Passing along what’s inherited

F.L. Lucas is an unremembered man who wrote this in an out-of-print book:

It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they inherited from their fathers, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us and to be forgotten when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not governed wholly by its “stars.”

This reminded me of the dedication by W.H.H. Murray that appears in The Legends of the Nittany Valley:

It is not likely that much, if indeed any part, of what I may write will be granted a permanent place in the literature of my country, nor am I stirred to effort by any ambition or dream that it may. I shall be well satisfied if, by what I write, some present entertainment be afforded to the reader, a love of nature inculcated, and encouragement given to a more manly or womanly life.

Stars shine in the firmament of space. We don’t think about that firmament; it’s just there. But it’s what stars need to do their thing, and so it seems to be with people.

‘New men’

A great and strong passage from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s recent remarks in Phoenix, Arizona, specifically on “sex and the ‘new man'”:

Now because I made such a big deal about the importance of memory, some of you will remember that I also promised to talk about sex and the making of the “new man.” So I’ll finish with those two items.

Since most of you are familiar with those two little details called the Sixth and Ninth Commandments, I’ll mention the obvious things just briefly. Don’t cheat on your wife. Don’t put yourself in a situation where the idea would even occur to you. Don’t mislead and abuse women, and damage your own dignity as a man, by sleeping around before marriage. And if you’re already doing that, or did that, or you’re toying with the idea of doing it sometime in the future, stop it, now, and get to confession. Finally, don’tdemean your wife, your daughters, your mother and your sisters by poisoning your imagination with porn. It steals your time and your heart from the people who need them the most—the wife and family you love. Pornography exploits and humiliates women. And it dehumanizes men at the same time. God made us to be better than that. Our families need us to be better than that.

Those are some of the don’ts. The dos are equally obvious. Do love the women in your life with the encouragement, affection, support, and reverence they deserve by right. Dobe faithful to your wife in mind and body. Do show courtesy and respect to the women you meet, even when they don’t return it. Chivalry is dead only if we men cooperate in killing it—and given the vulgarity of our current national environment and its leaders, we certainly need some kind of new code of dignity between the sexes. Finally, those of you who marry, do have more children, and do invest your time and heart in them. America is facing a birth bust, and it’s a sign of our growing national selfishness. Children are the future. They’re the cement of love in the covenant of a husband and wife. They’re also an anchor to the imperfection and beauty of reality. They’re the single best antidote to selfishness.

Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and all the other blots on recent male behavior are merely a symptom of an entire culture of unhinged attitudes toward sex. Women are right to be angry when men treat them like objects and act like bullies and pigs. But a real reform of male behavior will never come about through feminist lectures and mass media man-shaming by celebrities and award ceremonies. In a lot of men, that kind of hectoring will merely breed nominal repentance and inner resentment. A man’s actions and words change only when his heart changes for the better. And his heart only changes for the better when he discovers something to believe in that transforms and gives meaning to his life; something that directs all of his reasoning and desires. In other words, when he becomes a new man.

That expression “new man” has an interesting past. In ancient Rome, the novi hominesor “new men” were men from the lower classes who earned or bought their way into public prominence and leadership. In a sense, they reinvented themselves. In the Renaissance, “new men” were humanists who made themselves indispensable as advisers to princes because of their literacy and scholarship—the tools of the new learning. But since the Enlightenment, and especially since the French Revolution, the “new man” is the man unencumbered by the chains and superstitions of the past—Promethean man who repudiates any memory or morality that could obligate him to the past, and who creates his own identity and future.

Thus the “new Soviet man” and the “new Aryan man” of the last century were creatures of ideology. They were meant to be healthy, learned, unselfish, and zealous in advancing communism or National Socialism, without the help of any god. Both of these “new” men failed. They ended in the gulag, the Holocaust, mass murder and war. And every similar effort will always fail because we don’t and we can’t erase the past. We don’t and we can’t create ourselves. And when we try, we destroy the very thing that guarantees our humanity: the reality that none of us is a god, but all of us are sons and daughters of the true and only God.

By the way, we Americans should remember that the words novus ordo seclorum are stamped on our own Great Seal of the United States. A “new order of the ages”—that’s what the Founders intended this country to be. The potential for good in those words is exactly matched by the potential for vanity, ambition, and evil. And the less biblical we become as a people, the more the balance tips in the wrong direction.

