Rod Dreher

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To Die In Love


Kara Tippetts is preparing for her death from cancer. She thinks back to having read Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, even before she met the man she would marry. The book is a memoir of the love of its author and his wife Davy, and it how it was transformed after the accepted Christ. She died early.

Absent a miracle, so will Kara, leaving Jason, her pastor husband, and their children behind. In her blog entry (linked above), she quotes a passage from the Vanauken book in which he chose to join Davy on the journey of life:

Still, he thought, looking out across the meadow, still the joy would be worth the pain- if, indeed, they went together. If there were a choice- and he suspected there was- a choice between, on the one hand, the heights and the depths and, on the other hand some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he for one, here and now chose the heights and the depths…..

Kara adds:

Me too Sheldon, me too….

What I thought was love 20 years ago has been beautifully reshaped in hard, grace, suffering- but the heights and the depths- yes. It has all been worth it.

Kara’s book about her cancer journey, The Hardest Peace, will be out in October; you can pre-order it on Amazon. I’ve read it, and it’s deeply moving. The long passage in which she writes about praying for the woman who may follow her, and love her husband, and care for her children — well, it tore me up. In a good way, but still. There’s real power in this luminous story. If you don’t follow Kara’s blog, please consider doing so.

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The Lies, The Endless Lies

Minnesota Public Radio’s Madeleine Baran is doing an incredible job of reporting on the roots of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’s current clerical sex abuse scandal. I was stunned to discover from her reporting that the present-day scandals there have their roots in the Diocese of Lafayette, La.

She got her hands on some unsealed court records and went down to south Louisiana to talk to people who knew former Minneapolis bishop Harry Flynn when he was made a bishop and sent to Lafayette to clean up the mess left behind by his predecessor, who allowed the convicted child molester Fr. Gilbert Gauthe stay in ministry, despite knowing that he was raping boys. Bishop Flynn came to town with an agenda to heal the Church. When he left town years later, his reputation as a caring bishop who went the extra mile to rebuild the diocese and to help the families of the abused boys carried him to Minneapolis. Later, after Boston broke big, he became the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ point man on dealing with the sex abuse scandal. Who better than Harry Flynn, right?

Except, reports Baran, everything people thought they knew about Archbishop Flynn was a lie. Excerpts:

Another Catholic attorney who had represented victims, Anthony Fontana, was frustrated in his efforts to get the bishop’s attention. “There’s another problem you need to know about,” he told Flynn. A Lafayette priest named Gilbert Dutel had been accused of coercing young adult men into having sex.

Flynn offered a calm reply. He explained that Dutel was cured and that, regardless, he needed to keep him in ministry because of the priest shortage.

Fontana said that in a sworn affidavit that was part of the 1990s lawsuit. More:

The files do not support the claim that Flynn healed the diocese. They also contain no suggestion that Flynn called police about priests accused of sexually assaulting children. Hundreds of documents reveal that Flynn’s diocese used many of the same aggressive legal tactics that he would later employ in the Twin Cities.

Attorneys hired by the diocese argued that victims waited too long to come forward and that the public didn’t need to know the names of accused priests. The diocese fought efforts by victims to seek compensation from the church and focused on keeping the scandal as private as possible, which meant that fewer victims came forward to sue.

In the case of Dutel, the documents show, the allegations weren’t limited to young adults. Dutel had also been accused of sexually abusing a child. In an interview with a lawyer in 1992, the alleged victim said Dutel had abused him in the 1970s, starting when he was 9 years old.

Still, Flynn kept Dutel in ministry. No records exist of any reports to police.

Dutel, 69, now serves as the pastor of St. Edmond Catholic Church in Lafayette. Over the 22 years since his accuser came forward, Dutel has worked in elementary and high schools and served in several parishes. There’s even a playground named after him.

Reached last week, Dutel denied the allegations and declined to say whether Flynn had informed him of the complaints: “I have a sense that I am not sure that I should be talking to you, because I don’t know where this information is coming from.” He declined an offer from MPR News to send him the documents for his review.

To this very day, Fr. Dutel is a pastor in the diocese, despite the Charter, despite all the promises.

