A Thought on Cognitive Systematicity

D. McManaman

After sending my brother an interview with Victor Davis Hanson on the situation in the Ukraine, my brother replied by saying: “So far I don’t find it anywhere near as enlightening as Mearsheimer” (Professor John Joseph Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. He is an American political scientist and international relations scholar, and he belongs to the realist school of thought).

This is the problem I have with this political commentary (i.e., Mearsheimer, Col McGregor, Hanson, Tucker Carlson, etc), and it goes back to the criteria for what is true versus the definition of truth. I can read someone, a theologian, scripture scholar, economist, historian, whatever, and I can find it very enlightening, and the exhilaration that goes with that is wonderful. But here is the problem: what is false may feel just as exhilarating, interesting and fascinating as reading what is true. In fact, reading what is “true” may at times feel less exhilarating. I remember reading Patrick Woods and Technocracy Rising (which I now dismiss as nonsense) and watching him on video–I was at a local and run down coffee shop that has now been turned into a Starbucks, unfortunately, and I remember sitting there with a coffee and headphones and really enjoying that video series, feeling very enlightened, fascinated, exhilarated, etc. I know that were I to listen to that now, I wouldn’t feel anything, except perhaps like I was drinking a cold cup of coffee. This is the difficulty: truth is conformity with what actually is in reality; that’s its definition. Unfortunately, we don’t have direct access to reality in all its complexity and details, and uncovering it is a matter of induction, or plausible reasoning. Hence, all we have is the criteria for truth, and the criteria are the parameters of cognitive systematicity: completeness (comprehensiveness, avoidance of gaps or missing components, unity and integrity as a genuine whole that embraces and integrates all its needed parts); cohesiveness, consonance, functional regularity, functional simplicity and economy, and functional efficacy. We see these criteria at work especially in biblical studies.  

The difficulty–and people like Nicholas Rescher see this well–is that “all that is true will have these properties”, but “not everything that has these properties is true” (just as “all men are animals”, but it is not necessarily the case that “all animals are men”). Given the information we (or specific individuals) have at this time, the most consistent, efficient, consonant, complete and cohesive answer or conclusion may turn out to be false with the addition of a new piece of data, that is, new information–scientists know this experience well. When we discover that with this new piece of information, the case that was being built up in favor of a very specific conclusion turns out to be false, we will notice that this does not undo the experience we had earlier on, namely, the exhilarating experience of being “enlightened”, of being apparently on the right track, of being apparently “right”. Being wrong felt the exact same way as being right. Hence, being wrong can feel exactly the same way as being right. In fact, it often does feel the same way. More to the point, the cause of the exhilaration and fascination was not the fact that what we were hearing or learning was in accordance with reality (truth), rather, it was caused by the internal consistency, coherence, harmony, regularity and economy of what we were hearing, or learning. We often assume that we have enough information, until suddenly a new piece of data is discovered that upsets the applecart of our previously held theory, contention, conclusion, etc. 

So, it is very much like art and the experience of the beautiful. I can stand before a beautiful piece of art, a painting, and experience delight, fascination, exhilaration, etc., but that is due to the harmony and integrity of the work, which are properties of the beautiful. But we cannot speak of the “truth” of a work of art. We can’t say that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is more true than Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, for example. Truth participates in beauty, but truth has the added feature of being related to the real and measured by the real. 

So any one of us can listen to Mearsheimer, or whoever, and experience the feeling of being enlightened, but we really have no idea whether or not what he says is actually true (in conformity with the real). This is especially the case when what he, or whoever, says coincides with what, deep down, we want to be true. 

The Lord Delights in You

Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/mcm/mcm_367homily1.16.2022ordinarytime2.html

Deacon D. McManaman

“No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken, ‘ but you shall be called ‘My Delight, ‘ for the LORD delights in you.”

            There is no doubt that in this reading, the Lord is addressing Israel, who is His bride. However, the deeper and ultimate meaning of these verses is that they address each individual human person, each one created in the image and likeness of God. We know this from the gospels, for Christ healed individual persons. This is what has been so difficult for human beings throughout history to understand. We tend to see ourselves as members of a larger group, and of course we are, but the problem is that the group can and often does overshadow the concrete person; for the person does not exist for the group, rather, the group exists for the person (just as man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man). The group as a whole is not a person, but you are a person. Christ, who is the Second Person of the Trinity of Persons, came to redeem the human person, and if you were the only person who needed to be redeemed, Christ would have come for you and you alone.

