elements aren’t really all that different at a core level (so, atoms). The biggest difference comes in how that energy is moved by the bender, and from the bender’s relationship to that general energy.

When looking at language, here is the comparison. All human beings are using the same thing when they accomplish language – reasoning. This core ability to reason is common across all of the languages. They are the physical manifestations of rational thought and ability, but are different in how the language speaker moves these reasonings, and from the speaker’s relationship to rational knowledge.

There are, however, some important differences.

Firstly, as I mentioned, not everyone in each nation is a bender of their affiliated element, but every member of a society is a user of that society’s language (generally). But this pales in comparison to a larger difference:

In the universe of Avatar: The Last Airbender, you can only ever bend one element, if you can at all. The story follows the path of Aang, the Avatar. Aang is unique because as the Avatar he can bend not just one, but all four elements (he in fact has a responsibility to do so). Beyond the primary envy of the viewer of wanting to bend any of the elements, their is an additional envy of being able to bend all of the elements.

Unlike people within the universe of Avatar, we in the real world can revel in the fact that language, the most approximate form of bending we could be capable of, is not strictly limited to any one person or group.

Make no mistake, learning a language is a lot like learning to bend an element (in the sense that it takes much time and effort), but the fact is that you can do it! Not only do all humans have equal access to the beauty of our first languages, but we can also learn any other language.

The universe of Avatar only has four nations, for the four elements. Comparatively, we would say we have something like 6,500 “nations.” That’s a lot of languages!

If you have ever watched the show, if you have ever marveled at the power of these benders and said “Man, I wish I could do that,” then learning a language might be exactly what you are looking for. If you have always wondered what the point of learning a language even was, then look no further than here: the majesty and beauty of learning a language is the same majesty and beauty that you can observe in the benders of the universe of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

P.S. Don’t know how to get started with learning a language? Click here to find out how!

Love is Love is…Love?

Postmodernism, the umbrella term for today’s most prevailing philosophical thought, covers a wide range of topics. Previously I have even shared a picture I found which I dubbed ‘The Postmodern Creed’:

Like any creed, there are mountains of literature that could be written on elaborating the various points, most specifically targeting how you arrive very squarely at the summative points of the creed, but also like any creed there are some core underlying currents of thought that propel the philosophy or belief forward.

One of the core notions of Postmodernism is the idea of deconstruction. Our society is currently facing this tenet of Postmodern belief with unbelievable force, as those who are in a position of power and privilege (white people) are being asked to recognize mountains of implicit biases against those who are oppressed (black people), and, most importantly, are being asked to remove systemic issues that enforce such a divide between the powerful and oppressed. What is interesting about the idea of deconstruction is ultimately that postmodernists aren’t trying to tell white people that they are literal racists (although there are plenty of explicitly racist people and they are saying that, too), but that the systems of societal structure and thought into which we are all born have shaped us to believe these things.  In some ways we are all slaves to the systems that we are born into. So even if we do not intentionally hold racist beliefs or actively try to make a systemic gap between white and black people, our passive existence in a society that does therefore means that we are complicit with racism and are allowing it to exist.

A core understanding of deconstruction is that any formation of society relies on social constructs of some kind. Social constructs can be any formation of spoken or unspoken law that dictates some element of reality (black people are genetically inferior, poor people should stay poor, marriage is solely between a man and woman). Postmodernism holds that all of these social constructs are artificially put in place by man at some point in history and have no ground in a deeper reality than man’s own desire for power over others.

Whatever you may say or think about this way of thinking (for it or against it), it has a lot of merit in helping us realize that what we believe matters. Whatever you think about reality affects all of your decisions, explicitly or implicitly. Psychology has demonstrated that the brain makes sensory ‘leaps’ when observing and helping us interpret reality. We cannot possibly think about everything that we sense (that bell ringing in the background, the feel of your phone in your hand, the two people talking with you, how one of them smells, the coffee that’s being made behind you, whatever your toes are feeling, the AC running in the background, etc). So the brain makes shortcuts and only focuses on some of those things as relevant. This shapes what we think because we do not think or make decisions without some biases (focusing on the coffee instead of the sound of the bell). There is, though, a good chance that the kind of person you are or the philosophy that shapes the framework of your thought is going to modify what you pay attention to and think about. So even if you don’t explicitly think about how you feel about a person of a different skin color, there is a good chance (in the U.S. in the modern time) you have some bias about it. Whatever systems of thought have formed you will affect how you operate at every level (implicitly or explicitly).

There are many things that true adherents of Postmodernism want people to call into question and to deconstruct within themselves and in society as a whole. We could really spend a long time talking about all of them: economy (financial disparity), education (enslaving to old systems of thought rather than liberating from them), religion (disguised oppression), etc. But there is one thing that I want to focus on, as it actually serves to highlight a core issue in the larger field of Postmodern thought:

Sex.

