Archive for June, 2008

Self-Knowledge in Christ

This Dietrich von Hildebrand fellow is really good. Someone should take an interest in him and try to revive his works or something. Oh, who can we find to do such a thing!

In this passage from Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand makes a distinction between true self-knowledge rooted in the removal of vice from our lives, and a false self-knowledge that seeks to know ourselves merely because we find ourselves to be interesting.

Whenever we take a purely psychological interest in ourselves and thus analyze our character in the manner of mere spectators, we peruse a false and sterile self-knowledge… The fact that the person in question happens to be ourselves merely intensifies our curiosity, without changing its quality. We experience ourselves as we would a character in a novel, without in any way feeling responsible for his defects…

This type of self-knowledge is not rooted in any willingness to change, and so it is completely sterile from the standpoint of moral progress. People who are wont to diagnose their blemishes in this neutral and purely psychological mood will draw from such discoveries no increased power to overcome their defects. On the contrary, such an indolently neutral self-knowledge will make them even more inclined to resign themselves to those defects as a matter of course. They are more remote from the chance of curing those ills than they would if they knew nothing about them. They are often disposed to admit their faults overtly, without restraint or reticence: not however from the motive of humility, nor under the impulse of guilt-consciousness, but because they pique themselves on presenting their vices, a psychologically absorbing sight.

Clearly, this false type of self-knowledge is much more common in our day and age. Rarely do we find anyone who is serious about rooting out sin in their lives. I suspect this is because what used to be thought of as sin is no longer thought of as such. Quite the contrary, what was formerly called a vice is now something to be proud of – one characteristic among many that make up who we are. I like the Beatles. I’m a Green Bay Packers fan. I’m good at math. I enjoy masturbation. (I’m pretty sure I heard this list in my college days).

This is in no way meant to condemn the greater culture, but rather a challenge to those who have been (hopefully) radically transformed by the Gospel message and are thus called to be a light to the world, the salt of the earth. If sin is no longer recognized as such, it is surely our fault. If it is we who are called to “go forth and make disciples of all nations”, then the reason vice is exalted in our age is because we have failed to carry out this commission of Christ. We have failed to proclaim the good news – that Christ is Lord and sin no longer has any power over us.

Does this mean we are to go around condemning the sins of others, “beating them over the head”, as it were, pretending that we are the holy, the few, the true righteous? Of course, not! At the heart of the Gospel message is a love that, while standing firmly in the truth of our moral responsibilities, does not condemn the world. Surely, sin is to be abhorred in all of its forms, but this is not the abhorrence of the self-righteous, but the lament of a lover. When we see someone we love (and we are called to love all, even, and perhaps most especially, our enemies) bound by something we know to be mortally wounding to their soul, it is out of love that we plead for their freedom and salvation. This plea is most immediately raised toward Our Lord, in whom we, and those we love, have such freedom from sin. We intercede on behalf of the beloved, recognizing the stain of sin on our own souls, and that the mercy God has shown us will now be bestowed on the one we love.

Of course, we are to convey our grievous concerns to those whom we have the surety (and often we do not) of sinful behavior. It is our moral duty. But if such a duty, and how tough a duty it is to carry out, is not rooted in love, it will be of little or no avail.


I do not often pontificate like this on my blog. I intend this blog to be more of a commonplace book than a lecture podium, and as such my blog tends to be a collection of quotes from those far more eloquent than I. Only once in a very long while does this commonplace book turn into a journal. I suppose this is one of those times.

As far as the “homily”, I just needed to get this topic off my chest – to think out loud. Of late, I have been struck by the literally overwhelming love of God. I have a hard time putting it into words, as many who know me may be able to attest. Sometimes I think I end up talking about “love” so much and with such ineloquence that I end up explaining God’s love with no more depth than a bumper sticker. I know that love is at the heart of the Gospel. I know love is why Christ came. And more fundamentally, love is why we exist. This is a love so unfathomable that it is beyond all words. It is the love that animated Mother Teresa and the many, many Saints throughout the ages. To quote a great Catholic theologian of the last century, “love alone is credible” – all else fades away and is purged by the fire.

