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The Labor for True Greatness

I don’t know if America is “the greatest nation in human history.” By many measures – military power, global cultural influence, GNP, a large middle class, extensive governmental provisions for the poor, personal liberties, basic equality before the law, religious and ethnic tolerance (at least until recently), a welcoming of immigrants (around 1 million legal immigrants yearly), the orderly transfer of power over centuries (America remains the oldest continuous modern democracy), and the ability to correct itself, even go to war, over large evils like racism and slavery – the evidence certainly points that way. And it’s something to be deeply grateful for, especially given the “butcher’s block” of history. How this counts as greatness, however, depends on what you think greatness means. Of which more below.

But I also don’t know that “America is in obvious decline.” You hear this often these days – particularly since the Afghanistan fiasco, which revealed shocking incompetence and nincompoopery in our politics and the military, with the media a close third. I hear veterans wonder whether it’s worth sacrificing for a country hell-bent on transgender totalitarianism, “defunding the police,” anti-racist racism, woke cancellations.

And I hear Catholic Americans similarly dismayed about the Church, and wondering if it’s worth defending her given the sex abuse, financial corruption, and the weakness of our bishops on many matters, particularly scandalous public figures like a “Catholic” president who is “personally opposed,” but in the wake of Texas’ strict abortion laws has called for “whole of government” defense of abortion.

Our best religious and civic traditions say nothing is inevitable, given human freedom to choose different futures.

Click here to read the rest of Professor Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

A Midwinter Knight’s Dream

In the 14th-century Arthurian story, the Green Knight comes riding into the great hall at Camelot during extended Christmas-New Year celebrations and challenges any of the knights of the Round Table to take a blow at him with the great axe he carries in one hand  – on condition that one year later, the Green Knight will return the blow at the place called the Green Chapel. Only Sir Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, (and let’s get this straight now: it’s pronounced GOW-in) accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight with one mighty swing.

The Green Knight, however, remains “horsed” and, reaching down, retrieves his severed head and rides away.

A year later, Gawain must set off to fulfill his part of the pledge.

And that’s the general outline of writer-director David Lowrey’s new R-rated film, The Green Knight. But the original story was very much an exposition of the Christian ideal of knighthood – its virtues and trials – and Gawain is shown to be an exemplar of the chivalric ideal. Mr. Lowrey’s movie is very much not Christian. In fact, it’s modernist and cynical.

Lowrey’s is a Gawain for our time. He’s not yet the knight, as he is in the original tale, and he seems to step forward to accept the Green Knight’s challenge in desperate hopes of winning his spurs and impressing his uncle, the king.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s review at The Catholic Thing . . .

Cucumber Time

Our title today does not refer to harvesting longish green vegetables from the garden. Cucumbers came in weeks ago (in the D.C. area, rather poorly this year because of hard rains.) No, the phrase is an older way of referring to the “Silly Season,” the time in summer when politics and other activities die down temporarily, at least in theory. Reality hasn’t exactly followed the theory this year. (See: Afghanistan, COVID, the U.S.—Mexico border crisis, spiking murder and crime statistics, wildfires, hurricanes, Latin Mass scuffles, clerics on GRINDR, etc.) Things are so somber on so many fronts at this rag end of Summer 2021 that to call these days “silly” would be an insult to wide swaths of acute human suffering.

But there is a sense in which this season is still “silly.” Another feature of Cucumber Time – again in theory – is that the lack of serious events is supposed to drive the media to invent virtually weightless “news” stories to fill space. There’s much of real consequence to write about these days, but our ever-ready MSM has maintained the most sacred elements of the Silly Season, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

It’s no secret that MSM basically stopped being “news” outlets the past few years and turned into highly partisan outlets – mostly of a liberal/left bent. They’ve turned passing political matters – parties, elections, movements like BLM, Critical Race Theory, even vaccinations and face masks – into quasi-religious crusades. So, in some respects, it’s welcome relief when they engage in “silly” stories.

Click here to read the rest of Professor Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

A Saint for the Times

The Church celebrated the Feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux on Friday. I’ve been thinking about him recently because he appears in the Divine Comedy as Dante’s last and greatest guide on his pilgrimage to the Beatific Vision. (If you don’t know that poem or want manageable and accessible guidance to reading it, I’ll be offering an online course on Dante’s Paradiso starting September 8, the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Mother. Dante had other great guides along the way – the Roman poet Virgil and Beatrice. He benefitted from special help by St. Lucy; met distinguished souls such as Aquinas, Bonaventure, Saints Dominic and Francis of Assisi, Kings David and Solomon; and was examined on faith, hope, and charity, by Peter, James, and John. So the question arises: why amid such intellectual firepower, historic leadership, and sheer holiness did the greatest Christian poet choose St. Bernard as his final companion, a figure not well-known today, even to most Catholics?

