Poetry and Nature

Lion's Head

Lion’s Head, Bruce Trail

I apologize to my merry band of faithful readers for not posting for a bit.  I have been away, with limited time to write, and limited access to the internet (not a bad thing).  I took this last week, without much aforethought before students descend upon our humble campus and classes begin, to help my brother and his father-in-law build a shed (which was more like a small, one room house, and will in the end be quite splendid) for a couple of days.  Then I spent two days  exploring a bit of the Bruce Peninsula, hiking some of the most scenic sections of the Bruce Trail, and swimming in the glorious, cerulean and pristine waters of Georgian Bay, with azure sky above.  As I floated off one rocky beach, I was thinking, one could scarcely get closer to paradise, on a natural level.


Two thoughts come to mind as I return back to ‘reality’:  Building something from scratch, like a humble shed, shedinstead of buying a resin-type made-in-China from a hardware store and plonking it down, is an immensely satisfying experience.  Aristotle was well aware of this, as he made clear in his Poetics, a title derived from the Greek verb ‘poieo‘, to ‘create’ or to ‘make’.  Aristotle saw ‘poetry’, in the broad sense of any intellectual, creative activity, as one of the highest activities of Man (besides contemplation).  There is more to ‘poetry’, therefore, than what we now would consider ‘poetry’ (rhyming, or at least metrical, verse).  We find poetry in any creative endeavour:  writing, drawing, drama, music, fashion, film or, yes, even building sheds.  The more we pour ourselves into any creative work, by definition, the more poetic it is.  After all the work I have seen on the building with which I began this paragraph, what a poetic shed it shall be.


Of course, the greatest ‘poet’ is the Creator Himself.  This struck home to me, as I pondered the vistas over Georgian Bay, the limestone cliffs plunging into the clear water, with the waves lapping the shore, the limitless forests, the crisp, clean air.  G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the least explored area is one’s own backyard.  There is nothing wrong, and much that is right, with travelling occasionally far afield, to broaden one’s horizons, but there is also much to be said for experiencing the beauty of one’s own area.  And I would highly recommend to readers to explore some of the natural wonders of Ontario, not least the Bruce Peninsula, but also our innumerable lakes, rivers, trails, views found within a few hours of where you are reading this, many of them only lightly touched by human civilization (and this applies to those of you, wherever you may live, for all of Canada has its own particular scenery).


Poetry and nature are two very profound and effective ways of approaching God, especially if accompanied by the most direct way, prayer.  For, if


all creation shows forth the glory of God, and the firmament declares His handiwork


so too, all of our creations, including all of our moral decisions which, as John Paul II taught, create who we ourselves are and will become, should also declared God’s glory, in the end in which all of us are called to share.

Good King Louis

louis ixWe celebrate today in the universal Church one of my own favorites (not least since I was baptized on this day in bonnie Scotland many moons ago) King Saint Louis IX, who ruled France during the golden era of the 13th century, and was a personal friend of one my other favorites, Saint Thomas Aquinas.


There is an anecdote that at a royal banquet in the presence of his royal majesty, the good Dominican (who although Italian by birth, spent much of his life in France) was lost in thought, when he suddenly slammed his meaty fist down on the thick, wooden table, declaring “I have got it!”, resolving some abstruse metaphysical quandary in his abstracted mind. Normally, a serious breach of etiquette, even an insult to the King; but Louis just smiled, and asked for his servants to get Thomas some paper and a quill, so he could write down whatever great thought he had.


So were the priorities of one of the most noble and virtuous kings in history.  One need only peruse Louis’ letter to one of his sons (he had eleven children with his devoted wife Margaret of Provence), which comprises part of today’s Office of Readings, wherein he declares, following advice he had received from his own mother, Blanche of Castille:


You must be ready to undergo every kind of martyrdom rather than commit one mortal sin.


I wonder how many parents offer their children the same advice today?  Do they even know what ‘mortal sin’ is?


The fundamental reason for what is wrong with the world today is we have our priorities all wrong.  As I wrote at the end of my piece on the Olympics, we have put first things last, and last things first.


How many of our up and coming millennials would lie, cheat and steal, even in subtle, not-so-serious ways, to get ahead?  For that matter, how many of us would?  Would we die rather than commit one mortal sin?  Thus is the price of martyrdom, which Pope Saint John Paul II advocates in his treatise on morality, Veritatis Splendor:


The Church proposes the example of numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honour of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life. (par. 91)


Louis was not a martyr, per se, but he did die on this day in 1274 while on what we now term the ‘Eighth Crusade’, to defend the Holy Land, and more importantly the Christians who dwelt and the pilgrims who journeyed there, from the predations of the Muslims.  Unlike our modern ‘king’, Prime Minister Trudeau, Louis was no multiculturalist, nor was he all that tolerant of manifest ‘grave and mortal sin’ in his subjects, especially those sins that disrupted public order (perhaps Louis had read Thomas’ own treatise on this question in the Summa).  He ruled his domain as a Catholic king, with Catholic principles, and Catholic laws, or, as we might now put it, laws derived and based upon Catholic revelation and the Judeo-Christian heritage. The only truly sustainable, life-giving, just ‘culture’ is the Christian culture, which is why we are called, with Saint Louis, to imbue whatever culture within which we dwell with these Christian mores.


Of course, we cannot go back to the Middle Ages, nor to what the author James Walsh called the ‘greatest of centuries‘.   But that does not mean that their principles were not sound, even though we may now apply them somewhat differently.


To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, we cannot have any practical plan unless we keep our ideals firmly in mind:  The only way to build a good house, is to have in mind what a ‘perfect’ house might be; and the only way to rule a kingdom well is to keep focused on the most perfect kingdom, God’s.  Only an idealist can be a competent practicalist, and it is these ideals that made Louis such a great and noble King, husband and father.


