Napa Institute’s Principled Entrepreneurship conference

I’m spending the day at The University Club, a few blocks from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, for Napa Institute’s Principled Entrepreneurship conference today and tomorrow. I’ve attended Napa Institute’s Summer Conference for the past few years, but not their smaller conferences. It’s already proving to be valuable, and I’m glad I’ve come. The benefit of smaller conferences is substantial face time with others, including some who you’ve seen around at different things but never meaningfully gotten to know.

Michael Novak’s approach to harmonizing faith and business permeates this conference. I wish he were here.

Asking persistently

I’m in New York today and for the next few days for Napa Institute’s Principled Entrepreneurship conference. I got into Penn Station just before noon, and headed to the Church of Saint Michael in Hell’s Kitchen for Mass with Fr. George Rutler. I got to see their new bust of Saint John Henry Newman after Mass.

And here’s Bishop Robert Barron’s Gospel Reflection on Luke 18:1-8:

Friends, today’s Gospel exhorts us to pray with persistence. This command is everywhere in the Bible. We see it in Abraham’s steady petition on behalf of the people of Sodom. We see it in today’s account of the persistent widow. We hear it in Jesus’ extraordinary teaching: “Knock and the door shall be opened to you; seek and you will find; ask and it will be given to you.”

One reason that we don’t receive what we want through prayer is that we give up too easily. What could be behind this rule of prayer? Augustine said that God sometimes delays in giving us what we want because he wants our hearts to expand. The more ardently we desire something, the more ready we are when it comes, the more we treasure it. The very act of asking persistently is accomplishing something spiritually important. So when the Lord seems slow to answer your prayer, never give up.

”The more ardently we desire something, the more ready we are when it comes, the more we treasure it.”

A morning together

I’m walking through Rosslyn back to Georgetown after participating in Borromeo Brothers, a men’s group at Saint Charles Borromeo in Clarendon.

Every few months, you read about how few friends we make after we reach adulthood. And you’ll read especially about how difficult male friendships are. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is still relevant.

I had realized that despite living in Washington for a year, and despite work, a master’s program, and three fellowships, I hadn’t done as much as I could have done to form thicker friendships, especially with some of the men I had come to admire. I’ve been working on that in general, but I also wanted to intentionally make time for spiritual fellowship, and that’s where Borromeo Brothers might come in.

There are a number of men’s groups in Washington, but most meet either infrequently (once a month or so) or after work when I’m drained. Borromeo Brothers meets every Saturday at 7:30am, and is within walking/biking distance.

I had listened to some of their spiritual reflection podcasts, so had a sense of what to expect. It was a genuinely good morning with twenty or so other men from their 20s to their 60s. Afterwards did Mass with two of the men, and then got to know them better at Northside Social over coffee.

I’ll be in Seattle/Bellevue next Saturday, but plan to be back after that.

Stress and resilience

In thinking through my ambitions and hopes for the next five or ten years I’ve also been thinking about my last ten years.

At least for a large stretch of my mid-to-late 20s, I felt like a failure—as much professionally as personally. I was adrift. I didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t feel there was anyone I could really share my heart with in the way that Phillip Halfacre calls “genuine friendship”. It wasn’t until a genuine friendship came into my life and that friend held a mirror up to me that I was, eventually, able to come out of despondency. “Have you considered that you’re depressed?” he asked me. I hadn’t, but I was.

It was around this time that I started, in Jordan Peterson terms, to ”properly orient myself toward the world” and get my life in order. And the confidence that has come from weathering this has helped me weather the storms since. I wonder how much of the rest of life will be a continuing pursuit of the virtues that came out of those experiences—of a love for God and desire for relationship with Christ, of truth-telling and the candor that makes life possible, of genuine friendships pursued with the good of the other at their heart, of courage and the confronting of fears as the way of masculine achievement, etc.

I thought about all of this when reading Dean Burnett’s piece on stress, depression, and “ten words” that can change your life:

So what stresses us out? Failure to meet expectations. Having to do more than we can handle. A loss of status, or living standards, or security, or something or someone important. But all of our expectations, standards, capacities, understandings and baselines are derived from a mental model of how the world works, a model our brains create and maintain based on our memories, experiences and beliefs.