            On one of my pastoral visits to a local elementary school, a young grade 5 girl said to me that she was told by her parents that, with respect to this pandemic, “God is taking a vacation”. Although there is something hopeful in this claim–insofar as vacations come to an end and the vacationer returns and takes care of outstanding business–, it is a rather dangerous claim to make, for God does not leave us alone even for an instant. In fact, you and I have God’s undivided attention at every instant of our existence, and children above all need to understand that. It is not possible for a limited human being to give undivided attention to more than one person at the same time, but God can give each individual person His undivided attention simultaneously and perpetually, because God is unlimited. 

            It is remarkable to consider what it means that we have God’s undivided attention at every instant of our existence; for it means He loves each one of us as if there is only one of us, that is, as if you are the only one for Him to love. It is as if everything in the universe was created ultimately for you alone, that all this exists to sustain and serve you, i.e., the environment, the law of gravity and all the other laws of physics, the cycles, and the entire order of nature, etc. In fact, if you or I really knew how much God loves us, we would die of joy. And this life is precisely about learning to be loved like that. This means allowing myself to be loved like that, for you and I tend not to allow that for ourselves because we have a very uncompromising and narrow sense of justice for ourselves and thus don’t see ourselves as deserving of that love, so we choose not to open ourselves to it. But His love for us is not a matter of justice–of course, no one deserves to be loved like that–rather, His love is a matter of pure gift. 

            The Lord delights in you, completely attentive to you at every instant of your existence. He does not delight in you because you are so talented and have achieved so much–that’s the love of this world; this world loves you by virtue of your gifts and talents or is indifferent to you by virtue of your lack of them. God, on the other hand, loves you because you are His, you are in His image and likeness; He sees you in Himself, and Himself in you.  

            It is so important to get a handle on this. It is difficult to do so because the culture in which we live does not see the value of the individual person, or as Berdyaev would have put it, the privileges of the nobility have not been extended to all mankind, which would raise all to the level of nobility, “since human dignity was first recognized for the aristocracy” (See his The Fate of Man in the Modern World). We continue to think in terms of the group–general democratization rather than general aristocratization–, and we value others on the basis of how useful they are to the group as a whole. We award students for their contribution to the group, for their achievements, which reflect well on the group, the school, the school board, etc., and whose talents promise to serve society well in the future. But in terms of the person himself or herself, we still don’t quite get it; for we still have legalized abortion. Medical schools are permeated with a pro-abortion/pro-choice mentality. The developing child in the womb is simply not recognized as “person”.

            Upon conversion, however, when a person becomes a new creation in Christ, when he is awakened to the knowledge of how much he is loved by God, that God really does pay undivided attention to him at every moment of his existence and is loved as if he or she is the only one that exists, it is then that he or she begins to notice the person, is awakened to the absolute and intrinsic value and dignity of the person–for we only see in others what we see in ourselves. It is at that point that morality suddenly becomes easy. To have a moral discussion with people today can be very difficult; they can become upset rather quickly. It is generally true that morality is painful for most people. But after a true conversion experience, it is no longer painful, and moral science becomes a “no brainer”. The problem is there are a lot of people in the Church, who regularly come to Mass, but who still have yet to convert. These are the people who write letters to the bishop when moral matters are preached in a way consistent with the teachings of the Church, but which upsets them nonetheless. Such people want religion without conversion. It’s not that they are nasty or horrible people; they just have not been awakened to the “personhood” of others, because they haven’t been awakened to their own personhood through an acute awareness of the divine gaze upon them. The purpose of this life is to come to know the delight that the Lord has for you personally and to allow yourself to be moved by that love. 

Thoughts on Systems, Being, and the Superconscious

https://www.lifeissues.net/writers/mcm/mcm_366thoughts.html

Douglas P. McManaman

There are many avenues one may take to demonstrate the existence of God. As our starting point for this discussion, let’s consider systems. There are all sorts of systems in the world: complex and non-complex–it does not matter what particular system we consider. But let us ask: “What is the most certain thing we can say about systems?” We can say, without a doubt, that a system is composed of simpler units. A system is a multiplicity of some kind, and so it is made up of parts. Moreover, a system depends upon the behavior of its parts. Emergent properties, for example, depend upon the interactions of the parts of the system (i.e., a swarm of bees, traffic, the market, etc.). Most systems are composed of parts which are in turn smaller systems, and these too are composed of parts or smaller units, which in turn are often systems unto themselves.