Must We Believe that Islam is Peaceful?

islam peacefulIn another well-reasoned article by William Kilpatrick (we may disagree with some of his tone, but his points are good), he alludes to a curious exchange of late between Robert Spencer, who runs Jihad Watch, and Monsignor Robert Swetland, on the apparently peaceful nature of Islam, following upon the Holy Father’s remarks to that effect.  There was some debate whether Catholics are ‘bound’ to believe that Islam is, by its nature, irenic.  I listened to the end of the debate, and the Monsignor does seem to claim that Catholics must hold to Church teaching on the good intentions of the ‘Prophet’s’ religion, based not just on Pope Francis’ statements, but also the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.


Some distinctions are in order here:  To begin, the Church cannot really teach ‘on Islam’, for Islam is not part of revealed doctrine, nor a corollary thereof, which is the only proper sphere for Magisterial authority.  As paragraph 25 of the Church’s Dogmatic Constitution (Lumen Gentium) makes clear, the Pope and the bishops may teach definitively only on ‘faith and morals’, which comprise the deposit of divine revelation.  God did not reveal Islam, and, hence, the Church cannot define what Islam is, or is not (and the same holds for Buddhism and Hinduism and any other religion, or indeed any topic outside revelation).


We may corroborate this dogma (to which Catholics are bound) with common sense, which tells us that there is no one unitary Islam, nor is there an Islamic ‘Magisterium’.  The Qur’an, their own ‘sacred scripture’, is a hodgepodge of suras, many of which are contradictory not only to Catholic dogmas and to reason, but also to each other.


The brief declaration from the Second Vatican Council on non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), which discusses primarily Judaism, but also mentions Islam (and other pagan religions), is a well-intentioned document, following from Christ’s own admonition to strive to think the best of others’ beliefs and to find common ground for peaceful dialogue. Pope Benedict XVI himself lightly criticized the document as being somewhat too optimistic, and we should be aware that Church documents, even those from an ecumenical Council, need not be perfectly formulated, and may be rather imperfect at times; after all, they are not Scripture, nor are those who write them God.  They may be free from doctrinal error, but that is a different question.


Thus, I would posit that Catholics are bound in charity to think well of others, including all individual Muslims, but we are also bound to be realistic.  Church teaching (and again, the Church cannot ‘teach’ on Islam) can never contradict reason.


And it is reason that tells us that Islam began as a violent religion, that it still has violent strains within its billion adherents (of greatly varying devotion), that even amongst the vast majority of those who do not commit violence, there are many who condone it, and many more, we may presume, who are supporters of Sharia law which, upon even a cursory glance, is ‘violent’ in its letter.  Not least, what are we to say of the near-universal teaching of Islam that one must be coerced to remain in the religion once one ‘submits’ to Allah, and that the price of such ‘apostasy’ is death?  Is not this ‘violence’, at least to one’s freedom of conscience and religion, also proclaimed at Vatican II?


A final note from the news today in Canada, with the headline that


Extremist literature common in many mosques and Islamic school libraries in Canada, study says


The study was a tad too modest, as one discovers upon reading further:


The study says what worried them was not the presence of extremist literature, but that they found nothing but such writings in several libraries.






Canadian Muslims with humanist and modernist outlooks are being drowned out by those with extreme views, the study says


Humanist and modernist?  Is that the ‘other’ Islam, besides the violent and radicalized variety?  I’m not sure which I prefer.  At least humanist and modernist do not commit terrorism, but their ideas do lead to the culture of death…


At the end of the day, one of the few things we can say definitively about Islam is that it is fissiparous, which is to say, that it splinters into factions by its very nature, something one can read of in its earliest origins (giving rise to the numerous Sunni and Shiite varieties and sub-varieties, and sub-sub-varieties, on and on, and so it goes).


Although the Holy Father is free to offer his opinion about any issue he likes, we are only bound to what he teaches definitively on faith and morals.  Outside of that, we are free to use our reason, to take his words to heart, but at the end of the day, at times, to disagree respectfully.  To paraphrase the Major-General from Gilbert and Sullivan, we not only may, but must, apply our noggins philosophical and historical, not just on Islam but on any topic we may choose to ponder.


Enhancing the End of the Olympics

casterThus endeth the 2016 Rio Olympics, with their share of oddities, but without major mishap or terrorist attack, God be praised.  Canada finished in the top ten of medal winning countries, so, with all of the caveats I have mentioned in the previous few articles, congratulations to all the athletes.


One final word on the future of athletics, as they already plan for the next conglomeration in Japan in 2020.  Maybe it is just me, but is there a certain ennui settling into the Games, a feeling of fin de siecle, an end of athletic history?


Predictions are notorious for being embarrassingly wrong, but we might guess that we have just witnessed feats that may never be repeated:  Usain Bolt in the 100m and 200m sprints, Simone Biles in gymnastic routines, Michael Phelps in just about every swimming event, Caster Semenya in the female 800 metres…


At least the first and the last aforementioned, if not others, raise the question of athletic enhancement, which creates an uneven playing field for the competitors.  The aptly-named Bolt blew away the competition; he can be seen smiling at his fellow runners in one famous photo, as he passes them with ease to the finish line, while they pump furiously, and futilely, behind him.  The silver medalist in the 200m, Canada’s own Andre deGrasse, who is a future hopeful, will never match Bolt (who has just retired), who has longer legs, more fast-twitch muscles, a whole set of physiological advantages that just make him a better runner. Usain seems to have pushed sprinting as far as it can go.   Or has he?


This picture becomes even more controversial, if you will, when we look as Semenya, who is a medically-certified hermaphrodite who, although listed as a female, has ‘ambiguous’ sexual dimorphism, with some male characteristics including, most significantly for these purposes, high levels of testosterone, with the concomitant muscle mass.  Caster was previously asked to take drugs to lower these levels to the ‘female’ range, but that ruling was removed as discriminatory, to the consternation of the other runners, including another Canadian, Melissa Bishop, who is a world champion, but came fourth by few seconds, but those few seconds make all the difference.  Should Semenya be permitted to compete with physiologically more ‘normal’ women?


Such ‘enhancements’, which are discussed in a series of articles by Malcolm Gladwell, are termed ‘endogenous’, since these athletes were born with them.  They won the genetic lottery, and, with accompanying hard work and training, took advantage of these to reach elite levels.  Their fellow competitors, who may work just as hard, or even harder, never really stand a chance.


