Books

Our Lady of Victory

Today is the 450th anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, one of the greatest sea battles in history.  Pope St. Pius V managed to cobble together an uneasy alliance of Catholic naval powers led by Spain and Venice to defeat the Ottoman fleet off the coast of Greece.

The battle was a decisive victory for the Catholic fleet, and Ottoman sea power never recovered.

At the start of the campaign, St. Pius requested all of Christendom pray the rosary and thereby obtain the personal intercession of the Virgin Mary on the outcome of the battle.  It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive fulfillment of this prayer.

Of course Protestants generally disdain Mary, and some show considerable contempt both for her and those who venerate her.  Some of the younger denominations even go so far as to claim that she did not remain a virgin after Christ's birth and that was of course what prompted Brant Pitre to write his book about her.

Setting aside Pitre's defense of Mary's place in scripture, it seems to me that if venerating Mary really is as offensive to God as some Protestants contend, one would think that the result would be a series of monumental disasters whenever she is invoked. 

It's one thing for atheists to claim that great events are utterly unaffected by prayer, but Protestants (particularly evangelicals) have to explain how God would crown such a misguided cult with so many victories.

All I can say is: Ave Maria!


Dated history books

One of my little pleasures is going to estate sales.  I used to go to garage sales, but I generally find them disappointing.  Estate sales, on the other hand, are fascinating.  You get the run of someone's house and even if you don't buy anything, you learn a lot about how other people live.

Of course, you can get phenomenal deals on housewares - things people typically buy new at premium prices.  As my kids start looking at setting up on their own, estate sales are where I will go to get their cookware and minor appliances.

Books are also a great value, and last week I picked up a pair of history books with great illustrations and laughably dated information.  It's not just that the terminology changed, its that archeology has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last 40 years.  The ability to scan empty areas from space to identify otherwise impossible-to-find ruins is a game-changer.

Still they're enjoyable reads with pretty pictures.  I also enjoy the use of A.D. and B.C. in dating.  The stupid CE/BCE terminology is deeply dishonest.  It's an attempt to secularize the Christian reckoning, but all it does is declare all other systems "unscientific."  Just admit that you're using the Christian dating system.

Another advantage is the writing is better, less cluttered with jargon and important-sounding phrases.  The glut of credentialed-but-ignorant scholars was only just beginning, and the humanities still had rigorous standards.  It's worth noting that despite his incredible knowledge, J.R.R. Tolkien never actually completed a doctoral degree.  He didn't need to; his work spoke for itself.

Now any midwit can get one and fancy that they're his intellectual superior. 

Yet another sign of our culture's ongoing collapse, I suppose.


The Eerie Prescience of Tolkien's Palantir

Did Tolkien foresee the internet?

Before you object, consider that a key plot point in Lord of the Rings was the use (and misuse) of the legendary seeing-stones of Numenor, the Palantirs.

Their chief power was to allow communication at the speed of thought, allowing people leagues upon league apart to share visions and thoughts.  It also allowed long-range vision, a sort of pre-modern satellite photography.

Denethor, Ruling Steward of Gondor, possessed one.  Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor possessed another.  Desperate to learn about his enemy, Denethor used the magic stone to spy on the Great Enemy and so was caught.

Looking at how the internet (and particularly social media) is driving people literally insane, I suddenly recalled how Denethor himself was driven to suicidal madness by what he saw in the Palantir.

His fortress city of Minas Tirith was defended by not just one or two, but seven concentric rings of walls, and built into a mountainside.  While his troops were outnumbered, they also had superior skill and higher quality weapons. 

Yet before the gate was even broken, Denethor's mind was overthrown.  Without the Ride of the Rohirrim and Aragon's decision to take the Paths of the Dead, the city would have been overrun in the first assault - because the Enemy was already inside the walls.

I'm increasingly wary of technology, and I don't go online much these days.  I used to avoid social media out of privacy concerns, but I now do so out of a desire for self-preservation.


Ghost hunting, psychics and spiritual warfare

Years ago (back when we had cable/dish service), my wife loved to watch those "reality shows" on ghosts.

I use the scare quotes because the shows were heavily edited, using spooky music, jump cuts and emphasizing reaction shots over actual footage.  Essentially, they were Scooby Doo in reverse, trying to assure the innkeeper that yes, your property does have ghosts so they can including it in their promotional materials.

