Defying Reality, as Seen in a Commercial

The following commercial inadvertently highlights some interesting moral and spiritual issues. It is an advertisement for some sort of virtual reality (VR) game and encourages us to “defy reality.” The protagonist is a young man engulfed in the VR world of Star Wars, where he valiantly slays dangerous enemies attacking from all directions. He is then jolted back to reality and confronted by an older man who chides him with “You used to be such a nice boy; now look at you!” The young man responds to the confrontation with reality by retreating back into his VR world.

In the largely adolescent culture that seems to have taken over, norms and limits are seen as undesirable and unreasonable. Those who summon us to reality are viewed merely as hopelessly out-of-touch scolds.

To be sure, games, movies, fantasy, and other diversions have their place, but there isa real word that must be accepted for what it is. Real life can be incredibly beautiful, but it also can be hard; we don’t have light sabers at hand to solve our problems. Indulging in too much fantasy can make us resentful of the real world and its legitimate demands.

Fantasy also reinforces the flawed notions of existentialism and solipsism, namely, that we can just make things up and declare our own meaning. Our culture is currently suffering from these ideas; the most extreme example is so-called “transgenderism,” in which individuals indulge the fantasy that they are something other than the males and females they are. Ideologues who promote this fantasy then demand that the rest of us go along with it, threatening punishment if we refuse. More widely, our culture is also marked by its inordinate focus on the individual at the expense of the common good. Virtual reality games are certainly not the sole cause of this, but they do help to reinforce it.

Finally, engaging in too much retreat into fantasy tends to make reality seem boring by comparison. Most video games are fast paced, requiring split-second decisions and rapid-fire responses. Many require violence in order to “win.” Too much of this can make ordinary human interactions seem dull and slow. A college student going from playing a VR game one moment to taking notes in a lecture hall the next must cross a wide gulf.

Much more could be said on this topic, but Friday posts are meant to offer brief insights taken from the current culture world. Ponder the following advertisement and ask yourself, “Is it really healthy to defy reality?”

 

 

Ancient Athens as You’ve Never Seen It Before

I’ve seen many animations of life in ancient cities. Most of them show rather pristine, antiseptic scenes. (Here is an example of one: Ancient Corinth.) Such animations don’t show the noisy, cluttered open markets or the garbage and human waste in the streets.

The video below, however, does a fairly good job of depicting the less-seemly aspects of ancient Athens. Watch it and see Athens the way it likely was in St. Paul’s day. While the animations were developed for a video game, many scholars have been impressed by the archaeological and sociological authenticity.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Ancient Athens as You’ve Never Seen It Before

What I Saw While Serving on a Grand Jury (part two)

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about my experience serving on a grand jury, describing in particular the darkness we jurors had to face each day as we listened to testimony about and video of some horrible crimes. In today’s piece, I’d like to point out some light I saw in the midst of that darkness, some positive elements of my experience.

For much of my life I have looked somewhat askance at lawyers, despite the fact that my father was a lawyer, and a good one at that. (I also enjoy lawyer jokes – all in good fun, of course.) I had this vague impression that lawyers just make everything difficult. The lawyers with whom I come into contact in the Church warn us about so many things that I sometimes cynically remark that if we took every one of their precautions, we’d never open our doors. However, their cautions are usually well-founded given our litigious society. Then, too, there are the ambulance chasers whose advertisements seem to be everywhere. There are also lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits knowing that it’s easier for companies to settle out of court than to fight back. Such things give the profession a bad reputation even though most attorneys do not engage in such practices. Those were some of the biases I harbored when I was summoned.

There I was at the beginning of grand jury duty, unsure of what to expect, when in walked the first of many Assistant U.S. Attorneys I would meet over the next several weeks. I must say that I was impressed by every one of them; they were consummate professionals who had obviously done a lot of meticulous work assembling the cases. In the initial stages of an investigation, these attorneys work closely with the police to examine evidence. They interview many witnesses in their office before ever setting foot in the grand jury room. Witnesses are not always cooperative and some even fail to appear. Their testimony is not always clear and must be disambiguated. Further, witnesses sometimes contradict one another as they recall a traumatic event. Even the victims themselves can be uncooperative due to the fear of repercussions from testifying or supplying information. I can only imagine how difficult and painstaking the attorneys’ work is. Surely it requires great dedication, patience, and perseverance. I was also impressed with their command of the facts in each case, especially considering that they work on numerous cases simultaneously.

