Service as the source of power

Charles Wagner, writing in 1894 from Courage:

A profound duplicity, a discrepancy between words and deeds, between appearance and reality, a sort of moral dilettantism which makes us according to the hour sincere or hypocritical, brave or cowardly, honest or unscrupulous–this is the disease which consumes us. What moral force can germinate and grow under these conditions? We must again become men who have only one principle, one word, one work, one love; in a word, men with a sense of duty. This is the source of power. And without this there is only the phantom of a man, the unstable sand, and hollow reed which bends beneath every breath. Be faithful; this is the changeless northern star which will guide you through the vicissitudes of life, through doubts and discouragements, and even mistakes.

“A sort of moral dilettantism.” Isn’t that language great?

The entire “I do what I want!” mentality breaks like a fist against rock in encountering the clarity of thinking of someone like Charles Wagner. “I do what I want” is often just a slavery to our ever-changing passions.

This single paragraph can be better understood in its fuller context, of course.

What a lesson for young people.

Ave Maria for a week

I’m writing from a rocking chair in the Philadelphia airport, waiting for my phone to charge before heading into the city. Just getting back from a week in Ave Maria/Naples, where I was fortunate to meet, reconnect with, and speak with many good people.

It’s now been five years that I’ve been visiting Ave Maria, and the town seems to be developing nicely, overall. It’s growing in earnest—about 4,000 residents live there now, according to one long-time resident. Ave Maria University doesn’t seem to be growing in a substantial way, but it does seem to be more or less stable. It’s identity is evolving, though. A major drama a few years ago was dropping Latin as a requirement, and now a somewhat subterranean drama involves an attempt from the administration to do away with a focus on great literature in favor of a more technical focus on composition.

“If you want to be a great writer you’ve got to learn how to be a great reader.” These words aren’t the unique property of the high school English teacher whom I so vividly remember uttering them, but I think they resonated with me because they speak to the truth. I can’t imagine Ave Maria University will be better or more distinctive if it moves away from its great literature professors.

In any event, I was fortunate to spend the week there amidst work, meetings, planning, and very good friends and people I love.

(I took this photo from the beach in Naples when I arrived last Sunday.)

Knowing your story

Lewis Mumford said, “Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”

If this is true, then it means that we’ve got to ensure our families, and our sons and daughters, are equipped to know their grandfathers, and great grandmothers, and great great grandfathers, as much as possible.

What are we doing to make sure that happens? (It doesn’t matter if we have children now, or even plan on having any in the near future. The best way to create the future is to be prepared.) What are we doing to make our family history accessible? To make it resilient and ensure it survives any one family “keeper of the records”? What are we doing to make sure the young among us actually hear these stories from the living, and get a sense (from a lively storytelling!) of where they’ve come from?

If we want strong families, where some generations rebel against others even while maintaining a larger coherence as family, it starts with intentionally creating and conserving a family, like anything else.

I was fortunate to be born into one that just worked in these practical ways and more. I hope I can do the same for my children, in time.

Conversion and prayer

Years ago a friend of mine recommended Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer. This book was a response “to the call by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to help believers and all those interested in spirituality develop a deeper prayer life and union with God.” It’s a satisfying and worthwhile read, especially for any young person. It’s an easy read at little more than 100 pages.

Fr. Dubay hits on themes some of us will have heard before, but manages to offer a fresh and penetrating perspective on how we connect (or fail to connect) to God in our lives. At its heart, Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer issues a call to saintly living—to  experiencing the fullness of God as a trinity of persons. This sounds daunting and strange (and it is) but Fr. Dubay reminds us that we are all called to saintliness.

Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer is filled with passages that call for a highlighter and reflection, but among what I remember as some of the most thoughtful are the following excerpts.

  • Despite the faults of individual members who fail to live up to what they profess, thoughtful people recognize that the only fair way to judge any institution is according to its principles and the example of those who live in accord with them.
  • There are two roots of conflicts in human communities in which people live closely on a daily basis. One is a lack of shared vision regarding the basic principles undergirding our destiny and inter-relationships. … The second root of discord is … egocentrism in its innumerable forms.
  • “C.S. Lewis, speaking of an ordinary family, was on target when he remarked, “There cannot be a common life without a regula [rule]. The alternative to rule is not freedom but the unconstitutional (and often unconscious) tyranny of the most selfish member.”
  • Saint Paul put the matter perfectly twenty centuries ago: “Whether you eat or drink or do anything else, do all for the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31).
  • A real assent to a proposition includes the intellectual acceptance of it plus the concrete carrying out of it in the nitty-gritty of daily life, that is, making this truth part of one’s personal reality.
  • “To bear anything joyfully, thanking the Father…!” It is easy to see in this one verse how and why the saints are moral miracles: their goodness and beauty far surpass the natural capacities of human nature.
  • [The] Church is affirming that all of her children are called to be saints, profoundly converted to the highest degree of sanctity. No other worldview presents and proclaims so beautiful and lofty an ideal of what man can become — indeed should become.

