While We’re At It (January 2012)
♦ The late Avery Dulles was a great friend of the magazine and of our founder, frequently contributing very significant articles to the magazine. His admirers and readers will be glad to know about The Legacy of Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. , recently published by Fordham University Press, and edited by Anne-Marie Kirmse, O.P., his executive assistant for his twenty years at Fordham, and Michael M. Canaris, one of his last doctoral students. It includes an extensive bibliography of his writing, starting with his schoolboy essays and including such out-of-the-way works as letters to editors and introductions to other people’s books, two uncollected pieces of his, and the homilies given at his funeral Mass and at his burial.
And a simple and moving memoir of his last days by Sr. Kirmse. At the end, she writes, he was unable to move or speak and could not even consume the Host when given Communion. One of his students came to visit, and as he was leaving
asked him if he ever felt like giving up. The cardinal frowned in disagreement. Chris continued, “Do you ever want to say I’ve had enough? I’ve done enough writing?” Another frown. Finally, Chris said, “Do you ever wish that this was all over?” Another frown. Finally, Chris said, “Well, the psalmist says to God that God’s ways are not our ways. I guess somehow this must be in the plan of God for you.” Now the cardinal nodded in agreement.”
♦ Which reminds us of Richard John Neuhaus’ book As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning. It is a wise and moving book, about his near-death from cancer and medical bungling. Near the end it contains a scene that tells us much about life — and about Richard John Neuhaus. He was finally at home recovering from all the surgeries, largely indifferent, he says, to whether he lived or died.
One day, after a checkup, the doctors had sent him home and told him if he did not urinate by five o’clock, to come back and they would reinsert the catheter. “My heart sank,” he writes. “It was quite irrational, but going back to the emergency room would have been like recapitulating the entire ordeal of these last several months. I could not endure the thought. When at four o’clock I peed a strong triumphant pee, my heart was lifted on high, and with tears of gratitude I began to sing with feeble voice a Te Deum. I thought, ‘I am going to get better.’ And I allowed myself, ever so tentatively, to be glad.”
God works in indelicate ways, his wonders to perform. That itself is a useful reminder that we are creatures with bodies that eventually break down, and that even the baser functions are gifts of a loving Father. Fr. Neuhaus was, to his credit, one of the few writers who’d tell that particular story.
♦ Editorially speaking, by the way, “A Strong Triumphant Pee” is a nearly irresistible title.
♦ In the “Public Square,” the editor remarks on one change in the new Mass he finds particularly compelling. As readers might guess, we like the changes in the new translation, launched this past Advent, for the reasons Anthony Esolen gave in “Restoring the Words” (November) and others.
Take the change to the beginning of the Nicene Creed. It now begins”as the translations into other languages always have begun”with “I believe” rather than “We believe.” Some people have complained that this makes the faith individualistic, removes the emphasis on the People of God and community that the Second Vatican Council introduced, etc. Some like to try to trump the revisers by noting that the very first version of the creed, the one from the first Council of Nicaea, began with “We believe.”
But all that, you know, misses the point. The creed the bishops issued at the first council was an official statement of a corporate commitment”like the American Constitution, which begins with “We the people of the United States.” The creed we say at Mass is a declaration of personal commitment, even though it’s one that we make with others.
It is like the oath of allegiance immigrants take when they become American citizens. They usually all say it together, but each one says “I hereby declare.” He has to say “I” because he goes on to promise to defend his new country even to the point of giving his life. That’s the kind of promise a person has to make by himself and for himself.
The creed is the same kind of statement. It’s not just a list of theological facts with no connection to your life. It summarizes and focuses the faith for which, as a baptized Christian, you have agreed to give your life, in ways big and small. It is a statement of your citizenship, of your fundamental and permanent commitment. We need to say “ I believe.”
♦ Or think of it this way: Saying the creed is like making a wedding vow. The bride and groom say “I do” because they’re both betting their futures on the other. The drama comes when the man says, “I do” to the woman and she says, “I do” to him. Their saying, “We do” wouldn’t feel as personal nor as binding. In saying the creed at Mass, we’re saying, “I do” to God. We’re saying, “This is who you are and what you’ve done for me, and I’m betting my whole future on you.”
If we are right about all this, the effect of saying, “I believe” is more personal and direct than saying, “We believe.” It’s more dramatic and makes the reality of what we’re agreeing to much starker. It feels a lot more binding.