To add to the controversy, are what are termed ‘exogenous’ enhancements, those with which we are not born, but add to performance by some sort of medical intervention, whether drugs or surgery.  These are generally disallowed:  Athletes are not permitted to raise their testosterone levels artificially with steroids, nor to dope blood, nor add to their oxygen-carrying capacity.


But why, we may ask?  Some artificial interventions are curiously permitted, as this article (amongst others you may find) points out.  I was surprised to find out that a number of elite athletes, including some elite football and baseball players, and golfers (amongst them Tiger Woods) had laser eye surgery to improve their vision beyond 20/20, so they could, for example, see the lay of the greens more clearly, or the movement of the ball as it approaches home plate.  Baseball pitchers have had arthroscopic surgery to improve their throws.


What follows, we may ask, as we enter the next phase of athletic performance?  Carbon fiber replacements for joints, ligaments, even limbs?  Robotic parts, a la the Six Million Dollar Man? (who would likely cost billions now). Animal-human genetic hybrids competing in arenas?


These were once the stuff of science fiction, but no more.  They are all more-or-less real possibilities, and already upon us.


I leave you on this topic with the question with which I began:  What is the purpose of sports, as an activity for our own participation (which I would argue should be their primary goal), and/or as a spectacle, for our entertainment?  If the latter purpose predominates, or even takes over, then there are no bounds to what we may desire, to keep our flagging interest alive and well.  Why should 9.5 seconds be the limit for humans sprinting 100 metres down a track, or 1155 pounds for deadlift, or 47 seconds for 100 metre freestyle swimming?  With various interventions and a bit of technology, we could shave seconds off these asymptotes.


But what would that do to the human person?  What are we, and the athletes, willing to sacrifice to keep us entertained, and glued to our screens?


And so it goes, as we gear up for the next summer Olympics in that most technological of nations, Japan. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see what the future of sports holds.  But we should not fear to, indeed we must, ask the deeper questions behind all the spectacle.

What is Wrong with Modern U?

modern uChesterton wrote a book in 1912, which he called ‘What’s Wrong with the World’.  In 2016, there is still a lot wrong with the world, but I will discuss just what is wrong with the modern university.  To paraphrase an old warning, caveat discipulus, let the (prospective) student beware, and that goes for parents also pondering where to direct their children as they choose their formative education after leaving the home in early adulthood.


The modern university may be described in one word, drawn from a poem by T.S. Eliot to sum up modern man’s condition in general:  Hollow.  Like the gilded parties and the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, universities are glitz and show on the outside, but rather empty and barren on the inside.


When one tours a modern campus, when one flips through their impressive, thick academic calendars, when one glances at the glossy brochures and webpages, filled with photogenic co-eds, the feeling of euphoria and exciting potential, a phantasmagorgic series of halcyonic tomorrows, is hard to resist.  Yes, many of you, as I, were there once…


But my advice is that resist it one must, for, like a Potemkin village, there is not much reality behind the showy exterior.  Whatever reason one has for attending the modern university (and I will discuss briefly later whether there are any), I will break down its shortcomings in four sections:  Intellectual, moral, social and spiritual.


1)  Intellectual formation should be the main task of a university, to educate and perfect the mind.  When one sets out on such an endeavour, or indeed any task, one should ask, as Aristotle does, what is one’s intention or purpose?  In the present case, we must ask, what does it mean to ‘form the mind’?


Education implies at least two things:  Teaching the person how to think, as well as what he should know.  These are two related tasks, which should coalesce in every course taught.  The student should be immersed in the great books of our civilization, its history and thought; however, he should also learn, by the principles of reason as well as faith, how to evaluate what he learns.  Chesterton in his own pithy way described the task of education as ‘forming good critics’ which, in the Greek sense of ‘critic’ means to judge rightly between truth and falsity, good and evil.  All education can be summed up in this one phrase.  Or, in a Thomistic formulation, the mark of a trained intellect is one able to make the proper distinctions in conformity with how things really are.


To do this, a university has to be aware of, and committed to, objective truth which, as most readers likely realize, is not a hallmark of Modern U.  As Pope Benedict XVI put it, we live under a ‘tyranny of relativism’, a mistrust in, if not an outright denial of, any objective truth.   Universities once upon a time believed that there was a truth that could be sought, appropriated and handed down through the ages.  It was this commitment to truth that gave the guiding principle to the university itself.


Even if we accept the notion of objective truth, the next question becomes, what truths need be taught at university?  Need I learn all the truth?  It is ‘true’ that one cannot learn everything at university, but one should know something of most things, especially the most necessary things, those truths that make us most human, and that are most apt for human flourishing.  This has always been seen as the task of the university, to hand down that common intellectual heritage and, for Catholics, which also includes the principles of our faith, which direct everything else we know and do.


That is, the Catholic university in particular believed not only in natural truth, but supernatural truth that has been revealed by God through Christ and His Church.  These revealed truths, the rational investigation and application of which we call ‘theology’, are not only the only truths that are consistently true, guarded by the charism of infallibility, but they are also the most important truths, dealing with man’s final supernatural end, and the means to attain this end (the life of grace and prayer and the moral life).  That is why, as the Church herself implies, a university must not only be Catholic (and it was the Church which founded the first universities in the 12th century), but must also, as Blessed Cardinal Newman wrote in his classic treatise The Idea of a University, have theology as its core discipline, which has been described as the ‘queen of the sciences’.


This is not to turn the university into a seminary or a monastery; rather, theology is taught in such a way that it gives light and direction to all the other courses:  Philosophy, history, literature, logic, natural science, mathematics, art, music.  The student, following such a curriculum based on the perfection that faith and reason offer, becomes deeply and broadly educated in truth, in all of its manifestations. This process is captured in its essence in Pope Saint John Paul II’s masterful 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratioas well as in more practical detail in the 1990 Apostolic Constitution on the Catholic University Ex Corde Ecclesiae.