Now if the system, whatever system we are talking about, depends upon its smaller units, which may in turn be systems, we can determine with certainty that there cannot be an infinite number of smaller units upon which a larger system depends.  How do we know this? We can employ the same reasoning (reductio ad absurdum) used to show that not everything can be “relative”–in the most general sense of that term.  

What is relative depends upon something outside itself, in relation to which we understand it. For example, ‘John is tall’ is relative; for there is no “absolute” tall, only ‘relative’ tall. In other words, John is tall “in relation to” something other than John, namely the national average, or the class average, or the team average, etc. Without that “in relation to”, it is impossible to come to a determinate or definite understanding of the claim: ‘John is tall’. So, let’s call a relative claim (like ‘John is tall’) the “final term” of a series. We both know John and we both agree that John is tall, because we both understand that in relation to which the claim is true, i.e., the national average (let’s say John is 7’,2”). The final term of a series will, if it is truly relative, depend on the term that is immediately prior, whatever that is.  Let’s label the final term Z, and its predecessor Y, and Y’s predecessor X. In order to understand that Z is relative, I must at the same time know that Z is relative ‘in relation to’ Y. If I did not understand Z “in relation to” Y, if my understanding of Z did not depend upon anything outside itself, then Z would be understood “through itself” (per se), rather than ‘in relation to’ something other than Z, such as Y, and thus Z would not be relative. So, my understanding of Z depends upon my understanding of Y–if Z is truly relative. But we are testing the claim that everything is relative, so we have to maintain that even Y is relative, and thus my understanding of Y depends upon my understanding of X, whatever that turns out to be. Since everything is relative (or so we believe at this point), my understanding of X depends upon my understanding of W. So, in order to understand, here and now, Z, I must here and now understand Y, X, and W simultaneously–otherwise my understanding of Z is “indeterminate” (without “term” or end, that is, indefinite). Indefinite understanding, however, is unachieved. But I truly do understand that John is tall, and I understand that it is a relative claim (He’s not absolutely tall, but only in relation to the societal average, or the team average, etc.). This means I understand, here and now, all the factors that are conditions for my understanding of the claim: “John is tall” (i.e., Y, X, W, etc.). 

There cannot be an infinite series of “relatives” upon which my understanding of Z depends. If there were, I would never achieve a definitive understanding of Z, which is a claim that is relative. My understanding would depend upon an indeterminate (or infinite) number of factors, and so my understanding would be perpetually indeterminate, indefinite, without term or end. Hence, not everything is relative, and thus there is something that is “absolute”.  We need not know what that is. All we know for certain is that an infinite series of relatives is impossible. 

Similarly, not everything can be a system. In other words, not everything can be a unit that is constituted by a multiplicity of smaller units–if the system depends upon those smaller units (as atoms depend upon subatomic particles, for example, or a society depends upon people, or a body depends upon cells, etc.); otherwise, the system that is constituted by an actually infinite number of smaller systems would never achieve the status of a determined system. Hence, there are units that are non-systems. These non-systems are one and indivisible. 

This is what led the first atomists to say that the one indivisible unit (atomai = uncuttable) is being in its truest sense. The atomists claimed that the reality that we perceive outside of us is not being per se, but appearance, the result of the interactions of true beings or ‘atoms’. We need not get into atomism at this point–for there are definite problems with it. But what is important is their insight that being is one and indivisible. They borrowed that from Parmenides.  Here’s how it works.

“Is” is one and indivisible. A circle, for example, is not indivisible–it can be divided into two (i.e., halves). By dividing the single quantity, which is the circle, it becomes multiple. Whatever has quantity is divisible, even if only logically divisible. But “is” or “being” in its most general sense has no parts. What is it that is outside of “is” or “being”?  The answer is “non-is”, or non-being, or what amounts to the same thing: nothing. In other words, what is “outside” of my hand? A possible answer is “my leg”, for example. My leg is not my hand. This part is outside of that part, or “is not” that part. But “being” or “is” cannot be a “part”. The reason is that outside of ‘is’ is non-is, or nothing. So “being” is one and indivisible. In sum, there is nothing outside of being. There is something outside of this or that circle, or this or that system, but there is nothing outside of “is” considered as such. Hence, being is not a quantity.

