Goldberg Variations

It was in one of William F. Buckley’s sailing books, I think, that I was first tantalized by his description (really, his praise) for Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations:

The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, is a work for harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach, consisting of an aria and a set of 30 variations. First published in 1741, the work is considered to be one of the most important examples of variation form. The Variations are named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been the first performer.

I was in Miami in January 2013 when I had the chance to attend a solo performance of the complete variations by Simone Dinnerstein. In effrontery to the Bill Buckley, Dinnerstein’s rendition was not on harpsichord but, instead, piano. Luckily for me as an amateur appreciator with little ear for the technical soundness of a performance, it was a delightful hour and a half experience.

Sharing impressions jotted down at the time: the Goldberg Variations can be tough listening even on piano at a slower tempo than almost anything a millennial would typically hear. Tonight’s rendition had strength and force enough to keep me attentive even as I shut my eyes to wander mental landscapes. It was a pleasant but not particularly transformative experience. I’d like to hear it again with someone able to dissect the performance’s quality and judge it sufficiently rather than sentimentally.

Worth hearing? Absolutely.


Philadelphia Catholic philanthropy

It’s Giving Tuesday, the newish annual day of giving to your favorite charities. I’m sharing my perspective on one of Philadelphia’s newest and most interesting charities.

Catholic Foundation of Greater Philadelphia made its debut in 2013 as a new, independent charitable vehicle for Catholics looking to sustain long-term charitable endeavors and support their communities.

This is a great development for Catholics and a great example of “getting money out of the Church” and letting the Church itself better focus on Christian witness. It follows the long-successful secular model of community foundations begun with The Cleveland Foundation a century ago, as well as the national model adopted across more than a dozen other Catholic administrative regions.

The Catholic Church has been suffering through an institutional crisis relating to a failure to foresee the present demographic dearth of families and children. The closures of many churches and schools have been precipitated by many factors—fewer priests and sisters to teach, strong competition from charter schools, smaller Catholic families, and poor management. I think the slim-down of Catholicism’s physical plant was both demographically inevitable and worth celebrating as a path toward renewal of the real work of Christianity which is to be found in hearts rather than struggling to maintain empty buildings.

But for those Catholic communities that survive, and those yet to be, smarter and more sustainable models are required to insulate their institutions from future financial shocks.

The old model was essentially predicated on the idea that enormous numbers of middle-class Catholics would forever support the growing practical and charitable goals of their communities. The new model, of which the Catholic Foundation of Greater Philadelphia is a part, looks much more like the model of universities and community foundations that has long done well for those communities.

It looks like this: Catholic church communities establishing their own permanent endowments and building them over time. A $10 million dollar endowment at five percent interest generates $500,000 in annual revenue—enough not only to maintain a beautiful church’s physical plant and practical needs, but also enough to provide consistent support for families in need, tuition shortfalls, and things like choirs and arts programs to bring beauty to the wider culture. It doesn’t need to start at $10 million to matter—a principal of as little as $10,000 will start to cover utilities.

It also looks like this: Catholic families establishing smaller donor-advised funds to support missions, causes, and people important to them whether within the faith community or the wider culture. As more families institutionalize philanthropy across generations, it’s likely those families themselves will become stronger as they come to share a common vision.

There are many other ways that the Catholic Foundation might positively impact Greater Philadelphia.

It’s worth supporting.


Bronx, 1885

I came across this photo uploaded to Flickr by Doc Searls. His caption:

742 E. 142nd Street, Bronx New York. The Englert Family moved here when it was brand new. Florence Englert was born and lived here for 13 years. The whole block is now a parking lot next to the Bruckner Expressway. Nothing in this picture remains.

So this is what a block in the Bronx looked like some 127 years ago. Beautiful. If posted to Instagram, I’m not sure anyone would think it wasn’t taken today—except that it’s not snowing in New York City today.

Everything really has changed. The neighborhood in some ways looks better than any neighborhood built today will look — serious order and repetition, sturdy wrought iron fences, etc. And this really was the Bronx “In the Year of our Lord” 1885—the nation and her people had an entirely different conception of God and  faith than we have in this time. In the case of this photo, both the forms and the spirit are gone. As Doc Searls says, “Nothing remains.”

