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WILLIS A. BOUGHTON – A Reminiscence

In my misspent youth I was helped along by a remarkable man.  In the 1960’s, he was a youth group counselor for the MYF (Methodist Youth Group) at St. Andrews, a neighborhood church in a working class area of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Willis A. Boughton was born in 1885, so when I met him he was already in his 70’s; quite a contrast from the millennial hipsters so common in today’s church youth ministries (see babylonbee.com for more info on the type.)

He was a retired research chemist at Harvard, living alone in a downtown cottage filled with books.  He came to our weekly meetings (Wednesday evening, if memory serves) and to Sunday School.  And we were always welcome to stop in at his home for a visit. 

His hobby, outside of counseling youth, was photography.  If there  are any photos of me from those days, he took them.

But his great passion was the gentle friendship and counseling of youth, particularly young men.   He owned a small, rustic “summer camp” on a lake in Maine (consisting of a single-room cottage with attached room for himself and a small dorm room for the three or four of us), and drove a carload of us up there for a few weeks each year. 

We boys must have been around 14, because Mr. B (as we called him) drove all the way himself (which was somewhat harrowing – he was not a great driver). On the way up, we stopped in Boston for a tour of Harvard and the Freedom Trail, and a dinner at Durgin-Parks. 

Did I mention the camp was rustic?  There was water only from an outside pump, and a kind of camp toilet which required daily emptying and burning in an outdoor firepit.  But there were canoes and hiking trails and firewood chopping and reading and just plain hanging about on a warm summer day.  And across the lake was a classy (by comparison) resort, Chase’s Camp, with adult guests and charming young girls working summer jobs.  Pretty young Maine girls just about our ages, and just a short hike away. (The canoes were not used for this purpose, as our approach would have been spotted by the girls’ adult chaperones.)

So it was a great summer.  After we got back to Florida, Mr. B would start off with the next crew.    

Though he rarely shared it with us, he had another side as a poet, writing and self-publishing over 30 books.  When I finally got around to reading some of them, I found them well-crafted and often very moving.  (He was obviously influenced by A. E. Housman and Robert Frost, to whom he introduced me.) You can find them occasionally on Used-Book sites.

Mr. B was a phase in my life, deeply enriching but totally unappreciated by me.  Soon after those idyllic Maine days, I was off to college and my new career, starring in the movie of my amazing life as a moody young radical intellectual, smartest guy in every room.  I never saw him again.  He died in 1977, when I was 30 and he was 92. 

I now find that his story, retold in our decadent modern world, sounds like the buildup to a criminal case of a pedophile homosexual abuser grooming innocent young men, all the while masquerading as a kindly old churchman.   But there was never a breath of scandal about him. Mr. B was truly loved by everyone, because he was what he appeared to be: a generous, kindly, gracious Christian old man giving whatever he had to the necessary business of helping to turn young barbarians into men.   

Now, when I am as old as he was when I met him, I finally understand how much I miss him.

Here is one of his poems, from Many Candles (1950).

NOCTURNE

Across the silver lake the moon dies;

The night is touched with crowded solitude.

Deep in the distant shore the loon cries

                In evening mood.

From tamarack and pine drop faint scents.

The afterglows of red and silver fade.

The wood retreats into its dark tents,

                And stars are made.

Now from the thicker dusk rise night sounds,

A steady pulse of evening quietude

Spreading beyond the sight it still bounds,

                While shadows brood.

Soon to the waiting heart comes free peace.

Places of argument seem dim an far away,

And love beguiles the sense with surcease

                From the bright day.

FAITH, HOPE, LOVE, all tangled up

St. Paul famously articulated the theological virtues: “Now abideth these three; Faith, Hope and Love.”

While he went on to crown one of them above the others (1 Corinthians 13:13, “the greatest of these is love”), he otherwise left this trinity of virtues unclarified. How are they related? Is there a connection between them?  Aren’t faith and hope the same thing, kind of? Did he separate them just to have three things in the list?