At the time, I considered it nothing more than a low-rent TV version of The Blair Witch Project, but now I wonder if they were onto something.

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti - the titular exorcise in Diary of an American Exorcist - notes that these shows may be bogus, but they are based on the uncomfortable truth that the spirit realm is real.  He does not discount the existence of ghosts but says that what the low-light cameras and thermal lenses are likely tracking are demons, not the restless dead.

Similarly, the shows about psychics who can put people in touch with dead relatives are also powered not by a benign connection, but an infernal one.

As Father Rossetti notes, demons lie whenever it suits them.  It's perfectly consistent with them to tell someone what they want to hear to undermine Christian faith.  After all, if you can communicate with the dead, why bother praying or going to church?

There's also the secular angle - the notion of using technology to pierce the veil between the seen and unseen worlds.  It acknowledges the spirit realm, but remains faithful to the "science is real" religion by pretending that tools and curiosity can explain the secrets of the universe.

Assuming the hunters are in fact uncovering real phenomena, one wonders if the "work" ever follows them home.


Reading Dom Lorenzo Scupoli's The Spiritual Combat

As part of my foray into mysticism and spiritual warfare, I picked up Dom Lorenzo Scupoli's Spiritual Combat (which in my edition is combined with A Treatise on the Peace of God).

The author's background is obscure, with the first four decades of his life being a blank slate.  It is only after he embraced a religious vocation that we hear of him, and this work (which was apparently modified several times after his death) was a favorite of St. Francis de Sales, the two having met between 1589 and 1591.

It consists of a series of short chapters, ranging from a paragraph to at most three pages in length on various topics, each mapping a path of victory in the spiritual combat against temptation and evil.

I think it reasonable to assume Scupoli was a soldier in his early life; his references to battle and soldierly life are unceasing - certainly not something a merchant or peaceful member of the landed gentry would be expected to know.  In a recent reading he remarks that when fighting against temptation, one might start to give way, which fine, but surrender is never acceptable.  He gives the graphic image of a warrior that is unable to bring the point of his blade to bear (crucial to penetrating the armor of the time) and so punches his foe with his hilt in order to force him back and regain his position.

I will give a fuller account when I've finished the whole thing, but this passage resonates with me because I've just had one such episode, and the temptation to go nuclear was almost unendurable.  So easy to burn a relationship in an reckless show of wrath!  Satisfying, too - in the short run.

But as Scupoli said, having felt myself losing, I decided to try to hang on, to let the storm pass and instead of turning to curses, utter some prayers instead.

And the wrath faded.  It was uncanny, but as the seconds ticked by, I could feel the anger dissipating.  It's now entirely gone, replaced instead by a desire to understand.  Freakish.

One might even call it miraculous.


More mysticism: Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

Over the weekend I completed my second Brant Pitre book: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.

This was the template for his book on the Jewish roots of Mary which I read earlier.  They are therefore very similar.

The tone if this book is less confrontational than the book on Mary and it focuses less on discrediting critics than it does on simply explaining the Catholic position.  That seems appropriate, particularly because the topic of the Eucharist goes pretty deep.

I suspect that another reason is that while Protestants generally disdain the Eucharist, they don't speak of it with the vitriol and contempt that the topic of Mary seems to bring forth.

To a "bible-believing Christian," the Catholic veneration of the Host is merely taking the scriptural bread and wine thing a bit far.  Mary, on the other hand, is considered to be a pagan goddess and her worship evidence of Catholic paganism.

I found both books useful, but the one on Mary was more polished, more conversational and had an edge to it that I enjoyed.


Rebelling in the name of tradition: G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy

I finally finished G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy.  It's an amusing read, has lots of great quotes in it and essentially lays out a relentlessly logical case for Christianity.

It speaks well of Chesterton's intellect that he chose to take his battle into the heart of enemy territory and fight the skeptics on the ground of their choosing.  In a series of related essays, he maps out the conventional secular and quasi-religious sentiments of the day and then destroys them.

What's interesting about his approach is that he doesn't confront them with direct rebuttals.  Instead he rhetorically gets out of their way and lets them wreck themselves.   Much of the book consists of him taking various tropes and platitudes and following them to their logical conclusion.

This is a powerful persuasive tool, and devastatingly effective against people who claim that objectivity, logic and facts are all on their side. 

The greatest weakness of the book is that I don't get many of the contemporary references.  There needs to be an annotated version in which the various thinkers, philosophers and politicians are explained in better detail so we know what exactly they wrote that Chesterton is addressing.