An infinite series of multiple units, in the here and now, that go to make up systems, which in turn make up larger systems, etc., is impossible; for no definite system would result. Multiplicity is eventually reduced to a single indivisible unit. What is that unit? This single unit is either at the bottom of the system, or at the top of the system. In other words, the unit determines the system to be, but it does so either from below and proceeds upwards or from the top and proceeds downwards. The single determines the multiple, which is to say that being determines the potential. The reductionist habit of mind tends to see the direction as proceeding from below and up towards the top. But that would seem to imply that the result, namely reality as it appears to us, is not being per se. 

So, let’s consider what it means to proceed from the top downwards. A being can be a system. For example, the human being is a complex system. But system describes “what” a thing is. Thus, system as system is not being, because being is one and undivided, and so the system must be determined by being. That by virtue of which a system is (or exists), cannot be a system. Hence, system does not explain being; rather, being explains system, at least ultimately. It is the act of existing (esse) of the system that accounts for the very existence of the system–as long as the system we are talking about is a single being–a swarm of bees or even a beehive, for example, is a complex system, but it is not a single being. “I”, on the other hand, am a single being and I experience myself as such. 

A multiplicity of beings, however, does require explanation, unless those beings contain within themselves the sufficient reason or explanation for their own being. As long as there is a distinction between “what” a thing is (system or not) and its very existence, that thing is contingent and does not contain within itself the sufficient reason for its existence. Whatever being contains the sufficient reason for its own being within itself will be “Being Itself” (its nature is “to be”), and thus absolutely One–there cannot be two beings that are “is” pure and simple. 

At the very foundation of reality is a single, indivisible One. The relationship between this One and everything else is something for later, but at this point, let it be said that multiplicity cannot go on forever, just as “relativity” cannot constitute an infinite regress. 

Subjectivity

I am conscious of the fact that I know things outside of me (objects). When I close my eyes, I am also conscious of the fact that I am imagining or remembering things that are not me; these are objects of internal sensation. I know, but I also know that I know, or know that I am knowing things other than me. And so, my knowledge is twofold. I certainly know, albeit imperfectly, the object before me (objective knowledge), but I also know un-objectively, or subjectively, that is, I know myself as subject. I can certainly make myself the object of my knowledge, but in so doing, that objective knowledge of myself is at the same time accompanied by an intuition, a subjective knowledge, an awareness that I am knowing myself as object. This subjective knowledge, or knowledge of myself as “subject”, is intuited and does not become objective. It is always behind me, so to speak. 

There is much about myself of which I am aware. For example, I am aware that I am not necessary. What this means is that I know that I am an actualized potentiality–I did not always exist but do exist now. I also know that I am limited. Although I know myself as a being per se, thus relatively independent, it is also true that I am to a certain degree “relative”; for I know myself “in relation to” things other than me. And so, I know that I am not absolute. I have a profound sense of my own contingency–I am aware that I exist, but I am aware that existence is that which I “have”, not that which I am–I cannot say that “I am being”. I am a human kind of being, I am a complex being, a system if you will, but I am not my own existence. Rather, my existence is “had” or possessed–not possessed by a part of me, but by the whole of me. But that awareness of my own contingency (that I need not be) can only be had against the background of what is non-contingent, because contingency is a relative term, and as such can only be understood in relation to that which is non-contingent. In other words, on some level, I am aware of non-contingency, that is, I am aware of necessity, or that which “is” necessarily, and I know that I am not it. But that knowledge or awareness has not always been explicit; it has been implicit or preconscious before it was made explicit. That knowledge, which is an intuition, comes from the “subjective” plane or realm. It accompanies me always, but it is in the background, so to speak. It is a real knowledge that is non-objective, or subjective. In short, I know that I am not the Necessary Being, but the awareness of the Necessary Being is a condition that renders it possible for me to know myself as non-necessary or contingent. 

This is the realm of spirit. Spirit includes a preconscious knowledge of God, which is not to be confused with an objective and explicit knowledge. Mystical knowledge, or an awareness of the presence of God (the Necessary Being), occurs in this realm, the realm of the superconscious. It is real, non-objective, subjective (not in the sense of a purely individual construct), spiritual, and superconscious. 

