Everything but the stars

I’m settling down after a week on of travel and hotels, so today I’m just sharing this:

“Generations brought up in centrally heated and air-conditioned homes and schools, shot from place to place encapsulated in culturally sealed-off buses, who swim in heated, chlorinated pools devoid of current, swirl or tide, where even the build-up from one’s own pushing of the water is suctioned off by vacuums so as not to spoil the pure experience of sport-for-sport’s sake… poor little rich suburban children who have all these delights, and living in constant fluorescent glare, have never seen the stars, which St. Thomas, following Aristotle and all the ancients, says are the first begetters of that primary experience of reality formulated as the first of all principles in metaphysics, that something is.” —John Senior

When most of us speak about “wealth,” too few of us mean “abundance in a holistic sense.” We often just mean, “stuff”. Or “cash”. Or worse, “expensive debt-based stuff”. Wouldn’t it be better to give up so much of the material things that chain us to a specific day-in, day-out existence, and pursue a life that lets us enjoy the wealth of nature (for instance) on a more regular basis?

It turns out that “having it all” means giving up a lot.

Materialism and personal identity

Joshua Becker writes about his visit to Poland, where he spoke on minimalism and had some incredible encounters. After his talk, Darek, the organizer of the conference he was participating in, shared this during the question/answer session:

“Joshua, can I tell you more about why I invited you here today? When I was younger, I had an important mentor. He was a survivor of Auschwitz who would live almost his entire existence in an occupied Poland—first by the Germans and then by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

“This man once made an observation to me I have never forgotten. After a trip he had taken to Western Europe, he pulled me aside and said: ‘I have come to realize that materialism holds people captive in many the same ways Communism does. Communism, by force, seeks to destroy personal identity. Materialism does the same. But materialism destroys personal identity by choice.’

“And that is why I wanted you here today. To inspire us, both as individuals and as a society, to not use our newfound freedom to acquire further bondage.”

Minimalism is an important message. It frees up our most important resources to pursue things that matter. …

Freedom is a gift. But our freedom is only as valuable as what we choose to pursue with it.

In its own way, this encapsulates the great risk of liberty that we asked for from our Creator, specifically the risk that in our freedom, we can destroy our personal identity by own our choice—not in a materialistic sense, but in the transcendent sense.

That’s what Christians understand hell to be: the warped self, victim of its own passions and enslavements, and alone with ego as a corrosive force rather than the creator and the balm of love.

At least, that’s how I think of it.

Campfires among men

A few years ago I was in Ave Maria, Florida visiting Ben and Michael Novak.

One afternoon, I was out walking Hollow, their incredibly wolf-like shepherd/husky. We were walking Annunciation Circle around Ave Maria Oratory, and as we neared the “Bean” coffee shop I met a young student named Peter. Peter knew Hollow immediately, because he knew Michael and Ben. Peter was sitting outside with his books studying; I think he was a freshman or sophomore at the time.

I asked what he was reading, and he said in the most casual way something like: “Oh, well I’m working on translating this language of ‘the Word became flesh’ from the Latin. It’s super interesting, because the older language is far more literal.”

“Right, I said. What does that even mean to people now: ‘Word became flesh?'”

“The more literal understanding of scriptural language around this stuff is something closer to the idea of God ‘pitching his fire’ among men. In other words, a more literal act of God the divine joining the ‘camp’ of men, maybe like a traveling companion might join a camp for a night.”

I’m butchering this somewhat, because Peter’s language was much clearer in that moment than my memory of it is now. But whatever precise point he was making, the essence of it has stuck with me ever since. When I heard him relate these thoughts, it was like a strike of lightning to me—this image of the Creator pitching a tent among men, firing the light of the campfires with the sort of power that doesn’t flicker or fade.

It’s a much simpler way, and a more arresting one, I think, to understand the principle that “God became flesh” and that the logos and the Word became man. In joining our camp, divinity came to relate to us in a new way—not as the God upon the mountaintop or an abstracted and necessarily distant power, but ultimately as a brother and a son and a person. In this, there are a whole world of implications for how we related to one another.

I’ll be thinking about this for the rest of my life.

