an affirmative disposition towards all obstacles

Alan Jacobs on Albert Murray:

Long before Murray started writing for publication, he believed that the good times roll in response to suffering—that the suffering in a sense generates the good times. “What the customary blues-idiom dance movement reflects is a disposition to encounter obstacle after obstacle as a matter of course”—and something more than a matter of course. In “the blues tradition” we see “the candid acknowledgment and sober acceptance of adversity as an inescapable condition of human existence—and perhaps in consequence an affirmative disposition towards all obstacles, whether urban or rural, whether political or metaphysical.”

An affirmative disposition toward all obstacles—this is the blues idiom in a phrase. Resistance and affliction as the necessary engines of creativity

the place of mercy

Sharon Rose Christner via Alan Jacobs:

This place, when the sun goes down, becomes the ancient version of its names. Clinico was once clinicus, sometimes meaning the bedridden one, sometimes the one tending the bed, derived from words for bed and stretching out. In English, too, clinic follows this path back to lying down. Ospedale was once hospitālis, “hospice, shelter, guesthouse,” from hospes (host, guest, stranger). English’s own hospital, from those same roots, first arrived in the 1300s as “a house or hostel for the reception and entertainment of pilgrims, travellers, and strangers” (Oxford English Dictionary). In the 1400s it grew to mean “a charitable institution for the housing and maintenance of the needy,” and only after this did it take on its medical connotation.

Always, these places have first meant a bed, a place to lie down at night. Long before fluorescent wards with tile floors, before anesthetic and billing and patient privacy and disinfectant, long before the concept of a germ, these places have meant refuge from the elements, and the uneasy navigations of host and guest and stranger. …

No, it is not ideal. Surely the best place for people to sleep is not the hospital floor, and surely their presence is not the best imaginable thing for the hospital. But mercy has never arisen from an ideal situation – it grows as a garden at the end of this long maze of non-ideals.

staying focused

Alan Jacobs:

Focus is a Latin word that means hearth — the fireplace that was both literally and metaphorically the center of the Roman household. Various members of the family were responsible for some element of hearth-maintaining — one would chop or gather the firewood, another bring that wood into the house, another make the fire, another add logs when the fire got low or stir it to enliven it, still another to cook the family’s food over the flame — and each member benefitted from its warmth. The heath was a place for preparing food and for keeping warm; it was therefore also the place where the family gathered, where its unity and wholeness were made manifest. The household gods — the lares and penates — were above all the guardians of the hearth. They preserved and in various ways represented the family’s focus.

Controlled fire is of course the paradigmatic technology: Prometheus’s gift of fire to humans is the definitive extension of our natural abilities, an augmentation of power, a prosthesis. But, Borgmann shows, fire-as-focus is much more than that: it generates a set of focal practices that strengthen the bonds among members of the family. Contrast the hearth at the center of a home to a central heating unit, which instead of binding us to one another invites us to go our separate ways. The central heating unit is not a focus that links us to one another; it is rather a device that facilitates our separation. 

Papa Benedictus XVI, R.I.P.

From his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, published on Christmas Day 2005:

Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved. Should he aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness. … Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love —eros—able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur. …

Christian faith … has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing. …

Love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed “ecstasy”, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25). In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection: the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfilment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself. …

Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34). …

[Pope Gregory the Great] tells us that the good pastor must be rooted in contemplation. Only in this way will he be able to take upon himself the needs of others and make them his own: “per pietatis viscera in se infirmitatem caeterorum transferat”. Saint Gregory speaks in this context of Saint Paul, who was borne aloft to the most exalted mysteries of God, and hence, having descended once more, he was able to become all things to all men (cf. 2 Cor 12:2-4; 1 Cor 9:22). He also points to the example of Moses, who entered the tabernacle time and again, remaining in dialogue with God, so that when he emerged he could be at the service of his people. “Within [the tent] he is borne aloft through contemplation, while without he is completely engaged in helping those who suffer: intus in contemplationem rapitur, foris infirmantium negotiis urgetur.” …

The divine power that Aristotle at the height of Greek philosophy sought to grasp through reflection, is indeed for every being an object of desire and of love —and as the object of love this divinity moves the world—but in itself it lacks nothing and does not love: it is solely the object of love. The one God in whom Israel believes, on the other hand, loves with a personal love. His love, moreover, is an elective love: among all the nations he chooses Israel and loves her—but he does so precisely with a view to healing the whole human race. God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape. …

