Thursday, February 28, 2008

Expand Your Blogging Horizons

For those of you who want to know more about the daily station churches check out either Fr. Avram's blog,, or Fr. David, Not only are they more dedicated, witty and eloquent than I am, but they bring cameras. That early in the morning I'm too focused on walking to really do anything else...

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Idiot

I just picked up Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," and now I'm engrossed. I can't put it down. He created the book in the most tumultuous time of his life with the intention of trying to create the perfect character. The result is Prince Myshkin, or the "Idiot," which he is referred to by his peers because of his simple ways and sickly complexion. Dostoevsky has the ability to make a character come to life in a simple paragraph. But his characters don't simply come to life as people that we would observe, but as could have arisen only from Myshkin's perception. For example:

"He was very good-looking, well-built young man, also about twenty-eight, of medium height, with fair hair, a small, Napoleonic beard and a clever and very handsome face. Only his smile, with all its affability, was a trifle too subtle; it displayed teeth too pearl-like and even; in spite of his gaiety and apparent good-nature, there was something too intent and searching in his gaze"
"He must look quite different when he is alone and perhaps never laughs at all," was what Myshkin felt.

His descriptions are not only physically detailed, but he ties those physical aspects to a spiritual or mental condition. He threads psychology through physical countenance, which is genius because physical appearance is invariably affected by mental state. With a keen enough perception, one can know anything about someone before they even speak. This perception is Dostoevsky's greatest strength.

Myshkin is innocent, unacclamated with the world, loquacious and seemingly naïve, but behind his innocuous countenance is a keen perception of things around him. Throughout the novel, there is a running conversation in his head about the people he speaks with. At one point he picks up a picture of the beauty, Nastasya Filippovna (sounds beautiful, right?) and remarks,

"He seemed trying to decipher something that had struck him before, hidden in that face. The impression it had made had scarcely left him, and now he was in a hurry to verify it again. He was now even more struck by the face, which was extraordinary from its beauty and from something else in it. There was a look of unbounded pride and contempt, almost hatred, in that face, and at the same time something confiding, something wonderfully simple-hearted. The contrast of these elements roused a feeling almost of compassion. Her dazzling beauty was positively unbearable - the beauty of a pale face, almost sunken cheeks and glowing eyes - a strange beauty! Myshkin gazed at it for a minute, then started suddenly, looked round him, hurriedly raised the portrait to his lips and kissed it. When he walked into the drawing-room a minute later, his face was perfectly calm."

Myshkin's incisive perception is made without pretense, allowing him to peer directly into another's soul. Dostoevsky is suggesting something pivotal and also rather philosophical. He suggests that there exists an interiority and an exteriority in every situation. 99% of all human interaction operates on pretense - preconceived thoughts, phrases, perceptions. Occasionally, one will have a truly unique, interesting conversation, but the rarity of such a case should be alarming. As I sat out in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere today, I watched the medley of tourists and Italians meander through the cobblestone roads Trastevere is known for, and saw a particular drawl in everyone's eyes. Maybe Rome was not what they had expected, maybe it didn't offer the couples the rekindled marital excitement they hoped or maybe the Italians were just plain sick of tourists. But the peculiarity was the pretense with which everyone approached the situation. Every action is an attempted reconciliation of the internal world of the mind and the external world of reality; however, the common method of reconciliation is to force the world we see into the preconceived archetypes. For example, say I like a specific girl (yes, like like). All of the sudden, whenever she is around, all of my interaction conforms to that emotion. My emotions alter every conversation in order to make what I want become reality. Thus, my perception of the world is altered as I see it through tainted glasses. My perception is unfaithful to reality because it is sullied by my pretense. This example pertains to any desire: success, honor, family, love, lust, etc. People are so affected by these pervasive desires that it forms a ring of pretense around them. They can't approach or appreciate any situation for what it is, and therefore devalue everything around them, because it fits like a sandwich in a square hole. Have you ever wondered why it's so difficult for us to look one another in the eye? In a society with endless accomplishments - quantum physics, space exploration, personal computers and "therapy" - how is that we can't look at each other? Why is one of the most fearful things for even the most intelligent to lock eyes with someone for more than a split second? We have no trouble staring at another, making measurements and judgments, but the moment their eyes meet our own, panic sets in. Is it timidity? Or is it truly fear? Do we view this meeting of consciousnesses as a threat?