Stress is largely subjective. It often comes from negative changes or influences in our lives, when they occur with too much intensity. That our lives remain positive overall compared with those of others is irrelevant. That’s why questions such as: “What have you got to be stressed about?” don’t make sense. Thanks to how our brain works, if you don’t like something or don’t want it to happen, it can, and will, stress you out. …

Small steps, incremental progress, are something that is emphasised repeatedly on the Cardiff course. This is a way to help break the stress cycle”, which describes how stress becomes chronic and self-sustaining. Let’s start with a relationship breakdown. This causes stress, with low mood, lack of motivation, etc. This leads to reduced socialisation; your friendships suffer, and you end up more miserable, more stressed. So you drink more to feel better, albeit briefly. But this makes you less healthy, more sluggish, and your work suffers. Now your job’s in trouble, your health declining. This causes more stress. So you drink more. Which means more stress. And on and on.

There is no easy fix. But at the very start of the session, we are given a brief, basic set of instructions that could, if adhered to, tangibly reduce stress. There were just 10 words: “Face your fears. Be more active. Watch what you drink.” While simple-sounding, these things conform to what we know about stress, and even mental health problems, in the scientific sense.

Facing your fears is often easier said than done but it’s a valid approach. When we confront something that scares us, that stresses us, we may not enjoy it but we impose certainty on it. All the things that could have happened and had the power to cause stress have been cancelled out.

It’s one of the hardest things, finding those who challenge you in the spirit of true charity and truth to be better, to live virtuously, to strive. The greatest friendships in my life have been those where those challenges, those tensions, are present. And the greatest pain has come from the loss of those where this mutual giving was present but where the relationship comes to an end for whatever reason.

But those scars are as much the signs of a life being lived honestly and properly as they are signs of a particular moment’s pain. And that’s no reason for sadness or stress.

The branch of a larger tree

An acquaintance of mine once told me that he believed that Americans today were smarter and maybe even wiser than the American founders. I didn’t find that credible at the time and I don’t now, if for no other reason than that I don’t think we could recreate the sort of American self-governance that the founders created if we had to start over.

Few generations are revolutionary, some are evolutionary, and most are conservative—in the sense of conserving the best of whatever they’ve inherited. Jason Segedy writes on these themes in a recent Twitter thread, which I’m recreating here in case those tweets are deleted at some point:

When I was probably about 10 years old, I remember saying something to my Dad along the lines of “We sure are lucky to live at a time when people are so much smarter than people were in the past.”

He looked at me, not unkindly, and said “I don’t think that is true at all. There is a good possibility that people in the past were smarter and wiser than we are today, and they most certainly knew more than we do about many every day things that we never even think about.”

Although I was surprised by his response, and somewhat skeptical, I tended to believe him, because I knew that he was smarter and wiser than I was. It was many years later before I realized how right he actually was.

We forget that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We (often unintentionally) take at least a measure of personal credit for all of the scientific and technological advances that we enjoy, when in nearly all cases, we’re simply living in the right place at the right time.

I have no idea how my smartphone really works. And even if I vaguely understood the applied physics and chemistry that it took to create it (and the complex systems that it relies upon), I would never be able to build one, or explain to someone else in detail how it works.

The average person (myself included) has no real practical understanding of far more basic, but even more fundamental technologies and systems – electrical generation and transmission, water distribution and sewage disposal, natural gas distribution, etc.

The basic machines and appliances that we rely upon daily – automobiles, refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines, microwave ovens, etc. are all things that even the more knowledgeable among us still have mostly vague notions as to how they actually work.

And, in many ways, this is as it should be. We are all part of a highly-specialized and highly-organized system of industrial capitalism, and most of us benefit greatly from it. We don’t need to know about these things, because there are specialists who know about them for us.

But we should never mistake the complexity and specialization of our globalized industrial system of production and consumption, as something that we deserve credit for creating or building. At best, we get credit for maintaining it (for now).

Ours is a society of many individuals possessing specialized and fragmented knowledge, and few individuals possessing general and integrated knowledge. Previous societies tended to be the exact opposite – few specialists and many generalists.

The scientific and technological advances that we enjoy (and sometimes take undue personal credit for) are the end result of decades, centuries, and even millennia of painstaking, trial-and-error development.

Even the most halting and rudimentary of these advances (and even some of the abject failures) were the work of brilliant geniuses, particularly when one considers the means (both in terms of existing technologies and the store of human knowledge) available at the time.