Baran went to talk to the Gauthe victim families in the diocese. They remember Bishop Flynn as more interested in appearing to care about what had been done to their sons than actually caring. Wayne Sagrera, father of three — three! — boys molested by Fr. Gauthe, was one of the ones who met with him, but didn’t get anywhere. More:

Wayne Sagrera hadn’t given up on Flynn, though, and wondered if it would be better to meet with him alone. In several private meetings, he pleaded with Flynn to reach out to the parishes where Gauthe had served to find other victims and offer them counseling.

He told the new bishop that Gauthe had acknowledged abusing hundreds of children, but that only a few dozen had come forward. He worried about the other kids, particularly because many of the parents were in denial about what had happened.

Flynn’s response startled him. Flynn admitted that the church had been wrong to keep Gauthe in ministry and that it had mishandled the entire situation. But, he explained, there was nothing he could do.

“He used the excuse that he made a vow to protect the church,” Wayne Sagrera recalled. “He made it very plain that the church came first…On numerous occasions he admitted they were at fault, but he would not come forward and do anything about it.”

Wayne was furious. “I guess maybe I’m a little bit simple a human being, but to me your responsibility lies with your parishioners, not with the church,” he said.

In that grieving, angry father’s quote is one of the core issues of this thing: clericalism. Flynn thought that “the Church” was the institution and the hierarchy, and so, apparently, does Wayne Sagrera. If Baran’s account is accurate, the Sagrera family, as well as the families of so many other molested kids, were just collateral damage for the sake of maintaining a false front for the Church, and advancing Harry Flynn’s career.

Read the whole thing.  And you might want to read Chapter 2, where Baran reports on how Flynn’s predecessor in Minneapolis, Archbishop John Roach, covered for some horrible characters, including caring for a convicted pedophile named Fr. Gil Gustafson, who molested a boy named Brian Herrity. Abp Roach and his clerical leadership team worked out ways to make sure Fr. Gustafson was taken care of, including, according to documents, making an arrangement to quietly get disability payments to Gustafson under an arrangement that the archdiocesan chancellor, Fr. Kevin McDonough, wrote ”provided both of our institutions with a certain ‘deniability,’ so that we could use [Gustafson's] gifts without having to confront the concerns and even prejudice in the minds of some.” From Baran’s narrative:

Meanwhile, the Herrity family struggled. Brian’s classmates at Hill-Murray High School ridiculed him for having sex with a priest. The bullying got so bad that he transferred to a public school. The family stopped attending Mass.

Brian turned to drugs and alcohol and sought comfort in anonymous sexual encounters with men. In his mid-20s, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive.

“I watched my son, who was a loving little boy who used to get on my lap and watch football and giggle and just very innocent, go from that to something I couldn’t even explain,” Jeff Herrity said in a recent interview. “They murdered my child.”

When Brian fell ill, he moved back into his old bedroom and made a tape recording. “Hi, my name is Brian Herrity and the reason why I’m making this tape is because I know I’m dying of AIDS,” he said softly into the microphone. “And I feel a little awkward doing this but I hope that in the future, whoever happens to come across this tape and maybe if God puts this tape in your life for a reason that it will have some impact on somebody else’s life.”

He continued, “At 14 years old, well, I’d seen a lot of life. I’d been sexually abused by a Catholic priest for five years…torn up in court systems, left feeling even lonelier than I’d started.”

It wasn’t until Nov. 30, 1994 — more than a decade after Gustafson’s conviction — that Roach agreed to meet with Brian.

The archbishop described the meeting in a memo. “The principal thing that he is concerned about is that he feels that his life could have taken a different turn had he not been abused, and he wanted to say that. I listened to that and I think we had a good conversation.

“My guess is that that closes the chapter on this. His is a very sad story.”

Brian Herrity died the following year. He was 28.

How do parents trust after all this? Mind you, the Gauthe and Herrity cases happened a couple of decades ago, but the only reason it’s in the news now is that Catholics in Minneapolis today, right this second, are dealing with the ongoing legacies of Roach — who was very close to Cardinal Bernardin — and Flynn and now, Archbishop Nienstedt.

What’s it going to take to change all this? What? More happy talk and assurances from the hierarchy that All Is Well, and the Bad Years Are Behind Us?

And lest anybody think I’m only talking about the Catholic Church, I’m not. Staying a faithful Christian has meant having to take refuge in a tower of mistrust of institutional religion. It may not be the right thing to do, but you read these Baran stories, and you realize that these are not uncommon, and that it’s not just the Catholic Church (see here and here for how an Orthodox hierarchy moved to protect priests, with little thought for the laity).