There’s only one way any of us will ever become a genuinely new man—a new man right down to our cell structure; the new man our families, our culture and our world need. It’s by giving ourselves totally to God. It’s by putting on the new man in Jesus Christ that Paul describes in Ephesians 4 (22-24) and Colossians 3 (9-17). And the kind of new men we become demands the armor Paul gives us in Ephesians 6 (11-17)—because, like it or not, as Catholic men, we really are engaged in a struggle for the soul of a beautiful but broken world.

To put it another way: The “new knighthood” St. Bernard once praised never really disappears. It’s new and renewed in every generation of faithful Catholic men. And brothers, that means us. It’s a vocation that belongs to us, and nobody else. The rules of our order—all 22 of them—were written down 500 years ago by the great Catholic humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, in his book, The Manual of a Christian Knight. It’s a dense text for the modern reader, but here’s the substance of what he says:

  • Rule 1: Deepen and increase your faith.
  • Rule 2: Act on your faith; make it a living witness to others.
  • Rule 3: Analyze and understand your fears; don’t be ruled by them.
  • Rule 4: Make Jesus Christ the only guide and the only goal of your life.
  • Rule 5: Turn away from material things; don’t be owned by them.
  • Rule 6: Train your mind to distinguish the true nature of good and evil.
  • Rule 7: Never let any failure or setback turn you away from God.
  • Rule 8: Face temptation guided by God, not by worry or excuses.
  • Rule 9: Always be ready for attacks from those who fear the Gospel and resent the good.
  • Rule 10: Always be prepared for temptation. And do what you can to avoid it.
  • Rule 11: Be alert to two special dangers: moral cowardice and personal pride.
  • Rule 12: Face your weaknesses and turn them into strengths.
  • Rule 13: Treat each battle as if it were your last.
  • Rule 14: A life of virtue has no room for vice; the little vices we tolerate become the most deadly.
  • Rule 15: Every important decision has alternatives; think them through clearly and honestly in the light of what’s right.
  • Rule 16: Never, ever give up or give in on any matter of moral substance.
  • Rule 17: Always have a plan of action. Battles are often won or lost before they begin.
  • Rule 18: Always think through, in advance, the consequences of your choices and actions.
  • Rule 19: Do nothing—in public or private—that the people you love would not hold in esteem.
  • Rule 20: Virtue is its own reward; it needs no applause.
  • Rule 21: Life is demanding and brief; make it count.
  • Rule 22: Admit and repent your wrongs, never lose hope, encourage your brothers, and then begin again.

Maleness, brothers, is a matter of biology. It just happens. Manhood must be learned and earned and taught. That’s our task. So my prayer for all of us today is that God will plant the seed of a new knighthood in our hearts—and make us the kind of “new men” our families, our Church, our nation, and our world need.

I’m setting this down as much for the benefit of my family one day as for my own memory in days to come, when I’m sure to struggle. Have faith. Be courageous in love. Be brave in confession. Repent.

Fides et Ratio

Saint John Paul the Great’s Fides at Ratio turns 20 this year. It’s described by Wikipedia in this way: It “posits that faith and reason are not only compatible, but essential together. Faith without reason, [John Paul II] argues, leads to superstition. Reason without faith, he argues, leads to nihilism and relativism.” Chaput explains the way Fides et Ratio calls everyone to keep an open mind to the metaphysical aspects of life:

Fides et Ratio is a hymn to the transcendent aspirations of human reason. The aim of any true philosophy, it notes, should be to find the unity of truth in all things, an understanding of the whole. This demands an engagement with the classical discipline we call “metaphysics,” which men still study in preparing for the priesthood.

Metaphysics is an exotic word for a very basic subject: the study of the deep truths and harmonies built into the world. Why, for example, does the world exist? Is matter—material reality—all that there is? Or is there something more? Is there a common human nature? What should we make of the many distinct kinds of things that exist in the world, the sheer givenness of their existence, and their goodness and beauty? How should we understand the human person as a distinct sort of reality? After all, a human person has unique abilities. Man is the creature who can know not only physical things, but even himself and others. Man can perceive the truth, goodness, and beauty in things. He’s a creature animated by questions of ultimate meaning, including whether God exists.

