‘This is one who has authority’

I started reading Fr. Luigi Giuassani recently, starting with his book “Christ, God’s Companionship with Man,” and I’m going to share three excerpts this week. First, on the topic of authority and authority’s source, from his talk, “The Journey to Truth Is an Experience:”

Peter, the most representative person in the community, stands up and speaks, and he is heeded (see Acts 1:15-22).

In our particular milieu some individuals have a greater sensitivity to the human experience; in fact they develop a deeper understanding of any given situation and of others; in fact they are more likely to influence the movement that builds a community. They live our experience more intensely and with a greater commitment. We all feel that they are more representative of us. With them we feel closer to, and stay more willingly in a community with, others. To acknowledge this phenomenon is to be loyal to one’s own humanity, a duty spurred by wisdom.

When we discover ourselves helpless and alone, our humanity spurs us to come together. If we meet someone who better feels and understands our experience, suffering, needs, and expectations, we naturally are led to follow that person and become his or her disciple. In that sense, such persons naturally constitute authority for us even if they do not carry special rights or titles. Naturally, above all, it is one who most loyally lives or understands the human experience who becomes an authority.

Thus authority is born as a wealth of experience that imposes itself on others. It generates freshness, wonder, and respect. Inevitably, it is attractive; it is evocative. Not to value the presence of this effective authority that His Being places in every setting is to cling pettily to our own limits. The Jews said of Christ: “This is one who has authority” and they abandoned the schemes of the Pharisees to follow Him.

The encounter with this natural authority develops our sensitivity and our conscience; it helps us to better discover our nature and what we aspire to from the depths of our present poverty.

There are many people who will have power over us in our lives. And we will have power over others, too. But there is a difference between power and authority. And legitimate authority only has one source.

Capitol Bikeshare membership

I signed up for Capitol Bikeshare a year ago today. It’s been a useful and generally fun way to get around Washington and Arlington over the past year. Here’s a snapshot of the past year’s ride history:

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Capitol Bikeshare’s annual membership rate is $85, and rides lasting fewer than 30 minutes are free for members. I’ve used it most often for coming home to Georgetown from Court House when our offices were there, or from Clarendon. And more recently for commuting to/from our new offices located down M Street, near Dupont Circle. Letting the bikes cruise down the hills of Arlington into Rosslyn has been especially great.

It’s been cost effective, but I’m letting membership lapse in favor of walking, using a JUMP (electric) bike, or taking the bus to work.

I’d recommend bike share to most people, unless you’re confronting serious inclines that will leave you a mess when arriving wherever you’re going. A major pain point was the docking process—first, needing to know where docks are to pick up or leave a bike, and second, having to pull up the app to see whether any bikes are available.

The dockless (pick up/leave anywhere) nature of JUMP bikes is their plus, along with the fact they’re electric.

Tolkien on love in marriage

Sam Guzman writes on J.R.R. Tolkien’s love of his wife, and on his letter to his son on true and lasting happiness in marriage:

J.R.R. Tolkien was happily married for 55 years. In contrast, the modern divorce rate is shockingly high, and some are giving up on monogamous marriage altogether, claiming it simply isn’t possible or healthy. What did Tolkien have that many marriages do not? How did he make it work? The answer is simple: He understood that real love involves self-denial.

The modern notion of love is pure sentiment, and it is focused primarily on self. If someone excites you, if they get your pulse racing, if they affirm you and your desires, then you can say you are in love with them according to modern definitions.

While deeply attached to his wife, Tolkien rejected this shallow idea of love. He embraced instead the Catholic understanding of real love as focused on the other—something that requires a sacrifice of natural instincts and a determined act of the will.

To illustrate Tolkien’s profound view of married love, I want to share an excerpt from a letter to his son, Michael Tolkien. It is a different side of Tolkien that many are unfamiliar with. To those with an overly sentimental view of love, his words may be shocking, even offensive. Yet, he articulates truths that, if understood and embraced, bring true and lasting happiness to marriage. Here is a truncated version of his letter:

Men are not [monogamous]. No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed ethic,’ according to faith and not the flesh. The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called “self-realization” (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriages entails that: great mortification.

For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify and direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him—as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state as it provides easements.

No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that—even those brought up in ‘the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it.

When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think that they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only—. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’.