Yet in many neighborhoods in New York, something nearly identical to this photo really could be posted to Instagram now. The spirit of the past survives in physical form. I wonder what we might be able to photograph today that might look similarly contemporary in another 127 years.


Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro died on Friday at 90.

When I heard the news, I prayed for him. We all need prayers; Fidel Castro needs them more than most.

There’s a tendency when someone dies to get sentimental, especially when it comes after a full life. But Fidel’s full life came at the cost of how many thousands of other lives? Thousands of his opponents (political, cultural, whatever) died at the hands of his regime; thousands of his people died under Fidel’s pretense of a liberated Cuban state.

Cuba as an American client state in the early 20th century? It was an unjust, embarrassing, and repressive country whose people generally lacked basic liberties. Cuban as a Marxist-Leninist Communist state under Castro? An unjust, embarrassing, repressive totalitarian police state whose people totally lacked basic liberties.

I spent ten days visiting Havana, Santa Clara, and Trinidad in 2010. I was there traveling with friends, and we visited Santa Clara on July 26th, the day of the Communist’s “revolution day.” It was a beautiful place, whose people were basically widely screwed. There’s no papering over how bizarre a place Fidel made Cuba, and there’s no papering over the nature of his dictatorship with limp platitudes like the Communist’s supposed achievement of widespread healthcare or literacy.

Armando Valladares is a living counter witness to those limp platitudes. I heard him speak in New York in May along with Elie Weisel. He’s was jailed by Castro’s regime for 20+ years. Why? He refused to place an “I’m with Fidel” plaque on his desk, which led to his arrest. He’s a refugee in America today, and an artist and writer. Valladares’s health, his literacy, his artistic spirit? Those things counted for nothing.

The Cuban government returns to its pre-revolutionary Capitol next year. I hope when they do, they leave the soul of Castro’s revolution buried, where it belongs.


Discretion in little places

A thing I wrote in May 2013 while having a beer:

I’m sitting here in The Queen Mary Pub in a small town deep in South Florida, on the fringes of the Everglades. It’s nearly midnight and I find myself alone at the bar reading C.S. Lewis’s “Perelandra.” A few inches away, my glass of London Pride finds itself nearly missing.

It’s been a pleasant evening, one of those where the bar isn’t too crowded, and even with mostly college students ordering pitchers an aura of warm feelings and consciousness soaks the place.

And yet, because it’s in our nature, probably, to end up meddling with the moments that should most please most of us, I hear one of the bartenders, a woman, whisper to the barman who’s been nearby… “See that girl over at that table? How old is she?”

My barman’s filling a drink. “I dunno,” he says. “But she hasn’t ordered anything and she’s been there without a glass.”

“I’m going to grab her ID,” replies his colleague decisively. “I mean, ask for it,” she quickly corrects herself.

It turns out the girl doesn’t have her ID with her. She’s asked to leave. Her friends at their table are left to finish the night without her, and she’ll be walking home alone.

Let’s break away from this scene for a moment to visit our friends at Merriam Webster. Specifically, “discretion,” which we’re told is the “freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation.”

I feel for this girl who was made to leave, even if she wasn’t of legal age. Because despite doing no concrete or true harm to anyone here among us, one among us was compelled to do a concrete harm to her evening.

In law, there’s a general idea that a case can’t be judged unless actual harm has come to some party. Law is not meant to be decided abstractly—which is why we have philosophy.

In the case of the girl here at the pub, from whose company we’re now the poorer, there was no harm. Even presuming she was, in fact, underage, my barman had been watching her. She was enjoying good company even if not good spirits. Even if she was underage, no genuine harm was done to anyone.

And yet, our culture has developed in such a way that we send her away anyway. An abstract law protecting abstract principles occupies a higher place than the barman exercising his own discretion.

In a sense, we’re no longer in some out of the way place on the fringes of a national preserve. In the act of eliminating discretion, a barkeep became an agent of Tallahassee, the Florida capital. She became an agent of something other than her own conscience, disrupting private fellowship for an abstract principle.

We become poorer people as our chances to exercise discretion—to personally decide how a principle might best be applied in a particular situation—disappear from our culture.