In the grand jury room, I was taken by the great respect the attorneys showed for the law while at the same time treating the victims and their families compassionately. Their presentations were well-organized and focused on the evidence. They carefully led the witnesses through what was often gut-wrenching testimony with gentleness, empathy, and understanding. At no time did I see any of them being overzealous. These attorneys have earned my respect and I am grateful to them for all that they do.

Another thing I appreciated during my service was becoming deeply immersed in one of the last bastions of reason and order in our society. In recent years, our culture has experienced an almost complete loss of reason and clear meaning. We are currently in a desert of existentialism, in which individuals define their own meaning because they believe there is no intrinsic purpose or meaning to human existence. This has led to the current bizarre idea that a man can declare himself to be a woman or a woman can declare herself to be a man – and that the rest of society must accept such declarations as fact. It’s hard to have a good argument, let alone a conversation, when basic terms and realities are no longer a given.

The legal world, however, is still steeped in reason and careful, precise definitions. For example, what it means to “possess” a weapon and what is meant by “intent to kill” are precisely defined. The conditions under which charges can be enhanced due to prior convictions must meet strict, definitive criteria. The specifics of a firearm, down to the length of the barrel and the capacity of the ammunition clip, play an important role in applying the law. Jurors and judges in trials are expected to evaluate the evidence and testimony with respect to the law and then draw a well-reasoned conclusion.

In legal proceedings there is the careful assessment of what is meant by a particular crime and what the law provides in terms of adjudication and outcomes. I am not making a case for legal positivism (i.e., whatever the law says is good or right) but merely remarking that we grand jurors were provided with clear definitions and instructions on how to evaluate the evidence and testimony before us.

Hearing the word “reason” used again and witnessing the precision of language and meaning was refreshing. It was almost like stepping back in time a few decades, to a time when words still had clear meanings and basic moral norms were accepted. Even if we didn’t live perfectly moral lives, we knew when the moral law was broken and did not commonly call good or no big deal what God calls sinful.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that law is an ordinance of reason for the common good (Summa Theologica I IIae 90.1). As an ordinance of reason, the law binds people to the reasonable limits it sets forth. The very word “law” comes from the Latin word ligere, which means “to bind.” Law, properly understood, concerns reason, order, and limits we must all accept to enjoy the greatest freedom. The only true freedom is limited freedom. Consider the dangerous chaos that would ensue if we did not limit our freedom to drive by following agreed upon traffic laws.

While we on the jury were looking into a world of chaos and disorder, our attention was always drawn back to the world of reason and order. Lawyers are agents of stability in this milieu, where the rule of law is still important, and words and reality still matter.

I was not born yesterday; I realize that the courts have also been infected with existentialism and the political correctness that is its offspring. This is especially evident at the higher levels of the judicial system, where unelected activist judges “legislate from the bench” and find new rights in the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy once ignominiously wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey). There you have it – pure existentialism. The right of people to define their own meaning and their own concept of existence is not a path to liberty but to chaos and anarchy. This is increasingly the case in our society today.

At the lower levels of the judicial system, reason, law, and objectivity are still the meat and potatoes of the daily work. At its best, our legal system is one of the last sectors of our society in which reason and the application of clear definitions are still evident. My grand jury experience made me deeply aware of this. It was uplifting and encouraging and was not a light I expected to see within the darkness.

I have new respect for the criminal justice system. In this antinomian and politicized age, it is a popular whipping boy. Though no system is perfect, I came away impressed with its thoroughness and fairness. Prosecutors don’t just prosecute criminals; they also work to secure justice for victims and their families and to protect the common good. Defense attorneys play a critical role as well. The attorneys do all this within the careful confines of the law, which seeks to protect the rights of both the accused and the victims.

Doxology

Thank You, Lord, for the good and hard work of those in our criminal justice system, many of whom labor behind the scenes. Often, they must deal with the worst of crimes and endure frustrating setbacks, yet they persevere in their work. Thank you too, Lord, for the rule of law that You have given us over the centuries. May we protect it from the erosion by existentialism and relativism. May our law be just and in perfect accord with Your eternal law. May the rights and dignity of every person, accused and victim, be upheld and honored. True justice can only be Your work. May all of us, especially those who are lawyers, judges, and jurors be instruments in Your hand.