In a world of interiority and exteriority, we cannot bear staring into the interiority of another. Their interiority is a threat to ours. Their view of the world is different than our own, and that disparity threatens the destruction of our perception. With the destruction of our perception comes the destruction of our world. Another's gaze objectifies us. We become as real as the chair we are sitting on, and we disappear into the world of things. Their objectification destroys our subjectivity. With this constant intersubjective warfare, it's no wonder stress levels are at an all time high.

Myshkin, however, offers a solution to the dilemma. He has a particular love for children, and even describes that he was "in love" with children before. His love for children is conversely accompanied by an aversion to adults: "Whatever they say to me, however kind they are to me, I always feel somehow oppressed with them, and I am awfully glad when I can get away to my companions; and my companions have always been children, not because I am a child myself, but simply because I was always attracted by children...My whole life was centered on the children...Afterwards, for the last three years, I couldn't even understand how and why people are sad." Myshin's solution is simple. He views the world through the eyes of a child, absent from pretense and preconviction. His approach to every situation is with calm, perceptive and focused outwards. By turning his eyes out towards the world, rather than in towards the self, he views freely sees the world and others without pretense. Instead of filtering the entire world through his desires, he filters his desires into the world. By emptying himself, he reconciles the tension between the internal and the external and exists unfettered.

This is of course a very Christian message that Dostoevsky is expressing, but the emphasis must be placed on the line, "not because I am a child myself, but because I was always attracted by children." Myshkin is not a child, but he sees the world as one.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Buon giorno famiglia e i amici!

It was long overdue, but it's finally happened. I'm finally in my first exciting class...well, ok so I just showed up today and was so enthralled that I decided to enroll. The class is Fundamental Moral Theology with a Vatican theologian, Fr. Giertych. I was more intellectually stimulated today then I have been all year! I was hesitant when I heard the class title, because moral theology is generally legalistic repetition of Catholic doctrine over and over and over. Go to mass, believe in the Immaculate Conception, yadayadayada. But today we delved into St. Thomas and his understanding of science as that which can be rationally explicated as opposed to a modern reductionist concept of science to that which is measurable. Also, how St. Thomas interrelates philosophy and theology, and a response to his modern and medieval critics. It was awesome. Fr. Giertych has a booming, British voice - the type of voice you expect God to have - and he burns through the material, not in a hasty manner, but in a comprehensive way. I've never taken so many notes in a class. At times I was so excited that I forgot to pay attention. It's gonna be a good semester.

Also, the past two Lenten morning masses have been in Trastevere, my home turf. So I haven't had to wake up until 5:45 instead of 5:15. Yesterday, was at Santa Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Today was at my parish church (if you can call it that) Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is adorned from one wall to the other with a beautiful mosaic above the altar. The homily was the most intense so far. The pastor definitely wins the fire and brimstone. He was tearing into us Americans! Our culture of death, our inability to cope with a world without war, our lack of history; the list just went on. You could tell the Americans in the crowd because they had slouched 2 feet lower than everyone else. People were waving their passports during the creed (not really). The priest was American though, so the jurors voted against tar and feathers.

Va bene. Alla prossima!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Latin Spice

Buon Giorno Dearest Reader!

I've been trying to make up for my protracted blogging laziness recently. I'm still recounting events from a month or so ago, but soon enough we'll be as up to speed as Keanu Reeves. The entry title refers not only to my recent trip to Barcelona, but also my recent Latin final and the commencement of the Lenten season.

Commercials have often asked me if I "Wanna Fanta?" and never
have I responded no.

Our time in Barcelona was difficult. Waking up late, eating rice and drinking sangria, sleeping on the beach, and most importantly, drinking Fanta. Life in Europe is sometimes just too slow...not! Barcelona was the most relaxed major city I've been to, despite that it's very modern. The parks are littered with dreadlocks, bongos, hackeysack and anything else that can be described as "chill." And of course the Mediterranean does nothing to detract from the unduly chillness of this fair, chill city. Chillin' on the beach in three different countries - not bad.
Literally chilling in the Meditteranean like these bold Brits - priceless.

