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.

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.

Free-born minds

A few years ago I wrote at National Review about the idea of “the free-born mind,” as C.S. Lewis presented it in The Abolition of Man. He writes on the repercussions for a culture that has decoupled the civic and moral aspects of its shared identity into separate and competing arenas.

What results? Cultural schizophrenia, where the warden-caretaker becomes the master:

As a result of the theory of sovereignty, [which holds that the state can make right and wrong by sheer act of will] Lewis observed, “Rulers have become owners.” He added: “We are less their subject than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.” As the state offers us less and less protection, “at the same time it demands from us more and more. We seldom had fewer rights and liberties nor more burdens: and we get less security in return. While our obligations increase their moral ground is taken away.”

Despite all the talk of education reform of all varieties and degrees in America, a still surprising amount of the conversation is focused on the tactical rather than strategic. Too much talk about iPads and whiteboards. Too much focus on whether Wikipedia might be a legitimate learning tool.

On the strategic end, I’m suggesting a more sustained conversation on our first principles, on answering questions like:

  • Who do we want our children to grow up understanding themselves to be?
  • What historical narrative and flow can we help them to discover and join?
  • Should we equip students with a love of the Greek tradition and its heroes?
  • Do we any longer care about the idea of our Constitutional history?

These are questions often either laughed at or utterly ignored, so the implied answer seems to be: No, to hell with all that.

Anyway, continuing with Lewis, perhaps my favorite excerpt:

“I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the free-born mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?”

Wonderfully vivid: a citizen snapping his fingers at ideology and pretense.

Whether the specific “strategic” type questions I posed above really matter or not can be debated. What I’m really trying to get at is answering how a culture (through education) can transmit a coherent a narrative about itself and the world to the young. This is the age-old question.

In November 2011 I did an on-air radio recitation from Joe Paterno’s 1989 autobiography Paterno: By the Book in which he talks about Virgil’s Aeneas and how his reading of it (in Latin) shaped his entire life and approach to coaching college football:


“Once a person has experienced a genuine masterpiece,” writes Paterno in reflecting on the Aeneas, “the size and scope of it last as a memory forever.”

Ben Novak joined me on the broadcast, explaining Paterno’s reflection:

That was once the meaning of a college education, to have that experience that lasted forever. Joab Thomas gave a talk to the Board of Trustees [of Penn State] in the early 1990s pointing out that almost every one of our curricula (science and business and so forth) had their maximum value upon graduation to get your first job, and they declined in value every year after that as what they learned became obsolete. Everything was moving so fast in business and science and engineering that almost everything you learned was obsolete five years after you graduated! What Joe was pointing out in the original idea of an education, to experience the masterpieces in college, was that those experiences grow in value with every year of your life.

Cultural masterpieces like the works of the Greeks, or the Constitution and the whole constellation of history and principles that inform it, are sufficiently far removed from the present and sufficiently time-proven that they represent a means to approach reforming a coherent narrative.

They represent excellent things, enriching things that elevate a person beyond his particular milieu and can help him know when the time has come to “snap his fingers” at meddlers and ideologies alike.

Christmas music

Earlier this fall I sent off three of my grandfather’s magnetic audio reels to South Tree for conversion to digital format. Pop recorded these in the early 1960s, and until last fall they had been sitting in a basement. I frankly wasn’t sure if any of the audio had survived when I sent them off. It turned out that the audio had survived in great condition for its age.

These magnetic reels were essentially an earlier version of a mixtape, recorded with a device with a small microphone. Pop recorded the kids (my mother and aunts and uncles) in some of them, he recorded Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech on one of them, and he recorded Christmas music on them. These magnetic reels are large, roughly 9×9″ for perspective.

I’m not sure where the audio I’m sharing below came from. This reel has Mitch Miller on Side 1, but Side 2’s audio is totally different character and not at all like commercial music. You can hear my grandfather introducing the recording, recorded Christmas Eve 1962. He was about 35, and within two years would move with my grandmother from Philadelphia to Bucks County where he taught history at Central Bucks West.


  • Polish, Russian, Czech, Slovakian, German, etc. Christmas choral music
  • A Child Will Come, choir music
  • Sleigh Ride
  • Greensleeves (Orchestral)
  • It’s Time for  Mistletoe and Holly
  • Little Italian Girl’s Christmas

Dia de los muertos

Fr. Chris Walsh shared this on Facebook this morning:

Today is All Souls Day. The Masses of today are offered for the souls of those who died and are not yet saints because at the time of their death they were still attached to the things of this world (things, sin, self). They are experiencing a purgation until they are fully free thru the grace of Christ (unlike the souls who fully rejected this grace and are now in hell). Pray for your family and friends who may be In purgatory so that they in turn will pray for you when they are saints in glory!

