Straight and Crooked Thinking: the Eccentricity of Hilarity

old-men-south-beachSo there were these three elderly retired gentlemen, sitting on a park bench on a warm afternoon. Lifelong friends, they were just passing the time of day; and they had already thrashed out matters of sport, politics, the activities of family and friends. What next?

After a time of drowsy silence one of them said: “Let’s talk individually about what part of one’s anatomy one would least like to be without”.

After momentary surprise, one of them said: “Well, I could least well do without my ears, because I like to read – and I need my ears to hold my spectacles in place.”

The second said: “I love mathematics, so I could not do without my fingers that I use to count and calculate.”

Turning to the third, they said: “And what about you?”

“Ah,” he responded, “I just couldn’t do without my navel.”

“What on earth ……”

“Well, you see,” he said, “I love to eat celery in bed – and my navel is such a useful place to keep the salt.”

Eccentric, you may think!

The late Professor Robert Thouless (of Cambridge University), in his book Straight and Crooked Thinking, pointed out that the idea that truth lies always in the mean position between two extremes is of no practical use as a criterion for discovering where the truth lies, because every view can be represented as the mean between two extremes. He points out that “when we have two extreme positions and a middle one between them, the truth is just as likely to lie on one extreme as in the middle position.”

Thouless may well have overheard a further conversation between our three elderly and leisurely gentlemen. The first of them had firmly asserted that two and two make four, but the other two wanted to debate this. One said: “No, two and two make five.” “You are both wrong,” said the third: “I have counted it out on my fingers – and two and two make six.”

Thouless concluded that if he wished to convince us that two and two makes five, he might commend it to us as the safe middle position between the exaggerations on the one hand of the extremist, who asserts that two and two makes four, and on the other of the one who holds the equally extreme view that two and two makes six. “I should appeal to you as moderate men and women not to be led away by either of these extreme parties, but to follow with me the safe middle path of asserting that two and two makes five. As moderate men and women, perhaps you would believe me — but you and I would alike be wrong because the truth would lie with one part of the extremists.”

We are currently engaged in a Presidential electoral campaign that pits the eccentric against the crooked. One of these campaigns has just described the Vice-Presidential nominee on the other side as the “most extreme pick in a generation.” Crooked and hilarious, you might think!

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My cat Poppet

PoppetQuestion the beauty of the earth, the beauty of the sea, the beauty of the wide air around you ……Question the living creatures ….that roam upon the earth …… Question all these. They will all answer you: “Behold and see, we are beautiful.” Their beauty is their confession of God. Who made these beautiful changing things, if not One who is beautiful and changeth not?

Saint Augustine

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“Ordinary” Time

Passover2

Thus writes Marvin Olasky: “Passover and Easter are the only Jewish and Christian holidays that move in sync, like the ice skating pairs we saw during the winter Olympics.” But the question of a fixed date for Easter, the Christian Passover, is once again under discussion, at the highest ecumenical levels. The well-known English writer, A.N. Wilson, says in his column in the Spectator (January 23, 2016) that the purpose of this discussion “is to allow people to plan their holidays”. This destroys all the poetry and symbolism of Easter’s relation to the Jewish Passover. Apparently Pope Francis, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Coptic Pope Tawodros II – presumably in consultation with Ryanair, Tesco and Disney World – are all agreed on the plan to turn the central mystery of the Christian faith into a mere spring break”. It is inconceivable: but just remember what vandalism has been wrought on the celebrations of Epiphany and the Ascension.

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The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing.

The People’s Democracy of Australia has decided to abolish the titles of Knight and Dame, on the grounds that such titles are “anachronistic”. It is sad but hardly to be wondered at, given the contemporary evisceration of all that has hitherto been honored as chivalrous and truly romantic. I assume that the Prime Minister will no longer be addressed as “Mister”, for that is every bit as much a title. What then? Will he now be addressed as “Citizen” or “Comrade”? But we know very well what joyful societies that would lead to.

