All Saints: The Day of Nobility

Yesterday I had a post published at ‘Aleteia’ on my idea for a Catholic Halloween. To summarize, my idea was that Halloween is best celebrated in conjunction with All Saints Day; the former celebrates the struggle, the latter the triumph.

Nobility fundamentally means rising to the challenges of the world and not being bourn down by them, approaching something like what man was originally meant to be. The Saints are, of course, the most triumphal example of this: heroically devoting their lives to Christ in spite of the world and living for His sake. But the same principle is found, one way or another, in all heroic figures, that determination to do right and refusal to allow doubts or compromise to stop you. This is why it’s important to honor historical and even fictional heroes as well as Saints; because they present a simplified and therefore easier to grasp example of the same elements that make the Saints. That is, the Saints are the most triumphal examples of the same virtues that make ‘ordinary’ heroes.

All Saints’ Day, therefore, seems to me to be basically the day for celebrating virtue, heroism, and nobility itself; a day to particularly contemplate and delight in what makes men good.

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Learning to Read

It seems to me that the chief problem with the modern world is that we have largely forgotten how to read. We are among the most illiterate generations that history records.

I don’t mean reading letters, the signs derived by man. I mean reading reality. Finding a higher meaning in actions or in the world around us. This is a skill we’ve almost entirely lost.

When you read a sentence, such as “Generous deeds should not be checked by cold counsel,” there are several layers as it were to the experience. There are the letters and words themselves, of a certain shape and character. They can vary to a degree, but not too far without become different letters entirely, conveying different meanings. The ‘G’ in ‘Generous’ can only be altered so far until it becomes an ‘O’ and the sentence is transformed into something like “Onerous deeds…” etc., which has a completely different meaning.

Above that there are the ideas the words are meant to convey, each word corresponding to a different individual idea or relation: “Generous”, “Deed,” “should not”, etc. This is independent of the words and the same ideas can be rendered by completely different words, thus:

“Facti liberalis non debent inhibere ab counsilio frigido” (Latin scholars will correct me on the translation).

Finally, there is the question of the total sentiment of these ideas and whether it is just and true. This depends upon our understanding of reality and our place in it; a pure pragmatist would say the sentiment is false, because a generous deed may not be sensible or safe, but a Christian would have to say it is true in the main as we consider doing good to be a higher calling than remaining safe.

Now, my point is that these same layers are present in actions and not just in words. there are the individual actions themselves, such as moving my hand thus and thus, and there are the ideas conveyed by that actions – such as the Sign of the Cross – and there is the question of the total meaning and whether it is true or just. We tend to be hyperfocused on the actions themselves and the simply question of whether they are pleasant or painful, with little regard to the ideas conveyed unless they are direct and obvious.

For instance, ever since the first World War, popular sentiment has been to focus on the blood and mud and agony of battle and thus to make it appear senseless. The sentiment “It is a sweet and seemly thing to die for one’s country” is mocked and condemned, since the immediate sensations of battle are not “sweet or seemly.” As if the Roman’s or the uncountable men who have repeated that idea didn’t know that.

But truly great minds, such as Homer, are able to see both; Homer does not sugarcoat his battle scenes, nor dull the agony and grief of war, but his characters are able to read higher meanings into the grim scenes they engage in. It doesn’t make it any more pleasant, but it does place the actions in a higher context. They are fulfilling their duty, honoring the gods, and winning glory for themselves even in the midst of the carnage and savagery.

I cite this only as an example; there’s also the anti-ritualism that infects much of modern religion, of course, and the attempts to read everything in light of evolutionary psychology, just to cite a few more. The point is that we today tend to focus on the raw physical facts of things to the exclusion of any higher meaning, as if a man would read Shakespeare and judge it by the shape and evenness of the sentences rather than on what the sentences actually said.

Nobility means trying to identify and live according to the meaning of reality rather than according to the brute physical facts. A noble man is not free with the words “what does it matter?” because he is able to look past the obvious and see why it does matter.

The Choice to Be Noble

What I am finding most difficult in my pursuit of nobility is simply making the choice: resolving that this moment, this right here and right now, is when I start to live this way.

You see, for me, and I think for most of us, though we want to be good, though we want to live lives of nobility and honor, we more wish it were so than seriously want it, much as we want to be in shape in the sense we wish it were so, not that we actually want to do all that is involved in the process.