And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgementconcerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. In this fallen world, we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will…

(Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, pp. 51-52)

I was speaking with a man I trust recently about love. I asked him how a man can properly love his wife. He pointed to a crucifix, and said, “Be prepared to do that, every day.”

Pennsylvania hyperloop

Jana Benscoter reports that Pennsylvania officials are starting to think through what a Pennsylvania hyperloop might look like:

Will a hyperloop work in Pennsylvania?

That’s the question officials from legislative and executive branches, statewide agencies, organizations and departments, as well as a handful of private business leaders are trying to answer.

Fifty people, invited to a workshop at Dixon University in Harrisburg on Wednesday, met to talk about the possibility of building a hyperloop system in the commonwealth. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has until April 2020 to complete a $2 million state-legislative commissioned study on its viability. …

According to the turnpike’s research, a hyperloop combines a magnetic levitation train and a low pressure transit tube to propel “pods or capsules” at high rates of speed. It can travel up to 700 mph.

There are currently no hyperloop systems constructed worldwide, but the first to-scale hyperloop is expected to break ground in 2020-21 in either India or United Arab Emirates. The challenge here is how well it will work on Pennsylvania’s terrain, said Barry Altman, the state’s hyperloop project manager, during a phone interview before Wednesday’s workshop.

“We recognize that on the front end, geography is a key issue,” Altman said. “Pennsylvania is not ideal for hyperloop, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be built.” He acknowledged those factors could make building one in the state more expensive and longer to complete than in other states. No cost estimates have been discussed publicly at this point.

State Rep. Aaron Kaufer, a Luzerne County Republican, attended the meeting. He spearheaded and co-sponsored House Bill 1057, legislation that directed the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to conduct the study. AECOM, a Los-Angeles, California-based engineering firm, is analyzing what it would take to build a hyperloop tube that would run from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to Philadelphia…

I’ve written about what hyperloop would do for the Philadelphia/New York relationship, but a Philadelphia/Pittsburgh hyperloop would make a lot of sense for knitting the Commonwealth together.

Sarah Smith and living a worthy live

R.J. Snell explores the question, “What makes for a worthy life?”:

As Michael Hanby once argued, one is bound to find a hopelessness and jumbled fragmentation beneath “the excesses of consumer society and the sense of helplessness that leads an increasing number of citizens . . . to despair of social and political involvement.” The political and historical hopelessness that Goldberg notes is closely related to the decadent indulgence that Hess observes and enjoys. However much one may pine for unity, commonality, and the common good, these objectives are far beyond the imagination, will, and character of a people that has been formed by the ideals that Hess reports: “Contemplation and prayer? Oh, forget that. Go for the squid-ink risotto instead.”

Many of our fellow citizens do not appear to know what life is for. They have never learned the pathways or prescription for a meaningful, worthy life, even though they know very well the prescription for success. In one widely-noted essay, William Deresiewicz comments that his Ivy League students were driven, accomplished, talented, and disciplined; but “look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. . . . The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”

The spread of this sense of ambition without purpose in part accounts for the popularity of figures like Jordan Peterson. Many students have told me they read and appreciate his 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos because they have no other sources of rules for living well. (“Don’t you have a grandmother?” is my usual confused response.) Similarly, the attraction of movements like TheSchool of Life or TED―especially among the well-credentialed but confused―comes from their promise of wisdom for living rather than of mere techniques of success. Even then, the impression they give is that a good life is a commodity available for purchase rather than a long and difficult drama that requires reflection, self-mastery, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of suffering. A brief glance at the School of Life store, with its kitschy games, cute notebooks, and “Optimist/Pessimist” drinking glasses tempts one to quote Don Colachowith grudging admiration: “The modern world will not be punished. It is the punishment.”

That is, the formation that our present time and place impart, the relentless catechesis of contemporary culture, punishes our young. And the punishment is often especially harsh on the most “successful”―those who have best absorbed contemporary culture’s “schooling,” from which they learned how to succeed but not how to lead a worthwhile life.

Can a person be successful if one goes unnoticed? We can look to C.S. Lewis’s Sarah Smith as a way to answer definitively, “Yes.” It’s possible, and maybe even preferable, to cultivate virtue and live a good life in a quiet way, and to seek out precisely those sorts of people for friendship—because when you encounter them, you encounter a way of living that’s genuinely “out of this world.” C.S. Lewis, through the character of Sarah Smith, shows us the fruits of that sort of life:

First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done.

