Below is a touching video of a hearing-impaired infant who, after being fitted with a hearing aid, hears the voices of his parents for the very first time. Initially, the child fidgets, afraid of what is happening. But as the voices of his parents reach his soul, a smile of joy and recognition blossoms on his face.
In the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil is a beautiful line regarding an infant’s first recognition of his mother. In this case it refers to seeing, but the same could be said of hearing.
Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem.
Begin, little boy, to recognize the face of your mother with a smile.
Spiritually, this video speaks to those of us who may have fidgeted as we were introduced to the voice of our Heavenly Father and Holy Mother Church. At first, we objected to the voice of truth and resisted those who sought to help us to hear. But, prayerfully (and I am a witness), many of us adjusted and began to smile at the beautiful voice of truth.
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes through the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17).
The short video below shows the span of one woman’s life, some seventy years in less than two minutes. How quickly she moves through the stages of her life, from infancy to her golden years!
My mind drifted back to a photo album my father once assembled not long before his death. In the frontispiece he inscribed a passage from Psalm 103:
But as for man, his days are like the grass, or as the flower of the field. The wind blows and he is gone, And his place never sees him anymore.
Indeed, our lives do pass swiftly. I often think about the many men who once lived in my old rectory, this place that never sees them anymore. One day I, too, will be swept from here, becoming a distant memory peering out from some old pictures in the archive.
In Psalm 90 there are some other painfully beautiful lines:
O Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to the next. Before the mountains were born or the earth or the world brought forth, you are God, without beginning or end.
You turn men back to dust and say, “Go back, sons of men.” To your eyes a thousand years are like yesterday, come and gone, no more than a watch in the night.
You sweep men away like a dream, like the grass which springs up in the morning. In the morning it springs up and flowers: by evening it withers and fades. …
Our life is over like a sigh. Our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong.
Make us know the shortness of our life that we may gain wisdom of heart. Lord, relent! Is your anger forever? Show pity to your servants.
In the morning, fill us with your love; we shall exult and rejoice all our days. Give us joy to balance our affliction for the years when we knew misfortune.
Show forth your work to your servants; let your glory shine on their children. Let the favor of the Lord be upon us.
Yes, lines like these went through my mind as I viewed this beautiful video—a commercial, really. From the dawn to the twilight of life in just under a minute and a half!
At the end of the video, the woman walks off into the distance as the setting sun casts its orange and gold rays. Here, too, I recalled the moving lines of an old hymn:
The golden evening brightens in the west; Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest; Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed. Alleluia.
Yes, our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong. Or as the old Douay beautifully put it, The days of our years are threescore and ten. But if in the strong they be fourscore …
This is one of those videos that I think you should watch before I say much about it.
There is something shocking about the ending, something awful. And yet the request by the young man in the video is a common one, though it often comes cloaked in more subtle forms. People today use one another in the most crass, utilitarian, and selfish ways! Do others exist merely to give you pleasure? Is this not often the message of cohabitation and sex without marital commitment?
Let me ask you one question about the ending of the video: Why does what the young man says shock you?
One of the greatest paradoxes told to us in the Scriptures is that if we would save our life, we must lose it in Christ (Luke 9:24). That is, we must die to this world to inherit eternal life. “Eternal” does not simply refer to the length of the afterlife, but to its fullness as well. To inherit eternal life is to become fully alive.
This idea that we must die to ourselves to go up to something higher is evident throughout nature. Minerals and other aspects of the soil are taken up into plants by being leached out of the soil. But in so doing, they “come to life” in the plant and are no longer simply inert minerals. Plants, too, must die and be taken up into the animal that eats them. But in so doing, they become part of sentient life. And animals, too, must die and be taken up into the human person. But in so doing they go up higher, joined to the life of a person with a soul, one who ponders meaning, studies the stars, writes poetry, and knows God. And man, too, must die to himself, die to this world, in order to be swept up in the life of the Trinity in the glory of Heaven. In every stage, we die to something lower in order that we may go to something higher.
The video above presents a very moving story, one which requires us to suspend some notions of reality. Obviously, robots do not have consciousness and feelings—but this one does. The robot is sent to the home of an older woman in order to take care of her.
When the robot is first taken out of the box and turned on, he behaves just like a robot, going through chores mechanically. But in his association with the woman, he begins to go up higher. Dying to himself and serving this woman puts him in association with her. This relationship begins to give him almost human traits: love and loyalty, joy and sorrow, and even desire. We see the first change in him as he admires a sunset, in imitation of his mistress. The lesson here is that we learn what it means to be more fully human from one another and by gazing into the light of God’s glory.
It seems that the circus is coming to town. And oh, how the robot wants to go! The tickets are purchased and the anticipation builds.
