Damascus

Madeleine F. Stebbins writes on St. Paul’s conversion:

At first it may seem odd to see Saul from this perspective, turned away from us, on his back. Also, why the prominence of the horse, which seems somewhat bewildered by what has happened? In the Psalms, the horse is symbolic of strength and power (c.f. 33:17;147:10). We say “riding on a high horse,” meaning in an attitude of pride. Jesus is never pictured on a horse, only on a donkey. But the young Saul, here in rich clothing, was in a state of complete self-assurance in his own righteousness, as well as of blind arrogance and fanatic zeal. So he had to be struck down from his horse.

Why this upside-down perspective of Saul? Because in an instant his world had been turned upside down. All he had lived for and was zealous for turned not only to ashes, but was seen in its truth as wicked. Conversion is depicted here as a total inversion, as a reverse, at antipodes with one’s perspective worldview.

A miracle of grace happens here, one of vast consequence for the history of Christianity. A shaft of “light from heaven” (Acts 9:3) causes instant blindness. Caravaggio gives this powerful sense of light in darkness, a glowing light that is mysterious, unfathomable and beautiful, like the light of eternity. He focuses with intense concentration on this intimate moment to the exclusion of all else. Saul is not reclining, as in other paintings on the subject, but utterly prostrate, shattered, humbled to the very ground, all his strength gone, his sword thrown down. Struck blind, he needed to undergo the death of the senses in order to see the new supernatural light. On the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Pope Benedict said conversion is “always letting ourselves be formed by Christ; it is death and resurrection.”

I think that one of the strange-sounding consolations that being a Christian offers is the possibility of meeting death with a smile. Riffing off the last line above from Pope Benedict XVI, anyone who’s truly in relationship with Jesus Christ has at least one conversation moment. In my experience I have many, and somewhat often. (We convert because we naturally stray from goodness, because we’re creatures who sin.) It’s in undergoing many “little deaths” and resurrections of our souls that it seems possible actually to die with the Christian joy that so many great men and women have spoken of across time.

St.-Paul-on-the-way-to-Damascus-Caravaggio.jpg

EWTN Live

Bobby Schindler and I appeared on EWTN Live last week. This was the episode we filmed with Fr. Mitch Pacwa and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in Birmingham, Alabama in April. The hourlong conversation is focused on the memory of Terri Schiavo, a disabled woman who was not dying and not reliant on life support, but whose death by dehydration was sanctioned by the government. It also focused on the work of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, and the drift of American culture toward a pro-euthanasia position.

Bobby Schindler on food and water

I mentioned early in the week that Bobby Schindler and I were in Washington to do an interview with Catherine Szeltner of EWTN’s “Pro-Life Weekly” program. It aired Friday night on EWTN, and is up on YouTube now. Bobby talks about the work of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, and focuses on the issue of food and water as necessary for human dignity and a basic and ordinary part of medical treatment:

An important note: we often talk about “end of life” issues when we really are not referring to a situation where anyone is dying. Terri Schiavo wasn’t dying when her estranged husband petitioned Florida courts for the right to deny her food and water. She had experienced a brain injury in 1990 and was lived as a disabled woman who was reliant on no machines or artificial life support.

All that Terri needed was food and water by means of a feeding tube, because her brain injury resulted in difficulty swallowing. Terri’s case only became an “end of life” case when her estranged husband sought to end her life. Unless someone is actively dying, they’re not facing “end of life” issues.

Words should reflect realities

“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.” —Confucius on the doctrine of the Rectification of Names

I’m probably as guilty as anyone, but a good place to start to reform the names we give things, the words we speak, would be to start with the simple things. “Disrupt” often simply means “change.” “New and improved” often means “different.” And “the more you spend, the more you save” is simply a non sequitur.

When we speak more carefully, it becomes easier to share a common vocabulary—and sharing a vocabulary, where most things have a commonly understood meaning, is a great way to change the world for the better.

Failing Eastern Europe

As I’m making my way through William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” I thought of something from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that I read a few years ago. A literary father of the Solidarity movement, Solzhenitsyn exposed the moral bankruptcy of Soviet rule by revealing its Gulags. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,” published during the era of de-Stalinization, was like body blow to Western intellectual Soviet sympathizers. Solzhenitsyn also had frank words for Roosevelt and Churchill’s post-Hitler strategic appeasement:

In their own countries Roosevelt and Churchill are honored as embodiments of statesmanlike wisdom. To us, in our Russian prison conversations, their consistent shortsightedness and stupidity stood out as astonishingly obvious. How could they, in their decline from 1941 to 1945, fail to secure any guarantees whatever of the independence of Eastern Europe? How could they give away broad regions of Saxony and Thuringia in exchange for the preposterous toy of a four-zone Berlin, their own future Achilles’ heel? And what was the military or political sense in their surrendering to destruction at Stalin’s hands hundreds of thousands of armed Soviet citizens determined not to surrender? They say it was the price they paid for Stalin’s agreeing to enter the war against Japan. With the atom bomb already in their hands, they paid Stalin for not refusing to occupy Manchuria, for strengthening Mao Tse-tung in China, and for giving Kim Il Sung control of half Korea! What bankruptcy of political thought!