Now, the truth here is that as Postmodern thought is growing in popularity, it’s seeing some growing pains. Not everyone is of the same opinion on this subject, but there are some basic agreements. Firstly, and most importantly, is that centuries (millennia) of thought have informed and told us (humanity) that sex equals 1 man and 1 woman, with the inevitability of children. This system of thought about human sexuality has been, as you may guess, oppressive. When adhering to this system of thought, there are consequences, such as the oppression of women where they are not allowed to work outside of the house or make authoritative changes in their own lives. Without any birth control, women would have to have many children, they wouldn’t be able to get higher education or a high paying career, and so they are subjugated to men who do have access to these things. Furthermore both women and men in a society that enforces such a relationship (implicitly or explicitly) are not truly free to decide how their sexuality and gender may express itself. Maybe someone doesn’t want to have a sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex. Maybe they like both. Maybe they feel like they were born the wrong sex? Maybe they just aren’t interested in engaging in it at all? Maybe they think there is no binary of sexual identities?

The main point is that what needs to happen in every person and at the societal (and therefore systemic) level, is deconstruction. We have to all throw off these old shackles that are holding us back from being truly free to choose. As long as we are stuck in old ways of thinking, as long as we are relying on tradition and especially western colonial thinking (residual culture and thought from Colonizing Europeans), then we are enslaved to that singular mindset. Postmoderns are very interested in attempting to unveil cultural views from non-western groups of people to show that the western way of viewing sex or any other constructed system is not the only way, and that it is not arbitrarily more correct than any other.

You might think that Postmodern thought is purely destructive in this manner, and that there are no positive contributions to the discussion, but this wouldn’t be true. Ultimately Postmoderns (politically liberal or conservative) are interested in freedom of choice, and then love.

Love is love is love.

Once somebody makes a choice, love them! That choice, for all you know, is exactly right for them. Don’t judge them. Don’t oppress them with whatever system of thought oppresses you. Don’t obligate someone else to conform to your view. Love is almost single-handedly the antidote to oppression, as love allows the other person to make choices free of any such oppression. If the problem at hand is being trapped by old systems and not being free to choose how you live your life, then loving people, who make choices you think are weird or morally unsound, is the answer. Love empowers people to be free and and to shed an oppressive past.

Mind you this doesn’t mean open relativism, where everyone has an inherently different worldview and there is no founding truth. A Postmodern does not truly think that murder or stealing is okay, even if the murderer or thief thinks it is the “right choice for them.” There is an inherent ground of good and evil, a necessary and basic social construction; good lying with liberation and love, evil lying with oppression and hate. Someone murdering someone else is hateful and oppressive.

This month is pride month.

This month and this time of year this oppressed group of people gets a platform to express themselves, and the rest of the world outside of the LGBTQ+ community has the opportunity to respond. Do they respond with oppression and hate? Or do they respond with love and welcoming arms?

But…what is love?

Love is love is…love? Where does this talk take us? Certainly they do not mean a romantic love, as no one is insinuating that that Bill Gates needs to develop a romantic love for every single person in the LGBTQ+ community in order to be good towards them. Some people in this community even define themselves as aromantic, meaning that they have sexual attractions but explicitly do not have any romantic attractions.

We could go through a list of multiple kinds of loves, but we don’t have to go very far to demonstrate that the LGBTQ+ community is describing a more ethereal love. But it still seems to lack a defining feature. What does this love look like?

On the one hand, it has unique expression in every relationship or case. Maybe it looks like a heteronormative (1 man+1 woman) relationship. Maybe it looks like two men who have no formally contracted relationship. Maybe it looks like a relationship between someone who identifies as a woman and someone who identifies as a man, even though appearances suggest something else. In any case, these individuals may have genuine love for each other, so it exists at a unique level, but is still more abstract.

I would suggest that there are two forms of love that exist ethereally behind the idea of generic Postmodern love.

One idea is delightDelight is a form of love that gives one those fluttery feelings. It moves one in the direction of something (abstractly or physically) because it makes one feel good. It gives one pleasure to think, to interact, and to just exist in proximity to something or someone else. This is where we see love as feeling. Wherever one finds delight, romantically, sexually, or generally, then they are encouraged to seek it out and to live as approximately to it as possible, because having these positive feelings is exactly the kind of happiness one can get in life.

A second idea is affirmation. This is probably the most important one for the Postmodern philosophy. Affirmation is not based in feelings. Affirmation is rooted in the higher philosophical truth of Postmodernism that is essentially the opposite of oppression. Instead of someone choosing to oppress an individual in the LGBTQ+, the opposite motion is to affirm them. Not only do you validate their position and identity, but you affirm them and tell them that it is good, and that they should pursue it and pursue what makes them happy. You support them in their diversity. It is contrary to affirmation that we find the idea of hate. To not support and affirm someone is to condemn them and say that they are wrong, which is inherently hateful.

Okay…great…so what?

Postmoderns’ relationship to the idea of love is flawed. It misses the mark. It falls short.

Delight is good, but it is fleeting. If a parent bases the love for their child in delight, then both parent and child are bound to suffer infinitely. Children do not yet understand the world. They are selfish. They don’t know any better. They have to grow and have to learn about other people around them, which is the root work of parenthood. But this root work is anything but delightful. It is tough and gritty, and involves a lot of tears. It leads to delight (uhm, hello, baby giggles? omg so great), but delight is a bonus, not the root location of relationship. If you only seek out delight in a relationship, but avoid the difficult and gritty work of growth in relationship, then you are looking at a poisonous and dishonest relationship. Resentment, conflict and pain will be the fruits instead of happiness and growth. If you teach a child that relationships (romantic, sexual, or whichever otherwise) are about being happy with other people and that true relationships never really have conflict, then that poor child will have a frightful life, filled with anxiety and doubt.