This song speaks of the sadness of existentialism and relativism. While it idealizes the past, it does point out that we have lost something important.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What I Saw While Serving on a Grand Jury (part two)

Two Pictures from Different Ages – Compare and Contrast!

I was recently in Burgos, Spain and saw the splendid cathedral there. My first view of it came at night and I took the photo above. What a magnificent building; such proportion and symmetry! It reminds me of tall trees in a forest, majestically reaching up to the heavens. The flying buttresses supporting the soaring walls and towers showcase a great advance in building technique.

These were the skyscrapers of the Middle Ages. Such angular, geometric, and vertical beauty; a fair flower of the 13th century echoing God’s creation and pointing to Him in a great work of human praise.

Two medieval phrases come to mind in the beauty of this building:

      • Beauty is id quod visum placet – Beauty is that which pleases when seen.
      • Pulchra dicuntur quae visa placent – Things that give pleasure when seen are called beautiful.

A mere thirty yards from this beautiful cathedral in the town square is something that is not beautiful in any traditional sense. I took the photo of it that is on the left. It was not uplifting and seemed to correspond to nothing in creation (unless one were to imagine a dinosaur dropping or a huge stumbling block). Like most modern abstract art, it looks more to me like someone’s nightmare. It seems to have little to say other than “Try to figure me out, you ignoramus.” Indeed, that is what I am usually called by art critics when I express dismay at these sorts of ugly blobs that clutter too many of our public squares and “art” museums.

Some disparagingly refer to the Middle Ages as the “dark ages” while referring to the current age as “enlightened.” Certainly, no age is perfect, but compare and contrast the two items in the photos here: uplifting, soaring, and inspiring; the other is dark and brooding, and its meaning is opaque. One is an uplifting building from the 13th century, the other a dark “who knows what” from the 20th century. Based on representational art, which age seems more inspiring? Which seems more enlightened? Decide for yourself, but I’ll take the 13th century!

St. Thomas Aquinas (also from the 13th century) spoke of beauty as consisting of integritas, consonantia, and claritas.  He writes,

For beauty includes three conditions: “integrity” or “perfection,” since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due “proportion” or “harmony”; and lastly, “brightness” or “clarity,” whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color [Summa Theologica I, 38, art 8].

In applying these criteria to human art and architecture, we might consider the following:

Integritas (Integrity) – This speaks to the manner in which something echoes the beauty of what God has done. Thomas says that every created being is beautiful because God gives beauty to all created beings by a certain participation in the divine beauty. Therefore, human art and architecture are said to have integrity insofar as they participate in and point to the divine beauty of things. This need not mean an exact mimicry, but it does require at least a respectful glance to creation, holding forth some aspect of it so as to edify us with better and higher things. The cathedral pictured above points to a majestic forest as its form, its soaring stone to the mountains. Its colored glass allows the natural light to dazzle the eye and tell the stories of the Gospels. It is a sermon in glass and stone. As such, it has integrity, because it puts forth God’s glory. I’m not sure what the dark metal blob says. To what does it point? I have no idea. Because it is not integrated into the glory of creation (in any way that I can discern, at least) it does not have integrity. Rather, it seems to mock creation. If you think it is beautiful and has integrity, I invite you to explain why and how; I am at a loss to see any meaning at all in it.

Consonantia (Proportion) – This refers to the order and unity within a given thing. What God creates has a unity and purpose in its parts, which work together in an orderly fashion to direct something to its proper function or end. Thus, art and architecture intrinsically bespeak a unity and functionality, or they point to it extrinsically. They make sense of the world and respect what is given, reflecting the beauty of order, purpose, and design that God has set forth. The cathedral is beautiful because its parts act together in an orderly and harmonious way. There is balance, proportion, and symmetry. There is a recta ratio factibilium (something made according to right reason). As such, the building participates in God’s good order, and that is a beautiful thing. As for the dark metal “blob” (I don’t know what else to call it), it doesn’t seem to me to have any proportion. It is roundish, but not really. Does it have parts? Do they work together for some end? If so, what end? I cannot tell. Rather than pointing to order, it makes me think of chaos. I see no beauty echoed or pointed to.