Harmonizing knowledge

R.C. Jebb supplies a counter-argument in his same 1899 address to yesterday’s somewhat pessimistic riffing:

“The ideal of humanism has thus been reinforced in a manner which brings back to us something of the spirit which animated the Renaissance when it was largest and most vigorous. For the enthusiasm of the Renaissance was nourished by the monuments of classical art scarcely less than by the masterpieces of literature. Each statue that was disinterred from Italian soil, every stone or coin or gem that could help to illustrate the past, became a source of delight to men whose strenuous aim was to apprehend classical antiquity as a whole.

But the very progress made in recent times has brought us to a point at which the larger educational benefits of humanism become more difficult to harmonise with the new standards of special knowledge. A full comprehension of the Greek and Latin literatures demands at least some study of ancient thought, ancient history, archaeology, art. But each of the latter subjects is now, in itself, an organized and complex discipline; to become an expert in any one of them is a work of years. Hence much can be said in favour of a plan by which the University student, who is to devote a course of three or four years to the humane letters, confines himself, during the earlier stage of it, to the languages and literatures ; then turns away from these, viewed in their wider range, and concentrates himself, for the rest of his time, on one or two important aspects of classical antiquity, such as philosophy and history, to the exclusion of the rest.”

As we acquire greater breadth and depth of knowledge, specialization is necessary and becoming a generalist is less about extensive knowledge in the major fields than about an ability to recognize the connecting threads between many discrete branches of knowledge.

Humanism in education

R.C. Jebb writes on the problem that advocates of the classics created for themselves in exaggerating the value of classical study:

“Thus one eminent scholar said, ‘If the old classical literature were swept away, the moderns would in many cases become unintelligible, and in all cases lose most of their characteristic charms.’ Others averred that no one could write English well who did not know Latin. One distinguished head-master even said, ‘It is scarcely possible to speak the English language with accuracy or precision, without a knowledge of Latin or Greek.’ Now claims of this kind, all containing some elements of truth, but needing to be carefully limited and defined, struck people in general as preposterous, when stated with crude exaggeration; and did all the more mischief, because, in the sixties, an apprehension of the true claims of humanism was much less widely diffused, among educated people outside of the academic world, than it is to-day. And when such people, who had no personal knowledge of humanistic study, heard claims made for it which seemed repugnant to experience and common-sense, they not unnaturally suspected that the whole case for the humanities was unsound.”

Now, here’s the thing. R.C. Jebb delivered these words as part of an address not in the past few years; rather he spoke these words in 1899 in a university address. So the “sixties” he’s referring to are not those of the 1960s and the cultural/sexual revolution that so many who are still living remember. But Jebb’s sixties were a time of similar change as the nation’s identity was centralized and Americans lived through a reduction in what I think of as the expansiveness of the nation at least in mental/intellectual scope. The federalism of the post-war 1870s was different in character than the federalism that was born roughly a century before. A sharper sort of federalism that prioritized national purpose in the wake of division.

And in the growth of this America the claims of the humanities must have felt preposterous. After all, what did all the beauty and wisdom of Greaco-Roman memory do to soften the hearts of the secessionists? What did Achilles teach the dead son of a farmer buried at Gettysburg? What did Euclid do for a slain president?

There are many good and honest answers to these sorts of questions, but in the face of some so in love with their tradition that they suggested it “scarcely possible to speak the English language,” who could blame the new generation that prioritized the scientific and mechanic arts over the liberal arts as the embodiment of a “useful” education? An education that no longer segregated those learning the humanities from those learning the principles of scientific agriculture, for instance?

The marriage of what were called the “liberal” and “servile” arts worked for much of the past century. It seems to me that just as the dominance of the humanities once invited an intellectual revolution, the present dominance of the scientific and practical fields invites some sort of classroom reformation; perhaps towards remembering not only what we can do to on a daily, practical basis, but also what human beings are for in the first place and what our ancestors made of this life as a guide and support to our own lives.

Then again, we might have plenty farther to go on the present road of practicality.