I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. If she were naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her inmost spirit shone through the clothes. For clothes in that country are not a disguise: the spiritual body lives along each thread and turns them into living organs. A robe or a crown is there as much one of the wearer’s features as a lip or an eye.

But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.

“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.

“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”

“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”

“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

“And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancing and throwing flowers before here?”

“Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.”

“And who are all these young men and women on each side?”

“They are her sons and daughters.”

“She must have had a very large family, Sir.”

“Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”

“Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?”

“No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”

“And how…but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat-two cats-dozens of cats. And all those dogs…why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”

“They are her beasts.”

“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”

“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”

I looked at my Teacher in amazement.

“Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough int the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”

‘Barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day’

Fall is here, and summer is over—so here’s John Keats’ “To Autumn:”

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Twelve hours in State College

A lot of driving this weekend, from Washington to State College, from State College to Philadelphia, and tomorrow from Philadelphia to Washington—but grateful for the chance to visit Happy Valley when Penn State’s classes are in session and as as summer comes to a close.

I got in late last night, headed to 7:30am Mass at Our Lady of Victory on Westerly Parkway, then headed to the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s third quarter board meeting (which is why I visited town), and then met up with a friend before heading to Philadelphia.

Trying out the iPhone 11 Pro’s new cameras with these photos. Nighttime photos are markedly better. I took the nighttime photos here at around 11pm last night.

Clarendon Day 10K

I ran the Clarendon Day 10K this morning, which started in Clarendon and headed downhill on Wilson Boulevard (past my old office at Court House), took place mainly on the temporarily closed Richmond Highway before ending in Roslyn.

When I was looking up races a few weeks ago for the fall, Clarendon Day stood out because I realized I hadn’t run a 10K since the Independence Day “Revolutionary Run” 10K in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania seven years ago. I signed up and picked up my race bib from Pacers in Clarendon yesterday (where there was a great guy playing the saxophone), and this morning ran the 10K. It was a beautiful morning, and a simple course, and I was fortunate to set a personal best, beating my 10K best of 2011 (7:21 pace, 45:45 finish) with a 6:56 pace, 43:06 finish. Regular running (de facto training) and regular gym time have an impact—who would have thought?

Afterwards I walked home over the Key Bridge, picked up my rental car, and headed to State College. Tomorrow is the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s next board meeting, and after that I’ll head to Philadelphia for a friend’s wedding.

Late summer sunsets

I’ve been enjoying the sunsets on my way home, typically on a Capitol Bikeshare bike, along M Street recently. These are two recent sunsets:

When you take the time to really watch a sunset (or sunrise), you can understand where poets come from. I think I would’ve been drawn more to poetry when I was younger if classes took place outside at sunset than where they really took place—within cinderblock walls.

Contemplative thinking

John Cuddeback writes on fostering leisure:

Aristotle has distinguished amusement and leisure, calling the former a kind of ‘medicine’ that causes relaxation so that one can return, rested, to more serious things. Leisure, on the other hand, “of itself gives pleasure and happiness and enjoyment of life.” If amusement is medicine, leisure is the center of the healthy living one seeks.

But what are these mysterious and seemingly elusive activities that are supposed to be so meaningful? Aristotle points to the ‘contemplative activity of reason.’ This phrase that might leave us a bit perplexed calls for a closer look. What is ‘contemplative activity’ and where is it to be found? Here are a few things that can help us think about this.

Contemplative thinking always implies that we ‘see’ something—with our intellect—that is beautiful, worth simply gazing upon. This gazing is more of a resting than a moving, since an insight has already come and is now savored.

For instance, one might come to the insight that so many aspects of life have been a gift—a gift that could not have been anticipated and cannot be fully repaid. This can be almost overwhelming, and it calls among other things, that we simply see this truth and rest in it.

This insight could come while observing children play, or when reading a story, or when walking in the woods. We might be alone, or with someone we love. Whenever it comes, it calls for lingering, and entering into it, and receiving it. While such insights cannot be simply fabricated or demanded, we can foster them. We can set aside times and do activities that lend themselves to their arising, and to their having a place to be received. A mindset of readiness, and of longing to see more deeply can go far.

Leisure: The Basis of Culture was one of the most important books I read in my 20s. What proper leisure looks like, and how to cultivate it, has been something I think about often, and try to bring about as much as possible.