Avoiding distraction

We wake up, and we check our phones where once we might have paused to take in a morning birdsong. We trundle down the hall to the bathroom or kitchen, where likely a radio or TV is turned on to the news or weather. We climb behind the wheel to work, and our cars beep and honk at us—beep!—fasten your seatbelt!—beep beep!—you’re too close to the trash cans as you’re backing out! Then we turn on the radio.

We pass the time each day necessarily attenuated in meetings, mail, and meeting workday demands. Yet the moments of respite in the days of our fathers or grandfathers—the 20 seconds in the elevator, twice per day, the trip to the restaurant to grab lunch, the stop at the bakery to pick up a pastry, even the time spent fueling our cars—all these moments once meant bits of fragmented quiet.

These demands take our halfhearted attention while refueling. The bakery likely has either a television on someplace, or worse, a store-wide sound system playing the latest from Lady Gaga. The elevator music lulls us in with its mundane melodies, and the lunchtime restaurant amplifies this sin against music, likely with a sort of amped-up, elevator-music-on-steroids jazziness.

Not all businesses or social areas are best served by piping noise for the sake of everyplace having its own soundtrack. This is a subtlely maddening aspect of the present, a sort of audio-sensory schizophrenia seemingly designed to never allow for a situation where we are left alone to tie together our own thoughts in public places.

Warren Buffett felt something of the need to recapture mental clarity after living in New York. It’s one of the reasons he decided to return to his hometown of Omaha. It’s explained that:

Much of Buffett’s success in managing Berkshire Hathaway’s investment portfolio can be attributed to his inactivity. Most investors cannot resist the temptation to constantly buy or sell stocks. While Buffett worked in New York, he remembers “people coming up to [him] all the time, whispering into [his] ear about some wonderful business…”

Alain de Botton explained the same idea: “Because of the internet, I now do far more work when not at work. My real thinking happens in bed and while shopping.” PBS addressed these themes a few years ago in Distracted By Everything.

What’s the key to a better life? Intentionally constructing your daily life and built environment to be as free as possible from outside distractions, and as regulated as possible from interior distractions.

Thinking on time

Seneca writes that our past is already death’s property:

“If you wish to take note, you will see that a large part of life slips away from those who act badly, the greatest portion slips away from those who do nothing, and all of life slips away from those who are busy doing something else. What person can you cite who places a price upon his time, who takes an account of the day, who understands that he is dying every day? We are deceived in this, that we look forward to death: a large part of it has already gone by, and whatever part of our lives is in the past is death’s property now. Therefore, act as you claim to do, and embrace every hour; thus it will happen that you weigh out less of tomorrow, if you throw your hand upon today. Life runs away when it is delayed. All things, my Lucilius, are foreign to us: time alone is ours. Nature has granted us the possession of this one fleeting, slippery thing, from which she expels whoever wishes it. The stupidity of humans is so great that they allow the smallest, most worthless things (certainly, those which can be retrieved) to be added to their account when they have accomplished them, but no one thinks that he owes any debt when he receives time, though this is the one thing which no one is able to pay back readily.

You will perhaps ask how I act, I who deliver these precepts to you. I will confess honestly: as happens among the diligent partaker of luxury, I keep an account of the cost. I can not say that I have wasted nothing, but I can give an account of why and how I wasted it. I will explain the causes of my poverty. But it happens to me as to many who have been reduced to poverty through no fault of their own: all ignore him, no one helps him. What then? I do not consider a man poor if whatever is left to him seems enough to him. I advise you, though to hold on to what is yours, and do it in good time. For, as the ancients say, ‘Parsimony is too late on the ground,’ for not only is the remaining portion at the bottom the smallest, but it is also the worst. Goodbye.”

Since all of time can be thought of as a continually-unfolding present, isn’t it better to recognize that for most living creatures “time” (as in past, present, and future) has never really been understood. Just the continual present.

That’s where we often forget to live, sometimes for good reason but often from total obliviousness or neglect. Time is a dynamic thing, but the past isn’t—it’s this static and frozen place, like the world inside a child’s snow globe. It can be looked at, but we can’t do much in relation to it. It’s the past, in a sense, that’s really apart from or outside of time, isn’t it? Better that death gets to keep it.

Sticks

It’s 1909 and G.K. Chesterton writes:

“All little boys, it may be noticed, like to possess a stick more almost than any other object, and in this, as in most things, little boys are very subtle sages. The stick is an abstraction; it is the straight line of Euclid; it is the primary principle of rigidity and direction. The stick is the backbone of the other structures; of the gun, the umbrella, the telescope, the spade, and the spear. Now the child, wishing for liberty and variety, wisely avoids realism, and clings to abstraction. If you have a telescope you cannot (without a violent effort) think it an umbrella. It were idle to look through a spade to find any of the emotions of a telescope. But if you have the plain bar or rod that is the rudimentary shape of all of them you can (if you are young enough) feel as if you possessed them all, and could take each of them in turn off its hook. A stick is a whole tool-box and a whole armoury. Nay, a stick is sometimes a stable. You can call it a horse and bestride it, and ride along country roads with the most mettlesome leaps and caracoles. I propose to do so in a few minutes.”

All of this is true.