I am often surprised by the numbers of people visiting this blog. I expect many are accidental or very brief visits, and while “all are welcome” (to quote a very bad Catholic hymn) the intended audience is often myself. I publish this post in the knowledge that someone other than myself may find it helpful.


The Sacrifice of Christ at the Heart of the Sacrament of Penance

Dietrich von Hildebrand, quoted from Transformation in Christ (Ignatius Press 2001):

Objectively, even, contrition as such involves a radical inward change (and a change that cannot be accomplished without contrition). The painful evocation and condemnation of past sins, the groping for a new basis of orientation, the movement of reconversion to God – these aspects by themselves testify to an essential inward change. But all this is far from being equivalent to an abolition of the guilt incurred. The disuniting effect of the latter persists, and continues to lie in the path of a reconciliation with God. That guilt can only be eliminated by God’s act of pardon, and be compensated for by the blood of Christ, of which it is said in the hymn of St. Thomas: “Of which a single drop, for sinners split, can purge the entire world from all its guilt.”

The sacrament of Penance, strictly speaking, is not indispensable for redeeming man from his guilt. In regard to a venial sin, the act of repentance itself may be an adequate substitute for the sacrament; in regard to a grave sin, an act of perfect contrition may similarly suffice, provided that confession is impracticable – just as in the baptism of desire and the baptism of blood, an inner act and a heroic action, respectively may stand for the sacrament of Baptism. But even in such cases it is not the indwelling force of the human act of penitence as such which abolishes the guilt; this is done always, and solely, by Christ through His death on the Cross. The change of heart, as implied in contrition, merely opens the path for the influx of the redeeming blood of Christ. Penitence reestablishes the link with Christ, by virtue of which the fruits of Christ’s deed of redemption may be applied to us.

Even the penitence of the Prophets, and all of those who lived before Christ, did not achieve the removal of guilt on its own strength: here, too, the forgiveness of guilt was due to the redeeming sacrifice of Christ.

The Catholic Church In Perspective

I found this wonderful excerpt in the Fall 2003 issue of Communio. This excerpt actually comes third hand from a correspondence between Patricia Buckley Bozell (sister of William F. Buckley Jr.) and Herbert Kenny (former writer and editor for the Boston Globe), reprinted in Communio. The excerpt in question is from Thomas Macaulay, a 19th century politician, historian, and poet. I’m not sure what work of his this is from, but it’s a great perspective on the Catholic Church.

There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. The members of her communion are certainly not fewer than a hundred and fifty millions; and it will be difficult to show that all other Christian sects united amount to a hundred and twenty millions. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

To be sure, there are some points of historical contention in the quoted excerpt, but the point remains the same. The Catholic Church has outlasted all human empires and institutions, and we have every indication that she will outlast many more. It is within this institution we call the Catholic Church, whose history spans the many great eras of the last 2,000 years – from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, to the rise and fall of the Ottoman empire, to the great upheaval of the Reformation, through the age of reason and the age of decadence, and on to our current epoc – that great wisdom is stored. Whether you agree or disagree with this or that particular doctrine or teaching of the Catholic Church, she is an institution whose opinion is to be listened to, charitably. With such a vast storehouse of experience and a history that spans the ages, what has she not seen, and on what can she not offer a profitable insight? She knows humanity better than we do because she has seen much more of it than we have. To ignore the Catholic Church because she is old and (apparently) thus outdated, is like despising the advice of your grandfather on the grounds that he has lived for too many years to possibly know what he is talking about!

The Critique of Pure Reason

No – not the critique of Immanuel Kant, but a rather different critique; that of G.K. Chesterton. From his book, Orthodoxy:

The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion… To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

I suppose you either get this or you don’t. The dream of the Enlightenment is dead. Now what? So far the answer has been post-modernism; subjectivism canonized. But this will not do either. We can’t build our philosophy on the supreme authority of the individual. This leads to nothing, and rids the world of truth; or at the very least, radically redefines what is meant by truth. Surely universals (i.e. truth, beauty, justice, etc.) are apprehended by the individual in a subjective manner, but why should this necessarily imply that universals are non-existent? I wish I knew more philosophy to posit an intellectual answer to the problem thus proposed. I only know enough to know that it is inadequate. And perhaps in the end, Chesterton is right – the attempt to apprehend the universe through the use of pure reason is a dead-end road, leading to madness!