Part of the problem is that when we speak of a state of being like ‘nobility,’ we are in fact speaking of a pattern of behavior: the content of the idea is a general and ongoing set of actions. To say we want to be noble is like saying we want to be a soldier: the state of being a soldier is appealing to us: the process of being a soldier, with everything that implies for becoming one and living as one, is less so. We like the idea of the state of being, but that comes with a whole pattern and process of behavior which is much more difficult.

Making the choice to seek nobility means starting that process. It’s much easier to resolve that we will start it sometime than to actually begin. But we never achieve it unless we start the process.

The Faith of Virtue

Fear of the dark is one of the most basic of human fears, for the simple reason that you don’t know what you will find in the dark. I have always disliked the common cliche ‘people fear what they don’t understand;’ that seems to me a cop-out (“you just don’t like this because you don’t understand it”), similar to the idea that communication is the key to solving all conflicts. What people fear is not the mere lack of understanding, it is the potential for danger that cannot be foreseen. Lack of understanding only translates to fear if there is a felt potential for danger. Hence the dark is frightening because of what it might contain, from insects crawling about where you might unknowingly put your foot to hidden obstacles to…other things.

Courage is the most obvious of virtues, and venturing into the unknown one of the most obvious forms of courage. It is appropriate that it should be so, since all virtue amounts to stepping out into the unknown.

Virtue is focused primarily on the act itself: it tells us to do the straight thing regardless of what might come of it. Like Sam in The Lord of the Rings forcing himself to stay awake to keep watch over Frodo when they’re guests of Faramir. He knows perfectly well that if these men betrayed them there would be nothing he could do about it, but he also knows it’s his duty to keep watch and so he does it. Or like the Roman soldier during the Punic Wars (can’t remember his name) who was captured by the Carthaginians, then sent to deliver a message to Rome after promising to return when the message was sent. He went, advised the Romans not to accept the Carthaginian demands, then returned, knowing full well they would execute him horribly for it. He did it because he’d given his word to return and preferred to keep his word whatever the consequences.

It is the act itself, not the results, that matter in virtue. Now, since virtue means the proper operation of the human self, it does ultimately have positive results, even if not immediately obvious ones. But the results cannot be the chief reason for virtue, both because they are not obvious and we generally do not start out feeling the connection between the act and the positive result and because if we make the result our aim we are apt to seek it by the wrong means, which defeats the purpose (Consequentialism, therefore, is not only not virtue but is a kind of counterfeit to virtue, akin to cheating on a test without actually learning the material).

Virtue is a form of faith because it requires us to trust that the good results (happiness, confidence etc.) will follow if we sacrifice the present good of immediate indulgence. In order to achieve the desired results, we have to forget the results for a time and simply do what we ought.

This, I find, is one of the marks of the real and the good; that it cannot be reached if you make it your end, but only as a byproduct of a habitual process. A scholar does not arrive at the truth by first deciding the ‘right’ conclusion and then seeking evidence for it, but by following the evidence where it leads. A man does not fall in love by making love his aim, but by spending time with a woman. Nothing really worth having can be had by making it your aim, but only as a byproduct of habit.

In other words, everything that is genuinely good comes about by putting it out of our mind and focusing on doing the present actions as we ought. Which only means virtue, bringing us full circle. It is the mark of greater goods that they are a byproduct of the moment-to-moment enactment of duty. To try to reach them directly spoils them: they can only be coaxed out by doing as we ought moment to moment. To forget about them and trust they will come is a matter of faith.

The Dangers of Planning

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Leonard Pasternak – The Passion of Creation

I’m finding more and more the dangers of planning. Planning is necessary for me, but at the same time it carries a risk; the risk that the satisfaction of having made the plan will mean one doesn’t actually carry it out. We (or at least I) have a tendency to put something down on paper to be done, then assume it will be done sooner or later and so never actually do it. We don’t consciously decide not to do it, we just say ‘not right now.’  The next thing we know, months have passed and we’re wondering what’s wrong with us.

Dickens understood this; there’s a bit in Great Expectations where Pip recounts how, during his prodigal period, he and his friend Herbert would periodically sit down and draw up accounts for themselves of their expenses, debts, and the economies they would have to make. The satisfaction of so doing was enough to calm their nerves to the point where the exercise was useless.

