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April 2010

Latest oil spill news

This is really bad. Fairly stiff south wind. Possibility of rain tonight and tomorrow--I don't know what the effect of that would be. Reportedly oil is already contacting that marshy peninsula where Louisiana doesn't so much have a coast as blend slowly into the sea. It won't get to the Alabama coast for another day or so but it seems inevitable that it will; the question is just how much.

Satellite photo.

News story.

Update: Large impressive photos

Update 2: The weather is making things worse.


Flannery O'Connor, from Inside Catholic's Flannery Friday:

I guess what you say about suffering being a shared experience with Christ is true, but then it should also be true of every experience that is not sinful. I meant that say, joy, may be a redemptive experience itself and not just the fruit of one. Perhaps however joy is the outgrowth of suffering in a special way.


Prayers for the Gulf Coast

I guess most people are aware of the oil slick heading for the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, which includes the coasts of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This may be a really huge disaster. Your prayers are solicited. The wind is now coming out of the south and expected to stay there for several days, which ordinarily I would be happy about, as a south wind tends to bring sand to my little strip of beach on Mobile Bay, rather than taking it away, as a north wind does. But that's insignificant compared to the harm this could do.

Here is a Google image search showing some of the beaches that could be damaged or ruined. These are in Alabama; Florida of course has many, many more miles of similar beach. Possibly more significant, longer term, could be the harm done to estuaries and swamps, which provide homes and breeding grounds for all sorts of aquatic creatures, e.g. shrimp. I don't know what the chances are of it coming way up into Mobile Bay, to the area where I live.

There is a lot of information at, none of it very encouraging. 

The Literary Spirit In Politics

Harvey Mansfield, in “A New Kind of Liberalism: Tocqueville’s Recollections” in the March 2010 New Criterion, has this to say about Tocqueville’s view of the failures of political judgment on the part of “literary men:”

The literary spirit in politics consists in seeing what is ingenious and new more than what is true, in preferring an interesting tableau to a useful one, in showing oneself sensitive to actors who play and speak well regardless of the consequences of the play, and in deciding on the basis of impression rather than reasons.

For “literary men” substitute “artists and intellectuals,” and you have a pretty good description of something very noticeable in our politics, especially if you expand “artists and intellectuals” to include those who wish to associate themselves with or be thought of as artists and intellectuals. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I once thought poets and novelists—ok, I’ll go ahead and make the full confession—and even, in some cases, pop musicians had some sort of special insight into politics. Now I think that if they differ at all from the average person, it’s for the worse. The average person may operate mostly on emotion and impression; As & Is add a very powerful sense of fashion and aesthetics to that. And the fashion component seems usually to be unconscious and therefore unresisted.

Of course Mansfield himself is most definitely an I (Harvard government professor).

The Ninth Day

I want to recommend this excellent German movie about a priest imprisoned in Dachau who is given a nine-day furlough so that the Nazis can pressure him into helping them get his bishop to cooperate with the Reich. It's extremely well done (in German, with subtitles): more information here. I should warn you that it contains a few scenes, brief but powerful, of pretty rough violence. Most of it, though, takes place away from the prison.

An interview with the director, Volker Schlöndorff, sheds some interesting light on the question of Christian art. I think most Catholics (and Protestants) who are interested in such things have had disappointing experiences with self-consciously Christian art—books, movies, whatever—that just isn't very well done, however well-intentioned it may be. This is an instance of the inverse: a very fine work of art by a non-Christian which presents Christian and specifically Catholic themes very skillfully and powerfully. 

Agenda for the Time Remaining

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

...Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

—Eliot, from the greatest poem of the last century

The View from my Front Door

Yesterday evening, during the rain, which we really needed, not having had any for several weeks. The wind chime looks so bright because the porch light was on. The camera never catches rain like I want it to, but you can see some faint vertical streaks.


And it's still raining.It's actually rather dark right now, in mid-afternoon.

Further Thoughts on Hart vs. the Atheists

Something that's really striking about most of the atheist commentators on that post is their anti-intellectualism. "We're plain simple folk here. We don't need none of your hi-falutin' nonsense about metaphysics."

They're like people who know some simple arithmetic resisting algebra. "None of your slippery x and y stuff, now. Nothing but plain numbers for us, numbers we can count with!"