Fides et Ratio argues that any culture that ignores man’s ultimate metaphysical questions locks itself in a false and empty immanence. It can no longer approach the question of God. And by this very fact, it will scar the inner life of the human person. As John Paul notes, “Christian Revelation is the true lodestar of men and women as they strive to make their way amid the pressures of an immanentist habit of mind and the constrictions of a technocratic logic.” This message is strikingly contemporary. Our modern universities typically avoid God as a serious subject of inquiry. Without God, or at least some sense of a higher order or meaning to nature, the dignity of the human person is little more than folklore, the residue of pre-Darwinian beliefs. God and the soul are in exile. And that’s because classical philosophy is in exile, to the detriment of genuine learning.

Fides et Ratio also confronts the crisis of truth within the Catholic Church herself. Catholic theology studies the mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ. This truth is made known to us by the Holy Spirit. It’s not one we come to know by our own natural powers. But good theology depends upon vigorous philosophy, at least in this sense: We can’t think correctly about God’s revelation unless we cultivate a reasonable philosophical attitude toward God, the world, and other human persons.

The benefits of a vigorous cultivation of both philosophy and theology flow both ways. The rigor of philosophical reason, as Benedict XVI said, purifies religion. It prevents religious faith from lapsing into superstition. Theology, in turn, helps philosophers to cultivate an attitude of openness and accountability to all of reality. Far from being anti-intellectual, Catholic theology raises the expectations for human reason. Everything we can come to know is part of the created order and therefore “friendly” to the authentic revelation of God.

Philosophy in the Catholic tradition pays special attention to the ways we speak about God “analogically” from comparison with creatures. The created world around us exists and is good. So, too, God exists and is good—but in an infinitely higher and incomprehensible way. So when God reveals himself to us as the Holy Trinity, he is simultaneously the God of revelation and the God of natural reason, the God of the Bible and the God of the philosophers.

This way of thinking about the harmony of faith and reason is central to the Catholic tradition, from Church Fathers such as Justin and Augustine to medievals such as Bonaventure and Aquinas down to modern Catholic councils, both at Vatican I and Vatican II. This harmony is expressed in the opening lines of Fides et Ratio: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

In 2015, we inscribed the phrase Fides et Ratio onto the gravestone of John and Marion Shakely, my grandparents. We did this for two reasons. First, to allude to the marriage of my grandfather’s familial Protestantism and my grandmother’s familial Catholicism and in so doing to recognize the healing of Christian divisions. And second, specifically to recognize John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio encyclical, for speaking clearly to a world too ready to think that the particular and complex problems of any particular historical moment are somehow without precedent, and that an authentic, robust faith and reason together can be those “wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” beyond the particulars of any specific and finite generation.

Principles of Adult Behavior

John Perry Barlow‘s Principles of Adult Behavior, which he created when he was 30 years old:

  1. Be patient. No matter what.
  2. Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing of another you wouldn’t say to him.
  3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
  4. Expand your sense of the possible.
  5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
  6. Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself.
  7. Tolerate ambiguity.
  8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
  9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
  10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
  11. Give up blood sports.
  12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously.
  13. Never lie to anyone for any reason. (Lies of omission are sometimes exempt.)
  14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
  15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
  16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
  17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.
  18. Admit your errors freely and soon.
  19. Become less suspicious of joy.
  20. Understand humility.
  21. Remember that love forgives everything.
  22. Foster dignity.
  23. Live memorably.
  24. Love yourself.
  25. Endure.

John Perry Barlow died at 70 earlier this week.

Pop’s 91st birthday

John Albert Shakely, my grandfather, would be 91 today. An adventurer, soldier, Penn Stater, geologist, sailor, wildcatter, and teacher, Pop was a humble, heroic man in my childhood life, the sort of person who teaches a boy how to be a man without ever sitting him down to give him a lesson. Requiescat in pace.

I shared the tribute above on Facebook, and my Aunt Amy Bourgeron (daughter of grandfather John’s sister Jean) added that “Uncle John was an iconic figure of my youth- the quintessential baroudeur.” (Baroudeur: adventurer, fighter.) Visiting Amy in July 2016 in Denver, it was special to me to see in her home the same Turkish footstool that Pop sent home for her in the 1950s, when he was stationed in Diyarbakir as an oil-well geologist.