The modern university, on the other hand, even many of the ‘Catholic’ ones, require the student to specialize right after high school, to choose a ‘major’ from the gargantuan academic calendar.  (I need not mention vapid courses in ‘queer studies’ or ‘gender theory’ and their ilk, which begin and end with false premises, and are an exercise in futility).  The student focuses on this narrow range of studies, often in some STEM sub-discipline (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics), while the arts and humanities languish in obscurity.   Whether science or not, the courses are usually taught in a largely historical, statistical, mathematical way, avoiding any reference to objective truth, except the truth that all truth is relative and subjective (excepting, for example, certain technology and engineering courses, which, by definition, must have some objective truth at their basis, such as the stress-quotient of various materials, and the function of organ systems in the body:  We don’t want our bridges falling down!).  This narrow range of studies only increases as the student proceeds in his discipline.


To add insult to injury, the courses are often taught by sessional teachers or graduate students, who have little or no experience, no job security, and receive minimal remuneration.  Full professors teach only minimally, usually upper-year or graduate courses, and spend most of their time in research and writing.  After all, the motto is publish or perish, to ensure one’s career advancement, for the attaining of the coveted tenure depends much more on one’s publication record than on what one has taught, or, even less, one’s teaching ability.


Of course, there is nothing wrong, and much that is good and necessary, in specialization, but only once a solid and broad liberal arts foundation has been achieved.


I have heard the argument that one can learn one’s faith, along with philosophy, literature and other less ‘useful’ subjects, ‘on the side’, in evening or weekend catechetical sessions, group encounters, personal reading and so on, while merrily immersed in your functional, job-seeking STEM degree,.


The answer is, to my mind, a resounding not so, or at least not so well.  The profound intellectual depths of our Catholic faith and culture cannot be absorbed in such harried and piecemeal fashion.  Pope Pius XI put it in 1929 in words that echo into our own millennium:


It is therefore as important to make no mistake in education, as it is to make no mistake in the pursuit of the last end, with which the whole work of education is intimately and necessarily connected. In fact, since education consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created, it is clear that there can be no true education which is not wholly directed to man’s last end, and that in the present order of Providence, since God has revealed Himself to us in the Person of His Only Begotten Son, who alone is “the way, the truth and the life,” there can be no ideally perfect education which is not Christian education.  (Divini illius magistri, par. 7)


In my brief years on this earth teaching, I have seen many examples of such a lack of proper intellectual formation, and I was, and still am in many ways, one of them.  If you had asked me to explain anything philosophical or theological in my early twenties, I would have been by and large at a loss.  But it is a healthy experience to be aware of one’s ignorance.


To take one application of this close to my own heart amongst many, with which I was involved in my time at Modern U years ago, is the emphasis in campus groups on ‘praise and worship’ music, with amplified guitars and drums. There may be a time and place for this (I would argue not in the liturgy), but we are now facing the inherent and real danger even amongst our Catholic students of relegating to the dustbin most of the Church’s musical heritage, Gregorian chant, polyphony and all the musical masterpieces, which Sacrosanctum Concilium declared “a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art“.  Plato was one of the first to emphasize the fundamental importance of music in intellectual and spiritual formation, and the Church has followed suit.


Many other examples could be adduced:  How many current graduates of our venerable institutions, Catholic or otherwise, holders even of post-graduate degrees, could give a reasoned discourse on the creation of man and animals, the rules of reason and science, the Galileo affair, the structure of matter and how this relates to metaphysics, the principles of morality, the proper distinction and place of the passions in the moral life, the cause and effects of the Reformation and other great movements in history, philosophy, even a brief exegesis on Dante, Shakespeare, or any of the great novelists and poets, proper liturgical music, the social teaching of the Church, what the sacraments are, why socialism is wrong, the human person, the mind-body-soul problem, a brief discourse on beatitude and the Trinitarian and Personal nature of God, or who know any Latin at all?  The list could go on, but I trust you get my point.


And what are we to say of courses taught without the faith, and without the universal undergirding of theology? How does one study literature, history or even science, with an atheistic attitude? Such learning is fragmentary, disintegrated and often downright disingenuous.   For the ‘other side’ is not so reticent in their own a priori suppositions, and will subtly, or not so subtly, introduce students to an agnostic and anti-religious mindset.


2) Now to the question of morality:  One might ask, does an educational institution have an obligation to morally form its students?  The modern world laughs at the question.  They say no, but are disingenuous:  Every society, the university especially, whether explicitly intended or not, will indeed shape the moral character of its students, for better or worse.  Ponder the encouragement, or at least passive tolerance, of unrestrained sexual activity at Modern U, dormitories with young men and women living side by side, sharing bathrooms, and with no rules on pre-marital sexual relations of any kind, provided they are deemed ‘consensual’ (although even this is now raising numerous legal issues, as I have written previously).  Binge drinking, incipient alcoholism and drug use, are also tacitly encouraged, not formally by the university, but almost certainly by vocal and influential hedonsitic elements of the student body.  Now we have enforced homosexual and transgendered behaviour and speech codes, all in the name of ‘tolerance’, of course, but intolerantly and rigidly enforced.


The underlying problem is that the modern university offers no objective moral standard towards which to strive.  They have no idea, and can have no idea, in their agnostic worldview, of who Man is, nor what he is for.  Left to themselves in an ungoverned mixed-sex environment, with few if any rules, the effects of original sin (and whatever personal sins to which one is habituated) take over, and moral chaos ensues. One can safely conclude that if a student becomes morally formed during these years of education, it is in spite of, not because of, life at Modern U.


3)  We should also say a word about socialization, which is often misunderstood, even by well-meaning Catholics.  Socialization literally means the attempt to ‘build a society’, and in the context of a university student, it means primarily making friendships that will hopefully last a lifetime, and discerning one’s vocation and purpose in life, whether to marriage or to some kind of consecrated life.  It does not mean partying and getting drunk with groups of unvirtuous louts.


Aristotle taught that friendship is only possible amongst equals, primarily in intellect and in virtue, and he is right, in the main.  Friendship also requires a common pursuit, a shared purpose, and the deeper the friendship, the more commonality is required.