Getting My Mind Off The Flood

In an attempt to get my mind off the flood, I return to posting quotes from those much smarter than I. Here is a great little quote from Transformation in Christ, by Dietrich von Hildebrand (emphasis original):

The unfortunate figure of speech, the Faith of our fathers, is misleading as to the motive for our fidelity towards the Faith; for what can be decisive in this case is only the truth of the Faith, and not the accident that our fathers already happened to believe in it.

Signs of Hope

The first real signs of hope in the midst of this tragic flood appeared today. Cedar Rapids water is operating at 50% – hallelujah! We were at 25% and having to drastically reduce water usage – no showers, no laundry, minimal flushing, bottled water up the yin yang, that sort of thing. Today they put us on an every other day water plan. Today I got to do laundry, wash dishes, take a shower, etc. Tomorrow I will abstain. Back to showering on Tuesday. This will be our life for a week or two, but it’s everything to us at this point. It could be, and has been, much, much worse. We were in serious danger of running out of water by Tuesday or Wednesday, but the city pulled together and drastically reduced water use the last few days, and we were able to get ourselves back up to 50% capacity today. Go Cedar Rapids!

Also today in Cedar Rapids, people are starting to be allowed back into their homes. However, many houses are still unsafe, and as a result the city isn’t letting many back into their homes just yet. This has understandably led to some high tempers on the part of these home owners, but this too shall pass. We’re moving forward, and so far the city leaders have done an incredible job managing this crisis. It hasn’t been perfect – as they themselves admit – but in light of these historic circumstances, I say kudos.

To the south of us, the flood waters in Iowa City have already crested! This is very good news. It was supposed to crest on Tuesday with about a foot and a half more to go. However, today the Army Corps of Engineers said the Iowa River has crested early and below previous estimates. This is great news for the University of Iowa in particular, where several important buildings were in serious danger of extensive flood damage. There has been much too much flooding in the Coralville / Iowa City area, but at least it won’t be as bad as it could have been. So much has been lost already, but after the week we’ve all had, any sort of good news is welcome.

Of course, the long road to recovery begins now. The signs of hope have appeared today, and do give us a small measure of joy. For that we are thankful. The way this city (Cedar Rapids) has pulled together is amazing. I know Iowa City and all of the communities in Eastern Iowa have done the same. The unbelievable amount of human compassion that manifests itself at a time like this is truly something to behold. Self-centeredness is put aside and a true love that extends beyond the self is brought to the fore. It’s the exactly the way God intended us to be! Now why can’t we be like this all the time?

The Flood

As you may not know, I reside in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. If you’ve been watching the national news you know we’re in the midst of a major flood. To paint the picture, some shocking numbers will do the trick. The Cedar River floods at a level of 12 feet. In 1929 the worst flood in recorded history occurred in Cedar Rapids when the river reached an enormous level of 20 feet – that’s 8 feet above flood level. On the news tonight, the city mayor explained that emergency plans are in place to account for a unthinkable flood level of 25 feet. And where are we now? As of this moment, the Cedar River is above 29 feet, and we have yet to crest. The National Weather Service (NWS) estimates we will crest early tomorrow morning at 32 feet! 20 feet above flood level, and 12 feet above the previous record. It’s literally unbelievable.

The river level gauge is broken, and it’s just as well. It only reads to around 26 feet anyway. So these numbers coming from the NWS are based on GPS. They are having a hard time making estimates because nothing like this has ever been seen before. Last night, estimates had the river cresting Friday morning at about 24 feet. Needless to say, we blew past that early this morning and we are fast approaching 32 feet.

Bridges have collapsed. Cars have been seen floating down the river. It looks like a mini New Orleans. Downtown Cedar Rapids is completely evacuated, and neighborhoods to the east and west of me are evacuating due to severe flash flooding. So far, my neighborhood looks safe. I hope. I pray.

These pictures say it all:

See The Gazette website for the full story and pictures. And it goes without saying – please pray for the residents of Cedar Rapids as we go through this difficult time. Many people have lost everything. When the finally river recedes sometime late next week, the clean up effort will be enormous.

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