Author Archives: davidsmith4002

Hope is the Hardest

I often think (and write) about Hope.  “The Little Girl Hope” was inspired by a French poet and a little neighbor of mine. “Hope Without Faith” was an early attempt to figure it out.

St. Paul recognized its place as one of the three theological virtues: “So Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three.”  He then clarified that “the greatest of these is Love.

This is from the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, his justly famous ode to love.  “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love…”  You know the rest.

He is of course correct.  Faith that does not result in love is nothing, because an unloving faith is a false faith.  Faith is what produces love, and love is faith in action.  Faith is input, love is output.  Hope works the same way.  Hope is another output of faith.

The greatest of these is love.” But the hardest of these is hope. For me, anyway, these days.

Of course, there is no hope without faith. That is why we so eagerly grab for easy false faiths.  But hope built on false faiths is false hope.

Talking to a friend about this recently, he responded that for him, love was the hardest.  But I know him, and he is as loving a person as I have ever met.  And I know he is deeply worried about the future of the world and the church.  He is a model of Christian love, but he struggles with hope.

I too struggle, always tempted by the despair that is one of the worst of sins.  True and solid faith will assure hope and banish despair. But my faith is anything but solid.

The temptation to despair is fed by every horrible, sad, tragic, foolish, and cruel event I see around me, every headline, every politically correct act of insane self-destruction.  The whirlwind that drives the collapse of everything that is good in our imperfect western civilization is enough to test even the strongest of faith.

Perhaps it is because I love the world too much.  It has taken me a lifetime to value and appreciate the wonderful beauty of the earth God has given us.  And even more, to love the great, good and brave things that many people have done and accomplished and given to the rest of us.  Our culture and history has so much of value and beauty.  But will it survive the current collapse of our society?

We are assured that God and his mercy endure forever.  But we are also assured that our world will pass away.  And that troubles me.

Perhaps it is because I have a family, including two young grandsons.   It is the grandsons for whom I worry most.

My heart breaks at the thought of the world they are entering.  Will they ever get to read Shakespeare or Dante, or listen to Bach or Vaughan Williams, or pray in a magnificent gothic cathedral?  Will they ever see a statue of a saint or hero (without reading an explanatory plaque detailing his shortcomings)?  Will they ever see a movie about a real-life hero instead of a mythical “superhero”?

God has blessed them with a loving mother; and their father is the kind of man every boy deserves as a role model.  But outside their home they face a society which increasingly sees boys and men as problems to be solved (to put it very mildly).

So I struggle for hope: hope that these two young men-in-the-making will have a chance to take their places in this wonderful, woeful world that God and our fathers and mothers have made for us.

I can only hope.  And pray.

And I’m not even good at that.

When We (George Weigel and I) Consider Thy Heavens

I am glad to see the valuable and insightful Mr. George Weigel calling attention (on the insightful, valuable First Things.com) to the powerful (if inadvertent) ministry of the NASA folks at APOD. If only all our taxpayer dollars were spent this wisely.

Weigel’s post is entitled “The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.” If that sounds familiar, it is from the often-quoted Psalm 19.

As my faithful readers know, I have been following APOD for years.

As I have said, every new image I see paints a wider, deeper, and more wonderful picture of the universe our Lord has created. And the incomprehensible distance grows between this universe and its beginning in an infinitesimally small seed in the palm of God’s hand barely 14 billion years ago.

Every APOD is a proclamation of the greater glory of God. “When I consider Thy Heavens, the work of Thy hands…” (Psalm 8:3)

Here are some of my favorites (most recent first):

Why All the Stars, Ben?

Are We Being Watched?

Who Is Our Neighbor? Andromeda!

The Mighty Mice

A Nameless Beauty

The Needle Galaxy

Another APOD Stunner

10 Galaxies in One Snapshot

When I Consider Thy Heavens: APOD and the Psalms” (my first)

 

 

 

 

God’s Will? Really?

In a recent scriptural reading from First Peter, I was struck by this: “It is better to suffer for doing good, if this should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17) I wondered, as I often have: is it God’s will that some must suffer from the evil deeds of others?

I have always taken comfort from the inherent realism of Catholic doctrine. Evil exists because we have free will (or free choice), and we sometimes choose to do evil. It is really as simple as that. We cannot blame God for the evil that men choose to do, no matter how they hurt us in the process. This is the fundamentally difficult truth underlying the Holocaust.   Even though God could choose to intervene to prevent evil acts or their consequences, he does not do so because that would rob our freedom of all meaning. If we were free only to do good, then we would not be free, or human. Evil would not exist, and so neither would good.  I know that Christian theology declares that evil is only a negative, the absence of good; but without the possibility of evil, good also has no meaning in strictly human terms.  So for us, evil does indeed exist.