Affirmation, as an ultimate level and distinction of a type of love, is poisonous in and of itself as well. Affirming someone can be good, as affirmation is fuel. It gives someone else the power to move forward and to confidently make choices. Affirmation is a necessary ingredient for growth, because how else will someone know that they can and should keep going? Affirmation is necessarily communal. One can push ahead on their own towards what they believe is good, but being alone is difficult and depressing. Receiving affirmation tells you that what you are doing is worth the gruel and grime of life. But blanket affirmation, affirming someone wherever they are and however they think it is good to proceed forward, is not an inherently good move. In general, black and white affirmation means affirmation in spite of knowing what it is the person is engaging with. Indeed black and white affirmation is part of the mental framework that says there is no singular good towards which to work. It means letting people find their own good in the world, wherever that is and however it might appear. It would be reckless to simply affirm my child whenever they engage in an activity that they would assume to be ‘good.’ At the end of the day, I might not have a house left to live in. As stated previously, though, Postmoderns do not think that it is okay to affirm a murderer. Affirmation requires nuance, attention to that which is good (but we’ll get to that in a second).

Of course, these two loves within Postmoderns do not exist in isolation: they cooperate together. When these two loves work together, they come in and contribute love where the other is deficient, and work together to create a higher experience of love. Delight helps define the limits of good and evil so that affirmation is more effective in community, so that healthy boundaries are found for people and for relationships. Affirmation, as a more abstract experience and expression of love, gives relationships substance even when delight is not to be had. Affirmation itself as an act introduces a level of delight in the one who gives as well as the one who receives, though. In the end, the ideal of love is embodied by these two dimensions of delight and affirmation.

There is, however, a more important form of love. There is a love that is greater than these two, a more ‘noble’ form of love, if you will. In truth I believe it is the type of love that Postmoderns are trying to establish and maintain where they are instead conveying affirmation, or a mix of affirmation and delight.

This more noble form of love is present in delight and outside of delight. This more noble form of love is pure, it expects no good feelings in return. This more noble form of love is entirely focused on the other, and it strengthens others. But, most importantly, this more noble form of love is good. Objectively good. It cannot deviate from good otherwise it is no longer the same love.

The best definition I know of this love is this: to will the good of the other, for the sake of the other. In traditional Catholicism this is called caritas (charity).

We could rephrase it like this: to desire and want objective goodness for someone that is not yourself, for the benefit of this other person and for no other ulterior motive.

Now, this may look like affirmation. When someone else is pursuing something that is good, one affirms them and encourage them to continue on pursuing such a good.

But, and this is the bad news, if someone is pursuing something that is not good, caritas means not affirmingIt even means, God forbid, correction.

One can see how, in the Postmodern mindset, this immediately translates to hate. To oppression. If one disagrees with another on the premise of what is good and therefore does not affirm that other person in their choice and identity, then that equates, in the postmodern mindset, to not loving. Even worse, if one even pretends to correct someone, one is talking about about oppressing that person with one’s own views, as that other person likely sees no wrong in how they have chosen their identity and life.

As I have said, caritas is not present within Postmodern thought, as it inherently does not think that there is a singular and ultimate good worth pursuing that does not end up becoming a rule of oppression. One might argue that sacrifice is a key point of liberation, and that caritas does exist within the postmodern mindset, but the sacrifice is not oriented towards objective good – it is oriented towards an inherent lack of objective good. If Postmodernism opens itself up to the idea of objective good, a subject of debate and inevitable ‘oppression,’ then it would defeat itself in argument. Sacrifice? Yes. Caritas? No.

The moment, though, one refers to objective good, an argument of religion is inevitable. Any source of discussion that may arise in the correction of someone LGBTQ+ brings itself back to religion and back to God. The objective is to shift the location of the discussion. Instead of objectively analyzing where Postmodern philosophy or new wave feminism takes a stand, the location shifts to the philosophy and theology of religion (however shallow), attempting to deconstruct the idea of an objective good. First and foremost in the arsenal of retorts is Christ’s own commandment to love one’s neighbor:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40).

“How can you pretend to love God and not love someone that is LGBTQ+? How do you synthesize those two things? Jesus never specified that you should love everyone except LGBTQ+ people.”

The issue, here, is that a Postmodern reads “love your neighbor,” and understands this to mean love on their own terms rather than what religious tradition has taught. It means to not judge, to not hate or oppress. It means to affirm and to delight in them, without desiring them to change.

Remember, though, that caritas is desiring the objective good for others. It’s not about delight, it’s not about blind affirmation, it is about desiring others to pursue good. Even outside of the context of religion and the LGBTQ+ community we see that this is a higher good. If someone has racist views or racist biases, then we should want that person to change, not just for how that person impacts others, but also for improving their own lives and liberating them from such toxic thoughts and ideas. There is good in wanting someone to change for the better, regardless of how that change might return and affect the agent of change themselves.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

The Bible only ever makes reference to two genders – male and female. These two sexes. New Testament exhortations are directed at husband and wife, not two wives and not two husbands.

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3).

In Romans 1, St. Paul shows the Romans what sinful lives looked like when people turned away from God:

“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:24-27)

In all of the years of the existence of the Church, there has never been a hint of support for a sanctified sexual relationship that was not defined as being between one man and one woman, that is inherently open towards the possibility of life.