This is very difficult to find at Modern U.  One may be able to make friends amongst the campus Catholic groups described above, but these are often small in number, and little is shared outside the meeting times.  Most of one’s life and studies are at the university.  Make no mistake that these faith-inspired campus apostolates are good and fill a gap, but they should not become the norm, for they cannot substitute for a full, lived Catholic college experience, on the various planes of formation.


4) Finally, there is spiritual formation, and by now I think you can figure out what happens at Modern U in this domain.  Man is by nature a spiritual and a religious being, whose ultimate end is eternal beatitude with God, only attainable, by Catholics at least, by a life founded on liturgy and prayer.  The modern university has become, as a whole, avowedly agnostic if not outright atheistic and antagonistic to religion and any spiritual dimension, at least of the Catholic-Christian sort.  All kinds of quasi-pagan environmental spiritualities abound.  Ask yourselves:  Is there prayer on campus?  Proper liturgy?  A shared commitment to a transcendent principle and purpose?


All in all, to develop spiritually at the modern university, with some felicitous exceptions, requires finding most of one’s spiritual growth with various campus groups.   But this is, again, in a way analogous to the intellectual dimension, to exteriorize the faith, to make it something one ‘adds on’, and not integrated into what one studies.  The spiritual life is relegated to outside one’s intellectual formation (at least formally), and faith and reason are separated, attenuating each of them.


My wonder is that people actually pay money for such education, and a lot of it.  Tuition rates are well above the rate of inflation, and beyond what most families can afford.  Student debt is at record levels, and many are wondering, What is it all aboutWhy am I paying for this?


Some argue that they get all they need in homeschooling, or in high school, private or otherwise.  Again, not so.  I have taught hundreds of students, and have yet to meet one completely formed to face the onslaught they will face at Modern U and, perhaps more so, the world beyond their studies.  This is no slight on parents, but I have come to realize that there is something about the time when young people first leave the home, when they have to make the faith and its culture (in a broad sense) ‘their own’, to assimilate the eternal and most necessary truths in an environment that is orthodox, intellectually rigorous, coherent and integral, and that will support them spiritually.


To be sure, some well-brought-up students ‘make it through’ the secularist Modern U relatively unscathed, but that is just the point:  They survive, but do not thrive, and they graduate with significant intellectual lacunae in their formation; they are to some significant degree uneducated.  I know of no other way to phrase this.   A university must be an alma mater, a ‘nourishing mother’.  There will be a time for the students to battle the secular world, but they must be intellectually prepared first.


I suppose one could answer by using the modern university to get a functional degree in one of the STEM studies, law, medicine, computer science and so on.  These are the least affected by false philosophy, and are still taught with some degree of rigour and truth, albeit limited to the horizon of the material and practical.  But, and this is a big but, these subjects do not fully educate you.  One may learn a ‘skill’, but one’s mind is not broadened, nor formed in the fullness of truth.  Do we really want to produce a whole generation of technically proficient, but undereducated, automatons who can scarcely think for themselves, who have little or no knowledge of history, philosophy, and literature, to say nothing of the teachings of the Church? We are forgetting, not just as individuals but as an entire society, whence we come, and whither we go, the ‘why’ of it all. “My people perish for lack of knowledge” cried the prophet Hosea.


After my own time at one of the ‘modern universities’ years ago (and they have only declined since then, as far as I can discern), I now understand why the graduates of this system will vote for Justin Trudeau, or Obama, or Clinton, or why they see nothing wrong with abortion, nor with euthanasia, why they have no answer to Islam, radical or not, nor, in fact, to any philosophical or theological error, past, present or future.  Our young people are ripe for being co-opted and seduced by any false philosophy that comes along.  We are losing our capacity to think critically, in conformity with objective truth and reality and, as a result, as Pope John Paul II lamented in Evangelium Vitae, we are developing the “darkest moral blindness”, and “reverting to a state of barbarism which one hoped had been left behind forever”.


But there is hope, small pockets of hope, perhaps, but hope nonetheless.  There are colleges that do teach the truth, that do offer an integral formation for the students, that do provide a solid moral and spiritual environment to forge friendships and prepare them for the world.  Allow me a final word about our own apostolate:  now in our seventeenth year, we here at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom have been doing what we can, in our own humble way, to build a classical university in the Catholic tradition, so we may once again recapture the original ‘idea of a university’ from the ‘heart of the Church’.  In his aforementioned Apostolic Constitution on the Catholic University, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope Saint John Paul II declared that it was his “deep conviction that a Catholic University is without any doubt one of the best instruments that the Church offers to our age which is searching for certainty and wisdom“.


To find out more, please browse our webpage.  We are always looking for supporters, material and spiritual, and for students who see the value in our mission.  For, as the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) warned, ‘the world stands in peril unless wiser men are forthcoming’.


Clarifying Thoughts on the Olympic Ideal

sportsI suppose I am in the Olympic mood, but a couple of further thoughts on sports and athletics, which are on most people’s minds, not least in Canada, which won a gold medal yesterday in high jump, when Derek Drouin leapt over 2.38 metres, or just a tad over 7.8 feet.  Impressive, if my anti-Olympic self might without hypocrisy say so.


Which leads me into a clarification:  Please do be aware, dear readers, that I do consider sports as good, even noble and holy, as the Church has declared on a number of occasions (not least, my own beloved John Paul II, who was himself a sportsman).  My argument was not anti-sport, but rather on our over-emphasis on sports, which has taken over our culture in a way I would argue is disordered and deleterious, morally and spiritually.


Some have claimed that my ‘animal’ comparison was irrelevant, but not so:  The point there was two-fold: To show that such physical feats of humans are not all that amazing in the broader, objective sense (even if it is a ‘human’ body doing it).  If you could put a dolphin in the lane next to Phelps, you would gain a vivid visual image of this difference.


Which leads to the second point, that running or swimming fast is not a specifically human perfection.  It does not belong to our nature (our ‘species’) to be very good at these things.  And I would still argue that to spend (nearly) one’s entire life perfecting such brute force sports, and our uber-fascination with them, is somewhat disordered.  (Many argue that the marquee event at the Olympics is the 100 yard sprint, the most physically limited of the sports).