Elsewhere we read that “faith is the substance of things hoped for”, which certainly suggests a strong linkage between those two. The continuation of that passage (in Hebrews 11:1), “and the proof of things unseen”, fits our modern definition of faith more closely. But the link between faith and hope seems to want further consideration.

More modern translations suggest somewhat different meanings. The NAB calls faith “the realization of what is hoped for”. The NIV has “faith is being sure of what we hope for”.  The Jerusalem Bible reaches further, with “only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for”.  The Greek text uses the word “hypostasis” which elsewhere is usually translated as “substance,” so I stick with the RSV or KJV.

Faith, then, is the underlying reality of our hopes. But I am still confused about this “F-H-L” trinity.

Trying to untangle this knot in my mind, I tried subtraction.

Can there be hope without faith?  Or faith without hope?  And the real clincher, can we have love without faith or hope?

Hope without faith? This one comes up first and has troubled me for a long time.  Before I found faith in God, I faced what seemed to me to be a world and a future without hope.

Throughout my (almost-seventy-year-long) youth, I always had faith.  Faith in myself, in my wisdom. Faith in the basic goodness of others (“People Are Basically Good”, or PABGoo). Faith in historical and political progress. Faith in Marx and Hegel and Comte and Nietzsche.  Humanist faith: faith in humanity.  (Like Blanche Dubois, I always relied on the kindness of strangers.) And so I always had hope.

One thing linked all these faiths together: they were all as false as false can be.  And they all failed.

They failed because they could not stand exposure to reality, nor survive their own confrontation with the real world. 

(If you, dear reader, still have faith in these things, then pass on. If you are in doubt about them, I can suggest a reading list. Or you can simply reflect on the state of our world today.)

Yet we need faith, of some sort, faith in something or someone.  Why do we need faith?  Because we need hope, and we cannot have that without faith.  (The worldly, humanist faiths I listed above seem rather embarrassed about this fact, and avoid it by re-labeling hopeful faith as “optimism.”)

So we may conclude that hope without faith is impossible.

What about faith without hope? Are there hopeless faiths? I don’t know of any; do you? Our need for hope seems to be a basic component of human nature; hopelessness is the door to suicide.  And only faith can supply hope.

The need for faith is therefore downstream from the need for hope; faith flows from the need for hope, but hope flows from faith.

Perhaps this is a form of understanding faith as the substance of things hoped for. We hope for peace and joy; and faith gives us the substance of peace and joy.

But what about Virtue Number 3, “the greatest of these”?  To clarify, we are talking about love for others in the broadest sense, including but extending far beyond sexual or romantic love, beyond love of family. We are talking about love for others, for strangers. The Greek word is agape, as distinct from eros. Charity is a common English synonym.

Can there be such love without faith or hope?

The answer is yes. Of course, yes.

Love without hope, hopeless love, is a staple of romantic and tragic literature.  

Everybody loves, to some extent and in some way.  It is built into our human nature, as is the need for hope.  And everybody has faith, in something or other.  But, as we have seen, false faiths produce false and feeble hopes.  They also produce feeble loves.

Faith in humanity is ultimately faith in oneself. And self-faith is self-worship, leading nowhere good. Moreover, self-worship requires willful blindness to one’s weakness.  If you are your own god, you are doomed to perpetual disappointment.

Yet the false faith in humanity is still compatible with love for others.  Why is this?

And even the most hopeless person can feel love.  How can this be? 

To the Christian, the answer is clear.  We are created to love. The God who created us is a loving God, and we are therefore made, designed, blessed with the ability to love.  That is a part of what it means that we are created in God’s image.

What about those without faith or hope?  Or, more correctly, those with only false faiths and therefore false hopes (since, as we have seen, everyone has faith and hope of some kind)?