When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move. …

“Worship” itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented. Conversely, as we shall have to consider in greater detail below, the “commandment” of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be “commanded” because it has first been given. …

The parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:25-37) offers two particularly important clarifications. Until that time, the concept of “neighbour” was understood as referring essentially to one’s countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour. The concept of “neighbour” is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now. The Church has the duty to interpret ever anew this relationship between near and far with regard to the actual daily life of her members. Lastly, we should especially mention the great parable of the Last Judgement (cf. Mt 25:31-46), in which love becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). Love of God and love of neighbour have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God. …

The lives of the saints are not limited to their earthly biographies but also include their being and working in God after death. In the saints one thing becomes clear: those who draw near to God do not withdraw from men, but rather become truly close to them. In no one do we see this more clearly than in Mary. The words addressed by the crucified Lord to his disciple—to John and through him to all disciples of Jesus: “Behold, your mother!” (Jn 19:27)—are fulfilled anew in every generation. Mary has truly become the Mother of all believers. Men and women of every time and place have recourse to her motherly kindness and her virginal purity and grace, in all their needs and aspirations, their joys and sorrows, their moments of loneliness and their common endeavours. They constantly experience the gift of her goodness and the unfailing love which she pours out from the depths of her heart. The testimonials of gratitude, offered to her from every continent and culture, are a recognition of that pure love which is not self- seeking but simply benevolent. At the same time, the devotion of the faithful shows an infallible intuition of how such love is possible: it becomes so as a result of the most intimate union with God, through which the soul is totally pervaded by him—a condition which enables those who have drunk from the fountain of God’s love to become in their turn a fountain from which “flow rivers of living water” (Jn 7:38). Mary, Virgin and Mother, shows us what love is and whence it draws its origin and its constantly renewed power. To her we entrust the Church and her mission in the service of love:

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
you have given the world its true light,
Jesus, your Son – the Son of God.
You abandoned yourself completely
to God’s call
and thus became a wellspring
of the goodness which flows forth from him.
Show us Jesus. Lead us to him.
Teach us to know and love him,
so that we too can become
capable of true love
and be fountains of living water
in the midst of a thirsting world.

water and wine

From my friend and former student Br. Linus Martz, O.P., on God’s eternity, philosophy, and theology:

This series has explored the ways Aquinas relied upon the Church Fathers. Their writings enjoy a privileged role, below Sacred Scripture, as proper authorities in sacred doctrine. But Saint Thomas also inherited a profound respect for philosophy from his patristic predecessors, including Boethius. Perhaps we wonder if we should dilute the pure wine of faith with the watery works of philosophy. Aquinas responds, commenting on another text from Boethius, that  “those who use philosophical doctrines in sacra doctrina in such a way as to subject them to the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but change water into wine” (Comm. De trin. q. 2, a. 3, ad 5). 

homo factus, hominis factor

From St. Augustine’s Sermon 191 on the Feast of the Nativity:

1.1 Verbum patris per quod facta sunt tempora, caro factum, natalem suum nobis fecit in tempore: in ortu humano habere voluit unum diem, sine cuius nutu divino nullus volvitur dies.

2 ipse apud patrem praecedit cuncta spatia saeculorum: ipse de matre in hac die cursibus se ingessit annorum.

3 homo factus, hominis factor: ut sugeret ubera, regens sidera; ut esuriret panis, ut sitiret fons, dormiret lux, ab itinere via fatigaretur, falsis testibus veritas accusaretur, iudex vivorum et mortuorum a iudice mortali iudicaretur, ab iniustis iustitia damnaretur, flagellis disciplina caederetur, spinis botrus coronaretur, in ligno fundamentum suspenderetur, virtus infirmaretur, salus vulneraretur, vita moreretur;

4 ad haec atque huiusmodi sustinenda pro nobis indigna, ut liberaret indignos; quando nec ille aliquid mali, qui propter nos tanta pertulit mala, nec nos boni aliquid merebamur, qui per eum tanta accepimus bona: propter haec ergo, qui erat ante omnia saecula sine initio dierum dei filius, esse in novissimis diebus dignatus est hominis filius; et qui de patre natus, non a patre factus erat, factus est in matre quam fecerat; ut ex illa ortus hic aliquando esset, quae nisi per illum nunquam et nusquam esse potuisset.

