In the presence…

Rod Dreher shared the comments of a Muslim reader of his last month, and I made a note to share the entire comment (on the subject of The Benedict Option) to share. It’s beautiful:

I went to Manhattan College in the Bronx, NY.  It is a Catholic college run by the Christian Brothers of the Order of De LaSalle.  All students are required to take three classes on religion during their four years of undergrad studies in order to graduate.  It just so happened that my first religion class was also the first class on my first day as a freshman.  It was taught by Brother Robert Berger (who is still a good friend two decades later).  And he began all his classes (as I came to learn over the years) with a simple prayer – “Let us remember that we are in the presence of God”.  When I look back on my awesome college experience, i am struck by how the most important truth I learned during that time was communicated to me in that prayer in the opening moments of my fist class at the school.

The BenOp, for me, is a way for Christians to actualize this truth…this awareness of God’s active presence in our lives, and to make it inform everything they do…how they worship, how they love, how they work, their mercy, kindness, honesty, how they control anger and other temptations, how they are resilient, etc. It is not about retreating to mountaintops but it is about building communities that can enable individuals to mutually encourage and reinforce this God awareness in their lives.

The BenOp puts God at the center of a christian’s universe again.  God stops being a means to an end like political victories or commercial success, and instead resumes being the End that Christians should strive for.  The BenOp also forces hard choices around how to live in this world.  It is not about disengaging from it but it definitely lays down markers for what’s acceptable and what’s not.  It moves away from thinking of Christian faith as some kind of a la carte menu (something for everyone here), and instead challenges and asks Christians to commit fully to their faith and its demands no matter how they diverge from social and commercial norms.

I also like how the BenOp essentially gives primacy to the spirit and soul over the intellect.  In our culture today, we obscenely fetishize innovation…the ability to use the intellect to solve problems and satisfy needs. We valorize those we think are innovative, disruptive, builders of stuff that is new and different.  The BenOp is a recognition that an innovation focused intellect is just an endless spinning down an unending rabbit hole..that the spirit is more important, and it can be nourished, strengthened, and made beautiful by rediscovering and dedicating oneself to the timeless and essential truths that God has provided us with through the Faith He has revealed to His creation.

The Quran tells us that God does not change the condition of a people for the better till they first change themselves.  The BenOp is about trying to get Christians to do the latter.

I wish you best of luck and success with the book.

Kamran

Kodachromes

I think it was about 18 months ago that I scanned more than a thousand of my grandfather John Shakely’s Kodachrome color slides from the 1950s. After finishing, I thought I had scanned all of them. Then, around this past Christmastime I was exploring in his old home and discovered thousands more. I was thrilled with the discovery, even though the scanning process is a manual, one-by-one process. It’s extremely tedious work.

But when I see photos like the one here, scanned into Flickr and captioned (thanks to Pop’s meticulous, craftsman nature), it makes the time spent well worth it. The caption for this photo: “Fishing boats, Wreck Bay, San Cristobal, Galapagos – 10 June 1955”.

Not sure when I’ll finish this side project, but I’m hoping before the start of summer.

Financial to do/not to do list

Charlie Bilello:

What matters more – your personal savings rate or your investing rate of return?

Your instinct is probably to say the latter, as that is what gets far more attention. We are often thinking about how we can make a higher return; we rarely think about saving more.

In reality, though, saving is far more important for the majority of Americans.

The 5.5% is an aggregate number. Most Americans fall far short. Some startling figures:

  • 62% of Americans have less than $1,000 in a savings account. Even at higher income levels of between $100,000 and $149,999, 44% had less than $1,000. See here.
  • 66 million Americans have zero dollars saved in an emergency fund. 47% of Americans could not afford an emergency expense of $400. See here
  • 43% of working-age families have no retirement savings at all. The median working-age couple has saved only $5,000 for retirement. 70% of couples have less than $50,000 saved. See here.
  • 65% of credit card users carry a balance (don’t pay off their bill every month), paying an average interest rate of over 15%. The average credit card debt for households that carry a balance is $16,048. See here and here.

He includes this chart which encapsulates it well:

savings1.png

Do the opposite of what most people are doing.

Good financial advice

Joshua Becker shares key financial advice that changed his life. At the top of the list is my favorite:

Most people who overspend their income do so in one of three ways: 1) Too much house, 2) Too much car, 3) Too much entertainment.” // Financial adviser, 2008.

I made a passing statement to a financial adviser friend of mine one particular evening over dinner. I had no data to back up the claim, it was purely an observation made on anecdotal evidence. I told him that most people I know who are living in debt seem to carry a monthly car payment. That’s when he offered the financial advice above in the form of his own personal interactions.

There are outstanding circumstances for sure (medical emergencies, tragedy, job layoffs, etc.). But generally speaking, if you have a hard time living within your income, check your spending on your home, your car, or your entertainment (dining, tickets, trips). I have tried to keep all three modest ever since.

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.