Objectification and Abortion

http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/mcm/mcm_365objectificationandabortion.html

Deacon D. McManaman

Very often while serving at a Mass, I will look out at the congregation and reflect upon the fact that there are so many people in front of me about whom I know virtually nothing. I also know that if I were to sit down with any one of them and begin a conversation about their life, a whole world would open up before me and I would never see that person the same way again. They would go from an object before me to a ‘thou’, a concrete subject with a history. In other words, their personhood would gradually come into focus. What this means is that they would become increasingly real to me. I believe this is what Nicolas Berdyaev means when he insists that there “is no greater mistake than to confuse objectivity with reality. The objective is that which is least real, least existential.”[1] What, then, is most real? In short, it is “subjectivity”, or personhood. That is why the more this unknown person communicates, the more he reveals his status as spirit, as subjectivity with a history that is still moving, and thus a subject with meaning. That is “real being”. Berdyaev writes: “…my inward spiritual experience is not an object. Spirit is never object: the existence of that which exists is never an object.”[2]

The general mass of people that I might behold looking out at the congregation is not entirely real for me until each one begins to reveal himself or herself. And so it is in community that the truth of things is revealed, and the truth revealed is that these are not things, but persons with a depth of meaning that always exceeds what I am able to know at any one time. 

We live in a fallen world. This means that the community of humanity is broken, and if it is broken, we don’t really come to an understanding of the truth of who we are in and through this community. We, like everything else, have been objectified. We have become less than real in the eyes of others. This or that person standing in line for a coffee is a non-entity to me, I am a non-entity to him, and we tend to forget that an hour or two in conversation will bring into greater focus the existential and subjective density of this person. We know ourselves to be “subjects”, that is, persons of intrinsic worth, but the assurance of that knowledge does not settle upon us until it is reflected back to us through the eyes of others. The “objectification” that impedes this is in many ways the source of a great deal of personal anger and feelings of alienation in people; for anger is a response to a perceived injustice, and “objectification” of the human person is a terrible injustice; in fact, it is the most fundamental injustice. 

Years ago I recall showing my “Right to Life” Club the Silent Scream, narrated by Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson. It is a short, half hour film that shows, via ultrasound, what takes place in the womb during a suction abortion. After the film was over, much to my dismay, a young girl in the class burst out in tears. She was clearly overcome by the sadness of witnessing the cold destruction of a real human subject, engaged in a futile struggle to live as the suction tube probed the womb in search of the child’s body. Her tears were deep with emotion, and her sadness expressed our own and perhaps even intensified it.

But I’ve often wondered what it is that happens to some of these girls, as they go off to university, either to medical school or to university nursing programs, that changes them from their earlier pro life position to their current pro-choice stance. There is no doubt in my mind that much of it has to do with peer pressure. Many people simply don’t have the strength of character to stand alone against the larger crowd. Perhaps it is rooted in a lack of conviction regarding the status of their own personhood; after all, that awareness of our own spiritual center, our own subjectivity, is rooted in community, and perhaps the only way I can maintain that sense of my own status as subject is through the approval of the group. And so I capitulate, for the sake of my own personhood, for fear of the alienation that results from objectification, that is, being regarded as a thing, an opponent, an enemy of the state or enemy of the group. There is tremendous irony in this: in order to salvage my own personhood, I join in the objectification of other human persons (i.e., the unborn), refusing to see them as human persons created in the image and likeness of God. The unborn as “person” becomes an obstacle in the way of my right to a life in community.

Notes

1. Nicolas Berdyaev. The Beginning and the End. Translated by R. M. French. San Rafael, CA. Semantron Press, 2009. P. 53.

2. Ibid., p. 58. Berdyaev also writes:  “There is a tendency in the reason to turn everything into an object from which existentiality disappears. The thing-in-itself is not an object or “non-I”, it is a subject, or ‘Thou’. The subject is not, as in Fichte, the absolute or the deity. The subject, the human ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ are turned into objects and things as a result of a fall in the relations between us.” Ibid., p. 59. Further on he writes: “Objectification is above all exteriorization, the alienation of spirit from itself. And exteriorization gives rise to necessity, to determination from without. The horror which Pascal felt when confronted by the endless expanse of space is the horror of objectification, the horror of strangeness.” Ibid., p. 63

Theotokos: God-Bearer

Dcn D. McManaman

And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

            This is a very revealing line of the gospel, and it tells us something of Mary’s inner life. She treasured all these things, all that the Shepherds said regarding the message told to them by the angel who appeared, and she pondered them, treasured them. Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. Where is Mary’s treasure? It’s in the gospel message of her son, and her heart was, from the very beginning and to the very end of her life, entirely focused on her son, Jesus.