They, too, love. Indeed, the apostles of humanity-worship are often the loudest in their claims of love for all, and not all of their claims are mere posturing.  We all know many folks who scoff at the Bible, but still are generous in helping others, open-handed in charity and open-hearted in volunteering.  They do it because they know it is right.

But they do not know why it is right. 

Love, like faith and hope, is an inherently and universally human thing.  But unlike the other two, love for others does not seem to confer evolutionary advantage (except in the case of love for family and offspring), while truly hopeless individuals are at a distinct disadvantage in the Darwinian struggle for survival.  Science has made some half-hearted attempts to explain love in genetic terms (beyond love of children or self-love of genes), but without much success.  And, as in the case of hope/optimism, a certain embarrassment with the biblical terminology has required the coining of a new term: “altruism”.

 NOTE: I have written elsewhere about hope and its particular difficulties: The Little Girl Hope, Hope is the Hardest, and Hope Without Faith. Let me know what you think about any or all of this.

Shape-Notes and Psalms

Have you heard of Shape Note Hymn Singing? I hadn’t until recently.

It is a traditional form of protestant hymn-singing, experiencing a small resurgence in parts of the country. Variously called “Fasola”, or “Sacred Harp”, it is beautiful, striking, sometimes boisterous and even raucous, and weirdly haunting. If you are not familiar with it, check out this clip. Going Home Mountain Shape Note singing – YouTube

The style (and many of the hymns) arose out of poor, rural, musically illiterate Appalachian communities, and are joyous celebrations of release from hard lives. They often follow the line of what were once called Negro spirituals (and are now properly African-American spirituals). Compare “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” or “Deep river, my home is over Jordan”, with “I’m glad that I am born to die, from grief and woe my soul shall fly, and I don’t care to stay here long!”  They all speak from hard lives of misery, poverty and oppression, and they look forward to rest and relief in heaven.  Even putting aside the extremity of suffering that slavery added to poverty, the common themes are striking.  Life is hard but heaven is near; and so we turn to God.

This theme is also reflected in the Psalms, the ancient hymnal of the Jews.  Many psalms are prayers to God for relief from external attack by enemies, as in Psalm 70: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O Lord.” The voice of misery that opens Psalm 22 is so strong, asking “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, that Jesus himself cries it out in his agony on the cross.

But what about those who do not suffer from external oppression?  In our modern lives of prosperity, security and comfort, what about those of us who suffer only from the burden of our own sins?  One of the most moving of the psalms for me has always been Psalm 130, (the De Profundis): :”Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.…If thou should mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?”

Many psalms embody the trust we can and must place in God as we navigate the uncertainty of life. Psalm 46: (“God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the sea.”)

All the psalms include elements of praise, some of them as their primary thought, like Psalm 8 (“O Lord our God, how excellent is thy name in all the earth”). Others incorporate thanksgiving and praise, such as Psalm 66 (“Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands.”)

And my favorites are the ones that praise the Lord for the beauty and wonders of the world He has made. Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows forth his handiwork.”  This one is particularly apropos for those of us who find the beauty of nature to be a roadmap to its divine origin. (See my various postings of NASA photos of the galaxies and nebulas.)

What are we to conclude from all these variation, all these different subject matters and tones of voice?  Simply this: there are many paths to God. They vary only according to our needs.  

But ultimately all paths lead to God, if followed with open eyes and heart. (And, for me at least, my ears.)

———————————————–

“I’M GOING HOME” LYRICS

Farewell, vain world! I’m going home!
My savior smiles and bids me come,
And I don’t care to stay here long!
Sweet angels beckon me away,
To sing God’s praise in endless day,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

I’m glad that I am born to die,
From grief and woe my soul shall fly,
And I don’t care to stay here long!
Bright angels shall convey me home,
Away to New Jerusalem,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

For more on Shape-Note Singing, see Sacred Harp Singing – YouTube

For more AFRICAN AMERICAN SPIRITUALS, see African American Spirituals Lyrics

Cadaver Impeachment Indeed

I see that Mr. Hans Moleman has just posted a wry reflection on the race to  impeach nearly ex-President Trump before he leaves town.  Hans (I call him Hans because we are good friends) calls this “the Cadaver Impeachment”, referring to the Cadaver Synod that tried and condemned the rotting corpse of former Pope Formosius, in the ninth century AD.  They also repealed all his acts, including his ordinations of bishops. 