A lot of times making plans functions as an anesthetic to our anxieties: a way to feel like we’re making progress without actually having to put in the work.

The Best We Have

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First Communion by Pablo Picasso

Part of my Christmas charity involved going with my parents to their parish. I don’t presently have a fixed parish of my, since I’m living with them and my life is very unsettled, but I generally go to one of two other churches, one of which is run by the priests of Miles Christi and is very traditional (Sunday mass isn’t in the Tridentine rite, but they do celebrate the Consecration in Latin and ad orientum), the other is more or less a typical novus ordo, though reliably orthodox. My parents’ church I avoid because the pastor, though a very nice man and, I believe, very orthodox gives the worst, most insipid homilies I have ever heard in a Catholic Church. I don’t think they’re in any way heretical, but they’re too banal for that to even be a possibility: they don’t contain enough instruction for the question of heresy to even arise.

Put it this way: his Christmas homily was based on a story in The New York Times that sounded like the treatment for a particularly bad Hallmark channel original movie. I was left thinking that the My Little Pony holiday special I’d just watched was more relevant and theologically rich than this.

I suppose in someways I’m a bit of a snob, especially when it comes to religion. I’m someone who gets annoyed by sloppiness in the liturgy, or smaltziness in homilies. Even when the homilies are better than the ones my parents’ priest gives, I still often find myself thinking that they miss important details, or they focus too much on the congregation, or are too vague. I’m also very critical of Church decor, if it seems drab or ugly I sit thinking about how they could and should do better.

But it’s not just about religious matters: I’m a snob about art and philosophy as well. Well-meaning nonsense irritates me, and attempts by narrow minds to appear broad, or sloppy thinking makes me roll my eyes. In art I frankly give no slack for the ‘bold’ or ‘innovative’ if what it produces is ugly or degrading – I loathe Picasso’s more famous works, for instance and think Duchomp was a charlatan.

Yet, at the same time, many of my favorite works are the frankly popular and low-brow: Disney movies, children’s cartoons, monster movies, fantasy and adventure novels, and so on. I can be extremely critical of a homily that plays too much to the crowd, but I can love a film that does the same.

Is there a disconnect here? I don’t think so. You see, the question is what you’re trying to do, who you’re doing it for, and (most important) whether you’re giving your all. I hate most of Picasso’s work in part because he was a very talented artist: if you look up some of his early work it’s quite beautiful (see the picture that heads this post for instance). But instead he chose, whether for commercial or ideological reasons, to paint hideous crap

On the other hand, I really like the film Freddy vs. Jason because, while it’s not really a ‘good’ movie, it is a movie that tried very hard to be as good as it could possibly be. It knows what it is and simply tries to excel at that.  Moreover, Freddy vs. Jason is a pulpy horror film: it seeks to create some very basic emotions and some very cheap thrills. That’s a low bar, and the film clears it handily while also giving us more than we expected. It is eminently suited to the end for which it was created.

That’s why I’m so harsh in some things and not in others: it’s a question of how much effort is put towards what end. When the end is giving people a few hours of entertainment, or telling stories to children, and the makers put as much effort as they can into it, I’ll sing their praises. When the end is showcasing beauty and truth, and the makers try to pull cheap gimmicks or make only a token effort, I’ll come down on them. When the end is conveying the Word of God and the result is a cutesy story to elicit some warm fuzzies, then I turn my back on it. Not because I have anything against warm fuzzies or even cutesy stories, but because God – and the people come to hear about Him – deserve more.

My point in all this is that I think God’s way of judging us is much the same, as indicated by the parable of the Talents, as well as the story of Cain and Abel. It’s not the work itself that primarily interests Him: He has just as much use for a mason as for a Mozart, which is to say none. All that we have and are come from Him, and we can’t offer Him anything that wasn’t His to begin with. The question isn’t the work itself, but to what end we do it and how hard we try at it.

Nobility, I think, means living as well as we possibly can, which means the more of virtue and beauty and truth that we know of, the more we are obliged to practice them in our lives. In short, whatever else we are obliged to do, we are at least obliged to do it as well as we possibly can. It is that will to do good, to offer the best we have, that really counts.