Claritas (Clarity) – It is through clarity that we can answer the question “What is it?” with some degree of precision and understanding. Claritas also refers to the brightness or radiance of a thing. Something of God’s glory shines through; something about it gives light; something teaches us and reminds us of God—and God and light are beautiful. The gorgeous cathedral reflects the light shining on it, even at night. During the day it proclaims the glory of God by its soaring majesty, its sculptures, its windows, its order, its proportionality. It is a bright light showing forth the brightness of God and participating in it. As for the metal thing, it seems more to suck the light out of the room; it broods. I see no clarity, no brightness. I still cannot answer the question that clarity demands: “What is it?” There is no clear message. As such, it lacks beauty.

The criteria of beauty discussed here cannot be used for labeling things “beautiful” with absolute certainty, as if by applying a formula. They are more like guidelines to help us pin down some notion of beauty that is not purely subjective. Not all these criteria must be met for an object to be considered beautiful, and the presence of one does not guarantee beauty.

So again, you decide for yourself. Each of the two structures pictured above is representative of its age. Were the Dark Ages really so dark? Is ours really so enlightened? Compare and contrast!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Two Pictures from Different Ages – Compare and Contrast!

Words of Wisdom from the Carmina Burana

I was at the Kennedy Center last night with friends to hear a performance of the popular cantata Carmina Burana. It was composed by Carl Orff in the mid-1930s and consists of a collection of poems from the Middle Ages (set to music). The poems, mostly of a secular nature, were found in Benediktbeuern Abbey in Bavaria in the early 1800s.

Among the poems is Estuans interius (Seething inside), a lament on the price one pays for indulging the passions (e.g., lust, greed, gluttony). Satisfying our passions can provide temporary gratification, but eventually there is a price to be paid.

Lines from the poem are shown in bold, black italics while my comments are in plain red text.

Burning inwardly with strong anger, in my bitterness I speak to my soul; created out of matter, ashes of the earth, I am like a leaf with which the winds play.

Indulgence often leads to compulsions and addictions that lock us into a cycle of disappointment, bitterness, and self-reproach. This is seldom helpful because it robs us of the very self-regard that could motivate us to focus on our true potential and thereby improve. It is what St. Paul calls worldly sorrow, which is deadly, as opposed to Godly sorrow, which restores us to God’s care (see 2 Cor 7:10).

Left to our unrestrained passions we are blown about like a leaf in the wind.

Whereas it is proper for a wise man to place his foundations on rock, I, in my folly, am like a flowing river, never staying on the same course.

This is another image of the foolishness of intemperance. Our life meanders like a river, and we lose touch with our goal. We’re all over the map, not living as though we know where we are headed; we cannot accomplish earthly goals let alone heavenly ones.

Jesus said, Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it (see Mat 7:24-27).

I am borne along like a ship without a sailor, just as a wandering bird is carried along paths of air.

If we do not subject our passions to our reason, we are easily carried along by worldly forces. Scripture says,

        • Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings (Hebrews 13:8-9).
        • Therefore, beloved, since you already know these things, be on your guard so that you will not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure standing (1 Peter 3:17).
        • No longer be infants, tossed about by the waves and carried around by every wind of teaching and by the clever cunning of men in their deceitful scheming (Eph 4:14).

Though secular in source, this poem conforms to the teaching of Scripture: our passions, especially when indulged, make us susceptible to all sorts of foolishness. Our minds become darkened and we are an easy target for even the most ludicrous and deluded teachings and philosophies. Why does this happen? Because Christ is not the captain of our thoughts, and reason is not the pilot of our life; rather, our unmoored passions are at the helm, and the result is a darkened mind and increasing compulsion and addiction.

Chains do not keep me nor does a key; I seek men like myself, and I am joined with rogues.

When the passions are indulged, it becomes harder and harder to resist them. St. Augustine wrote, “For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity” (Confessions, 8.5.10).

Sinners tend to seek one another out both for comfort and validation. St. Paul warned, For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3). When we are both surrounded by and validated by sinners, our passions are further excited. Over time, we keep company with a worse and worse crowd.

I go on the broad way after the manner of youth; and I entangle myself in vice, forgetful of virtue; greedy for pleasure more than for salvation, I, dead in my soul, attend to the needs of my flesh.

Of this “broad way” Jesus said, Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to salvation, and only a few find it (Mat 7:13-14). Why is the way to salvation narrow? Because it is the way of the cross and most people do not want to control their passions or say no to sin. As the poem says, most people want momentary pleasure more than eternal salvation; at some point they become so dead in mortal sin that they only attend to the needs of the flesh.