Or the people who think Charlie Parker was just playing random notes, or that people only pretend to like classical music out of snobbery.

They don't know what Hart is talking about, and they're proud of not knowing, and they don't want to know. There are a few exceptions, but very few.

David B. Hart vs. the New Atheists

Francesca mentioned this a couple of days ago. I was at work and couldn't read it at the time. The next day I remembered that I had seen a mention of a good piece by Hart, but I couldn't remember where. Happily, I came across it again today.

Anyway: no one need bother pointing out the shallow fallacies of Dawkins again--Hart has done the definitive job, and you may as well just point people to him. I was pleased to see that he emphasizes a point that I've made in a much less articulate and philosophically sophisticated way: that the NAs for the most part do not understand the ideas they believe they have refuted. I was also glad to see that he shares my admiration and indeed affection for Nietzsche, one of the few atheists who really sees deeply into the whole question and understands what atheism means.

The comments on the piece are pretty dreary, though some of them could be funny if you were in the right frame of mind. Hart's work must have come to the attention of some atheists, and they have swooped in to demonstrate Hart's point. I left this remark in response: "They clearly didn't understand what they read, and furthermore they don't, and possibly can't, understand that they didn't understand. Not much you can say to that."

I've just been down at the bay looking at the moonlight on the water. I think I will never in this world stop wanting to possess beauty—I mean not just to behold it, but to keep it, forever. Only in extinction or in heaven will I cease to dread loss.

Never Give Up

Where God is at work, the devil is not idle. When you try over a period to correct yourself on a particular point, do not be surprised if you have to submit to violent temptations on that very point, even to repeated falls. The important thing is never to admit that you are beaten. Fight and never give in, like a good general. The effort, which is part of the battle, even when there is nothing to show for it, plays an enormous part in the formation of the will. We always emerge from the battle stronger.

—Dom Augustin Guillerano (a French Carthusian monk, d. 1945) (via Magnificat)

I liked this because it involves the only good thing I can say about my own religious life, which doesn't really amount to very much. I mean, I pray fairly often, but not very attentively, and I go to Mass every week, also not very attentively, and I go to confession at least every couple of months or so, but none of this is much more than the minimum. 

But I will never give up. I am very strongly tempted not to believe; there is always a voice at the back of my mind saying "This God business is all wishful thinking. The world has no meaning, people are just physical systems, and when the system breaks down the person doesn't exist anymore, and that's all there is to it." Etc.

But I will never give up. I will never renounce the Faith. I will never abandon my hope that it's the voice of despair that is lying, and that the meaning we all attach to our own lives is real. Never. And I hope that will be enough.

Moreover, I have this curious intuition, which I can't explain, that it is not only my own soul that is at stake. And that gives me even more reason to fight on.

Explosions In the Sky: “Your Hand in Mine”

Weekend Music

The album from which this song is taken, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, totally rules, though it may not sound like much if you're not hearing it at decent volume through decent speakers or headphones. And this amateur video is good, and appropriate, and, I should warn you, possibly a bit of a tear-jerker.

Has Christopher Hitchens Been Bitten By a Rabid Animal?

That would be a charitable explanation for this bizarre statement:

"Yet here [in the Catholic Church] is an ancient Christian church that deals in awful certainties when it comes to outright condemnation of sins like divorce, abortion, contraception, and homosexuality between consenting adults. For these offenses there is no forgiveness, and moral absolutism is invoked."

Even a superficial knowledge of Christianity ought to be sufficient to keep one from saying something so preposterous. But of course Hitchens has been raving this way for a long time, so an illness like rabies, which either passes away or kills its victim in a fairly short time, is probably not to blame.

Hitchens and his similarly-minded pal Richard Dawkins have, you may have heard, launched a plan to have Pope Benedict arrested for "crimes against humanity." The immediate occasion for this is the recent round of publicity about sexual abuse by Catholic priests. But can anyone doubt that Hitchens and Dawkins would hate the pope, and the Church, just as much if the scandal did not exist? That's the way bigotry is. It doesn't really need much justification, and it never, ever succumbs to the temptation to be fair or rational.