        Mary is Theotokos, which means “God-bearer”. She carried Christ in her womb for nine months, and after that, she carried him in her heart, by pondering the mystery that he is. And Mary was “full of grace”. That was the title used by Gabriel to address Mary. The angel did not address her by name; but rather: “Hail, full of grace”. That is the only place in the entire Scriptures where an angel addresses anyone by a title. She was full of grace right from the beginning, in the womb, because if a container is full vertically, it is also full horizontally. If Mary was full of grace as a young teenager, worthy to be addressed by a title, then she was full of grace extensively as well, right from the womb of her mother, St. Anne. And, of course, this has been the faith of the Church since the beginning: the Immaculate Conception.

        If Mary was full of grace, then she was completely empty of all inordinate love of self. And thus, her prayer life was perfect, completely focused on her son, the eternal Son of God, the savior of the world. That is our purpose in this life: to become a Theotokos, a God-bearer, and John the Baptist expresses in words just what that means: “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3, 30). Mary does not use that expression, because she is perfectly decreased. She said it herself in her Magnificat: “The Lord has looked with favor upon the nothingness of his handmaiden.” She saw her creaturely nothingness, embraced it totally, and so there was complete room in her soul for the fullness of divine grace to be poured into it. The rest of us, on the other hand, have to struggle to actually see and embrace our nothingness, to decrease, so that he, Christ, may increase within us. But that is something that we will never finally achieve in this life. 

        I remember reading from the writings of the early Greek Desert Fathers, from the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries, and I have to be honest, I’ve never encountered such profound instruction on the inner life, on prayer and the need for constant watchfulness. As I was reading this one day, the thought occurred to me; I said to myself: “I don’t think I pray very well.” I’ve been at this for many years now, totally focused on theology and spirituality, and I turned 60 this year, and I can say at this point that “I don’t think I pray well.”

        And then I remembered something. My good friend, Monsignor Tom Wells of the Archdiocese of Washington D. C, about 24 years ago, told me the very same thing. He said: “I’m beginning to realize that I don’t pray well”. He was in his mid-50s at the time, and I didn’t understand what he was talking about back then. It didn’t make sense to me; he was a very dedicated priest, did a holy hour every day, was loved by countless people, is a martyr of the Church, there is a large golf tournament in his name every year in Washington, there are about 20 priests in the Archdiocese of Washington whose vocations were inspired by this great priest, and he’s telling me that he is beginning to realize that he doesn’t pray very well.

        I recall another very holy and influential priest, in his 70s, asking me to pray for him, because, he said: “the Lord is revealing to me things about myself that I’m finding very difficult to face, my superficiality, my pride, etc.…so pray for me, please, as I leave the country to see my spiritual director”. I was astounded at this; 70 years old, and this man is so far ahead of me on the spiritual life. In short, when it comes to the spiritual life, we never arrive; we are always en route.

        But we must keep moving, because although we might think we’re far advanced along the way, if we have the courage to ask God to let us know just how far along we are or what is it we need to become aware of in ourselves, He will slowly, gradually, piecemeal, reveal it. It has to be piecemeal, because we couldn’t take the full truth about ourselves, we’d probably despair. But it seems to me, from listening to these two great priests and the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, we’re always very far from our goal, so far that we just might despair if it were fully revealed to us.

        The good news is that there is work to do, and our life can only become more joyful, because the more we decrease, the more He increases, and as He increases in us, our lives become more joyful, and our souls become more beautiful.

        Years ago, I remember being in the sacristy of a Church in the U.S, and I heard this small choir of a few young university students singing for a Mass. These were not professional singers, just amateurs. But the thought came to me as I heard them: “God must be really good to be sung to like that”. Their voices immediately directed my attention to God’s goodness. Again, they were not professional singers, just students on summer break and who were part of the regular choir during the year. And it wasn’t the type of music they were singing either; they were singing standard contemporary Church choir music. But there was something about their voices that turned my attention to God’s goodness.

        Let me contrast this with a Christmas special I saw years ago, featuring Andre Bocelli, singing traditional Catholic hymns. And of course, his voice is powerful, and he’s very handsome, but I found that he was not all that inspiring. The reason is that I was too focused on the power and distinct quality of his voice, unlike those university students. But after the commercial break, a bunch of monks were on stage–not real monks, I’m guessing–, and they were dressed in what looked like traditional Benedictine monastic habits, with the hoods up. And they sounded very good. I immediately turned up the volume and thought, wonderful, I’m beginning to feel the inspiration. And then the monks started moving around in a circle, and this one monk comes to the center. And I thought: “Oh, no, please, don’t let it be”. He pulls off the hood, and it’s Andre Bocelli, and he starts belting it out.