Ultimately there is no place for someone to practice and/or prioritize a life as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Why? It prioritizes delight, self-interest, and pleasure over the caritas that we receive from God. The individual prioritizes their chosen identity over the identity which was given to them. God was not afraid to give us morals, to give us a perfect ideal to work towards. One of these ideals is the beauty of sexual relationships. Say what you want, there is only one combination of sexual organs that has the potential to create life. Even if a singular act does not ultimately result in procreation, it had the potential to. No other combination works to make that happen.

Just stop and think about it for the second. We are talking about the ability to create another living human being. Do you know how long science has dreamed of doing that artificially? It is an awesome power, something akin to superpowers (that’s right ladies, I just called you superheroes).  By reason alone, and especially informed by Divine authority, we can see that this form of sexual relationship (1 man + 1 woman) is more noble and more correct than any other form. It can inherently produce goodness (more life), even if the act was performed in an evil way.

For this reason the Church says that homosexuality (or other forms of sexual relationships that are not heteronormative, and even masturbation) is intrinsically disordered. It means that these sexual acts go against the design that God has given us, and that they defile the natural beauty of what sex is meant to be.

“It’s God’s fault that He made me this way. Being gay isn’t something I can control, it’s not a choice. If God didn’t want me to be this way, then He shouldn’t have made me gay.”

There are many elements of human nature that we don’t really have a choice over. Our hearts beat without our willpower, neurons fire without our permission, so to speak. We get hungry against our wills. We feel sad, sometimes, without our willpower. Some people are born infertile, some people are born with bodily deformity. Some people are inadvertently affected by drug consumption, and without having any willpower, are more easily addicted to material substances. All human beings, however imperfect, are beautiful children of God. We are born, however, into an imperfect world and we have many affectations that withhold us from the glory that God originally designed us by. What the Church responds, in any of these situations, is that we work through our weaknesses and deficiencies to more conform ourselves to Christ, through the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God. In the case of LGBTQ+ relationships, the Church asks not that they change the very substance of their being, and ‘make themselves straight.’ No, it asks them to set aside their personal desires and delights (to experience sexual pleasure in a specific way) and, in St. Paul’s words:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1)

One of the images of the Holy Spirit is that of fire. When we speak about God we talk about the definitive Being that is Truth, Love, and Goodness. He is perfect and without flaw. We, as humans, are full of flaws (that’s right, me too. I’m full of flaws). How can a flawed being even approach God? With much mercy and grace. Most people understand this much, but does that mean that we as humans don’t change? God just takes us up the way that we are and doesn’t worry about changing us?

No!

He calls us to perfection!

“You therefore must be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)

Most people don’t understand the Catholic teaching of purgatory. They think it is extra-biblical knowledge that is simply untrue. But it is rooted in this element of caritas and of God. God is so pure, so good, so true, and so loving that if we choose to come close to Him we have no choice but to be purified, like iron ore that is having its impurities burned and sifted away, so all that is truly good is left to be presented to God. Any time (if we put the analogy of time in a timeless place) in purgatory is time where you are burning away your imperfections and the scars of your imperfections so that you may be presented whole and renewed to God, through Christ.

Here then, once again, the Postmodern reads in and sees hate and oppression. They see God as abusive. He says that He loves but He expects us to be different than “how we were created?” Even if the Postmodern might reject the notion of Hell even existing, they’re happy to be afraid of it, or at least rhetorically ask:

If God is all love, how can He condemn someone to Hell?

God does not want anyone to go to Hell. That is not what He desires for people. Since He is Caritas in its most pure form, He desires to be reconnected with us. But He is also Veritas (Truth). If we choose to live in a way that is not true, then therefore we reject Him. Heaven is the beatific vision, the pure sight of God. Hell is separation from God, the most separated we can possibly be. God does not send people to Hell, people choose to go there. Yet it is even God’s love that makes Hell possible.

God loves us so much, and He desires to have a true relationship with us, which means that we would choose Him. Definitionally, if we have the choice between God or not God, then God has to allow there to be a way for us to not choose Him. There has to be a way that we can reject Him. Hell is that possibility. Hell is anything but evidence against God. It is evidence of God’s caritas and mercy that allows us to choose Him and to choose love.

Love is…caritas. And in lesser forms it can be delight and affirmation.

Sometimes before engaging in discussion with someone, we have to realize that we have very different founding principles about how we view our world. Even if one understands themselves to be wholly correct, they have to comprehend the root thought of the people they are talking with. One of the biggest areas of disrupted conversation is when people are talking about the same concept, in different words, or the same word, but different concepts.

When Christians engage Postmodern thinkers, or when Christians confront their own Postmodern tendencies or flaws, they must realize this inherent difference between the love that is God, and the love that Postmodernism preaches. We must also realize the inherent difference between understanding a founding Truth of the world, rooted in God, versus an open pluralism, and championing of pluralistic societies. Postmodernism yields enough to religion, for now, but soon their will be no room for it. This notion of love, which we thought we all agreed on, is indeed not the same. Let us come to terms with it.