The city itself has very little history, unlike most European cities. Although it was a Roman province, it was generally uncivilized, I think, until the 16th or 17th century. Because it experience its economic boom solely in modern times, there is very little historical architecture. Antoni Gaudí has a building on every corner, and is most famous for his unfinished cathedral "La Sagrada Familia." While it may seem like a typical modern atrocity from afar, it's actually very beautiful. The entire church seems as if it's melting, and the religious sculptures are jagged and sinister.
Ancient Spanish folklore holds that the Church was modeled after Gaudi's most inspirational work, "The Subway Melt."
The church faded into the background as all I saw was a catwalk...

Our first full day though, we took an hour train ride to Montserrat, which is a Benedictan monastery situated in some of the tallest mountains in Spain. After the train, you have to take a fifteen minute cable car ride up to the summit. When we arrived there was a low-lying fog that had set over the mountains, striking an almost eerie tone. The monastery is home to one of the most famous boys choirs in the world, but we weren't able to hear them, because the ten-year olds got lazy and decided to take Saturday off...just kidding. We did, however, take a 2-hour hike up to the mountain's highest point, which stood just above the clouds. In fact, while we stood whipping in the winds, a storm began to form around our heads. Cool beans, huh?

If you've ever been curious about what my first order of business
would be as president, it would look roughly like this.

The highlight of the trip though was the walk of the rosary monuments. Down towards the city there is a path that leads to a sacred grotto that was unfortunately closed for January. We were though still able to take the walk along the path that has a monument to every mystery of the rosary, beginning with the joyful, proceeding through the sorrowful and ending with the glorious. What made the walk so satisfying though was the ambiance. Because it was a chilly, windy day in January, the generally well-trodden tourist path was uncharacteristically quiet. The fog overtook the mountain, the hum of the mountain life fell silent, and all that could be heard were our muffled footsteps. It was as if the mountain reflected that attitude of the Passion. One got a special sense of Christ's sacrifice, because all the while along the winding path carved into the mountain, where the path veered around the mountain there stood over all a dark, bronze crucifix against the pale sky. Chilling stuff. Approaching the cross...

One of the monuments...

The Chapel of the Holy Cave...Closed!

Large, forbidding gates depress me...

But I never let it keep me down!

The rest of the weekend was spent enjoying the Spanish food and sangria, which was such a nice break from Italian food and wine. Every other country I go to has more pizzerias than cultural restaurants. Even in Paris, despite its famed cooking. But in Spain there is tons of rice, chicken and seafood. Oh, and of course, Fanta, my personal drug of choice.

We even made it to a Barcelona football match, one of the best
teams in world, and sat in the 4th row! Ballin!

I giocatori in action. Thierry Henry, one of the best players in
the world, scored the only goal of the match right in front of us!

We flew home and I immediately began to prepare for finals. Yes, I just finished finals - we're lazy here in Europe. My final schedule was very disorganized, even by Italian standards. Three of my finals were tentative, and later postponed, because teachers were ill and in the hospital. Setting up times became so complicated that now I have to take all three at the end of next semester! That means I'll have ten finals next semester! My only two finals were then Intro to Sacred Scripture, which I passed (Grazie a Dio), and Latin. They went well and yesterday I started my classes for second semester. I'm hoping for more intellectually stimulating classes this semester, since last semester's courses were Dullsville. They were so dull that if I had taken dull pills, it would have actually been less dull. That gave me little incentive to either attend class or do outside work, and as result I was really restless. This semester though seems more promising. I have a history of ancient philosophy and one of medieval philosophy, Science and Philosophy, Intro to the World's Great Religions and Latin. However, this semester I'll be taking all my classes in Italian (pray for me!), because a. I need to learn Italian and b. I figure that if my classes are boring, I'll at least have some goal to work towards. Needless to say, it should be an eventful semester.

Also recently, as some people may remember, Lent began (not that it's a big deal or anything, especially in Rome). Lent in Rome provides an excellent opportunity for penance and sacrifice, because every morning at 7am there is a mass held at a different church in Rome. It's an excellent opportunity, because you see Rome at the crack of down (well, see may be an exaggeration. Perhaps squint through the crust in your eyes), and you get a see a number of churches that you would never have seen otherwise. And the hidden gems in Rome's churches are remarkable. Already we've seen the bodies of Saint Lawrence, Saint Jerome, Saint Monica and Saint Ignatius of Antioch, an altar by Bernini, paintings by Raphael, Caravaggio and St. Luke, Michaelangelo's Moses, the chains of St. Peter that bound him while he waited to be crucified, and an urn that holds what is supposed to be a piece of Christ's manger! And it's only been a week and a half! We have a decent sized group that makes it every morning, so needless to say the coffee infusion that is held afterwards is vast and necessary. We joked that along with the map of each church, there should be a map of the closest coffee shop. Roman churches, bodies of saints, painting of the greats and cappuccini all before 8 am!