We modern people often tend to exhibit a lack of appreciation, or even ingratitude, for the hard-won knowledge and innovations of previous generations. Some of this is simply a lack of historical perspective.

And some of it is our modern American notion of progress, where it is near-axiomatic that the present is superior to the past.

But as C.S. Lewis observed: “our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

We’re far too quick to point out the shortcomings of (and demonstrate arrogant superiority toward) those who came before us – increasingly, even toward those who imperfectly but extraordinarily built the entire framework for the civilization from which we all greatly benefit.

The civilization is imperfect, and those who built it were even more imperfect. But so are we – and it will remain to be seen whether we are even up to the task of preserving what they built – let alone improving upon it.

Our civilization is the branch of a larger tree that was planted by people who came long before us, and we ourselves are sitting on that branch. If the branch is starting to get rotten, the solution is to heal the tree, not to saw off the branch that we are sitting on.

Georgetown in early autumn

It’s starting to feel like autumn in earnest at this point. Each morning becomes somewhat less inviting in terms of getting out of bed, but stepping out for the first time each morning also feels a bit better as the chillier air greets you and forces you more fully awake. A few of the scenes below are Saint Matthew the Apostle, and there’s one of two from my walk to/from work, but most are from Georgetown:

We might have our first snowfall within the next month or so.

Cemeteries and charnel houses

Allan Barton writes on an older Christian attitude toward burying and living with our ancestors:

As a historian I have long been perplexed by the modern notion that churchyards can be become ‘full’ and that we are running out of burial space for the dead. The idea that our historic churchyards with the marked graves of long-forgotten Victorians and Georgians, cannot be reused for the burial of modern people, is a bizarre notion and is at variance with the traditions and ideas of past generations, including the Victorians and Georgians who now dispossess our generation of the right to be buried in God’s acre. In the past the grave was not considered to be private, alienable property that could be occupied for perpetuity, the churchyard was considered a communal space that individuals borrowed to enable the clean and efficient decomposition of their shrouded corpses. Human remains would be kept within the confines of the church and churchyard for perpetuity, but the concept that an individual grave space was yours and yours alone, was unknown.

When I was Rector of a benefice in Norfolk, one pleasant September afternoon I went to conduct my first funeral in one if my four medieval churches. My first act as incumbent was to deal with a rather fine specific of a human jaw bone, complete with an excellent set of gnashers, which was presented to me by the churchwardens.  After I had conducted the funeral in the churchyard, the jaw bone was popped back into the ground as part of new grave’s infill. That was the way we operated in this church, one of my predecessors had the good sense to start to re-use part of the churchyard that had last been used in the eighteenth century. When new graves were cut the bones of the dead were quite often disturbed and were usually added to the infill of the new grave by the gravedigger to one side of the new coffin. In doing that we were to all intents and purposes following the pattern that persisted in past centuries. The defleshed bones of the long dead, made way for the freshly dead corpses of the current generation. This whole process was both pragmatic and sensible and a churchyard never came to be filled.

In many medieval images of the burial of the dead from illuminated manuscripts you can see such a process being undertaken, though with a bit less dignity and decorum than in my former parish churchyard. In the French images I share on here of that subject matter, the gravediggers manhandle shrouded corpses into their last resting place in a shallow grave, while around the graves, lying on the ground are the skulls and bones of those accidentally exhumed in the process.

Notice in the image above the little painted grave markers that mark the burial place. For both economical and for practical purposes, these were made of wood.  Intended to last a generation or two at the most, they lasted just long enough for the deceased pass out of mind. Unlike the stone headstones favoured in the recent past, they were designed to decay and to be temporary.

Rather than returning the bones to the ground as part of the grave infill, it was quite common in the later medieval period, for the bones disinterred during the digging of graves, to be added to a communal bone hole or a structure called a charnel house. …

The bones were originally arranged in heaps against three walls of the chamber. Long bones in stacks, skulls on the tops of each heap. In the Middle Ages the walls of the end wall of the chamber was painted and in the nineteenth century there were still faint traces of an image of the Resurrection of Christ, wonderful fitting for a chamber devoted to those awaiting the general resurrection.

