Monday, April 27, 2009

An Appropriate Sentence

I'm re-reading Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and near the beginning of Book the Second, chapter seven, "Monseigneur in Town," Dickens describes the morning ritual of Monseigneur, "one of the great lords in power at the Court" [the Duke of Orléans], taking his chocolate, on some day in 1780. About three pages into the description occurs this sentence:

"The leprosy of unreality disfigured every human creature in attendance upon Monseigneur."

If the shoe fits . . . .

Friday, April 24, 2009

The English Language

Mom and Dad on their wedding
day, September 6, 1941.

I read long ago that English was considered the second-most difficult language in the world to learn, next to Chinese. This may be so. (I don't know what Fr. Z. would say about Latin.) The thing with English, as one book (I think it was Language by Mario Pei) said, is that it is basically Germanic with an "imposing Romance superstructure." I took a course in Old English, that is, pre-Conquest English, at the U of MN in 1969, and we had to learn it almost as if it were a foreign language. Anyway, what I see as the main problem with learning English (besides the spelling, which always threw my ESL students for a loop), is not that it has no rules, it's that it has too many, they're too complex, there are too many exceptions, and nobody understands them.

For instance, there's an old rhyme:
I before E, except after C,
Or when sounded like A, as in neighbor and weigh.

When I was in freshman year at De La Salle here in Minneapolis, Brother Paschal the librarian taught us some exceptions to the exceptions, which don't fit the general rule either: "Neither ancient financier seized either species of weird leisure." In the fifty years since, I have added caffeine and codeine -- to the word list, that is, not to myself! Except caffeine.

Now to rant and rave (what fun!)

Google is not a verb. Gift is not a verb. Task is not a verb. Text is not a verb. Partner is not a verb. Anyone who uses them should be made to stand in the corner.

An apostrophe is used to denote a letter or letters that're missing or as a symbol of possession. It is not a symbol of plurality, except when you're talking about a word or letter as such -- for instance, "There are no X's in this sentence." "It's" as a possessive is improper. "It's" means "It is." For instance: "The car's color is black. Yes, its color is black. Yes, it's black."

All kinds of fun and games are had when we talk about S's and apostrophes. Here are some examples of correct usage: "I went to visit John Jones, he's one of the Main Street Joneses, at the Joneses' house. I saw John Jones's (or John Jones') car."

End of rant.

I have to admit there are a few places where I have caved in to modern usage. When I was in high school and the U, it was better to say "back in the 1950's"; now "back in the 1950s" is considered okay, and I do (blush) use it.

My dad, a six-stripe sergeant in the WWII Army, taught me a valuable lesson about strong language. He said that the less you use it, the more shock value it has when you do. I have to admit that when I was in my early twenties, I worked a laboring job where foul words were used as punctuation marks, and it took me a long time to clean up my mouth after that. (I'm not entirely successful yet; the moral of the story is be careful what bad habits I take up, because they're easier to adopt than to get rid of.) Now, I go to my favorite beer and burger joint, and hear folks -- young women, too -- use language that would make a whore blush.

One time when I was about 9 or 10, I got the not-so-bright idea of using some "barracks language" in front of my mom (who never reached 5'0" in her life but made up for it with tempered steel). She hardly raised an eyebrow, and said very calmly, "If I ever hear those words out of your mouth again, I'll wash your mouth out with soap." Less than a minute later, I was in a headlock on the front porch (so the neighbors could see), having my mouth washed out with a washrag soaked with the suds of brown laundry soap. (Fels-Naptha, by the way, they still make it, and it'll take anything off anything, except gorilla glue off my skin.)

Friday, April 17, 2009


It is no accident that Murphy -- and there was a real Murphy! -- was an Irishman. The Irish know that there is no limit to how bad things can get. I suspect that in Hell things get worse and worse infinitely, just as in Heaven things get better and better infinitely. (This might not be orthodox theology, so I would be pleased if Fr. L. or Fr. Z. corrected me.) When they get to heaven they can talk to my Irish grandmother (at left).

Anyway, besides discovering America, re-Christianizing the European continent, beating the snot out of the Vikings for good, and producing Dave Matheny, the Irish have had more than their share of hard times too: do a google search on "Penal Laws" and "The Great Hunger" (I refuse to use "google" as a verb; some day I'll do a post on slang.)
Now I ask: breatheth there a soul so benighted that he knoweth not Murphy's Law?
This, as a philosophical statement, is self-proving, thusly:
1. The statement "If anything can go wrong it will" is a thing.
2. Therefore it itself can go wrong.
3. Therefore things can sometimes go right.
4. Experience proves statement #3.
5. Q.E.D.
Now of course this is only Murphy's first and main Law. There are many many more; I have seen sets of Murphy laws as derived from engineering, theater, housework, and so on.
Some other general Murphy Laws are:
Things which cannot possibly go wrong will do so anyway.
Everything will go wrong all at once.
Everything will go wrong in the direction of greatest possible harm.
If something looks right, it is probably wrong.
If something looks wrong, it is wrong.
An error which has been detected and corrected will be found to have been right in the first place.
There are commentaries on Murphy's Law by other Irishmen:
"Murphy was an optimist." -- O'Toole
"Things have already gone wrong; they just haven't told you yet." -- McGillicuddy
(Thank-you to Fr. Groeschel for that one)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Христос Воскрес! - Воістину Воскрес!

Which means: Christ is risen! - He is truly risen!

