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.

Honor Evan Pugh at Homecoming

Chris Buchignani writes “In Search of Evan Pugh,” which I’m excerpting from liberally. I’m also including two photos that I took of Pugh’s gravesite when Chris and Kevin Horne and I visited there last spring. Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery is an idyllic place, and the perfect setting for this story:

Evan Pugh, Penn State’s founding president and one of the most consequential personalities in the Valley’s history, whiles away eternity just a short journey from the flowering campus whose humble seeds he planted. He is memorialized as a scholar, scientist, and leader at his gravesite in Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery.

Soon after his arrival here, Pugh began courting, and eventually married, Rebecca Valentine, daughter of one of Bellefonte’s most important families. He is buried alongside her in the family plot. Once a hub of power and influence throughout the commonwealth, attractor of wealth and exporter of governors, modern Bellefonte retains much of its historic character, but only a fraction of its practical significance. So it is with the gravesite of its once-famous socialites. In their time, Pugh and Valentine were the Nittany Valley’s original power couple; now their place of honor lies in silent neglect. The community that inherited their legacy bustles on ahead, its founder largely forgotten.

The first president of Penn State deserves better.

Over its 160 years, Old State has weathered wild turbulence blowing in from the wider world – civil war and world war, social revolution and heart-breaking scandal – more than once it has teetered on the brink of extinction, yet always it has persevered. Pugh deserves to be remembered as the progenitor of that hardy nature, our penchant for defiant survival.

While barely remembered or recognized today, Pugh is the perfect central character for Penn State’s origin story. Erwin Runkle, the University’s first historian, painted him as possessing “a rugged, energetic physique, a straight-forward common sense manner, combined with the heart of a child, and the integrity and moral robustness of mature manhood.” A bull-necked he-man built to tame the wild, but with a keen, inquisitive mind better suited to conquering a more esoteric landscape.

When he assumed the presidency of a fledgling agricultural college situated in what, to most, seemed like the middle of nowhere, but Pugh called “splendid isolation,” the entire notion of bringing the baser study of agriculture and industry to the hallowed enterprise of higher education was itself a risky proposition. Only through Pugh’s dogged leadership and dedication to a revolutionary vision for American education did the Farmers High School find its footing, and though he tragically died young, so impactful was his short time that its influence echoes through the ages.

The man deserves a statue or memorial on campus. As things stand today, we’ve failed even to honor his memory by caring for his burial place. Seemingly abandoned by the family line, the Valentine plot has fallen into disrepair over the decades. The tombstones have become grimy and covered in lichen; the landscaping, such as it is, overgrown and unkempt, and the once-ornate wrought iron fence enclosing it crumbles.’

It might seem like a stretch, but after studying Pugh’s life over the past decade I’ve come to believe that no one can properly understand Penn State’s instrinsic spirit, nor its eventual emergence as a national institution, without understanding the unifying and clarifying personality of Evan Pugh who shaped our definitive founding years. An ambition of ours is for Penn State to begin institutionally honoring Evan and Rebecca. It’s my dream that one day a small Bellefonte choir performance and memorial ceremony at their gravesite will become a part of our Homecoming tradition.

The journey of exploring Pugh’s back story has revealed much that we did not expect: Finding an original handwritten copy of Rebecca Valentine’s will at Bellefonte’s Pennsylvania Room, encountering the Bog Turtle Brewery in Pugh’s hometown of Oxford, PA and their limited run of Evan Pugh Vanilla Porter, discovering a forgotten memorial marker placed by the University on family lands still inhabited by Pugh’s distant descendants. We take pride in restoring some luster to the memory of our Penn State family’s “first couple,” and we enjoy the pleasant surprises along the way.

So why all the fuss? If, today, so few people venture out to honor Evan Pugh’s memory that his grave fell into disrepair in the first place, why bother with some long-dead historical figure it seems most people can’t be bothered to remember?

Because whether you are an individual or a community, knowing your story – and honoring its heroes – builds confidence and inner strength.

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.

Castes v. mobility

I want to share some excerpts from R.W. Grant’s The Incredible Bread Machine, a “study of Capitalism, Freedom, and the State” published in the 1970s:

Every enterprise imaginable — dry cleaning, trucking, beauty parlor, grocery store, and on and on — is today under the thumb of the politician. ….

