Tanner’s Annunciation

Today’s the Feast of the Annunciation. I’ve had a postcard-sized version of this depiction of the Annunciation in my kitchen for a year or so, since first picking it up at the University of Mary when I was finishing my bioethics coursework. Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) painted the original work.

770F8DBB-7DE8-4EBE-B915-72CB98696F7E

“A Prayer for Generosity” appears on the reverse of the University of Mary postcard I have, and reads in part:

O Gracious God of Our Lives, grant us the generosity and courage of Mary at the Annunciation. So turn our hearts toward you that we would hear the call of your Son, Jesus, and respond to the gift of our vocation. Protect and deliver us from selfishness and fear so we can receive abundantly the grace to give our lives away in love. We ask you this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Along with it, here is something that my friend, Fr. Chris Walsh, shared today:

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love the things you love,
And do what you would do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with you I have one will,
To live and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
My soul with grace refine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with your fire divine.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
So I shall never die,
But live with you the perfect life
In your eternity.

Edwin Hatch, 1835-1889

‘We are masters of our actions’

We’re quarantining, we’re self-isolating, and some of us are in a straight up lockdown due to the virus. No better time to work on our habits—to consider the actions were choosing and what sort of person we’re choosing to become. Fr. Thomas Petri offers a great introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas’s thought on this:

Focus your attention on this for a few minutes, and think about it in relation to your own habits—especially in this time. That’s what I’m doing.

“We are masters of our actions.”

Laetare Sunday and the waking of the dead

It’s the first Sunday since public Masses were suspended due to the virus. A friend shared herself singing “The Old Churchyard” to mark this Laetare Sunday. Laetare means “rejoicing.” As Lent looks towards Easter and we face the grim reality of this virus’s killings and disruptions, our cause for rejoicing is Christ’s resurrection and the prospect of the sunshine bursting to wake up the dead:

Come, come with me out to the old churchyard
I so well know those paths ‘neath the soft green sward
Friends slumber in there that we want to regard;
We will trace out their names in the old churchyard

Mourn not for them, their trials are o’er
And why weep for those who will weep no more?
For sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard
Their pillows may be in the old churchyard

I know that it’s vain when our friends depart
To breathe kind words to a broken heart;
And I know that the joy of life is marred
When we follow lost friends to the old churchyard

But were I at rest ‘neath yonder tree
Oh, why would you weep, my friends, for me?
I’m so weary, so wayworn, why would you retard
The peace I seek in the old churchyard?

Why weep for me, for I’m anxious to go
To that haven of rest where no tears ever flow;
And I fear not to enter that dark lonely tomb
Where our Savior has lain and conquered the gloom

I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine will burst to these prisons of clay
And old Gabriel’s trumpet and voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the old churchyard

COVID-19 and ‘sensible and human things’

President Trump delivered an Oval Office address last night on the COVID-19 virus and its impact on the nation. I’m sure there will be more in the days and weeks to come. Since last writing on this last week, it seems as if most major corporations have shifted their workforce to a posture of either encouraged or mandatory remote work. We met at Americans United for Life late last week and determined to go remote as of this past Monday and I think we’ve maintained a better institutional stride because we acted early than some places I’m seeing that are just starting to come to grips with the potential impact of this virus.

I’m leaving Washington tonight for a retreat in rural Virginia, about 90 minutes west of the city. I’ll be there through Sunday late afternoon and am looking forward to making this retreat—my first in five (too many!) years—and being away from the city and the news. I’ll plan to continue working from Georgetown when I get back depending on how the virus develops.

Apropos of the psychic trauma this Wuhan pandemic is inflicting, here’s a passage from C.S. Lewis from 1948 that’s been making the rounds:

On Living in an Atomic Age

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors: anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made, and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Proactive school closures and pandemics

As the COVID-19 virus dominates the news this week, many American colleges and universities are sending students home for either a few weeks or for the remainder of the semester. Science offers perspective on why this works:

Proactive school closures—closing schools before there’s a case there—have been shown to be one of the most powerful nonpharmaceutical interventions that we can deploy. Proactive school closures work like reactive school closures not just because they get the children, the little vectors, removed from circulation. It’s not just about keeping the kids safe. It’s keeping the whole community safe. When you close the schools, you reduce the mixing of the adults—parents dropping off at the school, the teachers being present. When you close the schools, you effectively require the parents to stay home.

There was a wonderful paper published that analyzed data regarding the Spanish flu in 1918, examining proactive versus reactive school closures. When did [regional] authorities close the schools relative to when the epidemic was spiking? What they found was that proactive school closing saved substantial numbers of lives. St. Louis closed the schools about a day in advance of the epidemic spiking, for 143 days. Pittsburgh closed 7 days after the peak and only for 53 days. And the death rate for the epidemic in St. Louis was roughly one-third as high as in Pittsburgh. These things work.

As with so many other aspects of this unplanned social experiment, it will be interesting to see what long term impact these closures/shifts to online instruction have on education from kindergarten through to colleges and universities. It’s not quite homeschooling, but it’s the closest many Americans might come to ever considering viable alternatives to our largely broken government schools models of instruction, and the secondary functions of dual earner lifestyle/daycare support that they tend to provide.

Saint John Paul the Great’s centenary

George Weigel, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, spoke tonight at the Mayflower. He delivered the annual William E. Simon Lecture, and this year’s theme was “Saint John Paul II: A Centenary Reflection on a Life of Consequence”. EPPC streamed the lecture and I’m embedding it here.