It’s the Day of the Dead. I want to visit Mexico City or another Latin American country at some point in the years to come for their Dia de los Muertos” parades and celebrations. It seems like a truer, more honest form of remembrance than a more Western, perhaps abstract “All Souls Day” remembrance. Fr. Walsh’s post for instance describes All Souls Day in a more direct way than the name implies.

In a similar vein, from Alan Jacob’s Original Sin: A Cultural History (which I just ordered):

The feast of All Souls became a way for simple and quite unsaintly Christians to reciprocate, to participate in the economy of prayer not just as receivers but as givers.

This is what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy meant when he claimed that the creation of All Souls’ marked “the first universal democracy in the world.” The saints have special access to God, they are our patrons and friends, but then we too may befriend those departed who in their suffering are very far from God….

The Cluniac vision of all Christians joined in a vast circle of the prayerful, loving and interceding for one another, is a powerful one, especially since, just as there are saints whose spiritual power and even existence are unknown to us, so too there are poor suffering souls in a place of torment whose names equally unknown and who are therefore in particularly dire straits. Thus in the Sarum Primer — a vastly influential collection of liturgical prayers developed at Sarum, near modern Salisbury, in England — there is a poignant “prayer to God for them that be departed, having none to pray for them.” Such poor souls, “either by negligence of them that be living, or long process of time, are forgotten of their friends and posterity”; thus they “have neither hope nor comfort in their torments.”

In societies which place a great emphasis on familial duty, a phrase in that Sarum prayer can be stinging: “by negligence of them that be living.” Thus an anthropologist named Andrew Orta has recently reported on the way All Souls’ Day is practiced among the Aymara people in the Bolivian highlands: they build household altars and pray for all the ancestors whose names they know, and then, when memory fails, they pray for all the unknown ancestors as laqa achachilas — dust grandparents.

This excerpt from Jacobs’ caught my eye not only because it’s beautiful and true, but because I started reading Edward Rutherford’s Sarum: A Novel of England last month in Phoenix. It traces a 10,000 year history of the people of Sarum, near Salisbury. I read someplace that, which I might have referenced previously, that researchers are exploring the possibility that our DNA contains not only the basic information for our genetic reproduction, but also that the actual memory of our ancestors might in some way be passed along through our genes. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a fact that providing hope to the hopeless is always a worthwhile cause, and can be a path toward a meaningful prayer life.

Leaving Diyarbakir

It’s 1957. You’re an American geologist in Turkey. I won’t be born for another 30 years, and you’re my grandfather.

It’s nearly evening near a border crossing, after leaving Diyarbakir earlier in that day. (It was in near Diyarbakir that you took the photo above, of some goat skin rafts.) You’re with your friend and coworker, looking to travel and explore while on an extended work break.

You’ve sailed across the Pacific by this point in your life. You’ve come to the Middle East to work, and traveled a lot by the time you mark your 30th birthday.

You’re waiting at the border crossing for what seems like too long a period of time. You’ve explained your plans to the border guards, and they’ve walked off a bit to talk amongst themselves—maybe about the fee for crossing, you think. Your friend edges a bit more toward them, having heard a few of their words. They don’t know he understands their dialect. What are they arguing about?

After a few moments, he shuffles toward you with a glint in his eye.

“Don’t run,” your friend instructs, as he grabs your arm. “But walk back toward the jeep as quickly as possible without attracting their attention.”

You make it to the jeep and hop in, the border guards now having turned their attention directly back to you. You fire up the engine, reverse the jeep and speed away—back to Diyarbakir. As you make it far enough to safety, slowing down, you ask:

“Well what the hell was that about?”

“They were trying to decide whether God would bless them for killing two Westerners, traveling alone, probably Christian, wearing beards.”

The rest of the trip, silence.



Far better people than you have died

Sententiae Antiquae, an online commonplace book, translates Lucretius, De Rerum Natura:

Add as well the friends of the Muses whose single Homer,
the sceptered lord, has been quieted in sleep like the rest.
Democritus, too, when advanced age finally warned him
That the moving memories of his mind were fading,
He freely offered his own head to his end.
Epicurus as well departed when the light of his life ran its course,
He surpassed the race of man with his genius, who overshown
The light of all men the way the sun washes out the stars—
And now you will hesitate and be angry to die?

The translator writes: “It is a given that everyone dies, true, but however unimpressive I am, it still seems absurd at all to exist rather than not exist. To close the circle by ending it seems, even if appropriate, equally absurd.”

A friend of mine has joked that the proof of Christianity lies in its absurdity. Another way to say that might be that the proof of Christianity lies in life’s absurdity.

The triumphs, the glories, the tragedies, the grief—what cause do we have for any of it?