But one thing we notice in the story is that this robot lives on battery power. And no matter how good battery power is, it can only last for so long before it lets you down.
The day of the circus arrives, and oh, the joy that awaits! But alas, his mistress dies that very day. Misunderstanding the higher life he has been serving, the robot tries to revive her by putting batteries in her pockets. But no amount of battery power can help, for the power of this world is powerless over death. Upon her death the robot sits gazing at the sunset, remembering a time when he first began to experience life.
We who view the story know that the robot cannot last for long, because his batteries, which symbolizes the things of this world, are sure to fail. Sure enough, five days later, his lights go out, and his eyes close in a kind of death.
But in dying, we are born to eternal life. And suddenly his eyes open, and he is in a world brighter than he has ever known. And there she is, his mistress, the one he served. She has come to walk with him to the circus, a circus far more glorious than he could ever have imagined. In dying to his battery life, he has gone to real and eternal life.
But Father, but Father, robots don’t have life! I know, it’s just a story. But like many stories, it’s really about you and me. For now, we are like servants, depending on battery life. We learn what it means to be more fully human from one another, and by gazing at the light of God’s glory. But to become fully alive requires that one day our battery finally die. And then a new and more glorious life awaits us, if we faithfully serve in the house of mother Church, in the house of God’s kingdom. In losing our life for the Lord and His kingdom, we gain it back more richly. From battery life to real life.
When I saw the commercial below, I was struck with a twinge of guilt. The words of a poem by William Butler Yeats came to mind:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Yes, something struck me. In this commercial, anarchy, destruction, injustice, violence, and pure chaos are shown. And yet all the while our superhero, with the “bat phone” screeching in the background calling for help, is wholly distracted, flipping through the channels unaware that the world around him is descending right into Hell. He is turned inward, wholly focused on his own little world.
Is this what we’re doing? Are we the superhero slouching on the couch as the world and Western culture descend into a maelstrom? Innocence lost, the blood-dimmed tide of the 20th century with perhaps more 100 million put to death in war and for ideological purposes, moral anarchy swept in on the four horsemen of the apocalypse: relativism, secularism, individualism, and the sexual revolution.
And while the wicked have been marching with passionate intensity, the good have largely been asleep, lacking any intensity for the battle. All around us are divorce, abortion, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, broken families, increasing lack of self-control and discipline, declining school test scores and graduation rates, the inability to live within our means, climbing poverty rates for children, drug and alcohol addiction, plummeting Church attendance … the list could go on and on.
And where have we been as a Church—as Christians—in a world gone mad? Where, for example was the Church in 1969, when “no-fault divorce” laws began to be passed? It would seem we were inwardly focused: moving furniture around in our sanctuaries, tuning our guitars, having debates about liturgy, Church authority, and why women can’t be ordained. These are not unimportant issues, but in being so focused on them, we lost the culture.
Yes, it happened on our watch. I am now past fifty, and I cannot say that it is all the fault of the previous generation. Even in my relatively short span on this earth, the world as I knew it has largely been swept away, especially in terms of family life. And now it is up to me to try to make a difference.
How about you? It will take courage and an increasing conviction to live the Catholic faith openly. No more of this “undercover Catholic” stuff, no more trying to fit in and be liked. It is long past midnight for our culture, our families, and our children.
In the commercial there is something very wrong with the scenario: the superhero ignores the cries for help as the phone screeches. It’s time for our superhero to get off the couch, pick up the phone, re-engage, and get to work. It is interesting to note that the movie he is watching shows a wolf being set loose. Jesus says, Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves (Matt 7:15). Indeed, many wolves preaching (false) tolerance and spouting other pleasantries have badly misled people and spread error, calling what is sin “good” and misrepresenting biblical tradition.
Well, fellow superheroes, the last time I checked, we are supposed to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It’s time—long past time—to bring Christ’s power back to this world. It’s time for us to get off the couch, pick up the phone, re-engage, and get to work.
Sometimes when you’re having a bad day, troubles multiply. I’m not sure why. Perhaps one distraction leads to another, one trip leads to successive stumbles until we fall headlong. Trouble sometimes comes in threes or in longer sequences. The poor soul in the video below is having such a day. Some of the following psalms came to mind as I watched this painfully humorous video:
The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses O Lord. Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins. Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me. Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me! Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you. Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.
Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord; may your love and faithfulness always protect me. For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me. Be pleased to save me, Lord; come quickly, Lord, to help me.
Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up. You will increase my honor and comfort me once more.
On the other hand, I wonder if he could have avoided all of these troubles if he had been in Church on this Sunday morning instead of at home cooking breakfast? 😉
I have remarked before on this blog that what we call “balance” is really more a range than a fixed point. That is to say, balance is achieved not so much by staying still on a fixed point as by moving within a range around that point. The videos below feature unicyclists and tightrope walkers. The tightrope walker only survives by being able to move within a very narrow range. The same is true and even more visible with the unicyclists—the moment they stop moving, they will fall.