IMP #6 – Superpowers

At the end of this article you might be able to tell that as I have navigated down my list of IMPs, posted here, I went from refuting 100% to refuting with less strength. The more I go down the list the more nuances I have to make about my claims. In my last IMP article, about teleportation, I ended up coming to a very scary conclusion that we might create terrible animalesque humans that comes straight out of a dystopian nightmare, but never achieve the goal of true teleportation.

In this article I will address superpowers. If you follow Edward Feser you will know that he has addressed the ideas of humans having superpowers, and you might check out of this conversation, then, and I wouldn’t be terribly offended. But even if you know his arguments, you may still find a point of relevance here in how we react to his arguments.

Superpowers are, of course, of super interest to us humans. By their very name they mean that they are abilities beyond our normal means, something to make us special and something that allows us to overcome normal difficulties with great ease. What kid growing up watching Avatar: The Last Airbender didn’t want the ability to bend one of the four mystical elements?

“Yeah sure, but no one thinks superpowers are real or could be real”

Are we sure? Why are people working on jet packs? Are you telling me scientists aren’t working on cellular regeneration? What is DNA manipulation about if not this? Telepathy is a very real technology that the startup world is already taking advantage of. These things may not end up looking exactly like the Marvel characters so many of us are familiar with (or not, if you’re lame), and we may not be talking about Avatar levels of power, but these technologies and manipulations of the human body are exactly used for the same purpose that superpowers have. Hello, Iron Man is a superhero, too.

Just thinking from your own experience, and especially if you’ve been reading my other articles, you can guess that something like Marvel or Avatar levels of superpowers are not something coming down the pipeline. Why do you think science is so focused on the technology side of our ability to overcome nature? Changing things with your thoughts, or adding some supernatural physical ability like flying, is not something that just happens for a human.

This is an impossible modern possibility: humans will never have superpowers.

So there…that’s…it, right? Wow, short article.

Except not so much.

There are two situations that we need to contemplate with regards the supernatural side of our imagination.

  1. The value of discovering and incorporating super technologies into our lives, essentially granting us supernatural abilities.
  2. The deeper reality of our will, and what a perfected will looks like. Would we even want superpowers?

So, first. The value of getting all of these super technologies. It’s a fascinating point.

What if we could live forever?
What if we could fly?
What if we could see what other people were thinking?
What if we could have an advantage over everyone else?

There’s some fascinating answers to these questions. You could think about the innumerable material benefits that these powers would grant us, but what value would it have for us? That we could possess more of the material world? That we could get more…social power? Possessions? Comfort? Security?

Aristotle, when reviewing the notions of what true happiness consists, looks at all of these things. He ultimately comes to the conclusion, though, that nothing in the material world could be a true source of happiness, because anything gained in the material world ultimately goes on to serve some other purpose. There is nothing in the world that leads to true happiness, that is based primarily in itself, that does not lead to some other end.

Money cannot be the source of happiness, because it’s inherent design is to acquire other goods. The other goods cannot be the source of happiness because they inherently serve to cause you pleasure. Pleasure cannot be the source of happiness (via food, drink, or diversion), because, as Aristotle says, ‘that is the life of a fatted cow’ (Nicomachean Ethics, Chapter 5)- a human can have all of those things and still be sad. Power cannot be the source of happiness because it inherently serves to leverage the later possession of other goods or other peoples’ pleasing you.

All superpowers could do is provide us with more leverage within the worldly domain. Extend our time or other peoples’ time on earth, delaying the inevitable doom of death, of which all people suffer. In other words, superpowers cannot provide us with something that we do not already have – opportunities to seek good, truth, pleasures and evils within the world.

In short, I must ask you to reflect, what’s the value of pursuing superpowers? Why even care about manifesting them in real life? Additionally, I ask you to reflect on the wonderful superpowers that you already have access to: video calling, internet, electricity (the most advanced form of firebending), plumbing (waterbending), etc. Have those superpowers landed us with some amazing form of life that has resolved our problems? Or has it just left us hungry or more, putting us on a path of constantly seeking for more worldly things to satiate a hunger for happiness and goodness?

Now, second. If you have read Feser’s article on superpowers (forgive me, I cannot find it for the life of me), you will know that he does allow for the possibility of superpowers…just…with an interesting nuance.

If you follow with the logic for the existence of the Aristotelian human form, you know that there are the intellect and will as integral parts of the human form, or soul. Now, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that because the intellect and will are part of their own cycle of act and potency, the soul itself is capable of persisting beyond death and into eternity. It does not exist in an ideal way, since our form is meant to co-exist with materiality (i.e., our bodies), but it does keep existing.

Now, if you aren’t a Christian and you don’t enjoy the idea of an afterlife…well…I’m sorry for you. But bear with me here.

As far as the Christian life is concerned, we are promised a future Heaven. The Unmoved Mover of the universe, God, the reason for which we exist and the reason we exist at all, has revealed Himself to us and promises that, should we believe in His divinely revealed message, sent through His son Jesus Christ, then we will have eternal life. Just as Christ was raised on the third day with a perfected material body that was capable of co-existing with His eternal soul, so one day we will also be given a material body that does not deteriorate as our current bodies do.