Finally, this past weekend I joined some friends on a trip to Firenze. Although it was my second visit, they were all visiting for the first, so we hit all the necessary tourist stops: the Uffizi, the Accademia and the D'uomo. It was good though, because there is so much art in Firenze, it can't all be seen just once. Especially David. I think I could stare at David all day long. I think that I would marry David despite him being a guy and made of stone. Every detail is done so perfectly and on such a large scale that one can't help but stop and admire every detail. The one seeming imperfection is the immensity of his hands, but I found that Michaelangelo did this intentionally to express that the defeat of Goliath was not accomplished by human hand, but by a far greater power. The only stain on our trip was our final gelato trip. Several people had given up sweets for Lent and could only eat them on Sunday. Because the gelato flowed Saturday night, Jewish Law was enacted giving our penitents until sundown the next day. Because we had so little time Sunday afternoon before the sun set, we found the first gelateria in sight, which was ominously named "Very Good." I fully bear the blame for not seeing this dreadful red flag, but blinded by my desire for gelato I missed it. The tab came to 8 euros per person! We paid 48 euros for gelato! Are you serious?!? That's 72 dollars! I could buy an unbelievable bottle of wine for that price, or 48 three scoop gelatos in Rome, or 72 snicker bars, or 7200 tootsie rolls! Blegh.

Those have been my travels the last month. My Italian is approaching fluency and I hope to arrive triumphantly very soon. You're all in my prayers this Lenten season. Remember the immense suffering the Christ underwent this Lent for our sins, but never forget the hope of redemption that comes through that death. We are all very blessed with the comfortable lives we have been given, and I have been blessed to enjoy this year in Rome and to have your prayers to guide me. Buona serata a tutti!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Quick Thought

I just finished my Intro to Sacred Scripture final, and although it could have gone better, it has had my mind more scripturally focused than it has been in a long time. I generally try to avoid scripture when it comes to discussions, because it's a minefield of misinterpretation. It's infinitely more difficult to interpret than even James Joyce, because of it's multifaceted context. Every book of scripture is formed around specific oral traditions and written sources, both of which are largely unknown to us. Even further, each book develops in a specific social, political and historical context, each of which is, once again, largely unknown to us. The Hebrew language itself isn't fully known to us. These contexts have to be balanced with a belief of the transcendence of each book over place and time. Authorities can't even agree how the Bible should be read. Should it be read as literature? History? Within it's historical context? As a product of tradition? Literally? Metaphorically? Spiritually? With a myriad of various methods to simply approach the text, what hope do we have to understand it and use it as tool for debate? And even if a uniform interpretation could be agreed upon, the authority itself of the text is universally disputed. Scriptural quotation in a debate does nothing but open an uncloseable door. Lucifer himself uses scripture to tempt Christ.

I have though been contemplating the damages a misinterpreted scriptural passage can cause. The lack of a universal interpretation of the Bible does not preclude people's devotion to the text and their interpretation of it. Despite the Bible's controversy and innocuousness in debate, it still holds a large power over the formation of individual minds, especially because of it's claim to divine origins.

All this thought about the Bible made me realize that perhaps the most oft-misinterpreted passage of scripture, despite it's seeming harmlessness, is in 1 John 4:8, "God is love." It appears to be the most benign (and consequently mundane) passage in all of scripture, but it is it's apparent harmlessness that makes it so volatile. While it appears to be a vindication of modern liberation theology in which God is a loving and forgiving father that extols his creation and prefers popsicles to punishment, it is, in fact, far more complex. This passage is so simply stated that its importance nearly escapes our scouring eyes. But to understand that God is love presumes that we understand love. Because "God is love," there is an inextricable correlation between our concept of God and our concept of love, and it is a dangerous correlation. If one is conceptualized before the other, the other conforms to that conceptualization. Because they support and sustain each other, it allows us to define God as we conceive love, and in an individually-driven, consumerist society, the interpretation of God as love conforms to our conception of love, which unfortunately is entwined within societal conception of love. God as love is no longer a transcendent figure of space and time, but is forced to step into the box of our conception of love.