The best part of the book is of course his wit.  The man can turn a phrase and he's very similar to Evelyn Waugh in being able to slice someone apart in unexpected ways.  There's a passage where he addresses evolution and the neo-Darwinist concept of "higher forms of life" and notes that a German Philosopher mouse might well disagree that the cat is higher, and that life is so hateful, being eaten as soon as possible is actually a better outcome.

There are many ways to help people understand faith, and Chesterton is clearly going for the self-important crowd who are full of their own sense of intellectual superiority.  He absolutely wrecks them, and many of the claims he demolishes in this book are regrettably still being spread around by credentialed idiots who think they are the first people to come up with it.

In the present circumstances, it's essential reading.

I've also ordered his Heretics, which was the precursor to OrthodoxyHeretics is more of an attack, while Orthodoxy is technically an apologetic, outline the story of Chesterton's own conversion.  As noted, much of his conversion seems to be reactionary - he gave the popular viewpoint a try, and because it was so weak he knew it had to be wrong and the religious types deserved a closer look.

This is very similar to my experience with not just religion but many other beliefs.  In my zeal to defend my position, I study it closely enough to realize that it's spectacularly weak. 

Perhaps because its a refutation and pure attack, Heretics is less popular, but it was the genesis for Orthodoxy, so I'm looking forward to reading it.


Abortion, AIDS, Covid and shifting views on divine judgement

While American society is heavily secularized, it retains a lot of the theoretical framework that has its origins in Christianity.  One of the strongest (and paradoxically most overlooked) is that of Calvinism.

Calvinism (or Reformed Christianity as it's sometimes styled) holds that God's favor can be known in this life by visible, tangible signs.  The Elect or Anointed are there for everyone to see - their prosperity, good looks, life advantages - are proof of God's blessing.  This religious view has been secularized into a "meritocracy" where the people born into wealth and privilege are owed it through their own merit.

There are several heresies involved in this worldview and it is in direct conflict with the traditional (that is Catholic/Orthodox) view that the mortal life is but preparation for what comes after.  Devout, believing and beloved children of God may suffer terribly in mortal life, but that is part of their purification.  To the meritocrats and the Calvinists, there is no benefit to suffering in the here and now.  Bad things happening are instead a call for immediate purification so that blessings can return.

This view permeates our language and our discourse, and right now it is at a fever pitch.

I find it fascinating that abortion proponents constantly speak of women being "punished" with a child as a consequence of having sex.  There is genuine outrage that men don't give birth and have to bear the same burden.  Despite many different and effective ways to prevent pregnancy, there is a fanatical devotion to this secular sacrament, which is seen as the last line of defense for ultimate individual autonomy.

Of course, no one gets pregnant alone, and not too long ago, there was a reason sex was supposed to take place after marriage (or at least after betrothal).  A "ruined woman" was seen as fitting punishment for immorality.

The legalization of abortion was therefore a welcome liberation from the "oppression" of biology.   Women could now be as immoral as the wanted.

Similarly, when the AIDS epidemic swept through the homosexual community, the same people insisted that one could not even think it was divine judgement.  A sexually transmitted disease that was most easily spread through religiously proscribed sexual behavior was simply a thing that happened and enormous resources would have to be expended not only to cure it, but in the interim, the risk-taking behavior could not be curbed.

It's interesting to note that the State of California has decriminalized passing the disease to a sexual partner without their consent.  No harm, no foul.

In both these cases, cause and effect are irrelevant, and all right-thinking people" know that to draw lines indicating how immoral behavior can beget negative consequences is hateful nonsense.

Thus it is interesting to see how one's Covid vaccination status has become a great exception to this belief.  Unvaccinated (or maskless) people who die of the disease are widely mocked as getting what they deserve.

It's divine judgement, and cause and effect are now operative.

My point by the way is not to highlight hypocrisy, but to note that in all three instances, the underlying framework remains Calvinist.  In the first two examples, the goal is to escape punishment, which is presumably not from God but rather from the Devil.  Women not being able to abort children is evil, an infringement on their God-given freedom to have absolute control over their bodies.

Similarly the AIDS epidemic could not be permitted to change the homosexual lifestyle because freedom is the highest value, even above stopping a once-incurably fatal disease.

Yet now the righteousness is on the other side, with anti-vaxxers being justly struck down for their impiety.