For those who already have capital, experience and education, the numberless “barriers to entry” erected by the state [ie – licensing, regulatory requirements] can be overcome, but to the under-capitalized poor, often with little experience and scant education, these barriers are virtually insurmountable. The illegal immigrant selling oranges at the off-ramp of the Los Angeles freeway is a truer capitalist than those businessmen who are constantly running to government for this-or-that favor or restriction.

Regulation is a necessary evil, but onerous or punitive regulation is a genuine evil in that it distorts natural relations and market activity, typically to the greatest detriment of the “under-capitalized poor.”

[T]he barriers are more complex today than they were then. For example, suppose a person in a poor area saw the need for a low-cost barber shop. One might suppose that with a few hours practice, a $15 set of clippers, a chair and a willing customer, he could go into business. Then, if her were industrious, and were truly able to provide a service of value to his neighbors, he would prosper. Perhaps one day he could open a bigger shop and hire two of his relatives. That is the way things are supposed to be in a “land of opportunity.” But that is not the way things are. In California, this is what the law says he must do.

The first step for an aspiring barber is a barber’s license granted by the state Board of Barber Examiners. But this requires either two years as an apprentice working for someone else or 1500 hours (!) at a state-licensed barber school at a cost upwards of $3,500. … Then, it costs $50 to register for the state test. And then, if the test is passed, there’s another $50 for the two-year state license. But there’s still more, for the new shop must now be inspected and approved by the Board — for another $50. Then, a city business license ($106.43 in Los Angeles). …

Now, assuming he were still in business, suppose the new proprietor hires an assistant. Deductions, contributions and fees must be accurately computed and paid. Just for starters there’s Worker’s Compensation and unemployment insurance (around 1.3% of the first $7,000 in wages) paid for by the employer. Then, in California there’s something called the Employee Training Tax, 0.1% of the first $7,000. Then there is a Federal Unemployment Tax, $56 per year per employee.

Now come the payroll deductions. State Disability Insurance (SDI) is 15% of the first $31,767 in wages. Then there’s State Withholding Tax (variable). Then come the federal calculations which include Withholding plus Social Security/Medicare (7.65% matched by the employer).

The paperwork for all this represents a severe burden even to people with a fair degree of schooling; to the person with only a meager education and perhaps only a scant familiarity with the mysteries of bookkeeping, these artificial barriers to business survival are simply overwhelming. But there is still more: most states enforce — or try to enforce — minimum price schedules. But a poverty area shop forced to charge these inflated rates would go out of business in a week!

The decision a few years ago to give the FDA power to regulate tobacco demonstrates the way in which regulation can be used to insulate existing interests from competition. Who came out on top in that case? Marlboro. Flush with cash, and with an army of lobbyists, they successfully convinced the FDA to ban flavored tobacco cigarettes on the grounds that they appealed to children. Okay…

A big maker of flavored cigarettes (a competitor) was Djarum, an Indonesian company that was effectively eliminated from the U.S. market by that protectionist regulation.

And most interestingly, Marlboro’s menthol flavored cigarettes were exempted from the flavored tobacco ban. Critics have dubbed this change in law the “Marlboro Monopoly Act of 2009.” (Black Americans are a large percent of menthol sales, and a ban including menthols would have dealt a heavy blow to Marlboro’s market share.)

It seems as if bureaucracy and regulators function well when promoting a principle, but often stumble when enforcing specific policies.

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.

St. Malachy’s

Earlier today I toured St. Malachy’s in North Philadelphia. It’s one of the Independence Mission Schools, a ~5 year old organization that has taken over management of 15 of Philadelphia’s Catholic elementary schools.

St. Malachy’s is located near Temple University in a struggling neighborhood. During the tour one person told me, “It’s still not so uncommon that I’ll be walking to work and pick up bullet casings from the sidewalk.” But amidst the struggle, St. Malachy’s represents what’s possible with a positive vision. What’s today St. Malachy’s is actually a former city public elementary, one that Independence Mission Schools bought and spent more than a year renovating. (The old St. Malachy’s is located about a block north; built in the 1880s, it had become too small to stick with.) St. Malachy’s has almost 300 kids today, with a goal of enrolling 500 in the next few years.

The mural on the back of the school (which Pope Francis saw and signed when he visited two years ago) is a symbol for the transformation St. Malachy’s hopes to have at least in its immediate surroundings: peace, prosperity, and prayer for a better life.