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April 2008

A Question About Guardian Angels

I have a slightly odd question which perhaps can be answered by some of you who either have a lot more theological knowledge than I do, or grew up Catholic and know bits of informal lore that I don't, or both: is it possible to pray to someone else's guardian angel? I'm thinking of the situation where you know the person in question is not doing it. Arguably it's irrelevant if you're going to pray directly to God for that person anyway, but then you could say that about all intercessory prayer to Mary, saints, and angels, not to mention the basic idea of the guardian angel. Anyway, I was wondering, and a few minutes with Google didn't give me an answer.


Sunday Night Journal — April 27, 2008

Men, Women, Sex, and Reality

Sophia blushed and half smiled; but, forcing again her brow into a frown—“If I am to judge,” said she, “of the future by the past, my image will no more remain in your heart when I am out of your sight, than it will in this glass when I am out of the room.”

“By heaven, by all that is sacred!” said Jones, “it never was out of my heart. The delicacy of your sex cannot conceive the grossness of ours, nor how little one sort of amour has to do with the heart.”

“I will never marry a man,” replied Sophia, very gravely, ”who shall not learn refinement enough to be as incapable as I am myself of making such a distinction.”

—Fielding, Tom Jones

Tom, in this scene, is trying to persuade his true love, Sophia, that his several sexual encounters with other women had nothing to do with his heart and with his love for her. Not all women are “incapable” of making the distinction to which Sophia refers, but much grief in the realm of love and marriage, and therefore in human life altogether, arises from the fact that the separation of sex from both love and procreation does come far more easily to men than to women. Try as we may to deny it in the name of equality, I am convinced that this is a fact, and one so obvious that I won’t bother to defend it.

Of course there are exceptions. Some women are physically stronger than some men, but that doesn’t change the fact that most men are physically stronger than most women. Some women treat sex like most men do; some men treat it like most women do. But the generalization holds true. As my wife put it recently, in her straightforward and succinct way: “Men don’t get how important the love part is to women.”

It makes sense that women would grasp the sex-love-children connection more readily than men; it’s built into their bodies. I think it generally takes a real (although perhaps unconscious) effort on a woman’s part (or the effects of drugs or alcohol) for her to shut out the knowledge that the man in her arms may be the father of her child, and therefore the person to whom she should be devoted, and who should be devoted to her. In any case I think it’s pretty obvious that it is generally more difficult for a woman to separate love from sex, and that it requires something like an act of self-injury for her to do it on a continuing basis. The usual result of this self-inflicted violence is anger and depression, on display among women everywhere in the modern world, especially, these days, among younger women.

I’ll go a bit further and say that the body-soul separation is not as pronounced—not as clear and severe—in women as it is in men. I’ve said before that it seems to me that women are their bodies in a way that men are not—that is, in the way they perceive themselves, the way they view their relationship to the world. And when a woman gives her body it is difficult for her not to give her heart. And when she freely gives both her heart and her body she has given her whole self, often irrevocably. I quote my wife again, describing the life of a friend whose whole life was affected by what could be described as the gravitational pull of an early love affair in which she gave all: “It didn’t mean much to him, but to her it meant everything.”

And although it opens the woman to heartbreak, this is the way it ought to be; in this respect woman’s instincts are more healthy and whole, less fallen, closer to what God intends, than man’s. A man is more likely to feel his body as something separate from him, something he inhabits. It is generally easier for him to treat sex as a pure physical pleasure, not only without commitment but quite possibly without any affection at all. And if a child is conceived there is no physical reason why he can’t walk away from the situation, or indeed why he should even know that it has occurred. (I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that women are not as capable as men of using sex in a dishonest, exploitative, and generally sinful way; they certainly are, but it’s usually in a different and more complex way than men.)

So from a very worldly point of view it might seem that men have an easier time, and that the simple biology of being human is unfair to women.