And in this is a picture of virtue. What is virtue? Virtue is the habit of doing good. St. Thomas Aquinas, basing his view on those of Aristotle, spoke of virtue as the mean between excess and defect. An old Latin saying comes to mind: in medio stat virtus (virtue stands in the middle).
The virtuous act is one that is neither excessive nor deficient. So, for example courage is neither foolhardy nor cowardly, and temperance is neither total abstinence nor gluttony. Humility is neither arrogance nor subservience. Perseverance is neither obstinacy nor capitulation (Art and Laraine Bennett, The Emotions God Gave You: A Guide for Catholics, p. 83).
Thus, the balance of the virtues is not something that freezes us, but rather is better described as a range of motion around the golden mean.
It is true that in highly specific moral acts or settings, there is often only one valid choice, e.g., in cases of abortion, fornication, and murder. But virtue here is understood more broadly as a general and habitual way of acting in accord with right reason.
Understanding virtue as the mean or midpoint between excess and defect is important for two reasons.
First, it helps us to avoid being overly scrupulous. In life there is often a range of possibilities available to us and we need some flexibility to be able to handle the unique circumstances of each moment. We must act within a range of responses that respect what faith and reason require. Scrupulosity often causes people to focus on a single aspect. Without balance, the flexibility necessary to move in a morally graceful way is limited.
Second, because life is made up of many complex things that come together in varying combinations, it is not reasonable, possible, or wise for the Church or Scripture to speak to every possible moral topic and scenario. What the Church and Scripture do most frequently is to give us principles to apply along with virtue.
There are many critics of the Church and of religion in general who are dismissive of rules and “micromanaging” by Church authorities. Of course there are some rules (there are rules in every walk of life). But more important, there are principles to be applied. It is quite impossible for the Church to micromanage every situation or have a rule for every possible situation. The dignity of Catholics is respected by the Church. She teaches us, but then expects us to use our intellect and reason to apply her principles virtuously, that is, with neither excess nor defect.
Just brief reflection on virtue.
As you view these videos, notice how balance is less a fixed point and more a range of motion. Further, if the artist is not able to move within a range and adjust to circumstances moment by moment, disaster is sure to follow. Virtue is moving and acting within the golden mean, within the range of neither excess nor defect. Virtue is a form of balance.
In this second video it is clear that the tightrope walker’s range of motion is much narrower, but still he must be able to move within that range to adjust to circumstances. I also want to say that I am not even sure that tightrope walking is a moral activity. In showing this video I do not affirm taking needless risks (though I know they train well). The reason I use this video is just to illustrate the point. The morality of tightrope walking is uncertain to me, but I’m inclined to lean against it. 😉
There is an old saying that the greatest things in life aren’t things. Our greatest gifts are those we love, beginning with God, and extending to one another.
One of the great dangers at Christmastime (and with life in general) is that we maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum, or, as Jesus puts it, we strain out gnats and swallow camels (Matt 23:24). He said this about the religiously observant of his day, who meticulously followed small, technical rules about cleanliness and ritual purity, but neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matt 23:22).
In other words, at Christmas we can focus so much on buying things and arranging various events that we neglect or even harm those who are our greatest gift.
Consider the sad situation that many have now largely set aside the once-sacred Thanksgiving holiday when people could spend time with family and enjoy their company. Why? So that stores can be open for people to leave the people they love in order to run out and buy things for them. The gift eclipses both the giver and the recipient. And on top of that, we potentially sin against charity by creating a climate that requires the poor and those of the lower-wage working class to work on Thanksgiving.
Add to this the short tempers at the shopping malls (often caused by heavy traffic, long lines, and out-of-stock items) and the impression is created that things are more important than people. Not all suffer from this, but it is a problem.
The video below provides a touching reminder that the truer purpose of a gift is the well-being of another and the love we can show at Christmas.
The basic scene is that two snowmen are built, a kind of husband-and-wife, snowman family. But one has, and the other has not. Seeing his wife’s need, the husband snowman sets out, enduring great hardship and overcoming many obstacles, in order to get for his wife what she needs. The greatest gifts are those that show care for another.
Through the window, the “creator” of the snowman watches this act of love unfold. At the touching end of the video, the creator is very pleased.
And so, too, our Creator and Lord is also watching from the window of Heaven and He is pleased with our acts of mercy as well.
The greatest things in life aren’t things; they are those we love. And the greater gift this Christmas is not so much the things we give, as the care and love we extend through those gifts, and the shared gift of our very selves.