On this future Earth, things will be a bit different. One of the principal causes of disorder in the world is that humans became inherently disordered, starting back with Adam and Eve. They were created perfectly, but chose sin (chose away from God). One of the consequences, St. Thomas Aquinas believes, is that the hierarchy of nobility within the human person (intellect and will, rational faculties, are more noble than sensory faculties) became inherently disordered. Whereas Adam and Eve had a perfectly ordered existence (suffering no physical ills, their rational powers having complete and proper domain over their other powers) they chose sin and lost that order.

In the restored Earth, Christ has promised us bodies that are perfectly restored. This means that our wills and intellects will have complete and proper domain over the rest of our bodily powers.

So, what’s the point of this?

Feser’s point is that a perfected will would have complete domain over the perfected body. Should we will ourselves to float? Well, the body should just comply. Should we will ourselves to move incredibly fast? The body should just comply.

Now, I’m not saying this is some sort of perfect argumentation, but I wanted to mention all of this to come to this main summary point: if we are in a perfected and restored Earth, and basically had every manner of using superpowers, we wouldn’t want to use themWhat would be the point? We would need no advantages, we would need no increased material gain. We would have everything we needed and wanted. Even in this distinct possibility in the existence of having superpowers, there would be no point for them.

In conclusion, fantasizing about superpowers does no one any good, just like the rest of these impossible modern possibilities. So we gain a couple more years of life, so we live a little more comfortably, but what then? Nothing much more at all.

Just like the reasoning for the rest of the IMPs appeals to, we have much better things to focus on and much more important things to attend to than trying to make possible these modern impossibilities.

Seven Storey Mountain – A Review by Paige Skipper

You should feel small, because you are. You are the dearly beloved of the Creator of the universe, made in His image. He sacrificed Himself for you, out of intense love for you on a scale unimaginable to you. You matter. And yet, you are naught but a human: you are naught but small.

I just finished reading The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. While it was a very impactful read that everybody stands to benefit from, I do not recommend everyone to run to the store and buy a copy. A bit of perspective (and a few caveats) are necessary to understand Merton and his life. The Seven Storey Mountain is an autobiography written when Merton was only thirty-three years old. He was very young, still reeling from the impacts of the things he writes about, with a limited perspective on how they would change the story of his life to the end. That is not a criticism – indeed, I believe it is one of the unique things about the book that give it its impact.

This is the story of his conversion from a casual and disinterested atheist to a Trappist monk. Truly a huge leap to make within only thirty-three years, he walks the reader through each step. His narration of events is peppered with essays of contemplation. The essays vary widely; some are reflective, some theological, some accusatory, and some are simply tangents in which he praises God before coming back to his own story. This gives the novel a unique flow that I found captivating. Despite the fact that I knew the story’s end (he becomes a Trappist monk) I still found it unpredictable, never knowing what the next page would bring.

Reading this directly after Dante’s Divine Comedy was an excellent choice on my part. Not only did Merton name his novel after the seven levels of Purgatory as described by Dante, but he expresses a fervor for uniting as closely to God as possible that is reminiscent of Dante’s time in Paradiso. In the epilogue of this autobiography, in which Merton contemplates contemplation, he describes in detail the need we all have for a deep interior life. He presents the following paradox of the Christian life:

“We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life, and that is why we are always travelling and in darkness. But we already possess Him by grace, and therefore in that sense we have arrived and are dwelling in the light.

This sentiment is not easily grasped, because it is truly one of the mysteries of the faith. Due to Christ’s sacrifice and the grace God affords us, we have the opportunity to find our way to heaven, to unite with Christ. The way is long, however, and often quite murky.  He iterates it again like this:

“But oh! How far have I to go to find You in Whom I have already arrived!”

In living a Christian life we acknowledge His presence within us while also acknowledging the distance of heaven. This distance is vast, and our small, slow legs can only hope to keep on the path next to Christ as we traverse through our sin and shame: that is our only hope of crossing it.

This paradox, made possible only by the unfathomable love of Christ, floors Merton, and it floored me as I myself read. Our Father pours so much love into me; he created me with love and He died for me out of love and he continuously forgives me for the sins I continue to commit out of nothing else but love. And yet I am made from dust, and to dust I shall return.

Even as Jesus was nailed to the cross on which His people crucified Him, He pleaded:

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34

We know not what we do. We know not how incredibly small we are. We know not the lengths Christ must go to bring us back home.

 

Merton doesn’t come to these conclusions until the epilogue of the novel. It isn’t until he is already a monk that he understands the interior life we all must have in order to begin fathoming these core truths of our faith.

His conversion began when he first truly encountered Catholicism. There was something about the Catholic church that pulled him into it; it was a discovery that changed his life. One of the first descriptions Merton gives us of a Catholic church comes from his friend Bramachari, an Eastern monk who travelled to the United States. Bramachari’s impression of the  Catholic church was in stark contrast to the Protestant churches he had visited since he came to America: :

“These were the only ones in which he really felt that people were praying. It was only there that religion seemed to have achieved any degree of vitality … the love of God seemed to be a matter of real concern, something that struck deep in their natures, not merely a pious speculation and sentiment.”

Merton’s friend makes an interesting observation here, one that speaks to a very divisive issue in our current culture right now. These words evoke images of grand alters, intricate stained glass, and giant crucifixes that force the reality of Christ to stare into your soul. Chilling Gregorian chant, booming organs, ancient Latin text praising our God, effortful vestments worn by priests as they conduct mass, and especially the postures of the people in attendance: the pews full of people kneeling as the speaks the words of Christ, the movement from sitting to standing as the gospel is read, and even the genuflecting done before sitting down at the beginning of the mass. It makes me wonder how I had ever settled for anything less than this.