 

You can read it at mistermoleman.comHans doesn’t post very often these days (he’s quite old), but when he does it is worth a look.

Efficacy of Prayer?

I am fully convinced of the necessity of prayer (after all, everyone prays), and of the benefit I receive from praying. My prayers change me, internally, in my soul.  St. Thomas Aquinas calls it spiritual refreshment of the mind, and I can truly feel it.

But does it do anything else?  Does it actually benefit or help those I pray for?  If so, why?

Note: I do not ask how; if God wants to grant my prayers, it is certainly within His power.

But why?  Do I have some special “pull” with God?  If I ask Him to heal my sick brother, will He do it because I asked?  Why not heal all who are sick?  Does He then withhold healing from those who have no brother to pray for them? That doesn’t sound like Him.

Aquinas vigorously defends the efficacy of prayer, citing ”impetration”.

“The effect of prayer is threefold. The first is an effect which is common to all acts quickened by charity, and this is merit. The second effect of prayer is proper thereto, and consists in impetration...the original intention, to which God looks chiefly, suffices to attain this effect…The third effect of prayer is that which it produces at once; this is the spiritual refreshment of the mind.”  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II Q. 83 Art. 13)

Impetration being an unfamiliar term, I had to look it up.  The online Catholic Dictionary (1910) says:

(Latin: impetrare, to ask and obtain a request)

(1) The begging of favors.

(2) Theologically, one of the fruits of good works and especially of the Mass and prayer; one of the four ends of the Mass, which regards man. Impetration accompanied by right dispositions and certain conditions will infallibly gain us every gift and avert every evil.

This seems to state that my prayers for my brother’s healing will be granted if I pray with the right dispositions and conditions.  So it depends on me.  But what if I fail to pray for my brother?   Shall he suffer for my sin?  What of those with no one to pray for them?  Suffering for the sins of others is the role of Christ; for the rest of us, Jeremiah’s “sour grapes” injunction (31:29) holds: “Everyone will die for his own sins.”

I know that the Gospels repeatedly and forcefully tell us that God will grant our prayers, if we pray in Jesus’ name.

So my questions all have the same answer.  Yes, prayer (properly prayed) is effective, because Jesus said so.  It is revealed.

Revelation is given to us for those things we cannot ascertain by reason alone.  But revelation should not violate reason; it is to go beyond reason, not to contradict reason.  That is the thrust of Fides Et Ratio, as well as Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture.  On the most basic level of non-self-contradiction, Christianity MUST MAKE SENSE.

I’d really appreciate it If someone can help me make sense of this. 

In the meantime, I’ll just keep on praying.

“Lord, I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

Retirement And Its Uses

What is Retirement?  In one sense, it is a wholly negative term, defined by what it is not.  As darkness is the absence of light, retirement is the absence of work (at least paid work).  A void in time, created for both positive and negative reasons.  The upside is that retirement, if properly prepared for, allows one to live without earning a paycheck.  Savings, Social Security, and pensions can combine to make paid work unnecessary. The negative is that the aging process can reduce or destroy the worker’s ability to continue working.

So retirement is the non-existence of the need to work for pay.   Some continue working in “retirement”, or past the “usual retirement age” defined by Social Security eligibility, for various reasons: poverty (lack of savings), avarice (desire to accumulate wealth beyond need), or because they enjoy their work, or boredom (“what else would I do all day?”).

The “what-else-would-I do-all-day?” folks make an interesting point.  What do retirees do with their time?