But that’s a superficial way of looking at it. The spiritual reality is the same for both men and women, and one day men will see it. They—I guess I had better say “we”—we will see that every sexual act involved our souls, whether we knew it or not. Our biological good fortune creates an illusion: we are like people who can’t feel pain, and so can suffer terrible injuries without realizing it. The damage is done whether we feel it or not, and greater than it might have been had our senses told us of the danger. The burned fingers no longer grasp; the broken leg no longer supports.

This is another example of the truth Jesus keeps trying to get us to understand, with only limited success: that the way we see things is not the way God sees them, and that in fact the two may be directly opposed—the first shall be last, and the last shall be first; the one who suffers most is given most. Men may scorn as weak the vulnerable heart of the woman, and think ourselves strong because we don’t feel the same pain; we may be pleased that sex is a thing we do, not a gift of our essential being. But we bring a curse upon ourselves:

you will say That
is a dead thing

and you will be talking about the entry
to a chamber of your heart

you will say of that door
It is a thing

and you will be speaking of your heart

—W. S. Merwin, “A Door”


Music of the Week: El Perro del Mar

El Perro del Mar (self-titled)

Well, here’s a Swedish girl with a Spanish pseudonym (meaning “dog of the sea,” I’m told, or maybe just “sea dog”) singing in English in a distinctly American style. One track from this album, “God Knows,” was offered as a free track on eMusic, and on the strength of that, and a good review, I downloaded the whole album.

It’s a pretty slight affair, ten songs in thirty-three minutes, and most of the songs themselves are slight to a fault. El Perro is a good, rather mournful singer, and there’s a lot of potential here, but although the songs are tuneful and very nicely arranged most of them are too simple and repetitive to maintain my interest. Musical repetition is ok in pop music, up to a point, lyrical repetition less so for me. Many of these songs have both, with the result that at an average of three minutes each, some of them still seem to go on too long. Here, for instance, is the complete lyric for “Dog”, as best I can make it out:

All the feeling you got for me
Is that for a dog
Oh what a feeling
Oh what a feeling for a dog

The album has a saving grace, though, in the vocal arrangements. I’m not sure who first had the idea of giving a minor, melancholy, nostalgic twist to “shoobeedoowop.” “sha-la-la,” and other nonsense vocalizations of ‘50s and early ‘60s girl-group pop. The first time I remember hearing it was in the chorus of Eurhythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again.” The masterpiece of this bent-nostalgia sound, at least as far as I know, is Julee Cruise’s Floating Into the Night, one of my very favorite albums, although there it’s done more with instruments than with vocals. El Perro del Mar gets into that territory often enough on this album that anyone who’s susceptible to its appeal will find something to like in it.

Here’s the album, with samples. She also has a new album, From the Valley to the Stars, which certainly looks interesting (read the review), but I haven’t sampled it yet. And here’s the artist’s web site.


More Ultravox

It’s clear that I need to find time very soon to sort my non-classical LPs so I can locate the Ultravox ones—these videos I’m finding on YouTube have me really wanting to get reacquainted with them. Here are a few more that anyone who liked “Vienna” may also enjoy.

I wouldn’t rate Ultravox as great lyricists, but they came up with evocative images and phrases very well-suited to their sound and general ambience. We were talking here not long ago about the yearning that’s a prominent feature of so much pop music; well, you can sure hear it in these songs, especially the last one.

Two more from the Vienna album; first, “Passing Strangers,” with not too bad a video:

Moments caught across an empty room...
Hope turns to dust, shattered by light

And the haunting “Mr. X”:

Perhaps he died in a car crash years ago...
I’ve got a funny feeling I know who he is

And from Lament, which I think is overall not quite as good an album as Vienna, one of my very favorite Uvox songs, “One Small Day.” This is one that really needs to be kind of loud, but the audio volume on this clip is lower than on the others, so you may want to turn it up a bit:

One day
Where I didn’t die a thousand times
Where I could satisfy this life of mine
One small day
One day
Where every hour could be a joy to me
And live a life the way it's meant to be
One small day


Because of the Hardening of Their Heads

...Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts...

So Jesus addressed his people on the subject of divorce. But reading some of our prominent critics of religion makes me think it’s their heads that are the problem; no matter how intelligent and reasonable they may be on some subjects, their minds seem to be impermeable to very straightforward ideas where religion is concerned.