Merton never did settle for anything less than that. It was only the grand shrine to our Lord, that the Church is, that stirred Merton’s heart.  When Merton went to mass for the first time, he felt upon entering that the attendees were “more conscious of God than of one another”. After hearing the sermon, when the time for the Eucharist began, “it all became completely mysterious.” He had been fine up until that moment, but all of a sudden he felt the horrific need to leave right then and there, during the most important part of the mass.

“I suppose I was responding to a kind of liturgical instinct that told me I did not belong there for the celebration of the Mysteries as such. I had no idea what took place in them: but the fact was that Christ, God, would be visibly present in the alter … Although He was there, yes, for love of me: yet He was there in His power and His might, and what was I?”

Yes; what was I?

After my conversion to Christianity, the It was too much. It was too scary and unwelcoming, and surely not what Jesus called us to. It made me feel small in an uncomfortable way. So I settled into a non-denominational, comfortable church; sometimes the sermons were challenging, but the coffee and chit-chat and comfortable chairs and pop songs were easy. I could wander in, unconscious of my posture, without a mind necessarily turned toward prayer.

And He does; He desires to know us, and He wants us to know Him. But He also calls us to a radical life of difficult sacrifice, of leaving behind our comforts to walk with Him wherever He goes. We can’t keep forgetting that. We can’t know Him if we don’t respect all that He is. In the presence of the grand Lord and King, we are so powerfully and unimaginably small. Once we recognize that He is truly before us, we have no choice but to kneel. We kneel because, like John the Baptist himself proclaims, we are not worthy to even untie His sandals.

And thus, after that liturgical instinct that told Him the place He had entered was a holy place, he began to realize how much more his life should be. He recognized the need to strive for holiness. He becomes Catholic, and then quickly finds his vocation, his calling, as a monk. His path is interesting: at first he tries to become a Franciscan, specifically, but is dissuaded from doing so. He is devastated when they use his past against him and bar him from entering the order. He then begins to believe he has no vocation, and His faith starts to feel aimless; he is too distracted by the world around him to feel settled. After a retreat to a Trappist monastery, however, he can once again no longer shake the fact that he is called to be a monk and sets himself back on the path to becoming one.

The way he describes this part of his life is, by far, the part of the novel that makes the biggest punches. His desire for the monastery comes from a desire to rid himself of all worldly distractions. As he leaves the monastery after his first retreat he says:

“And how strange it was to see people walking around as if they had something important to do, running after busses, reading the newspapers, lighting cigarettes. How futile all their haste and anxiety seemed.”

To him, the monastery is freeing:

“So Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom.”

Freed from the world’s distractions and free to spend all of his days solely focused on God. Free to be small, without the world trying to make him feel big and important and lavish and in control of himself.

I mentioned earlier that his epilogue is a contemplation on the concept of contemplation. He decides that every individual is called to a deep interior life, regardless of how easy it comes to any individual person. We are all called to contemplate just how Big our God is. And we cannot do that until we understand how small we are.

What had I shed? Where was the space in my life for God? Nothing I ever did, even entering a monastery, would leave Him enough room.

Because there isn’t enough room inside of me, even if I were to empty out everything else. Because He is so big. And I am so, so small.

 

IMP #5 Teleportation

Here we are already at number five! Can you believe it?

So, how do I plan on trying to thwart science today? By talking about teleportation. This is, once again, one of those things that we see in nearly everything science fiction. From Star Trek‘s ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’ to Stargate‘s Stargates, we see all sorts of variations and assumptions of how teleportation might pan out.

If you’ve been paying attention to my past few articles, and especially the articles surrounding my Thomistic Linguistics thesis, then you may be predicting my every word as I go through this article. But that’s okay, let’s see if you get it right.

Let’s start with how we might assume the inevitability of teleportation. Humans have an innate desire to move, to get from place to place. As time has gone on since the industrial revolution, our methods of transportation have gotten faster and faster and faster. We did just see the SpaceX craft Dragon reach something like 12,000 km/h (7,500 mph)? And that’s not even the fastest that human artifacts have traveled. The point is that our desire to move and get about is intense. Especially recently in our history humans have desired to make this transportation as efficient as possible. But, we ask ourselves, why worry about moving at superlight speeds when we could just transport there instead?

We can conceptualize it quite easy. Humans have a specific composition, a finite reality. My body is only so many feet wide and only so many meters tall. There is a limitation to my corporeal reality that means we can fit in some theoretical ‘box’ of some kind. Think, for example, about 3D printers. This technology, which improves all the time, only needs to print complexly enough our organic material, and it could theoretically compose a human person. We just need a 3D printer big enough.

How could teleportation work, theoretically? Well the main idea would be transmission. It could use electric transmission, light transmission, literally beaming atoms out of some atom gun that shoots from one place to another, but the essential point would be transmitting data. Since humans have material limits, we would just need sensitive enough scanners to pick up on the finest points of our reality and compile it into a transmissible package. Then we send that data from one terminal to another and boom, the second terminal is a 3D printer that pops out the human that entered at the first terminal.