While the examples are contemporary, the issue is not new.

G.K. Chesterton's writing reveals that this mentality has been around for a while, chiefly being a function of unprecedented prosperity.  People can draw various philosophical lines on how thought progressed, but the key ingredient was leisure time and increased material comfort.

Evelyn Waugh's dark satires of the Smart Set illustrated the moral bankruptcy, and it was not until his later work that he began to look at how religious people can co-exist in this environment.

I plan on incorporating this into my writing on the spirit world.  As others long before me have pointed out, unbelievers don't necessary lack faith, they simply place it before something besides God. 


The surprise ending

Arguably the greatest challenge to contemporary writers is coming up with a way to make an ending both surprising and plausible.

Game of Thrones failed spectacularly in this respect, and Star Wars did the same.  I think the first big whiff was The Matrix, but plenty of shows start with a bang and end with a whimper.

Of course, sometimes life imitates art, and while this blog generally avoids the pointless churn of political commentary, certainly the last chapter of American involvement in Afghanistan was entirely unexpected.

On the other hand, historians tend to look at wars as wholly contained narratives.  War was declared on this date and ended on the other date, and anything beyond those bookends is beyond the scope of most conventional books.

Sometimes one has to look outside those confines, because in real life, the end of one story necessarily leads to another.  The characters change, the plot lines switch around, but the tale never ends.

J.R.R. Tolkien brought this up in Lord of the Rings, at one point having Sam Gamgee reflect that the stories told of the Elder Days in the Last Homely House had continued down to the present day and that he and Frodo were part of the same plot line that ran back to Beren and Luthien.

And so it is.  As Tolkien also noted in his timeless work, victories and defeats are at best transitory.   Time passes and new challenges emerge.

What is surprising to people at the time will likely seem a foregone conclusion to future generations.

All one can do in such circumstances is do what any solid character would do: muddle through and carry on as best as possible.  It may not be satisfying drama, but then again the story isn't finished and in real life, the actors rarely get to see the final result of their effort.

 

 


Ave Maria! Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary

When I began my religious instruction on the teachings of the Catholic Church, I admit that I was a little leery of the veneration accorded Mary, the mother of Our Lord.

Part of it was the residual Protestantism that still pervades American society, but there was also a profound misunderstanding of the difference between veneration, worship and intercession.  My instructor broke it down in the simplest terms: if you want a guy to do you a favor, it sure helps if his mother is also asking him to do it as well.

In many ways, I'm a very simple man, and that explanation was really all I needed to say the "Hail Mary" with confidence.  I knew that there was much more in terms of sacred scripture and Church tradition, but that merely served as fodder for me to debate unbelievers - personally I was already sold.

Oddly, there are a number of Protestants who have serious problems with this.  Some even fancy themselves Bible scholars.  I've taken a few pot shots at these charlatans before, but Brant Pitre has provided me with an arsenal of theological thermonuclear warheads.

He has written a short, informative book on the topic: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary.  It is a quick read, and somewhat repetitive, but it is set up that way to ensure that even the most casual reader can understand his point.

What he does is take the usual arguments against Mary's significance and not only nuke them, but make the rubble bounce before making their shadows glow.  It is a methodical clearing operation, and by the time he's done, there's nowhere for the "Mary skeptics" to stand.

For those who aren't fanatically opposed to Catholic teachings, Pitre could probably have just written a long essay, but he's actually trying to reach non-believers, which is laudable.

His tone is generally mild, but he does get in some jabs when they are absolutely necessary.

And to be honest, they are.  For 1,500 years the Catholic and Orthodox Churches venerated the Holy Virgin, and then one day an angry Augustinian monk decided he knew better.

I see in this a precursor to the current plague of presentism, which is the idea that everyone who came before the current enlightened generation was really, really stupid.  It is a particularly corrosive form of pride.

When the intellectual battlefield shows Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Athanasius and countless other intellectual giants on one side vs someone with a King James translation, I think the struggle is pretty uneven.

And indeed, Pitre reminds us that Mary's critics generally don't know what they don't know.  They disdain "non-canonical" works as if they have nothing to teach, when they are in fact essential to understanding Church history.  A well-versed student of the topic should not just consult what Protestants consider the Apocrypha, but also Roman and Greek historians as well.

Pitre does this, and in a couple hundred pages creates an unassailable document that should reassure the faithful and give heretics some pause.