If I had more time and space (e.g., writing a chapter or book on this), I would (and perhaps should) have made further distinctions, that some sports are more human, because they are more rational:  Tennis, soccer, even rugby and sailing.


Also, in the Olympics, there are a number of sports that athletes do ‘on the side’, as amateurs while pursuing a more human life, keeping things in perspective. Perhaps, I would conjecture, a la the Jamaican bobsled team and Eddie the Eagle or other more realistic examples, most of the competitors are like this, but they rarely win.  There may even be value in certain higher sports taking over a large part of one’s life, if they are more rational, ordered to a higher end and fit into the overall vocation of one’s life (see my previous posting).


But in the main, the highest-level competitors are not like this. For them, it is all or nothing, and their whole lives are on the line.  The fact that this makes for an ‘entertaining’ spectacle for our amusement is accidental, and is not a moral or philosophical argument.  Many things are entertaining, but not good for us, nor for the entertainers.  I was reading, for example, what world-level gymnastics does to the body of young girls (to add in also track and field events.. I wonder if such morphed female bodies can ever bounce back to normal).  When you also consider that we are competing against Communist regimes who care nothing for the human person, and are implicated in widespread doping and other coercion of the athletes, one need not imagine much what it takes to compete at this level.


Anyway, I hope this helps.  I am with you all in my love of sports and athletics, which is why I want to defend their goodness and purity.


Bodily and Spiritual Strength

ArnoldWhile we’re on the theme of athletics, I came across an article claiming that men are 30% weaker now than they were even a scant 30 years ago.  Not surprising, one may assume, as the article itself attests, given the increased sedentary nature of our lives, dominated by technology.  Most jobs involve tapping upon a keyboard, or moving a virtual mouse over a screen, neither of which is exactly a strenuous activity.  The article claims that there were more manufacturing jobs a few decades ago, with such factory work in some way building muscle and stamina.


I take such statistics with a bit of a grain of salt.  Forget not that the ‘average’ score is very affected by extremes, so if some men are a lot weaker, or some men are not even ‘men’ (did they include those transitioning individuals who self-identified, I wonder?), then the results will be skewed.


Furthermore, the finding was published in the Journal of Hand Therapy, and the measure they used was grip strength, which is apparently a good indicator of overall strength.  Perhaps.  I am not an exercise physiologist, but I have pondered what ‘fitness’ and ‘athleticism’ really mean.  It is curious that the photo accompanying the article was of a young Arnold Schwartzenegger, in the zenith of his ‘bodybuilding’ days.


The thing is that Ah-nold, for all his muscle, was not really fit.  I doubt he could run far, nor could he likely do many chin-ups, and what would he have been like paddling a canoe, hoisting a pack and hiking 20 miles through the forest, working construction, farming?  I would take a coureur de bois of early Canada over Arnold anyday; a mere glance at what they could do will give you an idea of what ‘fitness’ really means.  For many men (and women) today, health is much about ‘looking good’, perfecting the body into some preconceived mold, fully displayed in spandex.


I will say this for the Olympics and sports, after my recent diatribe on their excesses:  They are at least ordered to some kind of objective performance, and not just the vanity of flexing one’s steroid-induced musculature.


And that, I propose, is the point:  All of our activity must have a purpose or end, which fits in with the overall ratio or purpose of our life, ultimately eternal beatitude with God.  As Saint Paul says, bodily exercise is of some value, but always for a higher good than ourselves, so that we may fulfill our primary vocations more fully and easily.  As the poet Juvenal declared, mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body.


mother teresa

Truly fit for heaven

A healthy adage, I suppose, and one which I try to follow, but as many saints have reminded us, and as this beautiful article recounts on the solemnity of the Assumption (well, well worth a read), health and physical beauty are not necessary for a beautiful and healthy soul.  Rather, often the opposite:  As we lose the ‘goods’ of this world, we are perforced to focus more on the goods of the next, eternal life, which is why God often sends sickness, ultimately, for all, old age and death, so that we enter heaven, which, as Pope Benedict reminded us in Spe Salvi, is when our real life will begin.  Woe to those whose hope is only in this world.  We must lose our lives for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, for only so will we find it.


And we should hope Arnold (now in his seventieth year, and who is a baptized Catholic), and all the rest of us perhaps a bit too focused upon our bodily goods, realize this.

Hydro Rates, Jet Set Ministers and Sid the Kid

It was reported the other day that it is now economically impossible for hydro rates to decrease in Ontario.  You may wonder why, and if I can find the article again, I will link to it:  The basic premise is that the Liberal government, under McGuinty and Wynne, have bound Ontarians to contracts with ‘green’ energy producers, so that we (the consumers) buy their so-called clean energy (wind, solar) at a rate many times higher than so-called ‘dirty’ energy (gas, coal).  Ontario could, if we wanted, have the lowest energy rates around, for we have lots of resources, not least natural gas.  But as things now stand, even if we save energy, we will still be paying through the nose, or through the turbine, as the case may be.


Yes, ideas have consequences, and the idea of ‘carbon pollution’ is a powerful one indeed, instilling religious-like zealotry in its adherents.  No cost is high enough, no sacrifice great enough, when the spectre of climate change is at stake, especially when the costs and sacrifices are borne by others.  Yes, McGuinty will still helicopter in to his private cottage, and Wynne will be chauffered around in her limo, and both will jet-set around the world, with all their cronies.


But the hoi-polloi must be made to pay and obey.


On that note, I found this snippet also interesting:  The federal Liberals, to the tune of $14,000 flew in a cabinet minister (Marie-Claude Bibeau, if you must know, the International Development Minister) from a conference in the Hague, so that she could vote in the euthanasia bill.  I recall speaking to a young staffer on parliament hill about such costs, and what they really mean:  To put this into perspective, the government used about one-fourth of an average man’s salary, that is, a father of a family, struggling to make ends meet, getting up early in the wee hours and going to work, for about three months straight, just to jet this over-feted woman over, first-class we may presume.  We may also presume that she stood up and said ‘aye’ to Canadians being legally murdered by their health-care personnel.  Otherwise, she would have been kept at the Hague.  In fact, now that I think about it, that’s where the International Court is located, is it not?  That’s likely where she and her cronies all belong; if history ever returns to sanity, we may see a lot of people put on trial.  Strive to stay on the right side of history, dear reader, which means the right side of God.