1.1 The Word of the father through Whom time was made, made flesh, did make for us in time his birthday: at His human birth He willed to have one day, without Whose Divine assent no day is born.

2 He, with his Father, precedes all the space of ages: He, from his Mother, on this day plunged into the race of years.

3 Man’s own maker, made man: to suck the breasts and rule the stars; as Bread to hunger, as Font to thirst, as Light to slumber, as Way from walk to weary, by the false as Truth to be accused, as Judge of the quick and dead by mortal judge to be judged, as Justice by the unjust to be condemned, as Holy Discipline to be whipped with scourges, as Grape Vine to be crowned with thorns, on the wood as Foundation to be suspended, as Power to be made weak, as Salvation to be wounded, as Life to die;

4 to suffer these and such outrages for us, to free us the outrageous; He, who for us endured such mighty evil, no evil deserved; we, who through Him received such mighty good, no good deserved: and so for these reasons, He who was before all ages without beginning of days Son of God, deigned in these last days to be the Son of Man; and He who from the Father born was not by the Father made, was made in the Mother whom He had made; that from her now born He might be here sometime, she who but through Him could never and nowhere been.

Lover AND Competitor

Leah Libresco Sargeant:

There’s a kind of treadmill, where the athletes who are gifted enough to excel are invited to push further and further, until their bodies are destroyed and they’ve hypertrained and hypertrained themselves until the sport is a long way from the play it started as.

I’d be curious to hear how you find ways to pursue strength and exult in the gift of a body while remaining an amateur in the most basic sense: a lover of your discipline, not a competitor.

An enthusiastic endorsement of this post in behalf of true amateurism! But I wonder if a finer distinction is in order. LLS’s seems to imply that any and all forms of competition are incompatible with remaining an amateur in the most basic sense. That as soon as competition begins, real amateurism, real love of sport, disappears. Or is she thinking rather of a difference in emphasis or degree? Competition does not necessarily destroy love, but as soon as the desire to excel others outweighs one’s love of the sport itself, then true amateurism ceases. One becomes a mere competitor instead.

If yes, then how about this distinction: play vs. competitive skill? Or to use ancient Greek terms: παιδιά (paidia) vs. ἀγωνία (agōnia). Paidia is formed from the Greek word pais, paidos, which means “child.” Agōnia derives from ἄγων (agōn), which means “contest” or “struggle for victory.” Paidia is a kind of play; agōnia—which gives us the word “agony” by the way—is undertaken purely for the purpose of demonstrating one’s own superiority.

This distinction seems to leave room for something such as competitive play: Two teams, or individual competitors, square off and only one of them wins. But the point of the competition is to have fun and improve one’s skill out of love for the sport itself. Such play involves competition, yes, but it’s still play (paidia): a pursuit undertaken fundamentally and finally out of love.

“an idiot for Thy Kingdom”

Alan Jacobs from a few years ago—a post which I discovered by reading through this tag on his blog. The prayer he makes at the end of the post is prompted by his reading of this passage in Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:

Just then my eye was caught by two large, loosely formed spheres in neutral colours, one blackish grey, the other brownish black. These were the behinds of two peasant women who were employed by the municipalities to weed the flower-beds at the corners of the square. They were being idiots, private persons in the same sense as the nurse in my London nursing-home, who was unable to imagine why the assassination of King Alexander should perturb anybody but his personal friends. They were paid to pull up weeds, and they wanted the money, so they continued to pull them up, even when the students raised a shout and brought some gendarmes down on them not fifteen yards away. As I looked at those devoted behinds, bobbing up and down over their exemplary task, and the smug face of the automatic rebel, I thanked God for the idiocy of women, which must in many parts of the world have been the sole defender of life against the lunacy of men.


I read this passage and I think: Lord, make me an idiot, an idiot for Thy Kingdom. Keep me focused on the weeds I need to pull, the garden I am charged with tending. Let the lunatics run and shout as they will, but keep me at work on my humble daily “exemplary task.” In the name of Jesus I ask this. Amen.