There’s one of these old-style churches in Lewes, Delaware—with its little cemetery in what would be the well-manicured front lawn of a modern suburban church. The Lewes church I’m thinking of looks precisely like what it is—something from another time. I found the description of the burial and charnel house practices of the past shocking, frankly. But maybe some movement toward those practices might help shock us into remembering that it’s not a tidy gravesite that we should look forward to, but rather the resurrection itself. If we’re overly concerned with the former, we’re probably not concerned enough with the latter.

Newman the failure

At age 79, when John Henry Newman heard the news that Pope Leo XIII had made him a cardinal, he said: “The cloud is lifted from me forever.” John Henry Newman is now a saint, but for much of his life he felt like a failure. Fr. Ian Ker reflects on “the saint whose life was ‘a history of failures'”:

John Henry Newman’s life can well be described as one of continual failures, if only because that was how he saw it. “All through life things happen to me which do not happen to others – I am the scapegoat,” he wrote.

He was sad to think, as he looked back on his life, how his time had been “frittered away” and how much he might have done, had he “pursued one subject”. His life seemed to be just “a history of failures”. He had been “so often balked, – brought into undertakings – then left in the lurch”. Plan after plan had “crumbled [in his] hands and come to nought”. When he was 60 he wrote that, although not “true to the letter”, he felt that he could say he had “received no piece of (personal) good news for 30 years and more”, nothing but “sorrows” and “anxieties”; all his works had failed.

As an undergraduate at Oxford, Newman performed disastrously in his finals, failing mathematics and only attaining the lower division of the second class in Classics. Exactly seven years later, he suffered a nervous collapse while examining finals papers and had to withdraw. As a tutor at Oriel College, he wanted to stop the practice of undergraduates having to hire private tutors from among recent graduates and considered it preferable for college tutors to provide tuition as well as the usual lectures. However, the Provost disapproved of the change that Newman and his colleagues introduced in 1828, and Newman was effectively dismissed as a tutor.

Also in 1828 he was invited by the Bishop of London to become one of the Whitehall preachers, an acceptance he subsequently withdrew in 1832 when he discovered the bishop’s theological liberalism. In 1830 he was dismissed as secretary of the Church Missionary Society because of a pamphlet he had written. In 1834 he failed to be appointed to the chair of moral philosophy.

As leader of the Oxford or Tractarian Movement and the principal architect of its theology of the via media, or “middle way”, he began, six years after starting the movement, to have doubts. These culminated in 1841 with the publication of Tract 90, which sought to interpret the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England in a Catholic sense. This was condemned first by the vice-chancellor and heads of colleges and proctors, and then by successive bishops. Finally, in 1845, Newman renounced the via media and the Oxford Movement, convinced that the Catholic Church was the true Church.

The disappointments and failures of Newman’s Catholic years were at least as grim as those of the Anglican years.

I think it can be easy to think that striving for virtue should lead to worldly success, in material and professional and other senses. But it’s probably more often the case that striving for virtue and friendship with Christ fortifies us in facing the failures that will inevitably confront us, in major or minor ways. In so many ways, Newman is a saint of our time as much as he is a saint for every era.

Bishop Barron and others hope Newman will be named a Doctor of the Church. I hope he is.

Saint John Henry Newman

Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman a saint today. Here is the banner hanging at the Vatican in Rome today:

2019-10 John Henry Newman Banner.jpg

Saint John Henry Newman writes in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine on something I’ve thought about at different points—the seeming challenge to faith that is the presence of many Christian elements in other faiths, places, and periods:

Now, the phenomenon, admitted on all hands, is this:—that great portion of what is generally received as Christian truth is in its rudiments or in its separate parts to be found in heathen philosophies and religions. For instance, the doctrine of a Trinity is found both in the East and in the West; so is the ceremony of washing; so is the rite of sacrifice. The doctrine of the Divine Word is Platonic; the doctrine of the Incarnation is Indian; of a divine kingdom is Judaic; of Angels and demons is Magian; the connexion of sin with the body is Gnostic; celibacy is known to Bonze and Talapoin; a sacerdotal order is Egyptian; the idea of a new birth is Chinese and Eleusinian; belief in sacramental virtue is Pythagorean; and honors to the dead are a polytheism. Such is the general nature of the fact before us; Mr. Milman argues from it,—”These things are in heathenism, therefore they are not Christian:” we, on the contrary, prefer to say, “these things are in Christianity, therefore they are not heathen.” That is, we prefer to say, and we think that Scripture bears us out in saying, that from the beginning the Moral Governor of the world has scattered the seeds of truth far and wide over its extent; that these have variously taken root, and grown up as in the wilderness, wild plants indeed but living; and hence that, as the inferior animals have tokens of an immaterial principle in them, yet have not souls, so the philosophies and religions of men have their life in certain true ideas, though they are not directly divine. …