If there is anything less understood in our society, it is love. While hormonally-enraged, acne-prone teens of every age have struggled to unlock the secrets of every Ashley and Sharon's mind, teens of this generation have a considerably more difficult go at it, because their parents are just as lost as they are. Our cultural misinterpretation of love begins at the roots of culture, the English language. The Greeks had four separate words for love with four separate definitions. In the English language those four separate meanings are blindly mashed together into one, bludgeoning word. It's like stretching a baby blanket over Andre the Giant; it just ain't gonna happen. This is why every ninth grade Susan has to break poor Cody's heart by saying "I like you, but I don't like like you." Language and expression form our minds. Language provides the very foundation of our mind, and inexpressible concepts create holes in that foundation. The point is, our misunderstanding of love is not only a societal flaw, but a linguistic one as well.

Due to societal inundation of scantily-clad Calvin Klein models, our one definition of love has become centered around appearances - appearances that are transient, and love has followed suit as something transient. To us, love is pleasure and the absence of pain. Love is nestling gently in Matthew McConaughey's burly arms as he whispers tender nothings into our ear. Love is painless. This assessment is the singular, most vitriolic conception in modernity (no offense to Matthew McConaughey...mmm). To believe that love is passion is to believe that love is free from pain, strictures, commitment, obligation and, most importantly, suffering. All loving relationships begin in passion, but they invariably face suffering, sacrifice and apathy. To modern man, these are the signs of a failed relationship. They are signs to pack your bags and move on.

This belief is vitriolic not only because it subjects us to the throes of capricious passion, but because our conception of God is inextricably linked to our conception of love, and therefore God becomes passion. God becomes free from pain, punishment or anything else that sours our temperaments. And thus, God becomes sterile. God inspires no change, impels no reform and threatens no vengeance. His sole purpose is as a pick-me-up, as a forgiving, pusillanimous father that is too fearful to punish. God becomes pathetic.

But how else are we to define God, if he himself claims that "I am who am" (Moses asking God who he is is asking him to define himself)? John defines him for us: "God is love." But without a proper understanding of love, this definition is more detrimental than helpful. Fortunately, we need to look no further than another John of the Bible, and that is John the Apostle in that ever-famous passage, "For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." The answer to that binary question of what is love and who is God is answered in Christ, and ultimately, Christ's sacrifice. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son to die mercilessly at the hands of the world. God so loved the world that he sacrificed all that he loved for the sake of the world. It is in that unrelenting sacrifice in which true passion is found. It is the transcendence of discomfort, suffering and self for the sake of another in which true love is revealed. God offers us the blueprint to worship Him and to love each other in Christ.

Love then is not momentary passion, but a promise of redemption through suffering. It is seeing the eternal in another's eyes, and sacrificing one's own sight for that reward. Consequently, suffering, sacrifice and apathy are no longer warning signs of a failed relationship, but integral evidence of true love. Suffering is an inevitable crossroad of a relationship in which we are forced into a strict dichotomy. It is the point where we choose self or self-transcendence. Christ has shown us that through that transcendence of self comes eternal life, yet ironically lovers consistently choose themselves over the other. But as Robert Frost wrote, "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I -- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

Perhaps it was providential that I was struck by this thought so close to Valentine's day, but it serves us all to remember that love isn't about a cavalcade of flowers, chocolates or songs about flowers and chocolates. It is about sacrifice, and without that sacrifice, even if we spend this day and the rest of our days with another, we will ultimately end up alone.

As a sidepoint, I am fully conscious of the fact that this sounds like the same recapitulated Catholic babble that we all read in the picture books of smiling Jesus at the petting zoo, and that it seems too uncomplicated to be reconciled with our complex world. But life is a revolution that consists of two revelations. The first is the epiphany that the nursery tales of our youth are incompatible with a ruthless, uncaring world. That the structure of religion blinds us from reality. So we take off the religiously tinted glasses to look at the world free from stricture. The second revelation comes after thinking we have discovered uncharted territory free from religion, and realizing that this uncharted territory has actually been charted - by religion. That, although simple, there is truth in nursery tales, and that life itself is simply a complicated bedtime story. The revolution comes full circle. You stand looking in where you once stood looking out, and the recapitulated Catholic babble reveals itself as true.