But does God will evil? Does he want person A to do evil deeds that hurt person B? I realize this is a central problem in the Bible. When Jesus prays in the Garden, he sets up an inherent dichotomy: “If it is possible, may this cup of suffering be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” This dual prayer reflects his dual nature, but in its ambiguity it raises the same question: Lord, do you really want me to suffer?

This could also be called the Judas problem. Does God really want Judas to betray His son?

In the Lord’s prayer, we ask (in a somewhat confusing subjunctive phrase) that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are asking that God help us to conform our will to his, so that we may want (and do) what he wants us to do. But what if He wants me to hurt another?  Is that possible?

This also drags me unwillingly into a confusion I have over the expression “God’s permissive will.” It was offered as a quick walk-back explanation for Pope Francis’ incomprehensible announcement that the existence of many religions in addition to the true Catholic Church must be God’s will. Early in 2019, in a joint statement with an Islamic leader, he stated “Plurality and diversity of religions…are an expression of the wise and divine will by which he created human beings.” Can heresy be God’s will, I ask? Religions espousing hate and encouraging murder are God’s will?

Relax, we are told, it only means God’s permissive will: not what He wants, but what He allows. Which presumably includes the Holocaust, communism, Rwandan genocide, and every other waking nightmare in human history? Thanks for the explanation, but…

It doesn’t help.  I’m still confused.

Can someone help me out with this?

Per Capita Reality and the “COVID” Plague

My friend Mister Hans Moleman has just posted an interesting perspective on the current plague, informed by some statistics showing that this crisis has less to do with US politics than we sometimes think. And on a per capita basis, the US is better off than some other advanced countries.  He writes:

[I wrote the following message to a good friend of mine, who is so depressed about the current crisis, and so obsessed with our president, that he says he will emigrate to some other country as soon as a vaccine is developed.]

I am glad to hear you will not be emigrating any time soon.  I hope you reconsider when this present crisis passes (as it will).

It is all too easy to see this as a failure of our political system, especially if one particularly dislikes our present leader.  The “Orange Man” is certainly dislikable; but that doesn’t lay this at his door.  To the extent that this is a political crisis, it is a widespread one, being felt throughout the western world (and perhaps far beyond.)

My wife has found us a good source of reliable statistics on the Covid-19/Coronavirus mess, at Worldometers.info.  It is revealing.  For instance:

Inadequate as our testing seems to have been, the US has done more testing than Sweden, France, the UK, or the Netherlands (per capita). Yet we have had way fewer deaths than those countries (per capita). And we have had fewer deaths than Italy, Spain, Belgium or Switzerland, even though those countries have done a lot more testing than we have.

Asia (except China, and who can trust their reports?), Africa and South America seem to have escaped the worst of it, for reasons that are unclear and probably varied; but some of them may simply be late starters.

As for the US, we must consider that right now we have a very lopsided epidemic: New York on one hand, the rest of the country on the other.  NY state is 6% of the US population but 45% of Covid deaths.

And Iceland, the nation that has done the most testing (12% of their population), has had more cases and more deaths than Montana. IC is one third the population of MT, but has 4 times the cases and almost 3 times the death rate.

So, whatever is driving the dimensions of this crisis, it doesn’t seem to be politics. And the solution will not be political either.  It will probably be scientific (treatment and vaccines) and behavioral (social distancing and hygiene, like learning to wash hands and cough/sneeze carefully). Mundane stuff.

And on the non-mundane level, I also think prayer will help.

Meanwhile, our task is not only staying healthy but also staying sane.  In that regard I recommend avoiding people that infuriate you, especially on TV (you know who I mean).  And keeping a sense of perspective.

I look forward to seeing you guys once the all-clear is sounded.

I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me…

[My friend Dan Wing has asked my thoughts on this strange Easter. Here they are.]

Dan, I have often shared with you my love for our Cathedral and how I miss it during the long winter months I spend in Florida. The parish I attend there is a sad affair, a church that feels old and tired. Literally old, as the congregation is almost 100% retired and 65+. And figuratively tired, as there seems to be no awareness of any of the challenges the church is now facing.

In Montana, I feel old; but in Florida, the world feels old. I prefer the Montana feeling. And throughout the Florida winter, I dream of attending mass in the magnificent Cathedral of St. Helena when spring arrives.