The other day I was talking with a friend about the TV series The Wire. He said that the big lesson of The Wire is that within any institution — he mentioned the police department, political bureaucracies, and educational bureaucracies — corruption sets in when individuals within that institution start to identify good and evil with what is perceived to be in the institution’s best interest. The church is no different. The problem is that the stakes are so much higher when we are talking about people’s souls. No wonder Dante, in Canto XXI of Paradiso, depicted the rage of St. Peter Damian and the other saints in heaven howling against corruption in the Church as being louder than thunder.

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If Only Harper Lee Had Moved To Greenwich Village

"Please help a Southern writer, Dwight Garner, while he still has a life of the mind!"

“Please help a Southern writer, Dwight Garner, while he still has a life of the mind!”

New York Times book critic Dwight Garner is exceptionally good at his job, but boy, is this bit from his pan of a new biography of To Kill A Mockingbird writer Harper Lee a groaner:

“The Mockingbird Next Door” conjured mostly sad images in my mind. Ms. Lee has a regular booth at McDonald’s, where she goes for coffee. She eats takeout salads from Burger King on movie night. When she fishes, she uses wieners for bait. She feeds the town ducks daily, with seed corn from a plastic Cool Whip Free container, calling “Woo-hoo-HOO! Woo-hoo-HOO!” Somehow learning all this is worse than it would be to learn that she steals money from a local orphanage.

Dear God. Burger King salads and coffee from McDonalds. But the elderly Southern writer has not yet descended into scavenging from the garbage cans of Monroeville, Ala., for sustenance, intellectual and otherwise. Says Garner:

 There are hints of a life of the mind. She keeps British periodicals in the house…

Note to self: if Dwight Garner is to review my future books, do not let him know about my penchant for reading literary criticism while shoving a Super Sonic No. 2 with a Route 44 Coke Zero down my rusticated Southern gob. He’ll wonder, with sadness, how on earth I learned breathe through my nose.

Hat tip: Gawker, which remarks:

It’s irritating enough that conservatives charge intellectuals with elitism all the time; we don’t need to give them this sort of fuel for the fire! Funny this needs to be said but actually, drinking McDonald’s coffee will not keep you from reading the London Review of Books, last I checked.

Now, now, what would we do without the Times? Today it published a classic bit of old-fashioned Americana: a nostalgic essay by a writer reflecting on the golden-hued days of childhood when she had a penis.

UPDATE: Peter Lawler says this is evidence that I’ve come down off my crunchy-con culinary high horse.  Well, no, not really, because see, I’ve always loved Sonic, and never been embarrassed about it. It is superb junk food. But it is junk food, and not to be eaten as normative. Ours is a very conservative part of the world, but my cousin, who teaches culinary arts in the local high school, says that despite all the fresh vegetables that grow around here, so many kids eat almost nothing but junk food for every meal. So there’s that. How can that be a conservative way to approach food and the culture of food, unless conservatism re: food is nothing more than fulfilling individual preferences? You have an entire generation of kids around here who know all about Sonic french fries, but are alien to turnip greens, which generations around here have eaten.

This is an old argument. Still, I wanted to note this again. Also, “rusticated gob” is meant sarcastically. That is all.

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View From Your Table

Beachy Head, South Downs National Park, England

Beachy Head, South Downs National Park, England

James C. writes:

I’m sitting on the cliff edge of the Sceptered Isle, gazing longingly across to ma belle France. Those Lilliputians you see on the cliff behind you are full-size people—Beachy Head rises 531 feet out of the sea!

Being so close, my Francophilia flared up and I decided to bring a bottle of dry Breton cider to go with my tartelette aux pommes, croissant and pain au chocolat. Why the pastries? I needed the energy; I had a 5-mile hike ahead of me, undulating up and down the famed, brilliantly chalky Seven Sisters.

And all in a day from Cambridge. What a blessing and a joy to be able to do such things. Laus Deo!

As the concertgoer said to Beethoven, “Once again, maestro, you have surpassed yourself.”

Travel, food, and a heart full of gratitude to God from Whom all good things come — that’s the good life.

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Clinging To Guns, Religion, Conservatism — And Happiness


Louisiana is the happiest state, and the South is the happiest region. Poor and backwards as we are, and clinging to our guns and religion as we do. From the Wall Street Journal’s Marketwatch blog:

Cheer up, Big Apple residents — New York City is the most unhappy city in America.

That’s according to data coming from a working paper by Harvard professor Edward Glaeser, Vancouver School of Economics professor Joshua Gottlieb and Harvard doctoral student Oren Ziv. They used data collected in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and then adjusted it for age, sex, race, income and other factors. (Such adjustments are important — women, for instance, are happier than men; the married are happier than single or divorced respondents; and so on.)

The top five happiest cities in the country are all in Louisiana. I’m just sayin’.

According to this model, with the possible exception of Chicago (whence our president) and the Rust Belt, the most miserable region in the US is the corridor between Boston and DC and its suburbs — where the major American media are headquartered, and the cultural elite. Southern California, home of the American dream factory, is also pretty miserable.

But Harvard’s Edward Glaeser says happiness is not all it’s cracked up to be. Excerpt:

Consider Boston vs. Galveston. Never mind Boston’s tough winters — the city is a competitive, intense environment to live in year-round. Being around smart people, of which Boston has many, means being very aware of your own limitations. (There’s a reason people are less happy when they have rich neighbors.) But if living in a maelstrom of talent doesn’t naturally lead to self-satisfaction — and constantly being reminded of our shortcomings — it does lead to achievement. Aspiring biomedical researchers may sacrifice happiness and life-satisfaction, but they get colleagues who can help them produce ideas that can change the world.

He has a point, certainly. People in Louisiana are poorer than people in most states. But they are more grateful for what they have, it would seem, are more religiously oriented, and know how to enjoy life more. Could this same dynamic be at work across the South?

It’s true you aren’t going to turn Louisiana into the Boston-NYC-DC corridor, no how, no way. I think I can live with that.

photo (7) copy


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A Doctor’s-Eye View On Death

I’ve been meaning to post this searching WaPo op-ed from a doctor who, based on his observation at the bedsides of the dying, says we have unrealistic views of death. Excerpts:

I head to the ER. If I’m lucky, the family will accept the news that, in a time when we can separate conjoined twins and reattach severed limbs, people still wear out and die of old age. If I’m lucky, the family will recognize that their loved one’s life is nearing its end.

But I’m not always lucky. The family may ask me to use my physician superpowers to push the patient’s tired body further down the road, with little thought as to whether the additional suffering to get there will be worth it. For many Americans, modern medical advances have made death seem more like an option than an obligation. We want our loved ones to live as long as possible, but our culture has come to view death as a medical failure rather than life’s natural conclusion.


With unrealistic expectations of our ability to prolong life, with death as an unfamiliar and unnatural event, and without a realistic, tactile sense of how much a worn-out elderly patient is suffering, it’s easy for patients and families to keep insisting on more tests, more medications, more procedures.

Doing something often feels better than doing nothing. Inaction feeds the sense of guilt-ridden ineptness family members already feel as they ask themselves, “Why can’t I do more for this person I love so much?”

Opting to try all forms of medical treatment and procedures to assuage this guilt is also emotional life insurance: When their loved one does die, family members can tell themselves, “We did everything we could for Mom.” In my experience, this is a stronger inclination than the equally valid (and perhaps more honest) admission that “we sure put Dad through the wringer those last few months.”

At a certain stage of life, aggressive medical treatment can become sanctioned torture.

Read the whole thing.

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American Laïcité, Or, Religion As Tobacco

Erin Manning on how America is losing its former idea of religion in public life — as a positive good, though one that must live within certain boundaries — and becoming more like the French, with their policy of laïcité, which sees religion as a threat that should be walled off from public life. Erin writes:

One more thing: it occurred to me today that people used to think of being religious sort of like being patriotic. Nobody expected patriotic people to display that patriotism only on July 4th, to express patriotism only on national holidays or during parades, or to put up an American flag only if the ACLU didn’t mind, if the flag wasn’t visible from a public roadway, if no funds from non-patriotic taxpayers went to support the flag display, and only if the person putting up the display of an American flag also included the flags of six or seven other nations, several states, and at least one Native American tribe.

If a patriotic person was likely to wear red, white, and blue attire at work, this was not a problem unless there was a required uniform of a different color or the article of apparel in question was a safety hazard (e.g. a cap or a tie on a factory worker using dangerous machinery). Otherwise, patriotic people were viewed positively, and there may even have been a sense that they made good workers, good neighbors, and good friends. Their values were appreciated, and even if the more vocal of them could get carried away at times to a degree the more ordinary patriot might find excessive, there would usually be a good reason for it (e.g., the excessive patriot might have served in war, or might have immigrant parents, or might have another reason to display such strong patriotic sentiment or act on such strongly patriotic ideals).

As I said above, being religious was seen in vaguely the same way. Most people thought that religious belief was generally a positive thing, that religious believers were good workers, good neighbors, and good friends. There was a notion, sometimes even actually expressed, that ideals about morality and virtue coming from the various expressions of Christianity that were dominant in America were generally good things, and helped make good citizens.

Today, though, religious believers are viewed like smokers. If you must have such a dangerous, non-scientific, outdated, and obnoxious habit, you should keep it to yourself! Nobody seems to think religion is generally a good idea, or that religious beliefs are generally good things for the community and for America as a whole. Religion ought only to be practiced in certain designated areas, where the potential danger of secondhand exposure to the damaging ugliness of religious thought and belief is kept to a minimum. Any government privileges extended to churches or religious groups are as ridiculous as federal subsidies to tobacco farms and ought to be ended, and as an incremental approach to ending them we ought to begin by making it impossible for people of faith to work as federal contractors or in any way that involves the use of any federal monies. The next step will be to argue that tax exemption for religious groups or churches is every bit as immoral as tobacco subsidies, since religion never did anybody any good, and actually does a great deal of harm (in particular to the fragile self-esteem of sexual minorities, who don’t mind at all if you call heterosexual adulterers “sinners” so long as you are never allowed to criticize any other sexual behavior, specifically theirs).

Because everybody just “knows” that religious believers are fundamentally wrong about everything, but especially about the possible impact of an age of faithlessness on humanity. Oh, sure, the out-of-wedlock birth rate is at 40% and rising, the shattering social, economic, emotional and personal costs of rampant divorce keep surging along, the U.S. fertility rate hit (another!) record low last September with only 63 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44, the first wave of retiring Baby Boomers is starting to impact Social Security as the disparity between retirees and workers paying in to the system grows, international instability both economic and otherwise has sent growing numbers of undocumented immigrants into our nation with no end to the increase in sight, the NY Times recently discussed the stalling out of the economic recovery–but none of that has the least bit to do with faith, morality, or virtue, which is why forcing religious believers to kowtow to the hostile secularist forces in government is the right thing to do, and the right side of history to be on.

We successfully turned smokers into outcasts, so why not religious believers? Why pretend that there was ever anything good about faith, or the moral and ethical codes which came from it?

That’s where we are now.

Yes, but the tame forms of religion, the ones that endorse what James Poulos, in a brilliant coinage, calls the “pink police state,” will be welcomed because they pose no threat. Poulos once explained the pink police state concept this way:

The Pink Police State is a more extreme version of a regime I use to taunt my libertarian friends in my essay on ‘The Sex Vote‘ that’s just been published in Doublethink. I worry, and I think we should all worry, about the way cultural libertarianism is snowballing while the snowball of political libertarianism rolls deeper into hell. I’m aghast at the shrug with which many self-styled libertarians greet massive government, so long as it’s run by people with ‘enlightened’ attitudes about pleasure-seeking. It’s not death to the state these libertarians want, it’s the state as cool parent, with a stripper pole in every pot. I’ve actually had one good libertarian friend argue straight-faced that the solution to the drug problem is a monopoly partnership between Washington and Walmart. Well, with solutions like that, who needs problems? And of course you get that kind of institutionalized approach from fans of legal prostitution. It’s almost as if libertarians are willing to let the state regulate everything so long as everything’s decriminalized.

On top of this, we all know how intimately sex — or at least images of sex and talk about sex, alas — has become a part of everyday life. What gives me fear is the idea, which large numbers of people seem to be buying into, that a growing sphere of libertinistic freedoms compensates (or more than compensates!) for our shrinking spheres of political liberty and the practice of citizenship.

Fewer churches, more transgender bathrooms, and Big Sister everywhere. It’s the secularist-progressive New Jerusalem.

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Paradiso, Canto XXI

In church yesterday, my priest talked about patience and diligence in the spiritual life. We often expect instant, or at least quick, results from our spiritual labors, and when those results don’t come on our timetable, we grow discouraged. The spiritual life seems fruitless. Why is it, we may think, that we keep coming back to confession with the same old sins? Why isn’t this doing any good? Why don’t I feel God’s presence? And so forth.