They seem busy, but if you ask them what they are busy doing, you get confused answers; they’re not sure why they are so busy, they just are. (Spare me your senility jokes.)

(An enterprising sociology professor should get a big government/NGO grant to study this. An army of clipboard-armed grad students following old people around all day, noting their every move, would certainly liven things up in Phoenix or Broward County.)

All joking aside, the use of time is an issue for everyone; but circumstances push it to the forefront for retirees.

Some clever person has observed that “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”  Coronavirus lockdowns have made this an everyday problem for many.

Time is a difficult thing to wrap one’s hands around.  In old age we have lots of time on our hands but very little time left on earth.  How does one deal with that?  We are told that time is relative, and anyone who has watched the last two minutes of an NFL or NBA game knows that to be true.

Some treat retirement as an extended vacation.  Others maximize social activities or hobbies.  The new-old (younger and healthier) retirees can turn it into a re-lived or re-imagined high school. Their idols are restored classic cars from the 50’s and 60’s.  Retirement communities like The Villages in central Florida cater to all these themes.

So retirement can be like an extended vacation, an endless life of socializing after golf, or an eternal summer before their senior year. (Or a post high-school “gap year” of travel.)

Is there another way of looking at it?

Jewish theologian Abraham J. Heschel touched on an aspect of all this in his essay “The Sabbath: Holiness In Time”.  He posits a contrast between time and space.

“Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time.

Every one of us occupies a portion of space…Yet no one possesses time.  We share time, we own space.

Indeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time… We suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look in its face… ”

For Heschel, the Sabbath is the focal point of the Jewish sense of holiness in time.  And while retirement is generally defined in negative terms (non-work), the Sabbath reverses this.

“The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.  It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.  Three acts of God denoted the Seventh Day: He rested, He blessed, and He hallowed the Seventh Day (Genesis 2:2-3).”

(This may appear similar to the conception of our modern week-end.  As an old song* had it, “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” But that image of the weekend is closer to the high school model than to the Sabbath. Still…)

If the workweek is for the Sabbath, could that mean that the working life is for the retirement?

Prior to the last century, and even now outside the prosperous industrial world, it was and is certainly not the case.  Retirement, if it happened at all, occurred when the worker was no longer of any use in gainful employment, becoming an economic burden on his family (at best).

But here and now, retirement has expanded (even exploded) as a highly desirable, wealthy, and sustainable demographic.  Social Security in all developed countries provides an income floor.  Savings (often tax-sheltered) and private pensions add to the comfort level. The elderly are now, on average, among the most prosperous sectors of our society (there is, of course, a cohort of the elderly poor: but they do not predominate).  One has only to visit retirement communities in Florida, Arizona, or anywhere else warm, to see this.  Golf cart-accessible “villages”, boomer classic car gatherings (high school redux!), and second homes (for those who find Arizona too hot or Florida too muggy in summer) abound.

What’s wrong with that, one may ask? Nothing; but it is not the Sabbath.  It is not holy.

(Of course, modern retirement often resembles the customary modern secular sabbath, devoted to socializing and spectator sports.)

But can retirement be a time for awareness of and participation in the holiness of time?  If not “instead”, then at least “in addition”?  What would that look like?

Daily mass?  Morning and evening prayer?  Time with family?  Volunteering at the hospital, school, or food bank, to help those in need?

In fact, this describes the regular life of many good Catholics, even during their working years.  How much more so could retirement be?

Holiness in time: maybe  it isn’t just for Sundays anymore.

____________________

*1981 song by Canadian band Loverboy, containing the following:

Everybody’s working for the weekend

Everybody wants a little romance

Everybody’s goin’ off the deep end

Everybody needs a second chance,

The album was titled “Get Lucky”.

Moleman on…

My friend Mister Moleman just posted a new mini-essay, and it is worth a look.

Titled “Civilizations Can Die, Too“.  It is about…I can hardly say what.

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. Continue reading

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): Continue reading

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?