At my conversion, you helped me find my place in God’s world.  At the time I especially felt the truth in Psalm 122: “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” You and Cherie were two of the ones who most persistently said it unto me.

And I remember that joy I felt, and still feel, whenever I have the chance to enter our Cathedral.

Yet now I have been back in Montana for a month, and still have not been to a single mass here. I am of course grateful for the opportunity to be of help to my family in this time of crisis. And my heart leaps with joy whenever I see our beautiful Cathedral on the hill as I drive through town. But still…

I know you and so many others feel the same sense of loss that I do.   In my case I wonder if this sense of loss could be a part of the purgatory my sinful heart needs.

The emptiness that has often hit me this month has sometimes seemed like an extended Holy Saturday, a day with a conspicuous absence in its heart. Now, He is Risen!

But the challenge continues. How to keep the holiness of God in my heart without the help of the sacraments ad our priests?  Very hard, indeed. The Magnificat helps with regular devotions. And my daily diet of “Thank You, Lord” prayers finds no shortage of occasions.

But still I long for the day when I again hear “Let us come into the house of the Lord” for mass. And I think it may be a foretaste of the day I can walk joyfully into God’s full and complete presence. God willing.

Yours in Christ

Vatican Betrayal of China Continues

While keeping the past, present and future victims of the Wuhan Chinese Coronavirus Covid-19 are on your mind and in your prayers, give an extra prayer for the oppressed Catholics of the Middle Kingdom, crushed by the Chinese communist Party and cynically abandoned by the Vicar of Christ.

The heroic Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong has repeatedly rung the alarm bell about this crisis (see an article in Gatestone here), pounding on the Vatican doors to get the attention of the “people’s pope” (or am I thinking of Princess Diana?).  As usual, only silence in response.

Join me in praying for the success of Cardinal Zen. And when you pray for Pope Francis, join me in praying for his enlightenment and repentance, rather than his intentions. I shudder to think what those really are.

Better Prayer Through Calculus

When I was learning calculus, back in the dark ages, I remember having great difficulty grasping the very basic concept of “the slope of a point.” It sounded completely illogical, then and now. After all, didn’t Euclid define a point as having location, but not dimension (no length, width, or size). Without at least length, how can it have slope, which describes a direction (up, down, left, right, angled…)?

Well, calculus and its sloping points turn out to have lots of valuable uses. (I’d list them now if I could remember any.)

But I do recall the procedure for demonstrating and determining the slope of a point. It involves gradually vanishing “limits”.  A limit (if I remember correctly, or even approximately) is the slope or angle of the smallest possible section of a graphed curve in the area of the point in question. You start with one inch on either side of the point, and measure the slope of that two-inch line between them. Then you repeat the process with half that distance, then keep halving it. Eventually, the series of those slope-measurements closes in on the slope of the particular point. Voila! Cool, no?

(Well, anyway, that’s how I remember it.  If I have gotten it wrong, I hope some helpful mathematician or engineer or calculist will write a comment straightening me out.  I’d hate to misinform my faithful readers.)

I said above that this all has many valuable uses, which I knew once long ago. But I have recently found a new one, for my prayer life.

Prayer takes place in time. We sing of the “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” We recite prescribed prayers (Ave, Our Father, Memorare, the Rosary, etc.); these prayers are of definite length in words spoken and therefore in time.  Monks and nuns pray at specific times throughout the day.

But this implies that the rest of our time is spent in non-prayer. Many of us seek to increase our time spent in prayer. Extending prayer time of course reduces our non-prayer time. But is there another way to increase prayer by converting non-prayer time into prayer time (NPT into PT, as it were)? Continue reading

Moleman, Chesler, Zweig on Dying Cities

I see that my friend Mister Hans Moleman has written an interesting reference to Buchmendel, a great short story by Stefan Zweig.  He being one of the greatest writers of all time (Zweig, not Moleman), I was intrigued by his (Moleman’s, not Zweig”s)  linkage with some reflections on the decay of cities (specifically “Old Manhattan”) by Dr. Phyllis Chesler.

My favorite of Zweig’s writing is his novel Beware of Pity.  “Buchmendel” is a great story.  Phyllis Chesler is a brilliant commentator.

And Moleman is pretty good, too. If you like his kind of stuff.

Three Random Questions

[NOTE: If I were a better writer, I would have developed each of these thoughts into a full-length essay.  But this is the best I can do right now.]

 

How does an atheist explain Euclid? In a purely material world, what is a perfect circle or a straight line or a point? These do not exist in nature. If they are mere ideas, mental constructs, thoughts made up of flashing neurons, then why do they work so well to explain reality?  Why does geometry work? Why can a mere thought become a building or a bridge?