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The Preacher sought to find pleasing words, and uprightly he taught words of truth — Ecclesiastes 12:9

Preacher

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Well, not entirely. Things have changed a bit, even here in Texas. These days, when I go into our local grocery store (even if, rarely, I am not in clerical attire) I am regularly addressed as “Father”. But, years ago, a check-out clerk, seeing my collar, would ask, “Are you a preacher?” – to which I would smile and respond to the effect that preaching was indeed one of things I do.

I have been doing it now for more than fifty-five years. And it gets easier as the years pass because, now, the lectionary and the cycle of the seasons have been pondered so often – and not only easier, but also ever more enjoyable. To spend a morning at my desk (often with music in the background), reading and reflecting on the appointed scripture passages, consulting commentaries and the teachings of the doctors of the Church, scouring my files for hopefully vivid – and, perhaps, amusing – illustrations, praying over it all: what a pleasure it is to spend such a creative morning, as unhurried as “retirement” allows.

The Roman Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments recently published its Homiletic Directory that provides immensely valuable and practical assistance to the preacher. In particular, it insists that an effective homily always requires prayer — an invitation to the Holy Spirit “as the principal agency that makes the hearts of the faithful amenable to the divine mysteries … The homily should be delivered in a context of prayer, and it should be composed in a context of prayer”.

In that the homily is preached in a liturgical setting – the Mass or the Divine Office – the prayerful context of its delivery is assured. But perhaps we should do more to ensure that the words are received by the congregation in a conscious context of prayer.

Many years ago, a priest whom I had invited as guest preacher at the Church of St Mary the Virgin mounted the pulpit after the proclamation of the Gospel. After what seemed like a very long moment of silence he turned to the sedilia and said to me: “What do I have to do to make the people sit down?” With some laughter the congregation sat. What they had been waiting for, what they were accustomed to before sitting for the sermon, was some preliminary invocation – “In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, perhaps, to which they would affirm by their “Amen”.

When I was young, Anglican preachers (I can’t speak of others) would often begin their sermons by quoting an adaption of Psalm 19:14 – “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight”, and the people would complete the verse by responding “O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer”. Thus they would assert some personal investment in what would follow.

A great Anglican theologian and preacher, who married great scholarship with profound spirituality, Warden of Keble College, Oxford, Austin Farrer (with whom I had some personal contact more than fifty years ago) would bring his eloquent, moving and instructive sermons to an end by prayer. Thus: “The best way to assure a constant supply is not to gaze into the bottom of the pool but the drawer water out and scatter it on the garden, so as to make room for more to flow in below. Be with me, O God, and help me to obey thee in using and spreading abroad thy grace.” (The end of a sermon entitled The Hidden Spring.)

Or this: the last words of his sermon on The Ultimate Hope, preached a few days before Christmas 1968, just a week before his sudden and premature death: “ … passing from the great Begetter to what is begotten by him, we shall see his likeness in his creatures, in angels and blessed saints: returning at long last the love that has been lavished on us, and reflecting back the light with which we have been illuminated. To that blessed consummation, therefore, may he lead all those for whom we pray, he who is love himself, who came to us at Bethlehem, and took us by the hand.”

But to me, Austin Farrer’s most engaging sermon conclusions consisted in his practice of enfolding, in varied form according to context, a formula of prayer which I can only track down to a small manual of pulpit prayers compiled by T. W. Wood and published in 1876. One example, from many (see Austin Farrer’s sermons in Said or Sung, and A Celebration of Faith): “You gave, beyond taking back, you were committed, when you gave your spirit into your Father’s hands: and so I am contented to know that I am committed into yours. For you are our everlasting shepherd, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God; to whom be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, dominion, majesty and power, henceforth and for ever. Amen.

Perhaps we should return to such sanctifying eloquence.

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God created man in his own image … male and female he created them

In the desolate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex “marriage” I remembered a very fine exposition of the truth, set out below:

Creation

The following is the text of a meditation given by Father Dwight Duncan (then Rector of St Matthias Episcopal Church, Dallas) to the Dallas Diocesan School For Spiritual Directors, on January 14, 1979.