Yes, these are great words of wisdom from the Carmina Burana. Spare us, O Lord, from the slavery of intemperance!

Here is a performance of the sung version (in Latin) of the poem Estuans interius:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Words of Wisdom from the Carmina Burana

On the Connection Between Sound Doctrine and Civility

A key theme of St. Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus, bishops he appointed to oversee the churches of Ephesus and Crete respectively, is their insistence on sound doctrine. He writes to Titus, “As for you, speak the things that are consistent with sound doctrine …” (Titus 2:1). He tells Timothy that if he passes on this doctrine to others, he “… will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished by the words of faith and sound doctrine that you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6).

St. Paul also makes an interesting connection between doctrine and civility. He writes of those who diverge from sound doctrine and describes the effects of their dissent:

Whoever teaches something different and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the religious teaching is conceited, understanding nothing, and has morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes. From these come envy, rivalry, insults, evil suspicions, and mutual friction among people with corrupted minds, who are deprived of the truth … (1 Tim 6:3-5).

We can see this clearly today, when so many people—even within the Church—spread false teaching and call good, or no big deal, what God calls sin.

Note that the effect of rejecting sound doctrine is, in effect, widespread incivility (rivalry, insults, suspicions, and friction). Yes, welcome to the modern Western world.

What is the connection between spreading false teachings and incivility? It is the loss of a shared foundation of fundamental truths. Without such a foundation it is difficult to have reasonable, rational discussions in which one begins with agreed-upon principles and builds upon them logically to form conclusions. Here is an extremely simple example:

  1. An obtuse angle is one whose measure is greater than 90° and less than 180°.
  2. This angle measures 120°.
  3. Therefore, this angle is an obtuse angle.

You can see that you wouldn’t get very far if you couldn’t agree on the definition of an obtuse angle or on how to use a protractor to measure angles or on how to compare the magnitudes of numbers!

The problem today is that, due to radical individualism and subjectivism, many basic realities are no longer accepted as legitimate premises upon which to base an argument. Without the ability to have reasoned arguments like the ones so beautifully depicted in the St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, we have descended into vehement disagreements, strident protests, heated rivalries, and even hatred.

The most extreme example of this is the relatively recent word “transgender.” Merriam-Webster defines it as follows: “of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” Nothing is more obvious than that humans come in two sexes, male and female. The ability to determine one’s sex is neither difficult nor mysterious; a simple look at one’s private parts (in more than 99.9 percent of the population) is quite sufficient. When even something this simple or obvious is no longer accepted as such, the ability to have a conversation, let alone a rational argument, is diminished, to say the least.

In such a radically subjective climate, whose view “wins”? Generally, it’s the one who yells the loudest or has the most influence or is the most famous. It is not reason that triumphs but power. We have today what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism,” in which nothing is accepted as definitively true. The tyranny comes in the force (cultural, political, or legal) used to impose the standard that there is no standard. It is impossible to argue for a position from first principles when there are no agreed-upon first principles. Today, one achieves the highest level of popularity and acceptance by having no principles at all (other than that everyone’s “principles” are equally valid). Interestingly, the principle that there are principles is not considered an acceptable principle!

St. Paul rightly highlights the necessity for pastors to teach sound doctrine. This helps build a sturdy foundation of truth for the Church and the culture. Having agreed-upon principles provides the basis for rational discussion. It also sets limits on diversion: a range of views may be allowed but only within reasonable boundaries. It is like the rules on a multilane highway: a person can drive in any one of several different lanes, but only those going in a certain direction and certainly not on the shoulder or off on the grass. Sound doctrine provides limits; it helps us avoid getting in an accident or winding up at the bottom of a roadside ravine.

In the modern West, we seem to be engaged in a massive social experiment as to whether there can be a culture without a shared cultus. A cultus indicates a shared set of beliefs in God and in what He teaches and expects. Once upon a time in the U.S., though we had sectarian differences, there was still a fundamental agreement on basic moral norms rooted in the Ten Commandments and the long experience of Christianity. This common ground has disappeared, and the picture of St. Paul describes above is very much in evidence. Even in the Church there are factions, suspicions, rivalries, and even insults. That is what happens when doctrine is set aside, when silence and/or ambiguity are widespread and even weaponized. When the sheep are fighting, the shepherd should step in with clear teaching. In today’s radical uncertainty, even the shepherds are afraid to fight.