Adulthood and competence

Jordan Peterson’s BBC 4 interview has made the rounds recently. Dr. Peterson’s commentary on adulthood, power, and competence was striking. Dr. Peterson:

There’s nothing uglier than an old infant. Nothing good about it. People who don’t grow up don’t find the sort of meaning in their life that sustains them through difficult times, and they are certain to encounter difficult times. And they’re left bitter and resentful and without purpose and adrift and hostile and resentful and vengeful and arrogant and deceitful and of no use to themselves and of no use to anyone else and no partner for a woman. There’s nothing in it that’s good. …

You help people understand why it’s necessary and important for them to grow up and adopt responsibility. Why that’s not a “shake your finger and get your act together” sort of thing, why it’s more like a delineation of the kind of destiny that makes like worth living. … There’s an actual reason they need to grow up, which is that they have something to offer; that people have within them the capacity to set the world straight, that’s necessary to manifest in the world, and that also doing so is where you find the meaning that sustains you in life.

Cathy Newman, the interviewer, rhetorically asks at one point, “What’s in it for the women?”:

Well, what sort of partner do you want? Do you want an overgrown child, or do you want someone to contend with who’s going to help you and who you can rely on? …

Women want, deeply want, men who are competent and powerful. And I don’t mean power in that they can exert tyrannical control over others. That’s not power, that’s just corruption. Power is competence. And why in world would you not want a competent partner?

‘Oh, those were simpler times’

Harrison Scott Key remarks to the 2017 St. Andrews Society of Savannah, Georgia meeting. This particular excerpt on qualities of a “real man” struck me:

“Oh, those were simpler times,” I can hear you saying. “Back when a man could solve geopolitical questions with food.”

But were the times simpler? My grandfather grew up amid lynchings. In his home of Tate County, Mississippi, he saw black men pursued with hounds by lawless mobs and hanged for crimes they did not commit. His neighbors across the fence-line were a black family, and when they were ill, he called on them with food and prayers, and when he or my grandmother were ill, they paid him in kind. How instructive for a young boy like me, from the very heart of American racial evil, to see this bold witness from his white grandfather?

Of all the memories of Monk, I remember one most vividly, when my parents were out of town and he took my brother and me to the swimming hole.

It was a wide sandy creek. You could see to the bottom in places, little bream darting in clusters. Monk fished upstream, as we played down. Soon enough, our horseplay turned into horse-fighting, when my brother and I attempted to express our fraternal love by drowning one another. Monk told us to cut it out, but we didn’t listen.

“If I have to tell you boys one more time,” Monk said, “I’ll whip the both of you.”

We had been whipped many times, at school, at home, never with fists or open palms, usually with items purchased at hardware stores, flyswatters, canoe oars, fan belts.  But Monk had never whipped us. He was the peacemaker, the Good Cop to my father’s Bad, and so we ignored him and commenced to murdering each other again, as quietly as possible.

And then the water turned dark with his shadow.

“Boys, get out,” he said, prying the leather belt off his trousers.

I felt such grand shame, that our behavior had made Monk no longer the lover of mercy but the doer of justice. I said a prayer, and looked up to see a miracle: Just as he raised his hand to whip me, over his shoulder, poking through the leaves, I saw the face of an angel.

No, not an angel.

It was Monk’s son. My father, Pop. He stepped into the clearing.

“We just drove in,” Pop said. “I seen the truck and reckoned you all was swimming.”

Bird and I waited for Monk to explain our terrible malfeasance, but when I turned back to look at my grandfather, the belt was back in its rightful place, caged and quiet.

“We was just fishing a little,” Monk said.

We all drove back to the farm. Monk never said a word, from then to the day of his death.

In that moment, so very long ago, the just act would have been to punish my brother and me, and then to tell our father what we had done. Monk probably wanted to drown us both just for ruining his fishing. Justice would have felt good to him. It often does.

You read the papers, you check Facebook, and it looks as if today’s men want justice for others and mercy for themselves. But Monk did not choose justice. He chose mercy, for us.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts his readers like some kind of juiced-up ball coach, “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong!” And then he says, as if in rejoinder to himself, quiet, calming, “Let all your things be done with charity.”

At this point in my life, where I am statistically halfway between birth and death, I have finally come to see that being a man has much less to do with chopping your own firewood or growing your own tomato and far more with this impossible marriage of strength and compassion that Micah and Paul write about.

Together, these impossible qualities are what made my grandfather a man, and all the good men who have come before us.