For instance, there’s John Derbyshire’s bizarre complaint on National Review Online a couple of days ago that Benedict XVI is somehow hypocritical or fraudulent when he speaks against moral relativism.

Derb (as they call him) is frustrating. On certain subjects he’s an interesting and sometimes delightful writer. His National Review column, “The Straggler,” is almost always a fine, graceful, wry commentary on the small things of life; one of the better things in the magazine, in fact. But on religion, and especially on Catholicism, toward which he clearly has a residual Anglo-Protestant hostility even though he is no longer even a Christian, he is often strikingly dense. In this case he is unable to grasp that the pope is discussing the question of whether there are absolute moral principles, and the implications of believing that there are none. Derbyshire not only fails to understand this, which should be clear to any person of reasonable intelligence and reading skill, but attacks it with startling irrelevancies that indicate an inability to grasp the difference between physical science and philosophy. The exchange starts here, and then he digs the hole deeper here. (There is some attempt at rebuttal by a couple of other NR writers, but it doesn't get anywhere; see the archives for April 21 and after if you want to try to follow the argument.)

This is a man who has written well-regarded books on mathematics. Yet here he seems to believe that difficulty in knowing and agreeing upon universal moral principles somehow makes assertion of their existence meaningless and hypocritical. The fallacy in this should be obvious to anyone who can think logically. Derbyshire is certainly capable of thinking logically. Therefore something else is at work in preventing him from doing so in this case.

And then there’s Christopher Hitchens. I’ve enjoyed his literary criticism in The Atlantic for some time, but he says such ignorant things about Christianity with such apparent confidence that I can no longer assume that he is speaking in good faith about anything, and will probably not bother reading him in the future: if he tells me Evelyn Waugh said this, or George Orwell believed that, what grounds do I have for supposing that he isn’t just ranting ignorantly, just as he does about religion? Why should I assume that he has intellectual integrity on one subject and not another?

Of course, in spite of the title of this post, I think it does begin in the heart. And it’s an amusing irony, if you care to be amused, that two men who pride themselves on the purity of their reason seem to be so driven by something else where religion is concerned.



Since a Beowulf discussion has sprung up on the immediately preceding thread, and since I just read it and have been meaning to post a note on it anyway, I’ll go ahead and do it now.

I borrowed the Norton Critical Edition from my daughter, who had recently read it for a college course. It includes the Seamus Heaney translation, which is apparently very well-regarded, as well as a number of critical essays and informational notes, including Tolkien’s famous essay (well, “famous” among Tolkien fans, anyway), “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” I deliberately ignored all the apparatus and started reading the poem, not wanting to be prejudiced or encumbered by someone else’s views.

I read Tolkien’s essay immediately after the poem, and was sorry I hadn’t read it first, because if I had I would not have embarrassed myself by falling straight into exactly the shallow reading which Tolkien was determined to correct: to wit, that it’s an odd, aimless poem consisting of a Big Scene, some not particularly relevant lore, and another Big Scene. I won’t try to summarize Tolkien’s argument, which is complex, but I found it persuasive.

However, no amount of abstract demonstration that a poem is good can change the fact that one did not much respond to it. And I think that has to do with Heaney’s translation. I understand—again, abstractly—why it’s considered a good one. But I don’t find much music in it. I’m going to try another translation that maybe attempts to capture more of the archaic dignity that I know must be there.

I’m really struck by how much Tolkien was indebted to Beowulf and, I assume, early Northern literature in general, including, as Ryan mentioned in the other discussion, lifting the whole dragon-guarding-the-hoard story (in The Hobbit) straight out of the poem. And I’m suddenly extremely interested in the lore and history of the period, of which there are tantalizing glimpses in this edition. I really want to learn more, and also want to find that web site I linked to in a comment a few weeks ago which has someone reading the poem aloud in Old English.