Following my comments on sports and the Olympics, ponder the surprise visit of hockey player Sydney Crosby to a family the other day, which made headline news.  The Dad had made a plywood sign and put it outside his driveway, begging the young ‘star’ to sign his jersey, who had been reputed to be in the area.  Sidney showed up unannounced, while the Dad was at work (did the hockey player not realize that some people work during the day?), while the wife and young daughter were home.  The wife answered the door ‘in her bikini’, and left Sid the Kid with the daughter. Of course, they were ecstatic, over the moon, like some greek demi-god had entered the villa of some matron in 383 B.C. “He’s in my house!”, she exclaimed with unbounded glee:


We respect (Crosby) and we were so honoured, I didn’t want to do anything that he might not appreciate,” Lingley-Pottie said about the player’s unannounced visit. “But I think because it is a good story … I think we’re good.”


Anything he might not appreciate?  Who cares?  They were worried about the mess.  Tell Sid to vacuum the rug and do an honest day’s work. (I write half in jest…sure, I’d give the guy a beer).  My hope here is that the family cares that much for God.  If they tidy up for Sid, why not for each other?


They can scarcely contain their joy and gratitude:


It shows just what a down-to-earth, great person he is,” Pottie added. “At the end of the day, he’s just Sid Crosby, hockey player, international superstar, greatest player on earth … and a really nice guy.


“I get to put that sweater on my wall now and tell people that story every time they see it. That’s just the greatest thing ever.


The greatest?  Hockey?  Sure, Sid bestowing some of his busy time and his limited glory upon a lowly family, yadda yadda, but what does this say about Canadians and their priorities?   The ‘Kid’, who is from Cape Breton if memory serves, plays for an American team, who presumably pay him the most, and likely that’s where he lives and spends his millions most of the time.  So much for home-town loyalty.  Ho-hum.


The Neo-Pagan Limits of the Olympics

Rio Olympics

The much-awaited Olympics is now upon us in Rio, a city in a country in a continent mired in unmanageable debt and corruption.  Surrounded by poverty-stricken favelas, the city has poured billions into Olympic venues, security, advertisement, all to watch a few thousand overhyped young athletes strive to excel at their chosen sport.


Don’t get me wrong: I do not harbour any dislike, to say nothing of hatred, for athletics.  In fact, I have enjoyed many pleasant hours playing various kinds of games at a recreational level, even though, partly due to the circumstances of my life, I mostly enjoy solitary physical activities, cycling, kayaking and hiking.  Perhaps I find them more conducive to prayer and reflection, or perhaps it is connected in some subconscious way to the memory that no one wanted to pick me for a team as a wee lad.  You know, past traumas and all that.


So allow me to clarify that I find it very difficult to care about professional sports which have, by and large, become a bloated, idolatrous entity, blown vastly out of proportion to their importance to our culture.  As the well-worn analogy goes, sports arenas are our new cathedrals, and the players our new panoply of saints, to whom we offer devotion and praise.  Grown men quite literally weep and gnash their teeth when their team seems to be on the verge of losing, or winning; people riot in the streets regardless of the outcome.  Much of our lives revolves around sports, and even those who are not ‘fans’ (short, of course, for ‘fanatics’) are caught up in the hype of the big events, the current Olympics, the World Cup, the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl, and so on.


I have never been one for this charade, not least for the reason that I would rather ride a bike than watch another man do so.


Of course, watching sports does give one a sense of vicarious enjoyment, especially if one participates in the sport in question.  Seeing the cyclists of the Tour de France pedalling through the glorious scenery of the Pyrenees, one can imagine oneself doing the same thing, perhaps a tad slower, of course, on a less expensive bike, and with a bit more clothing.


Yet what have sports become?  We may judge the value with which we hold a thing by how much money and time we are willing to spend on it, and we as a culture spend far too much of these valuable entities on this ultimately rather utilitarian activity.  Parents devote their entire weekends driving their children, boys and now girls, from game to game, tournament to tournament.  Sunday Mass?  Prayer? Cultural activities?  Reading?  Music?  Family time?  Do most modern families even consider such a scale of priorities?


At the professional level, sports have become a money-driven machine, with their millionaire players selling their set of skills to the highest bidder amongst the billionaire owners.  Team loyalty?   So long as they pay me enough; and if ‘my team’ does not perform well, I can be traded before the playoffs.  Geographical loyalty, and rooting for the ‘home team’?  How many players are actually from, or care a fig for, the town or city whose name the team adopts, or even from a contiguous region or country, for which they play?  How many actually even live there?


The Olympics brings this charade to its apogee, or nadir as the case may be, with untold billions now thrown into its gaping, insatiable maw (at the last venue, the impoverished Russians will be paying off the $15 billion tag for Sochi perhaps until judgement day, and Rio will be no different.  Montreal just finished paying off its own debt from the more-sober era of the 1976 Olympics a few years ago).


We watch the desperate athletes, after spending their entire lives training, trying to shave quite literally a thousandths of a second off the last recorded time, a result dependent upon so many other factors (wind, a cold virus, altitude, cloud cover, climate change, you name it) that ‘chance’ has about as large a role as ‘effort’.  Their whole lives revolve around their body and its training until, in their mid-twenties, it is worn out, and they are often left injured, disillusioned and depressed as they drift into sedentary middle-age.  I wonder especially of the female athletes, delaying marriage and family, as they pummel and morph their bodies into lean, muscular male-like physiques, all for the sake of a gold bauble, or something far less.