In a constitutional culture constructed to favor the concrete and local culture of a place over the distant and abstract sentimentality of a state or federal capital, it only makes sense to leave as much room as possible for acts of discretion.

Just as “one size fits all” rarely suits fashion, it certainly doesn’t suit our cultures and communities well, because it frustrates their ability to be authentically unique, special places. It makes them like anyplace else.

And it feels more and more difficult to go anyplace anymore that anymore feels like any special place.

Anyway, back to my Lewis and London Pride.


Another Thanksgiving reflection

Thanksgiving itself has come and gone, but the season of thanksgiving will be with Christians until the start of Advent in advance of Christmastime. The Napa Institute shared the Thanksgiving reflection below over their email list, and I wanted to share that here. How many people have done good things for us this year, and yet we’ve failed to thank them after on Thanksgiving? I know that’s true for me. There’s still time to send that email or text.

A Thanksgiving Day Reflection
by Rev. Jerome J. Molokie, O.Praem

In the account of the healing of ten lepers, only one returns to thank Christ for His miracle. This brings forth a poignant statement: “Were not all ten cleansed?” Jesus asked. “Where then are the other nine?” Lk 17:17. With these words, the Lord makes it clear how important it is to Him to render thanks for the gifts we have received, and the fostering of a grateful heart is something that we ought to make a priority in the spiritual life.

How many blessings we have received, not only individually, but also as families and as a nation. Even the challenges and difficulties each one of us experience over a lifetime can elicit the praise of gratitude, because they challenge us to grow in grace and they make us stronger, if they are accepted with a spirit of faith and an embracing of God’s will.

This Thanksgiving, we wish you all the most peaceful of days among family and friends, and pray that we all will come to a state of gratitude not only on this day, but on every day. It would be wise to pray to the Lord to give us grateful hearts, so that we never become insensitive to any of the graces we receive each day. And may the Lord bless each one of us, now and throughout the coming liturgical year, which will begin at the end of this month with the first Sunday of Advent.


A little house, whose humble roof

A Thanksgiving to God, for his House” by Robert Herrick:

Lord, Thou hast given me a cell
Wherein to dwell,

A little house, whose humble roof
Is weather-proof:

Under the spars of which I lie
Both soft, and dry;

Where Thou my chamber for to ward
Hast set a guard

Of harmless thoughts, to watch and keep
Me, while I sleep.

Low is my porch, as is my fate,
Both void of state;

And yet the threshold of my door
Is worn by th’ poor,

Who thither come and freely get
Good words, or meat.

Like as my parlour, so my hall
And kitchen’s small;

A little buttery, and therein
A little bin,

Which keeps my little loaf of bread
Unchipp’d, unflead;

Some brittle sticks of thorn or briar
Make me a fire,

Close by whose living coal I sit,
And glow like it.

Lord, I confess too, when I dine,
The pulse is Thine,

And all those other bits, that be
There plac’d by Thee;

The worts, the purslain, and the mess
Of water-cress,

Which of Thy kindness Thou hast sent;
And my content

Makes those, and my beloved beet,
To be more sweet.

‘Tis Thou that crown’st my glittering hearth
With guiltless mirth;

And giv’st me wassail-bowls to drink,
Spic’d to the brink.

Lord, ’tis Thy plenty-dropping hand
That soils my land;

And giv’st me, for my bushel sown,
Twice ten for one;

Thou mak’st my teeming hen to lay
Her egg each day;

Besides my healthful ewes to bear
Me twins each year;

The while the conduits of my kine
Run cream, for wine.

All these, and better, Thou dost send
Me, to this end,

That I should render, for my part,
A thankful heart,

Which, fir’d with incense, I resign,
As wholly Thine;

But the acceptance, that must be,
My Christ, by Thee.


Northwest Ordinance for space

Joel Achenbach reported during the last presidential campaign on Newt Gingrich’s vision for a permanent American presence in space:

I come at space from a standpoint of a romantic belief that it really is part of our destiny. And it has been tragic to see what has happened to our space program over the last 30 years,” said Gingrich.