This is just one of the many ways that we’ve lost contact with our own highest and best tradition. St. Bernard (1090-1153) lived slightly earlier than Dominic (1170-1221) and Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), but along with them helped produce the period of reform and recovery we now call the High Middle Ages. In his own time, he was a dominant figure. He helped restore monasticism and attracted so many to religious life that, by some estimates, he founded or helped to found over 160 monasteries.

Click here to read the rest of Professor Royal’s column at The Catholic Thing . . .

Red Scare: “Christ Crowned with Thorns”

If, as I am, you’re a true art lover, you may come to suppose you’ve seen much of the world’s great art in museum and gallery visits, or in books (Gardener’s Art through the Ages), or online (Google Arts & Culture), or watching Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” or Sister Wendy Beckett’s “Odyssey” or “Grand Tour.” Those TV series are wonderfully vivid explorations of Western art. (Both Lord Clark and Sr. Wendy were Oxonians, though separated by two decades, and her thesis advisor – not the English term – was J.R.R. Tolkien. She took first-class honours; Clark got second-class. Obviously, he kept learning, even entering the Catholic Church late in life.)

Anyway, no matter how much you think you know, you still come upon paintings you’ve missed. How could you not? No one knows how many works of art have been created in disparate cultures over thousands of years. I don’t know if anybody even knows how many exist today, although the MET in New York City has two million works of art in its collection, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg has three million, and, in both cases, most of it’s in storage!

Still, it seemed remarkable to me to have found a picture I’d never see (more…)

Summer Stillness

Congress will (let’s hope) go into summer recess soon, if they can finish whatever they think they’re doing. An old joke in Washington – even before the House and Senate spectacles of recent years: at least during the vacation, the Constitution is (temporarily) safe and the nation secure. Also this week (August 15, Feast of the Assumption), parts of Europe, notably Italy, will enter ferragosto: that blessed time when most activity ceases until early September. Lately, it has seemed very good when the Vatican goes quiet as well. But these are only passing interruptions in the turmoil of institutions. At this time of year, it’s even better for each of us to try to enter into deeper, personal stillness.

The challenges never go away, and we can’t abandon the struggle for the Good, True, and Beautiful. But a neglected part of that struggle, as the Psalmist says, is to “Be Still and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:11) For most Americans, eager to do or  achieve something, this is a hard saying. We have a native bent towards Pelagianism, as if we can – in the absurd modern lie – “be/do anything we want,” if we just work harder, smarter, better. But we can’t.

Just before “Be still,” the Psalmist explains:

9 Come and see the works of the LORD,
who has done fearsome deeds on earth;

10 Who stops wars to the ends of the earth,
breaks the bow, splinters the spear,
and burns the shields with fire. . .

Many things depend on us. But the greatest things, even the ability to carry out our duties, do not come merely by our own efforts. We have to invite graces that far exceed anything we ourselves could do.

Click here to read the rest of Prof. Royal’s column . . .

Thoughts on the God-Man

I recently wrote here about The Chosen – for those who don’t already know, that’s Dallas Jenkins’ TV series about the life of Jesus. I received some nice feedback on what I wrote and was asked to appear on a couple of radio programs to talk about it.

I also heard from people who take exception to the series, although I’m not sure how many of these folks have actually seen The Chosen, since they sent tweets from others who criticized the series’ portrayals of the Virgin and her Son. This reminded me of a title I’d considered for that column: “All Too Human.” And it got me to thinking again about the hypostatic union: Jesus is fully human and fully God. Existence itself, i.e., the Trinity, and the Incarnation are the primal miracles and mysteries.

I’ve been thinking about writing a novel that would explore Christ’s early years, specifically the period just prior to the start of His public ministry. I was at dinner one night with our esteemed colleagues, Gerald Murray and George Marlin. Fr. Murray asked me what I was working on. I told him about this novel, and he sort of cocked his head, as if to say: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Then he said: “How would you describe it?”

“As a mystery story: What did He know and when did He know it?”