When doctrine collapses, incivility and fierce anger rule the day. St. Paul paints the picture vividly and accurately. The only real solution is to rebuild the sure and sturdy foundation of sound doctrine. Pray for greater courage among bishops, pastors, and Catholic Cultural leaders to rebuke dissent, solidly restore the foundation of truth, and then insist upon it. Without the truth there will be no peace.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Connection Between Sound Doctrine and Civility

A Lament on the Shrinking of Summer

Not so long ago the middle of August was still a lazy time to enjoy the last few days of summer. It used to be that Labor Day marked the unofficial end of summer—not so much any more in more places for more and more people.

The erosion of summer is driven mainly by the start of school. I have watched with sadness as the school year seems to begin earlier and earlier and earlier. In the Washington, D.C. area, parents are young people are preparing for that first day of school – and some schools have already started. College classes start even earlier, early August in some cases; and new students who need an “orientation” generally arrive on campus even before the general student population.

What’s the big rush? Why are some people in such a big hurry to get back to the grind? Families have so little time to spend time together as it is! I hope that the concerns I express today will be seen as having spiritual components and not just as the complaints of an old curmudgeon.

The purpose of rest, both the Sabbath rest and vacation, is to enjoy the fruit of our labors. We should work to live; many today live to work. What is the point of having a livelihood if we never get the time to enjoy life? God commanded the Sabbath for many reasons, but among them was justice. He set forth a particular day of the week (Saturday) as well as other times (feasts) when work was forbidden so that all could rest. Without the collective agreement and commandment (under pain of sin), the rich get time off but the poor must still work to facilitate the leisure of the rich. God set forth a system that sought to prevent that injustice. All, including slaves and even beasts of burden, were to refrain from all but the most necessary work.

In our culture, Sunday has been the day of rest. Most who have better paying jobs get that day off. Before 1970, even the poor typically had Sundays off because most retail establishments were closed. Today, for our convenience, lower-paid store workers and restaurant staff must work.

It is the same with holidays and holy days. It used to be that days like Christmas, Good Friday, and Thanksgiving were days off for just about everyone. Non-essential operations were generally closed.

Today almost nothing — no day, no time — is sacred. Market demand and the need to get ahead of the competition drive this. Work, work, work; compete and strive to win. It is usually the poorest among us, however, who pay the greatest price for this.

Families also suffer; time together has steadily eroded over the years. The tradition of eating evening and weekend meals is all but gone. Sunday and holiday gatherings seem to be shorter and more perfunctory—if they occur at all. Summer itself is now on the chopping block. Churches are affected because the window in which we have to conduct summer festivals and Vacation Bible school is more limited.

I have been given numerous explanations as to why schools are champing at the bit to begin the year.

School officials (in both secular and Catholic schools) tell me that many parents are delighted that their children are back in school earlier, thus freeing them to do other things rather than minding the children. But what does that tell you about the vision of family life today? Shouldn’t families want extended time to vacation together and to engage in other local activities, Church offerings, and so forth? Shouldn’t parents enjoy spending time with their children? Shouldn’t they want to use the extra time in the summer to form them? Do parents have children merely to send them off to school, happy to be rid of them for a few hours? I hope not. I know that we all get a little tired, but I find it alarming that parents would be as eager for school to start as school officials insist is the case.

I am told that teachers require more days for professional development, thus forcing schools to open earlier in the year and/or close later in order to meet the required minimum number of days of student instruction. But professional days and ongoing certification have always been necessary. My mother was a teacher for over twenty years and teachers had professional days and took certification courses (mainly in the summer) back then. Teachers already have two and a half months away from classes. That’s a lot more vacation than most of the rest of us have. Is there a reason that teachers could not have most of June and July off and then return at the beginning of August for these sorts of things? If schools opened after Labor Day that would still give them more than a month for these activities.

Further I would argue that the impact of such a system is not a good one. It sets up a “death by a thousand cuts” throughout the school year as half-days, teacher in-service days, and professional days seem to eat into most weeks of the school year. In some school systems nearly every Friday is a half day for one reason or another. Working parents must juggle schedules all year long, not just in the summer when vacations are already common. Schools even collect a lot extra money running “aftercare” programs on those half-days of classes. Parents are not only deprived of time with their children, but they are pressured financially as well.