Leisure requires thought

Jane Clark Scharl writes:

In his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, [Joseph] Pieper writes, “In order to gain a clear notion of leisure, we must begin by setting aside the prejudice . . . that comes from overvaluing the sphere of work.” …

Leisure requires thought, particularly the kind of thought we call contemplation. This isn’t the analytical thought we apply when making difficult decisions or assessing the quality of someone’s conversation. It’s also not daydreaming. Pieper describes it as the mode of “man’s spiritual and intellectual knowledge, [which includes] an element of pure, receptive contemplation, or as Heraclitus says, of ‘listening to the essence of things.’”

Leisure is deep reflective thinking, not speculating or fantasizing, but pondering. In a world where most of us tend to relocate every few years and keep in touch via text, it is rare to have a friend with whom to contemplate. It is most probably difficult to have an occasion in which to ponder the divine if you live in a city miles from the serene, silent, open country, and your days are scheduled to the minute.

But ponder it we must, because it means turning our attention toward realities beyond work and considering different understandings of happiness, such as Aristotle’s (human flourishing in accordance with virtue), Plato’s (love of wisdom), and Christ’s (personal knowledge of God’s eternal love for us). We consider our own value differently, such as when St. Paul calls us “children of God” or St. Thomas Aquinas says the human soul is “a mover moved.” These are not ideas we can absorb quickly; we need time and space to think them through.

The pursuit of happiness is not a trivial one, and the pangs of FOMO should push us to ask hard questions about what we believe about ourselves: Where does our value come from? What do we hope will make us happy? We won’t find the answers in social media, a thrilling job opportunity, or a romantic relationship. We will, however, find them in contemplation, in a festival or a “walk in the country,” in dwelling with the divine, where we can hope to find the peace revealed to the Psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

People say “time is money” because they understand money to be the only meaningful type of value. But really, “time is value.” Thinking this way, it might be easier to recover an appreciation for the value of leisure in a work-obsessed climate.

Eulogy closes

Eulogy Belgian Tavern in Old City, Philadelphia closed suddenly:

After shutting down for what was to be a week’s renovations, Mike Naessens has chosen to close Eulogy Belgian Tavern for good after 15 years at 136 Chestnut St. in Old City. In short, he’s concerned for his safety.

Over a two-year span, Naessans said Friday, three employees at the bar — known for its collection of 400 beers and its quirky decor — became caught up in drug or criminal charges and either walked off the job or were fired. Naessans said he worked with prosecutors on all three cases, which he said prompted threats from the people involved and no police protection.

Naessans said one employee, fired after submitting a false résumé, was growing marijuana in Kensington. Naessans filed an affidavit in the case detailing the threats he said he received. A second employee, who Naessans said also struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, was fired and charged after stealing checks from Eulogy. Most recently, Naessans said. a female employee who was a heroin user stole nearly $5,000 and Naessans’ gun from the bar. The employee and her boyfriend were released on bail, Naessans said.

“I just got tired of this,” he said. “More and more, people you try to get in for interviews, you can tell they’re on something, and it’s just not worth it anymore. You’ve got a vetting process, but not too many people are applying as it is, and when you do get them in, your sense is it’s going to be a problem, but you need a warm body, and then, sure enough, it causes chaos.”

Naessens, a certified public accountant, said he had moved out of state and would return to the finance world.

Eulogy was a great place; the second of two of my favorite Old City taverns that have closed in the past few years. I always enjoyed grabbing the second floor table at Eulogy near the coffin with plastic skeleton and nursing a few good beers with friends. Memento mori.

Driving Tesla

Yesterday afternoon after mass, Eric and I were sitting in his apartment when he turned to me and asked: “Do you want to rent a 2014 Tesla Model S for $45?” I stared at him for a moment before answering, “Of course.”

He had found an incredible deal with a company called Get Around that let us rent for three hours, so we Ubered to the downtown San Francisco parking garage where the car was waiting. Everything was controlled through the app, and the car became available for unlock at the start of our rental time. We drove down the coast, past Pacifica toward Moss Beach where we had a beer on the deck of Moss Beach Distillery before turning around and heading back to the city before our rental time was up. It was a great way to spend a few hours on a Sunday evening.

If you haven’t driven a Tesla, you can’t imagine why any of this even merits sharing. If you have driven one, you’ll know how distinct the experience of driving a Tesla is from any combustion-engine vehicle. Both a Ford and a Tesla are cars, but the former feels much closer to the Model T and the era of the horse than the latter, which feels much closer to the era of space flight and autonomy.

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.