Sunday Night Journal — April 20, 2008

Apes With Violins

I suppose the most famous mathematical equation in history is E=mc2, Einstein’s matter-energy equivalence which states that the quantity of energy, E, equivalent to a given mass, m, is the product of m and the square of c, the speed of light. Even if you use one of the larger units, miles per second, for c (the one most of us in the English-speaking world learned in school), c2 is 34,596,000,000. In meters per second, it’s 89,875,517,873,681,764.

Still, a number, especially a very big one, is only a number, and an equation is only an equation, until something makes you really see what they really mean. This equation describes the amount of energy released in nuclear fission relative to the amount of matter involved. And it’s one thing to know the equation, but quite another to contemplate the power of the atomic bomb.

As a Catholic, I believe that sex, love, marriage, and procreation are meant to be so tightly connected as to be aspects of a single thing. But like everyone else I see them separated all the time, and like many or most people I have separated them at times in my own life. I’m accustomed to the sight of it.

But recently, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I’ve come to see that connection in a way I never had before. I don’t mean that I’ve seen more reasons why the connection should be maintained, or that I’ve seen the practical harm that is done by the separation of sex from love and from childbearing and of all three from marriage. The problems caused by divorce, sexual “liberation,” etc. are everywhere, and only a fool would pretend they aren’t serious.

But that’s not what I mean. I mean I now see the separation itself, apart from any worldly consequences, as a sort of shocking mutilation, like the severing of a limb from the body. People learn to live with the loss of a limb, of course, and once it’s healed and the person has adjusted as well as possible its absence may be less startling, but the action of severing remains appalling. And I’m now walking around in a world where this action is celebrated.

As you might imagine, this makes me pretty uncomfortable in our sex-saturated culture. Here’s one example of the effect. My long-time music supplier Robert recently gave me a copy of The Trumpet Child, a cd by the pop group Over the Rhine. It’s a very good album, but a lot of the songs are sexual come-ons, directed by the woman who is the band’s main vocalist to a male who isn’t named or described, and I find that this really interferes with my enjoyment of them. I have to think of the woman as intending the songs for her husband in order not to hear them as saying something comparable to “Let’s get blind drunk and drive west in the eastbound lanes of the interstate.” (My mental revision may in fact be justified: the core of the band consists of the singer and her husband, who together write most of the songs. But you don’t learn this from the songs themselves.)

This is not puritanism. You’ll just have to take my word on this, but neither puritanism nor prudery has ever been a problem for me. Nor does it mean that I have suddenly become immensely virtuous, and immune to all the sexual temptations that have been part of my life since I was twelve or so; nothing has changed in that respect except perhaps my distress at the disorder of my own soul.

No, it’s rather a sense of the tragic distance between what should be in this realm and what is. It’s as if I have finally received the vision of what sex (using the term broadly) ought to be, and it is such a splendid thing that our misuse of it seems horrible and tragic, a continuing disaster comparable to our propensity for war. I see that one reason sex is so important is that it is the most profound manifestation of the most profound fact about us: that we are a union of body and soul. We’re not animals with a consciousness that is only a more complex version of an animal’s emotional and sensory life. We’re not angels who inhabit and control a body the way a driver inhabits and controls a car. We are an indivisible union, but unfortunately no longer a well-ordered one; we are always tipping over toward the animal or the angel. Erotic love, which is a union of spiritual and physical love, is the most profound expression of this most profound fact, but also the most delicate. When we separate love and marriage from sex we separate soul and body—which of course is a way of saying that we kill, or die.

The admonitions against fornication and adultery represent only the absolute bare minimum of what we should not do; they hardly even touch what we should do and, even more, what we should be. For to be what we should be, and were meant to be, we would have to be something we are not: unfallen.

Hearing the talk and the music, watching the TV shows and movies which treat sex as a trivial pleasure have become for me like watching a chimpanzee with a Stradivarius. The ape may find it amusing for a few minutes. He may even pluck or strum the strings and get a certain crude pleasure from the sound. But sooner or later, probably sooner, he will smash the instrument to pieces, and it’s an appalling thing to see.

One thing I can say in slight defense of our species is that the female generally has a better grasp of these things than the male, although she certainly has problems of her own. More on that next week.