What man is amid the brute creation, such is the Church among the schools of the world; and as Adam gave names to the animals about him, so has the Church from the first looked round upon the earth, noting and visiting the doctrines she found there. She began in Chaldea, and then sojourned among the Canaanites, and went down into Egypt, and thence passed into Arabia, till she rested in her own land. Next she encountered the merchants of Tyre, and the wisdom of the East country, and the luxury of Sheba. Then she was carried away to Babylon, and wandered to the schools of Greece. And wherever she went, in trouble or in triumph, still she was a living spirit, the mind and voice of the Most High; “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions;” claiming to herself what they said rightly, correcting their errors, supplying their defects, completing their beginnings, expanding their surmises, and thus gradually by means of them enlarging the range and refining the sense of her own teaching. So far then from her creed being of doubtful credit because it resembles foreign theologies, we even hold that one special way in which Providence has imparted divine knowledge to us has been by enabling her to draw and collect it together out of the world…

John Garvey writes on Newman’s friendships:

Cardinal Newman never married, but warm, sincere, and lasting friendships—the kind that we so seldom form through digital interactions—gave his life richness. He cultivated them with his neighbors in Oxford and, after his conversion to Catholicism, at the Birmingham Oratory. He sustained them in his correspondence, some 20,000 letters filling 32 volumes.

In one of his sermons, delivered on the feast of St. John the Evangelist, Newman reflects on the Gospel’s observation that St. John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” It is a remarkable thing, Newman says, that the Son of God Most High should have loved one man more than another. It shows how entirely human Jesus was in his wants and his feelings, because friendship is a deep human desire. And it suggests a pattern we would do well to follow in our own lives if we would be happy: “to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.”

On the other hand, Newman observes that “nothing is more likely to engender selfish habits” than independence. People “who can move about as they please, and indulge the love of variety” are unlikely to obtain that heavenly gift the liturgy describes as “the very bond of peace and of all virtues.”

And Dan Hitchens writes on Newman’s faith:

…if someone really has faith, they must believe that God is entirely good, and that he loves us. The submission to divine truth is the foundation of a love affair. Being a nineteenth-century Englishman, Newman didn’t like to go on about it, but there are moments when we glimpse what his life was all about:

[Saint John Henry Newman writes:] “I see the figure of a man, whether young or old I cannot tell. He may be fifty or he may be thirty. Sometimes He looks one, sometimes the other. There is something inexpressible about His face which I cannot solve. Perhaps, as He bears all burdens, He bears that of old age too. But so it is; His face is at once most venerable, yet most childlike, most calm, most sweet, most modest, beaming with sanctity and with loving kindness. His eyes rivet me and move my heart. His breath is all fragrant, and transports me out of myself. Oh, I will look upon that face forever, and will not cease.”

“There is something inexpressible” about the way in which the communion of saints draws us closer to the Author of life.

Georgetown Half Marathon

I ran the Georgetown Half Marathon this morning along the C&O Canal Towpath, the third and final C&O Canal Towpath race I’m doing this year.

I registered for the Georgetown Half back in March, after my poor performance in the Washington Rock ‘n Roll Marathon. It was after registering for the Georgetown Half that I learned about the September and October marathons I ran, so in a sense today felt like closing a chapter I had started in the spring.

It was a beautiful morning for a run along the towpath. We started at 9am, all 400+ runners at once, and that meant the first 2-3 miles were very crowded. As runners started to break out into different pace groups, I found another guy who was at an aggressive but steady pace and we ended up running together for essentially the entire 13.1 miles.

Georgetown Half Marathon was a record for me, both in terms of time for a half marathon and in terms of overall pace for a distance run. I finished at 1 hour, 40 minutes at a 7:36 pace.

Before this morning, I had only run one other half marathon—a trail half marathon eight years ago in Philadelphia’s Pennypack Park.