 

 

Would it be fair to describe Richard Dawkins and his progeny as “Hard Shell Atheists”?

I am of course thinking of the term “Hard Shell Baptists”, coined to describe (indeed, self-describe) the “Primitive” or “Old School” who self-separated from the more mainstream Southern Baptists.   Starting in 19th century rural America, they rejected any religious activity beyond the church walls and home prayer; even missionary societies and Sunday schools were unacceptable to them. “If it isn’t explicitly ordered in scripture, it is untrue and unchristian.”

Some of today’s atheists sound vaguely similar, at least in tone.  “If it isn’t written in science, it is untrue.” “If it hasn’t been answered by science, it soon will.” “If it can’t be answered by science, it can’t be asked.”  Dawkins’ thinking often seems to be carefully isolated within a hard protective shell.   Some writers have called this “scientism”, a faith in science as the one and only path to understanding: “sola scientia”, instead of “sola scriptura”.

Am I being unfair? Maybe. I will try to pray for the enlightenment of all atheists.

 

 

When does purgatory begin? Not until we die (assuming we die in a state of grace)?As I understand it, purgatory is the state of suffering in expiation for the sins we have repented.  If so, then purgatory begins with repentance, and does not end with priestly absolution. “Ego te absolvo” is not the finish line.  The memory of our sins is the lifelong experience of the repentant sinner whenever he contemplates his own past. Every memory can conjure up the pain and shame of his sinfulness at its worst. At least it is so for me.

Perhaps this unwillingness or inability to cast off the memory of my sins is in itself a sin, an unwillingness to accept God’s merciful love.  If so, I am just digging my hole deeper.

But if this pain of remembered sin is in fact the act of purgation, if this is the unstated part of penance, then perhaps I should not resist.

Dante’s Purgatorio (purgatory) is by far the most interesting part of his Divine Comedy.  For me the Inferno (hell) is too darkly comcal, and Paradiso (heaven) is frankly too sweet.  But in Purgatory, our humanness is realistically but hopefully portrayed.

I think I will read some Dante tonight; you should too.  There are many good translations, with helpful notes explaining the characters in Dante’s world.  I recommend Anthony Esolen’s version (and everything else he ever wrote).

 

Reasonable Steps to Jesus

(With a little help from some scientists.)

1.  Astronomers have determined that the universe began at a certain point in time (14.5 billion years ago, more or less).  It appears to have been created from nothing, paralleling Genesis. (See NASA and Goddard Institute for Space Studies founder Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers).

2.  The universe obeys certain strict physical and mathematical laws and structure, making it comprehensible to human minds.  This suggests an intelligence guiding its creation.

3. Paleontologists have determined that life began, indeed exploded on earth as soon as the planet’s surface had cooled sufficiently to sustain it, within the first billion years of earth’s existence. (See Stephen Jay Gould, A Wonderful Life).   This suggests a universe predisposed towards life.

4.  Human self-consciousness triggered an innate sense of right and wrong in the earliest humans. This moral sense or  “Natural Law”  suggests a lawgiver.  (See NIH and Human Genome Project Director Francis Collins, The Language of God).

5.  Before the earthly life of Jesus, no philosophy or religion had elevated love above all other virtues.  None had ever valued the poor over the rich, the weak over the strong, the childish over the wise, the humble over the proud, or mercy over strict justice.

This, along with the Gospel testimonies and the amazingly rapid growth of Christianity (spread worldwide in three centuries by missionaries rather than armies, as was Islam), suggests that Jesus was, if not divine, at the very least the most unique human or spiritual leader of all time.

The god that could create the world and make it humanly understandable would also be capable of revealing his nature to us, in both indirect and direct ways (miracles).

So there I found myself, in five simple steps, standing at the door of the Church.  The fact that it took me seven decades to take those steps speaks to my own stubborn slowness rather than the difficulty of the steps themselves.  Others, perhaps less clever than I, seem to reach the door, and pass through it, quickly and easily.  I am just grateful that I have been given the time I needed.

 

NOTES and Quotes:

Francis Collins wrote “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful.”

He also wrote that “God must be an incredible physicist…There is this phenomenal fine-tuning of the universe that makes complexity and, therefore life, possible.”

Robert Jastrow wrote “Far from disproving the existence of God, astronomers may be finding more circumstantial evidence that God exists.”

Circumstantial evidence is exactly what scientists provide us with every day.  Witness testimony is what we get from believers.  Together, the case is made strong.