The school system is supposed to serve children, parents, and families, but it seems instead that the school systems have started ruling our lives and dictating our schedules. Even in Catholic and other private schools, parents who are already struggling just to afford the tuition must now also pay for additional childcare on those days when school is not in session or closes early.

My final concern is that school schedules carving away more and more of the summer from family time means that the formation of children shifts from the families to the schools. Is that really what we want? I would hope that parents would want to play the most significant role in forming their children. Parents should ask themselves if they want to raise their children or increasingly hand that task over to strangers. Sadly, as we all can see, many schools have become less and less places of teaching basic academic skills and more and more places of indoctrination into values that are often inimical to Catholic and biblical teachings. Although there are exceptions, the infiltration of secular and immoral ideologies into the curriculum has made major inroads in public schools.

I recommend we attack this problem by starting simply. Can we at least have the month of August back? How about an agreement not begin school until the Tuesday after Labor Day? It’s just a little thing, but the steady erosion of rest, family time, Church time, and “downtime” has taken a toll on our society in many ways. Here’s to summer … all of it!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Lament on the Shrinking of Summer

The Red Sea Crossing and What It Says to Us in Times Like These

As we are reading about the crossing of the Red Sea in daily Mass this week (16th week of the Year), we do well to ponder this writing by St. Ambrose, which reminds us of the victory that is ours:

You observe that in this crossing [of the Red Sea] by the Hebrews there was already a symbol of holy Baptism. The Egyptian perished; the Hebrew escaped. What else is the daily lesson of this sacrament than that guilt is drowned and error destroyed, while goodness and innocence pass over unharmed? (from St. Ambrose’s Treatise on the Mysteries, 12)

In times like these, we need such a reminder of this ultimate victory. The word “ultimate” is important because prior to their victory the Hebrews endured centuries of injustice. They also experienced the terror of having a vengeful army coming at them from behind while an impassible sea lay before them. It took faith to walk through those waters that rose thirty feet on either side of them like walls. Would the walls of water hold? Trusting in God and His servant Moses, they went forth.

By this faith and through this baptism into Moses (cf 1 Cor 10:2) they had the victory. How much more so do we, who are baptized into Christ Jesus.

We need the reminder of this victory in these times of moral darkness, when the murder of unborn children is called a constitutional right and celebrated with cheers, when the scientific fact that at the moment of conception a unique human being is created is denied, when medical evidence that unborn children feel pain is scoffed at by pro-choice “science deniers.”

    • These are times when many glory in their shame (Phil 3:19; Rom 1:32) by celebrating sexual disorder and confusion.
    • These are times when many, through the lie of transgenderism, fulfill Scripture passages such as these:
        • You [O mere man] have turned things upside down, as if the potter were regarded as clay. Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “He did not make me”? Can the pottery say of the potter, “He has no understanding”? (Isaiah 29:16)
        • But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” (Rom 9:20)
    • These are times when too many priests and bishops—who should be leading the battle—are silent, or sounding an uncertain trumpet, or even speaking error and spreading confusion themselves.
    • These are times when, with a humanitarian crisis on our border, neither political party will budge an inch to bring reason to a system that is broken.

In times like these we need to remember that God has already won; whatever sin or foolishness emerges is temporary and destined to be drowned in the sea. We all sometimes feel that there is an army of sin at our back and an impassible sea of pride in front of us—but God can make a way out of no way; He can do anything but fail.

Where is Pharaoh now? Where is Caesar? Where is Napoleon? Where is the USSR? In the lifetime of the Church, empires have risen and fallen, nations have come and gone, and errors and heresies have temporarily had their day. Enemies have scoffed at God’s Church and threatened her ruin, boldly stating that they would bury us and our foolish, “outdated” ways. We have read the funeral rites over every one of them. When the present foolishness has passed, we will still be here, preaching the same gospel, while every error and lie is buried at the bottom of the sea.

Do not be discouraged. The battle is real and must be fought, but the victory is already assured. At times it may not seem to be so, but it is. To return to the words of St. Ambrose:

What else is the daily lesson of this sacrament than that guilt is drowned and error destroyed, while goodness and innocence pass over unharmed?

Fight on, fellow soldiers, knowing that the victory is ours after many days.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Red Sea Crossing and What It Says to Us in Times Like These