♦ You may think it doesn’t matter much, whether we say “I” or “We.” And it probably doesn’t matter all that much, aside from the increased drama and investment we’ve just described.
But there is a small problem with “we”: It provides some dangerous wiggle room. We’ve heard mainline Protestant bishops and theologians say that the creed expresses their church’s self-understanding, and since they were part of the church they could join in saying “We believe” even though they rejected almost everything in the statement. They could not, they admitted, say the creed if it began “I believe” because then they would be making a personal claim. That’s honesty, of a sort.
One bishop is supposed to have said that he could not say the creed (however it began) because then he would be assenting to the doctrines it proclaims. But he could sing the creed because then it would be poetry and metaphor, not statement.
♦ Okay, one last thing about the new Mass. Someone — we think the English Catholic writer Ronald Knox, but can’t find the quote — described the effect this way. Hearing all the people say “I believe,” he said, was like seeing a candle-lit procession along a hillside from a distance. Everyone held a candle of his own, but together they made one single moving, living stream of light.
• In Israel a new translation of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) has been the subject of an intense debate, it being a translation from the original Hebrew into . . . modern Hebrew. Some Israelis like the Tanach Ram, and point to earlier translations into Aramaic in the second century and into Yiddish in the seventeenth and eighteenth as precedents. Others think it a desecration.
We have no opinion on this, but readers familiar with the flattening effect of so many Christian translations will be interested to know that this translation does not avoid doing so either. The Jewish Daily Forward ’s columnist “Philologos” compares the “extremely literal” King James Version of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1 with the Tanach Ram’s: “My heart rejoiceth in the Lord; mine horn is exalted in the Lord” versus (the translation into English is his) “My heart was happy because of God; my strength increased with God’s help.”
Philologos notes that the translation uses the common word for “was happy” rather than “exulted,” even though the word “exulted” is one used in modern literary Hebrew. It also changes “in God” to “because of God” (the first time it appears) and “with God’s help” (the second time), Philologos continues, “presumably because being happy ‘in God’ was judged too enigmatic a concept for contemporary readers.”
Worse, from our point of view, the translator takes the great image of the gazelle or mountain goat raising his horns and reduces it to “My strength increased,” even though anyone who speaks modern Hebrew knows the words. He must have thought some readers wouldn’t get the point.
As we say, we’ve seen this before. Gone are the high points, the sharp bits that tell the reader that he’s dealing with something different, something outside his experience, that he needs to think about. It’s like serving Indian food without the curry, or simplifying the rules of cricket, or rewriting Shakespeare in words of one or two syllables. The translator’s job is to make the text accessible, but part of what he ought to make accessible is the difficulty.
♦ According to the Anglican journalist David Virtue, two-thirds of the Episcopal Church’s “active membership” (the official term) aren’t really active, at best showing up a few times a year. He looks instead at the average Sunday attendance (ASA). Using the Episcopal Church’s own data from 2009, he found that of its 6825 parishes, fewer than a third have more than one hundred people in them on an average Sunday and almost one-third have forty or fewer. One-eighth have twenty or fewer people.
And things are not looking good for the future. The average age of Episcopalians is reported in the upper fifties or early sixties. The Episcopal Church’s director of research and congregational development says that “the age structure of The Episcopal Church suggests an average of forty thousand deaths and twenty-one thousand births, or a natural decline of 19,000 members per year.”
♦ “Were it not for the Catholic Church’s insistence on separate schools for its children, there would be no effective choice in many countries for either parents or teachers,” writes Charles Glenn, an Episcopalian. “The precedent for tolerating ‘structural pluralism’ in education and thus making room for charter schools, academies, and other alternatives is the stubborn resistance of Catholics in scores of countries over many decades to the imposition of a single monopolistic system of education.”
Glenn, whose “Disestablishing Our Secular Schools” appeared in the last issue, asks why the American elites disliked Catholic education so much in the forties and fifties, long after they’d stopped worrying so much about immigration. Supreme Court Justices like Hugo Black “and other members of the American elite understood educational freedom in an individualistic dimension, as educational experiences that ‘freed’ the student from family and from traditional beliefs and loyalties. The existence of schools answerable to parents rather than to Society [the capital is Glenn’s], and dedicated to fostering alternatives to the prevailing secular worldview, was thus a threat to educational freedom rather than an expression of it.”