I've subscribed to The Atlantic for ten years or so now, and have recently been considering letting my subscription lapse. One of the reasons I've kept it has been Hitchens' literary criticism. But now I wonder whether I should take it at all seriously. I know he's capable of speaking utter falsehood and nonsense with supreme confidence on the subject of Christianity, so how can I know whether he is doing so when he talks about literature?

The context of the above remark is here. Two of many, many responses (not necessarily to this piece in particular, but to Hitchens' attacks at large) are here and here

In general the current anti-Church frenzy, though rooted in very grave problems, has been and still is the occasion of shameful journalistic malpractice; see here for specifics on that charge. As bad as the abuse and coverups were--and make no mistake, they were abominable--the Church as a whole has, finally, responded vigorously. And the press deserves a lot of credit for bringing it all to light. But a Catholic facility today, at least in this country, is probably one of the safest places in the world for children and adolescents. The fury of these attacks is rooted in something else. There is a quality of blood-lust about it, especially where the pope himself is concerned.

The Pathos of Flowers

You're perfectly welcome to laugh at me for this. But I'm always struck by the strange waste of flowers that bloom and fall to the ground within a day or two, quite possibly without anyone ever seeing them. I won't say it strikes me as sad, exactly, strikes me.

This tree grows beside the street leading down the hill to my house. I don't know what kind it is. Never before this year (and we've been here since 1992) had I noticed the flowers that it bears.


There's another one on the other side of the street, a little further down the hill, and I first noticed the flowers when I was walking one morning and saw this:


Sorry it's out of focus, but you get the idea. There was twenty square feet or so of flower-carpet. I looked up and saw something like the first picture, only with fewer flowers still on the tree. Can anyone tell me what kind of tree this is? The flowers are two-three inches (5-7cm) across. Here's a closer look:


Divine Mercy Sunday

As I've no doubt said before here, I'm not the sort of person who feels that God is speaking directly to him very often. I have never heard anything like a physical voice that I thought was God's, and there have only been a few times when something came to my mind with such force that it seemed to be from him. A couple of times it was words that simply appeared in my mind, addressed to me. And once, not too long ago, it was words that I read.

This happened some months ago. I was praying the Divine Mercy prayers in the Presence, and after I had finished the prayers themselves I read this sentence from Sister Faustina's diary, in which Jesus says to her "I desire to give unimaginable graces to those who trust in my mercy."

The words struck me with almost electric force. I believe it was partly the word "unimaginable" that got me. That, and "trust." I knew that this, above all, is what I am supposed to do: to trust, and never give up trusting, in the Mercy. And that I must never give up the hope of that unimaginable end, in which the Mercy will not only heal everything but open the door to...we don't really even have a word to put there, do we?

This is a Divine Mercy icon by Daniel Nichols, which my wife and I commissioned from him for our 30th wedding anniversary. Click on the image for a larger version.


Daniel's web site is Eighth Day Icons.

Big Bam Boo: “Shooting From My Heart”

Weekend Music

I never really saw MTV very often in its heyday back in the 1980s, but somehow or other I happened to see this video a couple of times. The first time I thought that's pretty good. The second time I thought wow, that's great. On the strength of this song, I bought the LP, most of which is quite good, though this remained my favorite track. I hadn't listened to it for some time, but the album showed up on eMusic the other day, which caused me to look for the song on YouTube, not really expecting to find it, but there it was. I think I like the song even better now, and I like the video, too. The themes of departure, loss, and memory resonate very strongly with me. It really needs to be heard at fairly high volume.

A Little Spring Color


I've been using a different computer for looking at pictures etc., a laptop which my daughter passed on to me when we bought her a new one. And I'm forced to recognize once again how very different colors can be from one machine to the next. When I looked at this picture last night, it looked pretty bad--the colors were thin and dry and washed-out. But I brought it to work with me to see how it would look on my work computer, and it's quite nice.

So I don't know what y'all are seeing. What I hope you're seeing is the beautiful bright green of new cypress growth, one of my favorite sights in spring. This is the cypress that grows beside our patio. Every fall and winter I get annoyed with it, because it drops huge quantities of needles and seeds, so much that if I didn't clean them up every week or two they would be several inches thick on the patio. That wouldn't be so bad except that the patio is where our dogs hang out, and both needles and seeds (which are something like the individual "petals" of a pine cone) stick to the dogs and then fall off inside. The seeds are especially annoying because when you step on them they exude a thick resin that's very difficult to remove from whatever it touches (though I have to admit it does smell wonderful).