        Well, I have to be honest, the inspiration was gone. You see, now the focus was entirely upon him, and yet these hymns were written to praise and glorify God, and the hoods of the monastic habits had the effect of eclipsing the self, of decreasing, so that He may increase. Even the voice of the monk is not to be distinctive and outstanding. But Bocelli pulls off his hood. Why? Well, because it’s really about him, not God. And I think that’s an example of how beauty works; it emerges with the decrease of the self, but is eclipsed as the self increases.

        Even in iconography, you are not supposed to sign the icon. As you know, in western art, the artist signs his painting at the bottom right, but the iconographer is not to do that. The writer of the icon is nothing but an insignificant instrument. But iconographers in the west have begun to sign their icons at the back, and it’s something like “written through the humble hands of so and so”. Well, that’s not supposed to be. And if those hands are so humble, then disappear and say nothing. Icons are not supposed to be entirely original either. You learn the trade from a master, and stay within the tradition, but some people have a very hard time observing that self-cancellation, and so they sign their icons.

        We must decrease, He must increase. The more we decrease, the more beautiful we become, because the more room we make in ourselves for Christ, and he is supremely beautiful. It’s really about becoming Theotokos, pondering the mysteries, treasuring the Person of the Son and his words and actions, and keeping watch over our own tendency to distraction during prayer, not allowing any thought that gives rise to disordered passion. It’s about bringing stillness to the heart and focusing on the real treasure that is there waiting for us. The Lord delights when we pay so much attention to him, but our attention is often very short, thanks to a wandering thought that makes its way in. The secret to that splendor, the secret to real joy, is to become more and more like our Blessed Mother, Theotokos, God-bearer, still in the silent night of this life, pondering the miracle of Christ. Amen.

A Thought for the Feast of St. John the Apostle

Deacon D. McManaman

Today is the feast of St. John, Apostle and evangelist. He is “the other” disciple mentioned in the gospel:

“Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first”. 

What is interesting about the gospel reading is that although John runs ahead and gets to the tomb first, he does not enter, but allows Peter to enter first. An Irish philosopher of the 9th century, John Scotus Erigena, has an interesting interpretation of this passage. He interprets the tomb as representing sacred scripture, while Peter represents faith, and John represents contemplative understanding. Thus, according to the narrative, John waits for Peter to arrive at the tomb and allows him to enter first, and then John follows. The meaning is that in order to understand Scripture, faith must come first, and then understanding follows. St. Augustine often made the same point: “Believe in order to understand”. In other words, do not wait to understand before giving your assent of faith, rather, believe first, and understanding will follow in due time. So there is a risk involved, and understanding is the reward given to those who are willing to risk looking like fools by choosing to believe.

What did John find when he followed Peter into the tomb? He saw the linen wrappings. In other words, he saw that Christ had risen. He did not find a dead Christ, but an empty tomb. And those who enter into the mysteries of the Scriptures with faith, will come away with an experience of the risen Christ. They will know that Christ is risen. This knowledge is a genuine knowledge rooted in faith. We know through faith, that is, we have an interior sense, like a sensus divinitatis, that Christ is risen. We have looked for the dead Christ as an object to behold and we have not found him, because he isn’t dead. He is alive and he is behind us, looking at us, and we are aware of this. It’s very much like the experience of someone who says “I feel like someone is watching me”. That is the experience; an awareness that I am known. 

To those without faith, Scripture is a dead letter. It’s just a historical text, but with faith, it is experienced as the word of the One who knows us, who is watching us from behind us, so to speak. And it is that gaze of his that guides our interpretation of Scripture. This is sort of like looking out at the objects before us which we can see because the sun that is behind us provides the light, making it possible to see the objects before us. But we cannot behold the sun directly. Wherever we turn, the sun is behind us, never in front of us as an object of our gaze, very much like the experience of the “I”. At this point, the sun is too bright for us to behold directly anyways, but one day we will be able to stare directly at the sun, so to speak. The more we grow in an awareness of his presence behind us, that interior and spiritual presence, the more we will understand the deeper meanings of Scripture.