young goodman brown

Smoker SilhouetteI wrote this poem as part of my senior thesis in 1992, shortly after reading Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

It was an exploration of Puritanism as it manifests itself in modern life… which was on my brain because of a paper I had written for the course American Literature to 1865. The instructor mentioned in one lecture about the perennial legacy of Puritanism (and, on the other extreme, hedonism) in American life.

See also: a post I wrote back in 2008 on the RCIA Hollywood blog.

***

Striking a match,
he lit up,
then gave a light to Steve and Dan.
Between puffs, Steve turned on the stereo.

The only lamp was in the corner,
but still I could see the smoke,
rising between my face and theirs.
They drew regularly,
even Dan —
especially Dan,
on the couch,
with his toes gripping the edge
of the coffee table.
I emptied my glass of water
and excused myself to get another,
while the music pounded the glories of rebellion,
chaos, libido, anger —

I returned.
Steve, on the floor,
relaxed as ever, leaned back against the wall,
crossed his legs,
and bowed his head slightly to draw.

They talked about the music,
I think.
I couldn’t hear too well —
I wasn’t really listening.
I was watching the faces,
glassy-eyed,
complacent, smiling,
with lips drawn to cigarettes;
faces for the first time grey in my mind
and the smoke has left them grey —

What childishness to see them any other way…
why should they be less grey than I?
An inner voice cries:
Goodman Brown, go home.
Go home, young Goodman Brown.
Purify yourself
of your puritan mind.

Those grey faces
grey mouths
drawing on their cigarettes and smiling —
I know them as my own.
And I love them still
I love them sorely
and perhaps that is
the only way to love them truly.

no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness

As we commemorate the 19th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I think again of the reflection Pope Saint John Paul II wrote shortly afterward on the occasion of the World Day of Peace. It was one of the very first things I posted after launching my website, doxaweb.com, in 2001.

It seems apropos today, both in this context and in the context of the current scandals in the Church.

Forgiveness is in no way opposed to justice, as if to forgive meant to overlook the need to right the wrong done. It is rather the fullness of justice, leading to that tranquility of order which is much more than a fragile and temporary cessation of hostilities, involving as it does the deepest healing of the wounds which fester in human hearts. Justice and forgiveness are both essential to such healing….

No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness: I shall not tire of repeating this warning to those who, for one reason or another, nourish feelings of hatred, a desire for revenge or the will to destroy.

On this World Day of Peace, may a more intense prayer rise from the hearts of all believers for the victims of terrorism, for their families so tragically stricken, for all the peoples who continue to be hurt and convulsed by terrorism and war. May the light of our prayer extend even to those who gravely offend God and man by these pitiless acts, that they may look into their hearts, see the evil of what they do, abandon all violent intentions, and seek forgiveness. In these troubled times, may the whole human family find true and lasting peace, born of the marriage of justice and mercy!

Pope Saint John Paul II
Message for World Day of Peace 2002

 

the first casualty of war

Screen Shot 2020-08-26 at 6.52.13 AMI remember one of my high school English teachers explaining to us that truth is the first casualty of war.

Sacrifices during wartime make sense. But if a government makes serious miscalculations about the nature of an enemy and the extent of a threat, and then refuses to face the data, soldiering on with measures that trample over the lives of its citizens, one could be justified in asking if we are being compelled to join in a false crusade with grave consequences to the human family.

If you haven’t yet watched the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, it’s incredibly relevant to this moment.

There are manifold ways to mislead others. One is by understating a threat, and another is by overstating it. Still another is by refusing to change course when the truth appears down an unexpected road. But once the truth reveals itself, and you insist on keeping it concealed: look out. The truth has no regard for your attempts to suppress it. It’s a losing battle every time.

May our first fidelity be to the truth, discovered along the pathways of humility and generosity. Let us be convinced that only on that basis can we serve the common good. All other paths lead to deadly illusions.

oxymorons and the science of being human

2020 is turning out to be the Year of the Oxymoron:

Flattening the Curve.
Social Distancing.
The New Normal.
Fake News.
Social Media.
Supreme Court Justice.
Artificial Intelligence.
Political Discourse.

If I were a Hollywood studio exec, I’d say this would be the time to re-release Romancing the Stone.

But in all seriosity: One oxymoron in particular deserves our attention.

We asked people to engage in disengagement, coining the oxymoronic phrase social distancing.

The compliance has been remarkable.

I’m not sure why we are surprised by the destruction of other people’s property, violent speech, and other threatening and egocentric behaviors.

Most of the appeals to science were appeals to technology, and very little attention was paid to the science of human behavior. We are social creatures, and we were being asked to violate our nature in the pursuit of some greater good (putting aside the question of whether science suggested that the good in question was achievable or even beneficial). I’m not sure why we expected that to come off without some serious repercussions.

To quote C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

I know there were appeals to altruism in the lockdown (“do it for your neighbor” or “we’re all in this together” or even “you’re not pro-life if you don’t comply”). Instead of appealing to people’s reason, however, or their better instincts, in many situations a play was made to activate a sense of shame in those who asked for a rational discussion. I think that’s a trend that, if not put in check, does not bode well for the future of social change.

“There is a great temptation to say, ‘But there is so much suffering in the world! — let’s suspend the question of truth for a while. First let’s get on with the great social tasks of liberation; then, one day, we will indulge in the luxury of the question of truth.’ In fact, however, if we postpone the question of truth and declare it to be unimportant, we are emasculating man, depriving him of the very core of his human dignity. If there is no truth, everything is a matter of indifference. Then social order swiftly becomes compulsion, and participation becomes violation.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One)

 

on living in a COVID age

Screen Shot 2020-08-08 at 8.04.22 AMIf C.S. Lewis were alive today, I think he’d write an essay something like this:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the coronavirus. “How are we to live in a COVID age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the coronavirus appeared: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by a virus, let that virus when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about infection. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

—  based on the essay “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays