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December 2007

Sunday Night Journal — December 30, 2007

The Secret History of the Sunday Night Journal

A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.
—James 1:8

The end of 2007 marks the fourth full year since I began this web site and the Sunday Night Journal. It thereby constitutes one of the most sustained efforts at writing that I’ve ever achieved (the other is a not-very-successful children’s or young adults’ story), and I’m very pleased by that.

I started Light on Dark Water mainly as a place to publish miscellaneous writings of mine that had nowhere else to go. It was also an exercise in learning basic HTML and CSS, which I needed in my job. The Sunday journal, which I began very soon after the main site, was something else: a “mind game,” as people used to say in the ‘60s, a psychological trick that I played on myself.

The term “double-minded” might have been invented to describe me. I can almost always see at least two sides of every question; I can never make a decision without a period of miserable vacillation; I can rarely do anything without thinking that I should be doing something else; I can rarely look back at the major decisions of my life without wondering if they were mistakes (except in those cases where I’m certain they were, and the very few which I’m certain were not, such as my entry into the Catholic Church.) My daughter Clare, when she was dependent on me to drive her to school, even diagnosed and named a psychological disorder after my inability to leave home in the morning without going back into the house at least once and otherwise delaying us: Departure Avoidance Disorder, or DAD.

One chronically troublesome aspect of this double-mindedness is that for as long as I can remember I’ve felt a compulsion to write, but have never been able to keep at it for very long. This is partly because I’m lazy and have difficulty concentrating, but in a greater degree because I have to earn a living and fulfill various other responsibilities. Thus writing seems a self-indulgence to which I really have no right, and time spent on it seems stolen from something else that has a better claim to it (at this moment, for instance, I’m harried by the thought that I should be washing one of the dogs). And when I do take time to write, I have trouble deciding what to focus on; the past thirty years are littered with scraps of unfinished work, including a couple of big projects which I was never able to sustain.

I noticed some years ago that I was far more likely to make the time for writing if I had some sense of obligation to do it: if I promised someone a book review, for instance, or when we needed material for Caelum et Terra. If I’m obligated to someone else, I don’t feel so much that writing is an act of theft.

The Sunday Night Journal, then, was a public commitment (however small the public), to write something every week. At first it was mainly just a promise to myself. Soon my web site statistics indicated that there were a few people showing up every week to read the journal—and, voila, a sense of obligation arose, and I had the extra bit of push I needed to keep up the weekly commitment. I haven’t missed a week, even if all I produced was a short note saying that I was okay after a hurricane.

I now have over 200 of these weekly columns, and can look back on the past four years and see that I’ve accomplished something; I haven’t accomplished nothing. If each these pieces is roughly the equivalent of a printed page, I’ve written a short book. The trick worked; I won the mind game I played with myself.

Now I have another problem. After resisting the temptation to start a blog, I finally started using Blogger for my weekly journal, because that made it simpler and easier. Soon it began to turn into a blog in the full sense. I added Music of the Week. The comments feature enabled feedback and many interesting and lively conversations. I began to post more frequently. As I noted when I started the site, I feared a blog would take over my life, and while it hasn’t done that I do spend a fair amount of time on it.

The result is that this site is crowding out other writing projects. I have several essays in mind that would be much too long for blog entries, and I think I could place some of them with a magazine or two. I have dozens of half-finished or barely-begun poems, and some other things that I superstitiously won’t even mention until I’ve made more progress on them.

Now I’m looking for a way to keep doing this, or most of it, and still make some time for other things. I’ve really been enjoying the normal blogging aspect of this site, and I may give up the weekly journal in favor of shorter and more frequent blog posts. I definitely plan to spend less time on the music reviews, and if I can’t make them shorter and less time-consuming I may drop them altogether. I need to reorganize the whole site—there is, for instance, no SNJ index past March 2007, there is no MotW index past 2006, there is no subject index, etc. I’d like to reorganize the whole site, possibly moving it to WordPress, which has facilities for maintaining non-blog entries. And so forth.

So there may be some changes here. One thing I definitely don’t want to give up, though, is the conversational aspect. I’ve been enriched, entertained, and spurred to deeper thought by everyone who comments here. The site does not, if my web stats are accurate, have all that many visitors—a few hundred every week, a handful in comparison to more widely-known blogs—but that’s more than enough to keep me feeling that it’s worthwhile to continue, and I’m gratified that you find the place interesting enough to keep coming back. My thanks to you, and my wishes for a happy new year.

(Here, by the way, is the first Sunday Night Journal )

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A Toast to the Women of Christmas

I know, that sounds like the title of some sleazy Playboy feature. But what I mean is: what a great amount of work the women of the world do to make the Christmas holidays what they are, and what a great deal of appreciation they deserve for it. All the shopping and cooking and decorating and planning...yes, many of the men who live with these women sometimes quietly wonder if they aren’t overdoing it a bit. But in the end, ladies, we’re glad you do it, and hope you didn’t work so hard that you didn’t get to enjoy any of it. Here’s a toast to you. If we were left to our own devices very few people would receive cards or gifts, and we’d probably all end up alone at Christmas, eating leftover pizza and drinking beer and watching old action movies on tv.

(Which actually sounds pretty nice—but come on—not on Christmas Day.)

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Married Love

Arlo and Janis is pretty much my favorite comic strip; Dilbert is the only near competitor. My wife and children have often accused me of secretly being its author, or at least the model for Arlo. He’s not actually that much like me, but we have enough in common that it’s occasionally startling.

My wife and I disagreed about the intention of the Christmas Day strip. She thinks (or at least thought at first—I may have talked her out of it) that the emergence of the sloppy, sleepy, coffee-sipping Janis is a joke at Janis’s expense and an expression of disappointment on the part of Arlo. I say Arlo is delighted by the sight of Janis, even when she’s sloppy and sleepy and clinging desperately to her coffee mug.

I mean, see the look on the guy’s face.

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Party at Midnight

This is where I'll be at midnight tonight.

Oddly, there's a whole web site devoted to the Cathedral, and yet very few good pictures of it. Here is all you get of the windows. You can see the exterior here.

I went to Christmas midnight Mass here about ten years ago, and it was completely ruined by the presence of a TV broadcast crew which shone lights about as bright as the sun directly into the eyes of the congregation. It was miserable, and a classic case of the attempt to capture an event technologically resulting in the ruin of the actual event. Since then, though, the TV people have either improved their technology or adapted their techniques, as they haven't been very intrusive for the past few years.

The building has magnificent acoustics, and the music tonight will be very beautiful (and one of my daughters is in the choir).

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Sunday Night Journal — December 23, 2007

The Shepherd’s Complaint

I’d hoped to have as this week’s journal a presentable first draft of a poem I’ve been working on, but as usual the combination of other demands on my time and my own difficulty in concentrating have kept that from happening. The poem is still some hours’ work away from completion even in rough form, which works out to a couple of weeks of total time. But I’ll give you, briefly, its theme, which I’ve had in mind for some time.

Consider the shepherds whose quiet watch was disturbed by the angels singing on the night Christ was born, who went to see the child lying in the manger, and who “returned, glorifying and praising God.” Into a perfectly ordinary night came this massive shock, this intrusion of something that they probably, like most people, didn’t ordinarily give much thought to. They must have felt that they were living in a new world.

And then, after life went back to normal? As far as I can remember we don’t hear anything else about them in the Bible, nor did the world at large seem to know anything of the coming of the Messiah for another thirty years or so.

So I imagine one of the shepherds many years later, at least disillusioned and perhaps even bitter. He’s middle-aged, at least. He thinks something should have happened by now. There was all that fuss on that one night long ago, and then…nothing. It must have been some kind of false sign, or maybe just a delusion. That’s the way life is, isn’t it? A wonderful and exciting beginning, followed by a slow declension into the same old thing, and, in the end, disappointment, as usual.

Let’s say it’s twenty-eight years later. Traditionally it’s been thought that Jesus began his public ministry at around the age of thirty. So the shepherd is again standing at the brink of great events, of another and greater manifestation of the power of God, but he has no idea that it’s coming. From his observation point in time, nothing has happened, nothing is happening.

That’s the situation of our civilization, and the way we all live our individual lives. It’s easy to scoff at the expectation that God is once again going to intervene, this time bringing an end to earthly history as we have known it. It’s easy to become disheartened about our personal hope of attaining the perfect joy and peace which has haunted our lives since we were born. I said disheartened, but it’s worse than that—it’s easy to give up completely, as most of the post-Christian West has given up.

Yet the end of what we know, the end of our personal lives and the end of history, followed by the beginning of something else which we can hardly imagine, is coming at us at an unknown speed, arriving perhaps tonight or perhaps not for many years yet, perhaps not even for centuries with respect to the world as a whole. But it’s out there somewhere, coming at us still, in the dark and impossible to avoid. Like the shepherds, we’ll have the same old thing until suddenly one day we don’t.

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“Spiritual But Not Religious”

At the risk of annoying readers who are not religous (I think I have a few), I must express my irritation at this popular phrase. It’s both self-congratulatory and far less coherent than those who use it generally seem to realize.

The self-congratulation is in the clear implication that the “spiritual” speaker is superior to those who are merely “religious”—religion is something that defective people get stuck in because they’re incapable of progressing to spirituality.

The incoherence is in the odd usage of the word “spiritual,” which logically refers to something generally denied by the “spiritual but not religious” person: a real non-material world with its own order and inhabitants, in which we participate simultaneously with our participation in the physical world. Instead, it generally refers only to human psychology, and usually to a vague combination of emotion and ethics which can be summed up as a commitment to being nice, in the terms approved by contemporary secular liberalism.

I bring this up not because it’s either appropriate or welcome a few days before Christmas, but because David Mills at Touchstone has just written an excellent short analysis of the problems with it, saying more or less what I just said but more precisely and extensively.

I’m sometimes tempted to say, when I hear this phrase, that I’m religious but not spiritual. But the word “spiritual” is too important to be surrendered so flippantly.

UPDATE: no sooner had I posted this than I thought it required some acknowledgement of those who are genuinely seeking spiritual truth but have not found it, and so might use this phrase to describe themselves. I assure any such person that I intend no disparagement of you or your quest. I do ask you to consider one question: are you really open to the possibility of an answer?

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