Here is something to ponder:  No matter how much humans train, some animal will always beat them handily.  The world record holder for the 100  metre dash, Usain Bolt, ran it in 9.58 seconds.  Compare the fastest human with Sarah the 11 year old cheetah, well into late-middle age for the large cat, who  lies around most of the day, and who can run the same distance easily in 5.95 seconds.  No one will ever out-wrestle a chimpanzee, even if defanged and declawed, for they have four times the strength of an adult male, nor out bench-press a gorilla, who could probably lift a humvee with ease and can bend tempered steel; and who will ever out-swim a dolphin, which can clock speeds of  25 miles per hour (Michael Phelps, the Olympic prodigy whose feats will likely never be repeated, swims at his best 6 miles per hour).  And none of these animals ‘train’ in our sense of the word.  They’re just born that way.


Higher, faster, stronger? Scientists estimate that we are perhaps shaving off 1/100 of a second on records each Olympics, and one physiologist claims the fastest any human can ever possibly run the 100 metres is 9.44 seconds, and the same asymptotic limits apply to most other timed sports.  And, as we have witnessed of late, many of these records are tainted by doping and other nefarious activities.


Whatever ‘excellence’ the Olympians are striving after, it is not specifically human excellence.


There was a reason why the Olympics were, until recently, limited to amateurs, and forbidden to professionals.  The originators of the Olympic ideal thought it unseemly and inhuman to devote one’s whole life and existence to ‘sport’, which should be a leisurely activity, done on the side.  After all, there are many other higher, specifically human pastimes and virtues, music, art, science, literature, contemplation, which we do not share with animals, and which are far more fitting to cultivate.  That was part of the sub-plot of the great 1981 Olympic film Chariots of Fire:  Beware of making sports professional and all-consuming, for we risk a loss of a significant part of our humanity.


The Church has always warned against the danger of such a ‘cult of the body’, a “neo-pagan notion” leading one “to sacrifice everything for (the body’s) sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports” (cf., CCC, #2289).  Along with this idolization of the body goes a perverse hedonism, as we see in the spike in Tinder usage in the Olympic village, a smartphone app which allows its users to ‘hook up’ with those whom one finds immediately attractive, by swiping their photo.  To ‘facilitate’ this fornicatory process, 450,000 condoms were handed out to the athletes.  Given there are about 11,000 competitors, that’s about 41 condoms per person, or 82 per couple, which is saying something for a two week event.


I would have thought sexual incontinence would decrease one’s athletic performance, draining one’s focus, attention and determination (as you may recall from the first Rocky film, and, more historically, Roman legionaries).


Of course, I hope and presume most athletes do develop other skills and virtues besides sports and ‘hooking up’, particularly virtues of the mind and soul, to which the body is most definitely subordinate, so they can thrive in terms of what it really means to be human, beyond their brief, all-too-short athletic careers, over almost before they begin.


We must always bring ourselves back to reality and realize with the full focus of our intellect that most sports are simply a bunch of guys, and now girls, running, swimming, fighting, or throwing, hitting and chasing a piece of rubber around various kinds of surfaces, which animals (and now robots) can do far better.   Such activities are not the point of life, at least of human life.


Yet much of our time, our energy, our focus, are consumed by them, and many men quite religiously spend their entire weekends and time off watching younger, fitter men (and women) do things they only wish they could do.  Harmless fun, to an extent, I suppose; a vicarious form of warfare sublimating our aggression, perhaps; a way to perfect one’s body, yes, but only if one participates in ‘real life’, getting out of Plato’s illusory cave of televised entertainment, into the real world where we can live and move and have our being.  It is all a matter of perspective, and we in our artificial modern age have sadly put the last things first, and first things last.


With the many positive aspects of sports, let us always bring things back to such a real perspective, and what it truly means to be human.


Papal Reverence

pope francis jan 30We are in the midst of an enigmatic papacy, and many Catholics know not how to respond to Pope Francis.  Well, some think they do, and are rather vociferous in their comments, on either side of the spectrum.


Just to be clear:  When I write of the Pope, or the Church in general, my intent is not to criticize the Holy Father or undermine his authority, but to seek clarity in his sometimes ambiguous, or even his not-so-ambiguous, words.


Many have an a priori image of who or what the Pope is or trying to be: A liberal, a socialist, a conservative hiding behind such Potemkin facades, a quasi-Machiavellian Jesuit, a fool for Christ in the image of his Franciscan namesake, and so on.  Whatever ‘model’ is chosen, such individuals strive to maintain their view, to ‘save the phenomena’ in Plato’s terminology, in similar fashion to Ptolemy scribbling and calculating to maintain his geocentric universe, with the ever-more complex mathematics of the equants and epicycles.


I would posit that the focus should not be on who or what Pope Francis is, or his agenda, but rather precisely what he teaches and writes, how he does so, and how his words apply to us. We are not bound in conscience by his impromptu comments in interviews, but may, and at times should, read over, ponder and question them, using them as a starting point for discussion (which may be how he intends them). The Pope’s official writings are another question, and should indeed inform our conscience, according to their degree of authority:  Encyclicals are more binding than his addresses or homilies. Even here, however, we may parse out what is his opinion in a non-Magisterial capacity (such as on carbon emissions and global warming), his exhortations to moral behaviour (such as being more temperate and just towards others in our use of resources), and his reiterations of principles of our faith (such as on the indissolubility of marriage, and the impossibility of homosexual marriage).


Most of us, or at least most readers of these columns, likely wish the Holy Father would at times be more clear and precise (a la Saint Dominic and his successors!), or focus on issues we deem more fundamental (and perhaps are), or not give sound-bite fodder to the secularist media and enemies of the Church (but they will always select and interpret most unfavorably). We as Catholics are called to make our way to heaven not only by our faith, but also by our reason, by the ‘tangle of our wits’ as Saint Thomas More said, and are therefore not only free, but in some degree bound, to ‘read into’  and interpret what he says, always in the light of the Church’s perennial Tradition.  But in the midst of our questioning, even our suffering and confusion, we should remember that he is the Vicar of Christ, deserving of our reverence and obedience, as well as, of course, our charity and daily prayers.


Just a clarification, and please do correct me if I go astray on my own principle.


Saint Dominic, ora pro nobis!