In many ways this kind of technology already exists. We have the capacity of scanning a 3D object, of computing the finite limits of an object in 3D art programs, sending that data file to another terminal across the internet, and printing the same exact object at the second terminal. Sure, it might take a long time to refine the technology, especially scanning a specific object (wherein the scanned object becomes technically destroyed) and transmitting it in whatever state it was scanned, but with what we already have it just seems like a matter of time before we can pull it off. But, of course, you shall see me say:

This is an impossible modern possibility: we will never be able to materially transport a human being from one place to another.

Now, I would like you to take careful note of how I articulated the IMP. I said it will never be possible to materially transport a human being. The reason for articulating this is because of how someone might perceive teleportation as occurring. In the actual conceived teleportation process, doesn’t the person become immaterial? This is somewhat true, but the reality of every explored teleportation concept is that it somehow rests on the idea of transmitting the person, or parts of the person, through material reality. Either the person’s atoms are collected and redistributed or the specific composition of the person is maintained through computer transmissions. In any case, the transportation of the person never leaves the realm of the material, it is always material.

Before getting to the main objection, I would like to look at a minor one. As demonstrated in the recent Netflix series Living With Yourself, where Paul Rudd’s character thinks he is just getting a really rejuvenating massage and ends up getting cloned by accident. This is essentially the same technology we’re talking about, where even if the technology eventually gets developed, we run into the issue of potentially creating two of one person instead of transporting. The idea here, of course, is that we’re talking about recreating a human person every single time they transport. If the original that gets scanned isn’t properly destroyed, then two of that same person end up running around, wreaking havoc. While this dilemma does not prevent the technology from working, it at least presents a complicated philosophical question that should give everyone pause.

But, ultimately the minor objection doesn’t need to hold up any weight, because the main objection makes it obsolete. If you remember from any of my articles where I dissect the composition of a human person, you will know that I explicitly deny the notion that humans are solely composed of matter. Remember that my statement about that which is impossible is the material teleportation of the human person. All of the ideas about human teleportation, of course, are material in nature because the same people that conceive of teleportation being possible are also people that conceive of humans being solely made of matter.

If humans were indeed solely material beings, I would yield in a heartbeat the inevitability of human teleportation.

But humans aren’t. We are not just matter, but form and matter. While our form is immaterial, it is still a reality, a thing that has existence. In Thomistic language we say that forms have substance (meaning they have being, not that they are composed of matter in some way). If teleportation would ever be possible, it would not be a simple matter of transmitting matter, it would be a matter of transmitting an immaterial reality from one physical point of reality to another.

By its very nature, you cannot use material and physical means to modify something that is immaterial. It just doesn’t work that way. They exist at different levels of reality. No matter what sort of teleportation device you might theoretically engage with, the form of the person will never move along the mechanics of the teleportation device, meaning that people can never be teleported.

“But Robert, what if we do create a sophisticated enough 3D printer that can re-print a human person?”

I would not deny that science could eventually produce a 3D printer with such abilities. It seems highly improbable that we could ever really produce technology that handles physical material in such a delicate manner on such a large scale, but far be it from me to say what could be done in the realm of physical reality. Who would have ever thought that we could split an atom? Not to mention, 3D printed organs are expected to soon be a reality, and a whole human body is only a few steps away from that.

My friends, this actual possibility, the ability to print a whole human body, scares me. To print organs to save lives is a beautiful thing, but the ability to recreate human bodies is asking a living nightmare on us. If someone were to truly develop a technology that could painlessly and effortlessly destroy a human and then transmit their data only to have it 3D printed, we’re talking about a corporate or governmental monolith with the world’s most efficient weapon.

For this technology would, make no mistake, kill the person currently living, leaving their soul behind, obliterating their body, only to recreate that body somewhere else. That recreated body has two potential ways of turning out:

1.  Dead.

The body, soulless and lifeless, appears at the other side of the teleportation equipment. All of the organic components are properly reprinted together, but it is not the same person, just a copy of that person, whose mind has now been separated from the body.

2. As an Animal.

This is probably the scariest option. If the scanner was so delicate to pick up on the quantum-level realities of a human person, it is likely able to pick up everything, such as neurons mid-fire and the heart mid-pump. If the 3D printer is so efficient that it re-creates that person in an instant, then we’re talking about a moment to moment success of the heart pumping pre-teleport and finishing the motion of that pump on the other side of the teleportation equipment, and leaving the body alive. But if I can admit this, then what about the mind?

It gets left behind.

Human forms have multiple powers, but some of those powers are inherently tied to a physical reality. If you remember in my article #1 – An Argument for Aristotelian Forms, forms like triangles exist when we create a material triangle and then cease to exist one the triangles disappear. If we create technology that can re-create a human body, it would be akin to us creating a triangle. All of the physical side of humanity would be present – organs, the brain, sensation, appetite, etc. But we can’t manipulate immaterial reality. We couldn’t introduce the rational side of the mind, the purely immaterial part of our reality. It would be the totally animalized version of whatever person got scanned.

That’s freaking terrifying.

So remember folks:

This is an impossible modern possibility: we will never be able to materially transport a human being from one place to another.

And please, don’t try. The consequences (raging evil corporations and governments to the existence of animal people or the abuse of animal people once they could exist) are terrifying.