Two Husbands Begin Studying the Writings of G.K. Chesterton: A Letter to a Dear Friend

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A dear friend recently emailed me and the opening sentence read as follows:

This may seem like a trick question to you, but would you like to read Chesterton with me?

He asks in this fashion because I have a bad habit in our men’s group of rather incessantly quoting the great Gilbert. My response was, of course, quite positive and in fact I was so invigorated and inspired by his request, that my resulting letter to him ended up being a bit of a tome. Through the urging of my wife, I decided to post it, in case it inspires any other men out there to begin a similar study.
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What a delightful email to have received, for a number of reasons:

First, it is a continuing testament to the importance of Catholic men supporting each other in the faith. I appreciate so heartily that in our group we have fellowship with other guys who take the their vocations to holiness and family life so seriously.

Of course the real test of such seriousness is that when it becomes clear that some new action is needed, we respond to the call. Our men’s group has shown that seriousness by challenging each other to greater accountability and weekly resolutions. And now, this suggestion of yours I do think is yet another important step.

Second, a few years ago the thought of having a “Chesterton” group seemed a little narrowly focused to me. Though even then I had read some of Gilbert’s writings and knew generally of their importance, he as yet seemed to be simply an important figure to be read and learned from among others.

But in the last few years I have steeped myself in his writings, particularly those that pertain to the vocation of the family, and have only just finished reading the long and definitive biography by Maisie Ward. I have lived and breathed Chesterton.

I can truly say now that I understand why there is a push to open a cause for his canonization.

Like one of the great saints or doctors of the Church, he really is one that you could steep yourself in, learn from and imitate. In fact I have taken to asking for He and his wife’s intercession, for in them I find a wonderful model of marital fidelity and love, and in his writings one of the most compelling visions of the full richness and glory prepared for us, even this side of Heaven, in the family.

It is hard to put fully into words, but though I hitherto identified Chesterton more with philosophy and politics, his writings more important “out there” on the level of the culture wars, I have discovered more and more that his greatest triumph, the most distinct and transcendent threads of thought that run through his writings, all lead back to the family – the wonder of the basic human experience of this gifted universe, the glorious call to holiness of every man and woman, and the pre-eminence of the family as both the pillar and peak of human society and the primary place – there in the domestic Church – that God comes to meet man.
 
Thirdly, to reiterate the first point and your own sentiment: a test of seriousness is whether we take action. However, in the spirit of Chesterton here, in a time of history in which everyone is perpetually tempted to the futility of focusing on that which is beyond their sphere of influence and should be beyond their sphere of the better part of their concern – national politics, the culture wars, the economy, etc – how glorious, how radical, how chivalrous is it for a few, or even two, good men to reject this siren call and to rise to the far greater and ultimately more efficacious challenge of simply sanctifying themselves and their own families? What our world needs is, simply, saints, and saints come properly and primarily from Holy Families, and those striving for Holy Families, methinks, will find no better patron than G.K. (and Frances!) Chesterton.

So, thanks again for this email, and a hearty “yes!” is my answer. Early morning would be best, I’d be happy to host and provide fine and fresh (local!) coffee for discussion. The three books I’d recommend we begin our study with would be “Orthodoxy”, “Heretics”, and “ What is Wrong with the World”, the last of which, as you’ll see, is Chesterton’s great guidebook for the modern family (and upon which I am writing a book about). There are also a couple short fictional works we might read too, particularly “Manalive”.

And lest ye think I have, in my Chestertonian revelry, lost sight of the point and purpose of this study: It is to seek out and carry back to our homes (and to the other men in our group!) whatever will sanctify and enliven our families, for the Glory of God. In a sense one can rarely if ever discover anything new in this regard, and yet in an important way Catholic families must break new ground, for we have few models for how to fully live the Gospel in the family in this overwhelming and distressing age. Like Innocent Smith, the protagonist in Chesterton’s  “Manalive”, we set out as husbands on pilgrimage around the world, in our case into Chesterton’s writings, our only purpose being to end up back where we started and there to see our wives, children, and homes anew, in all their glory and wonder.

God be with you brother!