An education intended to “free” children from all other commitments, to family, faith, culture, etc., he argues, will not be able to give them “a secure footing in convictions,” and leaves them to “be blown about by every cultural trend, every fashionable opinion.” We see his point, but we think he may be wrong about this. Let’s take that metaphor about “secure footing.” Man must walk and therefore always looks for a secure footing, and that the schools will provide. They have to replace what they have removed.
They have to. The problem is what they replace it with.
♦ John McCain remarked that when he met Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2007, he looked in his eyes and saw three letters: K, G, and B. As Seth Mandel reported on Commentary ’s weblog “Contentions,” he continues to annoy Putin with (of all things) tweets.
Like “Dear Vlad, The Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you.” When asked about this on national television, Putin responded by claiming that McCain had gone insane in the North Vietnamese prison camp and that he has “the blood of peaceful civilians on his hands, and he can’t live without the kind of disgusting, repulsive scenes like the killing of Qaddafi.”
“He has blood on his hands” is perhaps not the wisest criticism Putin could make, following the stones-and-glass-houses rule, but we want to point to McCain’s remark about Putin’s eyes. It is too little remarked on what Putin’s successful career in the KGB meant. One did not rise in the major enforcer of Soviet totalitarianism by being a decent human being. You rose in it by being more vicious and unscrupulous than your peers.
But the nature of the Soviet state is not something we remember, partly because even in our country’s most anti-communist decades, mainstream culture tended to soften and blur the story. Communists were not, and still aren’t, the preferred villain in popular entertainment. It might make our concerns about Putin clearer to take the phrase often used of Putin, “former high-ranking KGB officer” and substitute “Gestapo” for “KGB.”
♦ She was, the woman wrote Prudence, devastated to find that her fifty-eight-year-old husband of two years was having an affair with her twenty-five-year-old daughter from her first marriage, and that they now wanted to live with each other. Prudence is Slate ’s Dear Abbey, and very popular she seems to be.
Prudence offers the woman her sympathy and declares “It must feel unbearable to . . . realiz[e] both your husband and daughter are morally repugnant.” The husband, she suggests, may be just “a sleazy sexual con artist” and the daughter either mentally ill or abused as a little girl. She hopes the writer has both a good divorce lawyer and a good therapist.
Something upset Prudence into a rare expression of moral outrage, but we’re not sure what, given her views. Why, we wonder, doesn’t she affirm the new pairing as a valid choice for two consenting adults? We’ve read enough of her columns to know that she doesn’t object to various sexual arrangements when the people involved freely choose them. The heart wants what it wants pretty much sums up her thinking.
Of course someone’s going to get hurt, but that’s the cost of letting people do what they want. Maybe the husband thought he had made a mistake. Maybe now he’s found the woman who will make him truly happy. Maybe he’ll be miserable if he stays married to the mother. Doesn’t Prudence see his side of this? Might he not be just like one of those people whose divorce she’s supported? Why she thinks he in particular is so morally repugnant is a little difficult to discern.
♦ Admittedly, he is one of the world’s most important liturgical scholars, and he may well be right, but he could have said it better, we think. Speaking of his own writing on the Eastern liturgies, Fr. Robert Taft, S.J., said, “My attitude has always been I’d rather have myself writing these decisions than have someone dumber than me doing it.”
In any case, he has decided and not entirely expected views on the Western liturgies. The idea that the old or Tridentine Mass better conveys a sense of mystery than the Novus Ordo Mass is just “nonsense,” he says. “The prayers are not for God. God happens to know the whole show already. The language is for us and if you don’t understand the language, then you’ve got a problem. The notion that the language creates the mystery is the height of asininity.”
♦ The magazine, called Study Breaks, came addressed to “resident.” That resident was our friend Joe Long. It’s an advertising vehicle published in various Texas cities, with smirky, salacious articles and a vision of college life as an extended frat party” or debauch, as it used to be called. (We know we sound old and cranky, but read on.)
Joe was not happy. He has young children at home who, as he pointed out in a letter to the editor, can read. He objected in particular to an article asking young women when they first had sexual intercourse and asking them to define the term “slut.” He wrote the editors: “The interest in the definition of ‘sluthood’ seems to stem from an anxiety your readers might feel, that they might be close to this ‘border’ wherever it is”and your apparent belief that they need reassurance on this score, does not speak well of you or of your intended audience.”