The post-lecture reception was a great one, partly because COVID-19 fears meant that the lecture was about half empty. (Last year it was packed/overflowing.) And that meant a calmer and more relaxed time to be with good people.

Natural beauty in the full vitality of youth

“How does the experience of unforgettable natural beauty in the full vitality of youth affect the moral and spiritual life that follows?” Glenn Arbery asks Wordworth’s question from Tintern Abbey:

Wordsworth looks to nature itself as a teacher; at Wyoming Catholic, we speak of nature as “God’s first book.” The powers implicit in natural forms impress themselves upon the imagination, and Wordsworth reflects, at the age of 28, on what this influence feels like in his own life:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration: —feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

His original experience of Tintern Abbey—like the first, “magical” view of a particular mountain scene that one of the juniors described in class this week—passed without deliberate effort into his memory, and the memory has been responsible for “sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” that revive him and give him restored hope in his hours of weariness. But the effect does not stop there. He thinks that this gift of nature has made him morally better than he might have been. Why? Because the pleasure he took in such beauty has worked against meanness or envy and disposed him to “little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.” Call these experiences, if you will, the natural underpinnings of charity.

How does nature—and more specifically, natural beauty—move within us and move us after we encounter it? A great life could be built simply by considering this question and attempting to answer it in the place one chooses to live, the sort of home one chooses to craft, and the sort of marriage and family one fosters.

Fierce resistance to that which defiles

R.R. Reno writes on fascism and anti-fascism in light of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s public threats against members of the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week, wherein Sen. Schumer told two U.S. Supreme Court justice that—if they didn’t vote to strike down a Louisiana law mandating hospital safety standards for abortion clinics—those Supreme Court justices “will pay the price” and “won’t know what hit you”.

Chief Justice John Roberts issued an unprecedented public rebuke of Sen. Schumer, but the threats linger and no U.S. Senate censure has occurred. It’s in this context that Reno writes:

Every society maintains a boundary between what is clean and what is polluted, what is permitted and what is taboo. This is the boundary where civility stops and fierce resistance to that which defiles begins.

Our society is distinct in the way that the progressive left has politicized this boundary, using it as a powerful partisan tool. The right, in this scheme, is unclean. It is a polluting force. Strenuous efforts to eradicate its influence may tend toward “unfortunate” extremes. But establishment liberals excuse the excesses, which is why the antifa can riot with relative impunity and undergraduates can hurl obscenities at faculty and threaten to get them fired without suffering any disciplinary consequences.

Schumer’s words of implicit violence have precedent. In 2018, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib notoriously said of her class of newly elected Democrats, “We’re gonna impeach the motherf*****!” Establishment liberals raised no objections. I believe Tlaib could have said, “We’re gonna assassinate the motherf*****!” and suffered nothing more than perfunctory censure. There is no serious censure partly because of social media, which has created a video game atmosphere of verbal political violence that makes it hard to tell the virtual from the real. But there is also no censure because, in truth, our liberal establishment is not averse to the use of threats and intimidation—and even violence—in defense of its causes.

It is often said that conservatives, especially social conservatives, “drive polarization.” This is a willful reversal of the truth. Today, the forces of violence and intimidation are primarily on the left. Huey Long, a Louisiana populist, often had charges of fascism hurled at him by establishment liberals. He observed the irony of the attacks, noting, “When Fascism comes to America, it will come under the guise of anti-Fascism.”

“The right, in this scheme, is unclean.” And the right, insofar as it represents tradition, offers what tradition has always offered: “solutions to problems we have forgotten.”

The backwards law

After work yesterday I took the Metro with two colleagues home from Farragut West to Rosslyn, mainly so we could continue a conversation we had started and partly because I’m tired of my walk home along M Street. Heading to Rosslyn and walking home across the Key Bridge gave me this:

IMG_4792.jpeg

How great are the great things in our lives that we don’t need to pursue but simply recognize and enjoy.  Alan Watts wrote about this and Mark Manson riffs on it:

Wanting a positive experience is a negative experience; accepting negative experience is a positive experience. It’s what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as “the backwards law”—the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place. The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make. The more you desperately want to be sexy and desired, the uglier you come to see yourself, regardless of your actual physical appearance. The more you desperately want to be happy and loved, the lonelier and more afraid you become, regardless of those who surround you. The more you want to be spiritually enlightened, the more self-centered and shallow you become in trying to get there.

Realize that you need to forgive someone

Bishop Robert Barron’s Lenten Gospel Reflection for today is very meaningful to me in this season. I’m heading to the Catholic Information Center for Mass today.

Matthew 5:20-26

Friends, in today’s Gospel Jesus commands us to be reconciled with one another. I want to say something about the role of forgiveness in repairing our broken relationships.

When you are at worship and realize that you need to forgive someone (or be forgiven by someone), go and do it. Go get reconciled, then come back. It’s like a rule of physics. There is something hidden in the deep mystery of God, and I can’t fully explicate it. Somehow, if there is a lack of forgiveness in you, it blocks the movement of God in you. Perhaps it’s simply because God is love, and so whatever is opposed to love in us blocks the flow of God’s power and God’s life.

One reason we do not forgive is that we feel that some injustice has been done to us, and we resent it. A good cure for this feeling is to kneel before the cross of Jesus. What do you see there? The innocent Son of God nailed to the cross—the ultimate injustice. What does he do? He forgives his persecutors. Meditate on that, and your sense of being treated unjustly will fade away.

Reflect: Is there a lack of forgiveness in you somewhere? Kneel before the cross of Jesus often during Lent and see what happens.