JonMarc Grodi

Meekness & Valor: A Letter to My Men’s Group

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Gentleman:

Thank you for the good discussion this morning.  It is precisely the interplay of meekness and valor that we as fathers/husbands need in frustrating moments with our family. More and more as I ponder them they seem to be two sides of the same coin. Here again is that excerpt from the Abba Challenge prayer:

Holy Spirit, help me cultivate the virtue of chivalry in myself and in others through a life of sacrifice with extreme meekness off the “battlefield” and extreme valor on the “battlefield.”10 With my meekness, which is having the power to fight but not using it, help me create safety for women, children, and the vulnerable. And with my valor help me oppose those who are brutal to or dominate others. Jesus, teach me to rid myself of the extremes of domination, brutality, and passivity, and to leave my mother and father11 so that I can lay down my life for my physical and/or spiritual bride.12

What is valor or bravery if it does not involve a certain carelessness about one’s own safety, comfort, or even success in an endeavor? What is meekness if not a willful surrender by someone who could otherwise fight on?  Both valor and meekness involve a death to self, a laying down of one’s life.

In the family setting, especially for we husbands/fathers, meekness is the having of strength and yet letting ourselves be hurt and not fighting back, receiving evil and taking it to the cross, rather than reflecting, transmitting, or compounding it. Think Aslan: immortal, powerful, untamable, but let’s himself be killed for the sake of Edmund. But valor is the balancing factor. It does not mean fighting, per se, but acting rightly and boldly with a disregard for one’s own satisfaction, comfort, safety, or success. It means going out of ourselves to love in active ways – helping, comforting, forgiving, etc – ESPECIALLY when we know full well that we’ll fail, that the response will be negative, that the efforts will be unappreciated, that in many ways our valorous vulnerability will be betrayed. Think Reepicheep: the smallest and most physically vulnerable of the Narnians, yet always the first to leap into battle for the right.

Meekness and valor are the parry and thrust of the spiritual battle for the souls of those around us.

I close with an except of a poem I attempted to write on this subject a while back but never could finish:

How quick the reckless lover vows,
at such that blessed start,
to love and honor and be true,
to never break your heart.
 
But higher, farther, as I strive,
to learn from love divine,
I’ve found no greater love than this,
To let you, love, break mine.

Let us pray for renewed (or simply new) meekness and valor as we love our families this week. If you get discouraged, listen to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGzqbEeVWhs

Have a great week gentlemen.

We Have to Love Our Neighbor Because He is There

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One of my favorite quotes from one of the most explosive chapters of any book of any author I have ever read.

“We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation… But we have to love our neighbour because he is there– a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.” – G.K. Chesterton, http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/books/heretics/ch14.html

Technology in Tolkien and Laudato Si

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I just discovered TrueMyths.org and added John Carswell’s ebook “Tolkien’s Requiem” to my Inkling’s collection. What brought me to his site was a headline on NewAdvent.com: If you want to understand Laudato Si better, J.R.R. Tolkien can help…

The excellent article “Laudato Si: Pope Francis’ Tolkienian Encyclical” mirrors much of my thought regarding the encyclical (an initial bit of which can be read here). Particularly, the author’s discussion of technology and man’s relation to nature piqued my interest.

The encyclical is very anthropological, going back to examine who/what man is and the consequent implications for his various relationships with the rest of the cosmos – God, other human beings, and the rest of creation. The inclusion in Laudato Si of sections on technology could be easily just seen as additional fragments of this Pope’s anti-modernist commentary. However, I would argue that discussion of the benefits and dangers of technology goes right to the heart of the human condition because from the garden of eden the temptation to grasp at “being like God” through some tool or technique of our own wielding has been at play.

Pope Francis:

105. There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; …an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture”,[83] as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”,[84] because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us. “The risk is growing day by day that man will not use his power as he should”; in effect, “power is never considered in terms of the responsibility of choice which is inherent in freedom” since its “only norms are taken from alleged necessity, from either utility or security”.[85] But human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint. (Laudato Si)

Our internal powers do not necessarily keep pace with the development of  external/Instrumental means. This theme of course runs all through the Tolkienian epic. The point is not that power/magic/technology/industry are simply good or bad, but our hearts are attracted to or entranced by them often for the wrong reasons and the great perhaps invite a graver danger than the simple in wielding such things. Mr Carswell explains:

In a 1953 letter, Tolkien explained that one of the main themes of his Middle-earth works is “the Machine.” By “Machine” he meant the technologies we devise for “making the will more quickly effective.” By contrast, he finds virtue in what he terms “Art,” the “development of the inherent inner powers or talents” of a thing. For Tolkien, legitimate creativity and innovation involves a deep respect for the nature of the thing being developed as opposed to the will to dominate and change its nature. Similarly, Pope Francis says: “Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.” Man, through the Machine, has gone from seeing nature as something to be tended, cared for, and developed to seeing it as an object to be dominated and put to maximum use.