His vision of a moon base is distinctly American, even though space missions in recent decades have often involved international collaboration. Gingrich went so far as to bring up a proposal he made when he was a young congressman to create a “Northwest Ordinance” for space in which, as soon as 13,000 Americans lived on the moon, they could petition to become a state.

“Probably the best speech I’ve heard in this political season so far. Visionary,” said John Weiler, 67, a retired shuttle worker.

As a kid I remember hearing about things like the Kennedy’s bold vision, the Apollo program and the space race. But we haven’t had an energetic space program in my lifetime. We’ve had a government agency filled with very smart people with apparently little vision or ambition. (The smartest people probably work for SpaceX now, actually.) It’s easy to laugh at Gingrich’s vision. So what?

“I would just want you to note: Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose. The Wright Brothers standing at Kitty Hawk were grandiose. John F. Kennedy was grandiose. …”

If we started a moon colony this century, it could be the single definitive thing America is remembered for in history a thousand years from now.



Rachel Morarjee writes on John Gray and his view of our time:

There’s little worse than being right at the wrong time. Back in 1995, John Gray predicted the rise of Donald Trump. Communism had crumbled, democracy was spreading and globalisation looked unstoppable. But in “Enlightenment’s Wake” the political philosopher argued that the Western-led global order had already sown the seeds of its destruction. His newly-relevant book holds lessons for today’s despairing liberals.

Gray predicted that, despite advances in science and technology, the 21st century would see the return of ethnic and religious conflict, authoritarian regimes and great power rivalries. The growth of knowledge advances human power, but leaves men as they always were: “weak, savage and in thrall to every kind of fantasy and delusion.” …

The book explains how, far from marking the triumph of enlightenment values, the fall of the Soviet Union actually signaled their demise. Marxism was never a brand of oriental despotism – the “evil empire” of media myth. Marx was an enlightenment philosopher on a par with John Stuart Mill, Voltaire and Hume. For all their many differences, these thinkers shared the conviction that local customs, traditional moralities and all forms of transcendental faith would be displaced by critical and rational thought that would form the basis of a universal civilisation.

Communism’s collapse heralded the end of these utopian ideas. It removed the common enemy that had shaped the post-war global order of trade and security. The triumph of market forces swept away the inherited traditions and institutions which gave traditional conservatism its force. However, once governments and societies staked their stability on continuous growth, they imperiled liberal civilisation. When the economic cycle turned, a window opened for the far right.

In the spirit of Peter Thiel, I’m enthusiastic about counter-intuitive ideas like this: the idea that Enlightenment values haven’t triumphed, but in fact are in the midst of a potentially long-drawn-out death. What might we be living through, at the dawn of a new way of thinking about human existence? That’s exciting—far more exciting than thinking we’re simply fulfilling the next phase of the quest toward an internationalist utopianism.

Gray’s contention that a stable, multiracial society which grants freedom, property rights and safety from harm to all of its citizens and renews itself down the generations cannot be multicultural is unsettling. However, in the wake of Trump’s victory it is an idea we disregard at our peril. It may be hard to know where to start building a common culture in increasingly divided Western societies. But failure to do so risks handing power to demagogues and despots.

Very important idea: that an increasingly (racially) diverse America probably cannot also be equally (culturally) diverse if it’s going to hold together as a single nation. Or if it’s going to, it will mean that the multiculturalists will likely have to slow their roll to some degree to allow enough time for peaceful and stable acculturation among citizens.


Standing up for life

The Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia celebrated its annual “Stand Up For Life” Dinner in Center City, Philadelphia last night.

This was my fifth year in attendance, and this is also my fifth year serving on the Pro-Life Union’s board. It’s a critically important organization working in four vital areas: alternatives, public affairs, education, and prayer and witness/outreach. We had about 1,300 guests last night for Karen Gaffney, our keynote speaker who riffed on her experiences as a public advocate for anti-Downs Syndrome discrimination in a society that’s increasingly breathing in a eugenics mentality. If I remember correctly, something like 90 percent of Downs-diagnosed children are terminated in utero.

Edel Finnegan, our executive director, shared some of the practical perspective of the pro-life mentality in the short video above: women deserve options and love, not just “services” rendered on a cost basis at a local clinic.

I think that’s what real freedom to choose has to be about if it’s going to be authentic rather than just a political slogan.