This, he says, is a trap. We don’t stop taking medicine because our healing is taking longer than we think it should. Perhaps we don’t understand our condition as well as we think we do. Doctor, we may think, give me stronger medicine. I’m tired of being in pain. The doctor knows what we don’t: that we are too weak to take medicine any stronger than what we’re being given now. A more potent draft may do us good later, but if we receive it too soon, it may kill us.

This is not a prescription for spiritual self-satisfaction, but rather for measure, and patience, and diligence on the long pilgrimage to restoration.

Hearing this, I thought of the opening lines from Canto XXI. Dante and Beatrice have ascended to the realm of Saturn, the heaven of the contemplatives. The pilgrim says:

By now I had my eyes fixed once again

upon my lady’s face, and with my eyes,

my mind, which was oblivious of all else.


She was not smiling, but, “Were I to smile,”

she said to me, “What Semele became

you would become, burned to a heap of ashes:


my beauty, as you have already seen,

becomes more radiant with every step

of the eternal palace that we climb,


and if it were not tempered, such effulgence

would strike your sight the way a bolt of lightning

shatters the leafy branches of a tree.

In Greek mythology, Zeus appeared to his priestess Semele, in the guise of an eagle. He promised to grant her anything she desired. She asked to be allowed to see his face, as proof that he was a god, indeed, the king of all the gods. Zeus pleaded with her to withdraw the request, but she would not; his oath required him to grant it. When Zeus revealed himself, the power of his majesty destroyed her. She was a mere mortal, and mortals cannot gaze upon divinity without being consumed.

The lesson is that God, like love, must be concealed or shrouded for us to relate to it. To take it pure is to court annihilation. There are limits built into our nature.

Beatrice, who can read Dante’s mind, is telling him not to be overeager to know what he shouldn’t know, what he isn’t capable of knowing, and seeing, without being destroyed. In Canto XXVI of Inferno, the wayfarer Odysseus goes to his own death because he ignored warnings not to journey beyond the edge of the known universe, lest he perish. Beatrice has been telling Dante as they rise through the heavens that his spiritual strength is growing with each new level, and that he will, in the end, be able to bear the weight of God’s glory.

But not just yet — and some things will forever be unknowable, even when our nature is perfected in Paradise. In the Seventh Heaven, Dante sees Jacob’s Ladder, and down it radiant souls ascending. In the Benedictine tradition, Jacob’s Ladder symbolizes humility as the way to God. Here, the contemplatives are so humble and full of love that they do not wait for the pilgrim to ascend, but rather come down to meet him.

He first meets St. Peter Damian, a renowned 11th-century Benedictine ascetic, reformer (he wrote a book scathingly condemning sexually corrupt priests, especially those who corrupt boys), and Doctor of the Church. Dante asks him to explain the mystery of predestination. The saint tells him that some questions are beyond the ability of created beings, even in their perfected heavenly state, to answer. He instructs Dante to return to earth and tell others not to ask questions that cannot ever be satisfactorily answered. We see that the saint is absolutely radiant with love, indicating the clarity of his spiritual vision and the purity of his unity with God. The point here is that to know God fully is to know what God knows — an impossibility for a finite creature — but rather be united with Him in love, which means accepting His will perfectly. If He has willed some things to be beyond the ken of man, then we will not know peace until we accept that with joy.

Peter Damian — again, a great ascetic — goes on to lament the corruption of the Church on earth, which he describes as fat:

Your modern pastors need all kinds of help:

one here, one there, to lead, to prop and hold

up their behinds — they are so full of food…

Dante arrived in this heaven asking St. Peter Damian why the heaven of the contemplatives is so silent, when all the other heavens ring out with glorious music. The saint explains that there is no music there for the same reason that Beatrice does not smile: the blessed withhold sound because Dante is not strong enough to hear it as it is. They are trying to teach Dante that sometimes, God is better known in silence, in solemnity, in asceticism. The sound of the contemplatives’ silence is, in a spiritual sense, deafening.

We receive an intimation of this at the end, after the saint has denounced the corrupt clergy, this happens:

As he spoke these last words, I saw more flames

descending, whirling rung to rung, and they

grew lovelier with every whirl they made.