Sexuality is one of those “givens” of life, with which – rejoice us as it may, chafe us as it might – each of us must grapple. It is given, isn’t it? – not something produced or manufactured by us, but something which we are when we enter into the world as created by God. So, as you …. contemplate sexuality and spirituality, it may benefit us to reflect on the givenness of sexuality and to ponder its why.

It is interesting, isn’t it, that this one total reality called creation is split from the moment of its calling forth into two distinct polarities, male and female: there are male and female hippopotami, male and female junebugs, even male and female roaches — forbid the thought! — and male and female living souls, called man, called woman.

Think about all that for a moment. From the point of view of modern technocratic society this split by God of his creation into two polarities, male and female, is unnecessary. Surely, one person, neither male nor female, could do the job of both. As well, this creation with two polarities is a totally inefficient way of going about things. The goal of modern society — in areas as widely divergent as sexuality and factory manufacture — is to make everything much more efficient. And the way you do this is by making things exactly alike, or at least interchangeable.

But perhaps I am being too harsh on modern society. For haven’t we always thought that God could have done things better, men often wishing women to be more like men, women often wishing men to be more like women? Such wishful thinking is born out of our daily struggles with one another, our struggles to put up with one another of the opposite sex (oh! what struggles we sometimes have!), to survive with one another and …. even …. to love one another. Sometimes it would be so much easier if we were all alike in every way. Remember the song we used to sing in the 4th grade: “Reuben, Reuben, I’ve been thinking / what a good world this would be / if the men were all transported / far across the northern sea”? And then we boys would answer the girls in like manner. To live in a world where we are all alike! There are days when it would seem like paradise!

Haven’t you ever, if only for a moment, thought thoughts such as these? Poets have! And such thoughts are as good a sign of the Fall as any, for they manifest humanity’s dissatisfaction with its own givenness.

Yes, maleness and femaleness from our point of view, may be unnecessary. And yes, God may have been much more efficient if, in creating, he had not created such polarity and diversity. But he did. It would seem that God is unconcerned with such categories of ours as efficiency and necessity. So, might we discover the reason, or at least catch some glimmers that make sense of this polarity and diversity, this maleness and femaleness in creation …. this gift of sexuality?

I think we might, at least capture or be captured by some glimmers into the scandal of male and female. And this insight these glimmers, are scandalous in the sense of that word’s root meaning: they cause our fine intellects to stumble — but they can make our hearts trip with delight! The glimmers are these:

God is taking for himself a wife! That’s the simplest way of putting it. And you know who that wife is? You and me…. creation. Isn’t that a lark! Try as we might to avoid it, this is one of the recurring themes of biblical revelation. In fact the scripture itself begins and ends with a marriage and is shot throughout with wedding proclamation.

It begins with a marriage proposed in Adam and with the union of Adam and Eve in a garden. It continues with a marriage contracted in Abraham and covenanted with Moses and that unruly band of his at Sinai’s height. It proclaims a marriage sealed in Christ and rejoices in a marriage consummated in the Eschaton (c.f. The Revelation of St John the Divine).

Haven’t you ever noticed that throughout the Old Testament the people of Israel will return again and again to speak of themselves as the bride of Yahweh?

Aren’t we all aware of how this reality finds its real focus and fulfillment in the New Testament? Consistently, when Jesus refers to the Kingdom of Heaven, he talks in terms of a wedding feast …. and presents himself as the bridegroom. The Church is proclaimed as his bride — for the bride is ever the body of the bridegroom, for she has been made one body with him in baptismal marriage and has become the flesh through whom he is given to the world. That is the way of a woman; she is always the body of man — it is through union with her that he is born and takes his flesh.

And the culminating vision held before us of the ultimate victory of God in redeeming us is that vision given by the Holy Spirit in the Apocalypse, the Revelation of St John the Divine. For there we hear of, and perceive, the heavenly wedding, when the Church (redeemed creation) is finally ready to be presented to her bridegroom, God the Son, as his Holy Bride, pure and without spot or wrinkle.

But more: “The central act of the Church on earth, the Eucharist is not a celebration of life and genius …. it is a more festal and awesome thing: it is a marriage supper, the wedding feast. This is the supernatural action in which God, who has conferred his sensuality upon creation by breathing on primordial water, fleshes our senses with lights and incense and color and, above all, bread and wine, marrying invisibility with visibility, and ritually consummating the marriage …” Priest and Priestess, George William Butler.