The editors did not ask their subjects to define “lady,” which might have been, simply from a journalistic point of view, interesting. Joe continued: “Your perspective seemed to be not, ‘How much, and what sort, of behavior, might help me elevate myself?’ but rather, ‘How much, and what sort, of indulgence may I revel in without ruining myself?’”
♦ One of the poor young women quoted in the article wrote about her first experience of sexual intercourse with disconcerting clinical distance, describing it as “the first time a penis was inserted into my vaginal canal.” That’s not exactly the rapturous description one would expect.
Joe has an explanation for this: “I think her clinical terminology was an attempt to say, ‘It was just a physical circumstance like any other physical circumstance, without any special emotional or spiritual import’ — a statement of rebellion against the implication that ‘first-time sex’ should be considered anything particularly different from first-time flossing, in furious denial that she might have messed up her life by having sex with a random guy at a party in high school because she was under the impression that everyone else was having sex and that she was lagging behind her peers.”
♦ An obscure but surprisingly useful work we just stumbled upon while looking on the internet for something else: Lewis Carroll’s Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing. Particularly useful are his words about arguing with a friend in a letter”advice all the more useful when e-mail allows you to smash a friendship to pieces with a few keystrokes and a click on the “send” button.
First, he says, “ don’t repeat yourself . When once you have said your say, fully and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject : To repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal. Did you ever know a Circulating Decimal come to an end? ”
Second, put aside letters that may upset your friend till the next day. “Then read it over again, and fancy it addressed to yourself. This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead, and thus making a much more palatable dish of it!”
Third, write less severely than your friend when he writes critically and write more warmly when he writes to make up. “If, in picking a quarrel, each party declined to go more than three-eighths of the way, and if, in making friends, each was ready to go five-eighths of the way”why, there would be more reconciliations than quarrels!”
Finally, “ don’t try to have the last word! How many a controversy would be nipped in the bud, if each was anxious to let the other have the last word! Never mind how telling a rejoinder you leave unuttered: never mind your friend’s supposing that you are silent from lack of anything to say: let the thing drop, as soon as it is possible without discourtesy.”
That last bit of advice is followed by a parenthetical remark you will not see today: Note well, says Carroll, “If you are a gentleman, and your friend a lady, this Rule is superfluous: you won’t get the last word! ”
All kind of obvious, we know — the four rules, not that last parenthetical bit, we hasten to say — but still advice we need to hear, because boy, sometimes you just gotta let someone have it, and it’s good to have a Marquis of Queensbury to keep things civilized.
♦ You may have noticed in the “Public Square” that we use both the word gay and the word homosexual to describe those sexually attracted to others of their own sex. We bow to the common usage — there’s a limit to how linguistically eccentric we’re willing to appear — but we lament the loss of a useful word that’s now unusable and also pretty much irreplaceable. Just try referring to “the gay nineties” without making people smirk or getting a smart remark from the joker in the room, and try to say the same thing in any other way.
That useful writer Philologos agrees. He looks at the 1962 Roget’s International Thesaurus and finds it offering words like spirited, sprightly, lively, merry, mirthful, vivacious, exuberant, joyful, and gleeful. None of which mean what “gay” means, or rather meant, which he defines as “the light-hearted outward expression of a solemn inward sense of the rightness of things.”
He suggests putting together merry and joyful , “taking the more casual, superficial feeling of merriness and the deeper, more profound feeling of joy.” Even that’s not quite it, because as he says, “Mere merriment can be frivolous; true gaiety, though often deceptive, is always serious and can sometimes even be sad.”
We like words and when we see a good word lost, we feel a little like we do when we read a story about an animal going extinct. More to the point, words are tools, and often very fine and specialized tools at that, and we resent losing even one of them.
♦ Alert readers may have noticed the unusual capitalization of “Evangelical” and “Evangelicalism” in a couple of the articles. The stylebooks frown on this, because Evangelicalism is a movement and not an official body, but we do it to give Evangelicalism a kind of typographic equality with Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
♦ Our good friend and sometime writer Fr. Raymond de Souza is the editor-in-chief of a new magazine in Canada, Convivium. As the subtitle “Faith in our common life” suggests, it aims to fill the same space in Canada that First Things fills in America.
The preview issue includes feature articles on Christians in China, the new translation of the Mass, the religious history of the Canadian left, and a Public Square-like section called “From Sea to Sea” and a While We’re At It-like section called “Small Talk,” both (a blessing for the reader) written by the editor. For more information, see cardus.ca/convivium.