Around this light they came to rest, and then,

in one voice all those lights let out a cry

the sound of which no one on earth has heard –


nor could I hear their words for all the thunder.

See what happened here? The glory of God as manifested through these saints was so aurally overwhelming that communication between the pilgrim and the saints became impossible. “For all the thunder” recalls Beatrice’s warning about Semele and the lightning (she was incinerated by Zeus’s thunderbolt). Dante has gotten off light here; he simply could not understand what the contemplatives were shouting in unison. As Beatrice explains at the beginning of the next canto, they were calling out for justice to be delivered to the corrupt pope, bishops, priests and monks.

This is such a rich set of imagery because the contemplatives are generally understood to be committed to silence. The spiritual lesson for us is that we should not mistake silence for a lack of activity. Spiritual realities are not always apparent, and in fact are usually hidden from our eyes. Even those who have given themselves over to prayer, contemplation, and a life of apparent tranquility can be doing tremendous work. Still waters, as they say, run deep, and their currents can be extraordinarily potent on a culture beyond the cloister. By seeming to be disconnected from the life of the world, contemplatives may in fact be thoroughly engaged with it. No contemplative exemplifies this more perfectly than St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism, whom Dante will meet in the next canto.

So, we must keep in mind as we deal with frustration at what seems to us like our own lack of spiritual progress, that we may, in fact, be making real gains, despite our weakness and poverty. And we may be proceeding exactly as fast and as far as we can, given our spiritual state. I suggested this to my priest, who said yes, this is true. In the same way, however, it’s also true that we often cannot perceive the depths of spiritual corruption of our own hearts, because that too would be unbearable. God’s mercy to us consists in part of keeping us shielded to a certain degree from our actual condition, because, so to speak, the shock of it might kill us.

Reading this canto, I think of how I sought to know everything I could about the same kind of clerical scandal that St. Peter Damian fought so hard against … and I got my wish. I didn’t seek that knowledge out because of curiosity. I sought it to join the fight against it. To do good. But I was not spiritually prepared for it, and it very nearly destroyed my faith. As I’ve said many times before, if I had spent all the years prior to that in prayer, study, and contemplation instead of busying myself with Church politics, and thinking that marked me as an engaged Christian, I would have been much better prepared to face the true spiritual darkness within the Church, and to combat it. That’s a mistake that God willing, I won’t make again. One who rushes into battle without training and conditioning, and without a sure knowledge of his own limitations, is a fool. A brave fool, perhaps, and certainly an ardent fool. But a fool.

If it’s true that you shouldn’t ask questions that are unanswerable, it’s also the case that you shouldn’t ask questions the answers to which you’re not prepared to hear. Likewise, you shouldn’t seek to see things, the unveiled reality of which could turn you to stone.

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Great Move, Putin

If anything could make the world reconsider the likelihood that the Moscow-backed Ukraine rebels shot down MH 17, surely it’s the rebels’ seizing the bodies of the dead  and holding them as prisoners of war. Excerpt:

Pro-Russian separatist militiamen have seized custody of the bodies of about 200 victims of the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that was blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile, Ukrainian officials said on Sunday, and rebels continued to limit access to the crash site in eastern Ukraine, blocking the work of experts even as hundreds of untrained local volunteers were picking through the wreckage with sticks.

Ukrainian emergency responders, working under the watchful eyes of armed rebels, had recovered 196 bodies from the area where Flight 17, a Boeing 777 carrying 298 passengers and crew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, crashed and burned on Thursday afternoon.

But the responders were forced to turn the bodies over to the separatists, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said at a briefing in Kiev on Sunday. Mr. Lysenko said officials believed that 38 of those bodies were taken to the morgue in Donetsk, a regional capital that is controlled by separatists.

More from The Guardian. 

Great move, rebels. Great move, Putin. That’s the way to win the hearts and minds of the world.

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View From Your Late Night Pop-Up Cochon De Lait


Julie and I had turned in for the evening, just shy of midnight. She was checking her e-mail, and said, “A friend of mine says they’re smoking a pig all night long in the Bird Man parking lot, for that pop-up kitchen thing tomorrow night.”

Naturally, we got out of bed, put our pants on, packed the cooler with beer, and went.

It was just the best thing. It’s 2:30 am, we’re back in bed, smelling of beer, wood smoke, and T-Bone (the dog, above). God bless Louisiana! I mean it. Why are you not living here?! Look:









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