But every spring I forgive the tree for all that.

Don't let this happen to you!

Stifle your inner pedant. I find that very difficult to do with "literally," though. Just a day or two ago I saw a particularly bad example in a news story: I don't remember it now but it was on the order of "he was literally on fire with ambition."

Moreover, I thought this as a modern lapse, but I ran across it in something fairly old not long ago. May have been a line of dialog in David Copperfield.

xkcd has been a little off lately, so I was glad to find it funny today. Wednesday's was pretty good, too, though, not being a Tetris player, I didn't get it at first, even though it should be obvious. My wife did--she was a bit of a Tetris addict for a while.

Driver, where you taking us? (take 2)

That was the title I chose when I wrote about The Doors’ first album a couple of weeks ago. In case you don’t recognize it, it’s a line from the last song, “The End,” one of its numerous suggestions of a rather ominous journey:

The blue bus is calling us
Driver, where you taking us?

Wherever that bus is going, it's probably not a good place.

But it reminded me of a dream I had a couple of years ago. It was one of those dreams one has only rarely, that are so coherent and seem to carry such a definite meaning that you can't help thinking they were given to you for a reason. (Well, they’re rare for me, anyway.) In the last scene of it, we were in a bus, sitting behind the driver, waiting for the trip to start. From the rear, the driver was a little scary-looking, seeming to be a pretty tough biker sort of guy, mostly bald, with a beard, very muscular, wearing a grungy t-shirt. But he turned around to speak to me, and I saw that he had an open, generous, honest face, and he was smiling. And he said “Usually when people see where God is taking them, they like it better than where they wanted to go.”

...if Christ be not raised...we are of all men most miserable. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)

Our priest at the Easter Vigil tonight asked "Can we believe it is not just a story?" I think he meant not just "is it true?" but "do we have the courage to believe it? to take the risk?"

Samuel Barber: “The Crucifixion”

From Hermit Songs:


At the cry of the first bird
They began to crucify Thee, O Swan!
Never shall lament cease because of that.
It was like the parting of day from night.
Ah, sore was the suffering borne
By the body of Mary's Son,
But sorer still to Him was the grief
Which for His sake
Came upon His Mother.

(I know, this would have been more appropriate yesterday, but I was offline. If I'd thought about it soon enough I could have scheduled the post ahead of time.)

The Call from the Cross

People react to suffering in different ways. But in general it can be said that almost always the individual enters suffering with a typically human protest and with the question "why". He asks the meaning of his suffering and seeks an answer to this question on the human level. Certainly he often puts this question to God, and to Christ. Furthermore, he cannot help noticing that the one to whom he puts the question is himself suffering and wishes to answer him from the Cross, from the heart of his own suffering. Nevertheless, it often takes time, even a long time, for this answer to begin to be interiorly perceived. For Christ does not answer directly and he does not answer in the abstract this human questioning about the meaning of suffering. Man hears Christ's saving answer as he himself gradually becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ.

The answer which comes through this sharing, by way of the interior encounter with the Master, is in itself something more than the mere abstract answer to the question about the meaning of suffering. For it is above all a call.

—John Paul II, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering

I think there are very severe limits on how far we can get in trying to answer the question of suffering in any sort of abstract way—I could even say in any way that begins with the word "because." Because anything we put after that word will be inadequate. But Christ—God—answers “from the heart of his own suffering.” And not with an explanation, but a call. So we are faced not with a test of our intelligence, our philosophical strength, but with a choice, the choice to hear, or not to hear. There is also of course the choice to follow, or not to follow, but the choice to hear comes first. It is not a question of intelligence or learning, but of the heart’s choice.

I've been participating in a Facebook group praying a novena for the late pope's beatification. I think I've only missed one day, which is better than average for me with a novena. The person who organized the group includes a meditation from John Paul's writings every day, and the above is taken from one of them. It seemed especially appropriate for Good Friday. See you Saturday.