Perhaps our mystics have broken through most for us in comprehending all this. Our mystical Jewish forbears, in their book The Zohar, called creation — the earth and all within her — the chosen, the Holy Shekinah (the dwelling-place of God), cast off by God and then reunited in an embrace.

And then, among many, there is St John of The Cross. In one of his Divine Songs he records this interior dialogue of God the Father and God the Son. I share it with you in paraphrase:

Father:            Our love is so full, how shall we let it overflow? Shall I create for you a bride?

Son:                 Yes, that is exactly what we should do.

Father:            But if I do, she may reject you, she may run from the altar. And since, if I create her, I shall put so much of ourself into her, she shall be the only bride I shall create for you. If she does reject you, you must run after her and woo her back. You may even have to die for her. Are you willing to do that?

Son:                 Oh yes, I am.

Then, from the Father’s mouth come the words “Fiat Lux!”, the first words of creation in Genesis 1:3.

Have you ever heard a truer summary of Creation, the Fall and Redemption than that? All of this we must rehearse if we are to begin to capture a glimpse of the why of sexuality as gift from God, the why of male and female. God is a God who reveals, who wills us to know him and to know ourselves and the mystery of our destiny. How should we know the purpose of creation and the goal of her fulfillment — our fulfillment — if, on the plain of our earthly existence, God did not give a revelation of this, a sign of this?

The presence of male and female on the earthly plain is such a sign, is such a revelation. The presence, the fact of male and female, holds up before creation — before us who comprise her — the purpose, the goal, the intention, the destiny of creation. And that purpose, that goal, that intention, that destiny is for her to be eternally, beautifully, exquisitely, ecstatically united to God in the embrace of love, in the rest of love …. and in the frolics of love. Yes, the frolics of love: that is why it is more than mere sweet poetic license to speak of the morning stars dancing, the sun and the moon singing, the mountains roaring, and the hills clapping their hands. It is more than poetic license and device: it is true.

In the interrelationship of man and woman we have the earthly manifestation of the supernatural reality: the wedding of God and creation.

For St Paul, writing in the 5th chapter of Ephesians, the difference of the sexes, the raison d’etre of the gift of sexuality, reaches its fullness in the fact that enables men and women to perceive and comprehend the great mystery of salvation: “This is a great mystery,” he says of the interaction of man and woman, “But I speak of Christ and his Church”.

It would seem that on earth, a man’s first ministry stems solely from his sexuality as a man and it is a ministry of revelation: he is the effective symbol of, the transparency which points us to, a heavenly bridegroom — Christ.

It would seem that on earth a woman’s first ministry stems solely from her sexuality as a woman and it is a ministry of revelation: she is the effective symbol of, the transparency which points us to, a beloved bride for the heavenly bridegroom — redeemed creation.

In the standing of men and women on earth, in the fact of sexuality — of maleness and femaleness running up and down the order of creation — and in the dance of attraction and retreat of union and distinction, of communion and flirtation which, to some degree or other, is part of every encounter between man and woman: in this we are pointed beyond, to the heavenly dance of the heavenly marriage, for which creation was always intended and to which redeemed creation, the Holy Church of God, is moving.

“The Spirit and the Bride say, Come!” [Revelation 22:17]. These are among the last words of scripture. And the Bridegroom has answered: “Yes, I am coming soon!” [Revelation 22:20].

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“It is hard not to write satire” — Juvenal (c. 55-c. 130)

WHITE WINE

Millions of unborn innocents are slaughtered by abortion, unnatural “marriage” is sanctioned by the Supreme Court, there are current moves in Congress to legalize on-line poker, a tidal wave of pornography sweeps over us – but in Arlington, Texas, I can’t buy a modest bottle of wine at 11:30 AM on my way home for lunch after Sunday Mass! Just imagine what it would mean if I could buy that bottle of wine before Noon. Surely the sky would fall; depravity would sweep over us all.

 

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