Music of the Week: Pergolesi - Stabat Mater

I’ve known that this piece is considered one of the highlights of baroque religious music, but had not heard it until recently when my daughter told me she was going to be singing in a performance of it by her college chorus. I downloaded this version from eMusic so I could hear it a couple of times before the concert. It’s a wonderful work, although to modern ears accustomed to Romantic passion and Modernist bleakness, it may seem more sweet than sorrowful, even almost happy—as Clare put it, bouncy— in parts (e.g. the 4th section, “Quae maerebat et doleba”).

Non-Catholics and/or non-classical music fans may not recognize the title; “Stabat mater” is the opening phrase of a traditional Latin poem depicting Mary at the foot of the cross. It’s been set to music a lot. See here for the text and its traditional English translation, which I think is, to be blunt, very bad as a poem, and very loose as a translation. There’s a link on that page to a literal translation.

I can’t really comment very specifically on the quality of this performance, except to say that it seems very good to me. And Clare’s performance went very well, thanks: she had a solo in section 10, “Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,” and sang beautifully.

But wait a minute. I just went looking for a recording on YouTube, and the one I found provokes some thoughts about performances. As a fairly casual listener, I’m aware that there has been an argument for some years now between those who believe baroque and earlier music should be performed on instruments of the period and with various differences in technique, such as little or no string vibrato, and those who think earlier music is only enhanced by the technical improvements made since that time. I’ve never had an opinion on that question. But the recording I’ve been listening to is in the period style, whereas the one in the YouTube video below is, if I am not totally off base, more contemporary and romantic. And I must say it grabbed and moved me immediately in a way that the first did not. Just listen to the 30-second sample of the first movement at the eMusic link above and you’ll hear the difference.


“No One Can Avoid This”

Following a link on Eve Tushnet’s blog to this Godspy article about The Weakerthans, a band of whom I know nothing, I find this striking paragraph from John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio:

The truth comes initially to the human being as a question: Does life have a meaning? Where is it going? At first sight, personal existence may seem completely meaningless. It is not necessary to turn to the philosophers of the absurd or to the provocative questioning found in the Book of Job in order to have doubts about life’s meaning. The daily experience of suffering—in one’s own life and in the lives of others—and the array of facts which seem inexplicable to reason are enough to ensure that a question as dramatic as the question of meaning cannot be evaded.

Moreover, the first absolutely certain truth of our life, beyond the fact that we exist, is the inevitability of our death. Given this unsettling fact, the search for a full answer is inescapable. Each of us has both the desire and the duty to know the truth of our own destiny. We want to know if death will be the definitive end of our life or if there is something beyond—if it is possible to hope for an after-life or not. It is not insignificant that the death of Socrates gave philosophy one of its decisive orientations, no less decisive now than it was more than two thousand years ago. It is not by chance, then, that faced with the fact of death philosophers have again and again posed this question, together with the question of the meaning of life and immortality. No-one can avoid this questioning, neither the philosopher nor the ordinary person.

As I may have mentioned before, I didn’t think there would be another pope in my lifetime whom I would like as much as I did John Paul II, and was prepared to be disappointed by his successor. If only for more or less temperamental reasons, I actually like Benedict a little better; he often seems a bit more precise and clear than John Paul, and I like that. And I think he’s one of the outstanding spirits of our time. But as this quotation reminds me, the same was true of John Paul.

I pause in my contemplation of this wisdom to wonder why the Vatican’s web site seems to go out of its way to make these texts difficult to read.


Ultravox: Vienna

This song is from one of my very favorite pop music albums, Vienna by Ultravox (1980). In general I hate music videos, and rarely watch one all the way through; if I want to hear the music, I look at something else while the video plays. But I rather like this one. There are places and stories in my imagination that look a lot like the street scenes here (not the interior scenes, especially). (Romantic? Who, me?)

I found two distinct versions on YouTube, one in mixed color and black-and-white:

And one in more or less black-and-white throughout which may just be a very murky version of the color one:

I would prefer it entirely in black-and-white, if it were really sharp. But you can see a lot more in the first one.