I’ve decided to put the novel aside for a time; likely forever.

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column . . .

From the First Three Minutes to Us

One of the past century’s greatest scientists, Steven Weinberg, died last week amid worldwide acclaim. He wasn’t famous like Einstein or Stephen Hawking, but he probably did more to explain and unify notions about the fundamental constituents of matter and the origins of our universe than any other recent figure. And unlike many scientists, he could write – for technical audiences as well as for general readers. He rightly received a Nobel Prize in 1979. Weinberg stayed active in research and teaching until shortly before he died, a fitting finish for an amazingly productive life – but also a tragic life of cosmic proportions.

His death sent me back to his most famous book: The First Three Minutes. I began university as a physics student. My turn into whatever I am now was, for my father, puzzling. Physics he understood. Liberal studies, he thought, were for rich people who didn’t need to earn a living. At some youthful moments, I almost thought he was right. But in my dotage, I suspect a hidden hand guided me – as it guided Socrates from his early interest in materialist science to philosophy, though with infinitely more modest results. My look back into The First Three Minutes confirms that it was right, for me, to turn elsewhere.

That book, as the title indicates, is a popular account of the beginnings of the universe. (Let us leave aside for the moment how to understand those “minutes” since, as St. Augustine was aware long before Einstein, time itself comes into being with space and, therefore, the nature of time is not easy to specify.) The book is a lively portrayal of the stages scientists believe the universe passed through. From the Big Bang (first postulated in 1927 by the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître) to 10-43 sec. – so-called Planck Time. If you’ve forgotten the math, this means:

1 sec. /10 followed by 43 zeroes

An inconceivably short time.

Click here to read the rest of Prof. Royal’s column . . .

Grandparents, Great-Grandparents, and the Great Tradition

Pope Francis inaugurated a new celebration in the Church yesterday, The World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly. He has spoken frequently in the past about the wisdom and experience of older persons. And the need to listen to them and be with them. He apparently thinks the theme so important that not only has he declared it a recurring observance on the fourth Sunday of July, he has even arranged for there to be a Plenary Indulgence – remission of all temporal punishment due to sin, under the usual conditions of Confession, Communion, prayer for the pope’s intentions, and so forth. In an age that is rapidly and universally losing touch with its past and, therefore, is unsteady about the future, it was an inspired idea.

Many of us of a certain age remember living with, or close to, grandparents – in my own case even great-grandparents. They were a living chain to past challenges and success in overcoming them: such as immigration to a new country where they were discriminated against and didn’t know the language; World Wars I and II; the Great Depression; poverty and crime; the civil-rights struggle – and all within a context where help came from extended families, or not at all. And no whining. Everyone had problems and there was just too much to do.

I can’t say I learned a lot directly from a large extended family – I was young and typically foolish. Indirectly, I realized that I had been born into something larger than myself. Larger even than them. As large as the world.

The concrete results, generally, were what the late great British Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks called “adaptation without assimilation.” A society and a religious tradition – if they are alive – must face new moments. That is what it means to be beings in time, whose arrow runs in only one direction. But to negotiate those adaptations successfully means to remain rooted in one’s deeper identity.

Click here to read the rest of Prof. Royal’s column . . .

Backstories: “The Chosen”

I’m late to this celebration.

A few years ago, I began receiving email invitations to watch a crowdfunded TV series about Jesus. I ignored them. Then, more recently, friends began to ask me what I thought of the series, and I ignored them too. Finally, I decided to watch an episode or two, although mostly out of a perverse hunger to review it with the gimlet eye I bring to anything overhyped and under-produced.

Now, two full seasons into watching The Chosen (five more are planned), I happily admit I was wrong not to have begun watching when it was first released. Without a doubt, it’s the best-ever presentation of the life of Our Lord on film.

I’ve always been especially fond of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth, which is both very painterly and very Catholic, features a truly all-star cast, and includes marvelous music by Maurice Jarre.

The Chosen, on the other hand – which is the brainchild of Dallas Jenkins – features an all-character-actor cast: the kind of actors whose faces you may recognize without knowing their names or remembering what you saw them in. Mr. Jenkins, who directs every episode and participated in writing all of them, threw a wide – you might say Galilean fisherman’s – net in casting his series: a very bold move indeed, given the schedules of working actors. It’s one thing to keep a cast together for one or two seasons. . .but seven?

Click here to read the rest of Mr. Miner’s column . . .