Check out the rest of Mr. Carswell’s article and his website here:

http://truemyths.org/2015/07/01/laudato-si-pope-francis-tolkienian-encyclical/

“We are not God”: Anthropocentrism vs. Christian Anthropology in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si

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I was up early last Thursday downloading the Pope’s new encyclical, Laudato Si, trying to get it read before my own busyness and the public commentary could sweep it away. Frankly (pun intended) I loved it.

Since its release there has been the expected variety of fuss and all manner of attempts to claim or disclaim aspects of the encyclical for a particular faction or interest. I hesitate to add more to the fray (go read the encyclical for yourself!), but was moved to share a few thoughts this morning by private correspondence with friends and family on this unique letter from our good Pope Francis.

A strain of commentary that has begun to emerge and which resonates with my own reading and those of my close confidants, sees in the encyclical as a whole a profoundly evangelical presentation of Christian anthropology.

In a piece entitled “The pope’s climate change message is really about rethinking what it means to be human”, Stephen P. White yesterday wrote the following :

Reading the encyclical, one quickly realizes that the “pope fights climate change” narrative is far from the whole story. In fact, that line leaves out the most fundamental themes of the encyclical: the limits of technology and the need for what he calls an “integral ecology,” which “transcend[s] the language of mathematics and biology, and take[s] us to the heart of what it is to be human.” (http://www.vox.com/2015/6/24/8834413/pope-climate-change-encyclical)

Yes, it struck me as a profound piece of Christian anthropology to counter the anthropocentrism of our age (though it is certainly a perennial tendency). The Pope invites us to stand back and attend to the basic way that we as humans think of ourselves and our relation to the rest of the cosmos.

In the first creation account in the Book of Genesis, God’s plan includes creating humanity. After the creation of man and woman, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26). This shows us the immense dignity of each person, “who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons”.[37] Saint John Paul II stated that the special love of the Creator for each human being “confers upon him or her an infinite dignity”.[38] Those who are committed to defending human dignity can find in the Christian faith the deepest reasons for this commitment. How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”.[39] (Laudato Si, 65)

This is a beautiful expression of our Christian understanding of human nature and dignity. This is who we are. But what has occurred?

66. The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19).

From the beginning man has struggled with the temptation to grasp at “being like God”, pridefully disregarding His commands and engaging in the practical relativism that the Pope references in which we evaluate and respond to other created things, not according to God’s creative design, but according to our own values and uses.  Consider the powerful passages on this “practical relativism”:

122. A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”.[99] When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay.

123. The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided. (Laudato Si)

So much, even coming to believe in God, comes down to a person’s basic attitude toward the rest of the universe. Does a person, with the materialists, reductionists, utilitarians and atheists, make himself like god and evaluate everything else accordingly? Or does he seek to understand his own nature, something given not self-made, and the natures of other things? Does he humble himself to the honest realism of trying to understand what things are and responding in kind? Does he stand in submission before God, in respect and love of all fellow mankind, and in grateful stewardship toward the rest of creation, declaring that it is good and is to be cherished and enjoyed by all?

As the Pope notes, “We are not God.” (Laudato Si, 67)

All this puts me in mind of today’s Gospel:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’
will enter the Kingdom of heaven,
but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
Many will say to me on that day,
‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?
Did we not drive out demons in your name?
Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’
Then I will declare to them solemnly,
‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
The rain fell, the floods came,
and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.
And everyone who listens to these words of mine
but does not act on them
will be like a fool who built his house on sand.
The rain fell, the floods came,
and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”

When Jesus finished these words,
the crowds were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority,
and not as their scribes. MT 7:21-29

My fellow Christians and I must ask, what does it really mean for Jesus Christ to be Lord of our lives if not ever greater surrender to His Gospel, to love and serve God with all we are and our neighbors as ourselves?  Must we not strive to give over our merely temporal projects and values to the “Father who creates and who alone owns the world”? (LS, 75) Lest we cry “Lord, Lord!” in vain, we must always expect that there are more nooks and crannies of our lives (our finances, the environment, our technologies, our human parties and projects) which we are not giving over to Christ, and are thereby, for all our industry, building houses on the sand.

Thus, I will listen attentively and prayerfully to the Pope’s reminder of who God is, who man is, and whence and for what purpose came this beautiful home we inhabit together.

(Thanks for reading. Be sure to download and read Laudato Si yourself, whatever your background or beliefs: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html)