My Triduum and Easter was shared between Latin and Ukrainian rites. Thursday and Friday I was at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Minneapolis, and Sunday I was at St. Stephan Ukrainian Catholic Church in St. Paul. The Thursday and Friday liturgies were done reverently and tastefully. The Sunday liturgy was in a mix of Ukrainian and English. (I suspect but don't know that Father does that for the benefit of the children and grandchildren who gave "gone Latin," just as I have "gone Ukrainian.")

The Epistle was read in Ukrainian and English; the Gospel (John 1:1-18) was read in Ukrainian, Ancient Greek (as far as I could tell), and English. Father's sermon was really good. He talked about the Easter customs of the secular world -- bunnies, eggs, and chicks -- and remarked that the secular world just doesn't get it. They have the symbols without knowing why. Bunnies are symbols of fertility and teeming life, eggs are the symbols of unborn life, and chicks are symbols of new life. Life, more abundant life, eternal life, is what Jesus Christ came to Earth to give us, and He did it through horrible suffering . . . and then His Resurrection.

There is life after life. Death is not the end. We Christians know it and the secular world doesn't.

Going back a bit to Lent, I found that saying the Anima Christi prayer every night before bed, and reading the Way of the Cross (the old style) as often as I could, were great devotions. Then Thursday and Friday I reread Jim Bishop's The Day Christ Died and Dr. Pierre Barbet's A Doctor at Calvary. I found that I appreciate the joy of Easter much more after paying a lot more attention to Christ crucified.

A word about the Ukrainian community I know.

At this little church in St. Paul, I'm almost the youngest person there (I'm 65). Most of the folks are postwar DP's (know what a DP is? It's a "displaced person"); there were hundreds of thousands of them in Europe after the War was over, and they sat out a few postwar years in DP camps in western Europe, before being admitted to the US as refugees. Some Ukrainians, sadly, who were in areas controlled by the British, were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union, where they were almost certainly shot or sent off to the Gulag.

One couple I know lived in what was politically part of Poland in 1939, but was ethnically Ukrainian. When the Nazis of the Third Reich and the Soviet Communists signed a non-aggression pact in 1939, they partitioned eastern Europe into spheres of influence, and the Soviet Army took over this couple's village. Then in 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the German Army came marching in and took many of the able-bodied folks to be (slave) laborers in the Reich, in farms, factories, what-have-you. Some of the good-looking women were forced into brothels for the German soldiers.

I hardly have to say that the Ukrainians were forbidden their Faith by both the Nazis and the Communists. Those who came here were overjoyed to be able to worship again. Back in 1964, I met a young woman who was a high-school senior; she told me that the only family she had that she knew of was her immediate family. All the rest, she said -- well, they had no idea even if they were alive or dead. I was told that after the Soviet collapse, one of the first things the folks in Ukraine did was start building churches. One old lady showed me some pictures of a little wooden church in the village where she grew up. "They're going to have Mass again for the first time in 70 years!" she said through tears.

One old lady who spent about five or six years in a DP camp after the War and came to the US about 1950 or 1951 told me once: "Never trust anyone who wants to take away God, marriage, or the family."

These people have suffered plenty, they became hardworking citizens as soon as they could, and they value highly the freedoms we have here.

(I have to add in closing that I can guess pretty accurately what they think of the present administration.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Holy Saturday - the "In-between" Day

Today is one of the two days of the year when there is no Mass. Yesterday's service (which was called the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified when I was a kid) wasn't really a Mass - it was a prayer service with Holy Communion. There is no Mass today until the Easter Vigil Mass at night. According to an authoritative source I read, I think Father Zuhlsdorf's site "What Does The Prayer Really Say," the Easter Vigil Mass must take place during darkness, to symbolize the darkness without Christ. The new fire, the blessing of water, remind us that Christ is the Light of the World, and, as He said, He makes all things new.

There are very good reasons the Church uses material things to symbolize spiritual realities. One is that we humans are both material and spiritual beings. What happens to the body affects the soul and vice versa. I know that when I'm tired and draggy, or spiritually downcast, I go to Mass or Adoration anyway, say my morning and night prayers anyway; "Bring the body and the mind will follow." I'm blessed to be as old as I am and have sixty years of habit behind me; that helps (even though in habit there's a danger of doing things without paying attention).

Another reason is that Jesus is both human and divine. Another is that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and said "This is my body," likewise the wine. This is one instance where we Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) take Scripture more literally than our Protestant brothers and sisters.

Anyway . . . .

Here are some odd facts that you probably never needed to know, but I'm foisting them on you anyway just for the fun of it because I don't feel like doing anything today.

An acre-foot of water (that is, one acre in extent and a foot deep) weighs 2722500 pounds.

The triple point of water means the circumstances under which water can exist as vapor, liquid, and solid at the same time, such as mist over a partly icy lake.
This is 0.01 degree Celsius.

Homoskedasticity and heteroskedasticity have nothing to do with sex.

20-pound paper is called that because of the weight of one ream (500 sheets) of the "parent stock," in this case 17" x 22"; thus one ream of ordinary typing or copy paper weighs five pounds.

The Gregorian calendar in common use is five years off.

The solar day is longer than the sidereal day.

The 45th parallel of north latitude runs through north Minneapolis, between West Broadway and 21st Avenue North.

Happy Easter!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

This is arguably the most important day in human history, next to Easter Sunday.

Like I said before, the Resurrection is impossible without the Cross.

I have read some damfool stuff to the effect that Jesus didn't really die on the Cross.


Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for the body. Pilate, surprised that Jesus died so quickly, sent a centurion to make sure. When the centurion reported back that Jesus was dead, Pilate released the body to Joseph (see Matthew 27:57ff, Mark 43:15ff, Luke 23:5ff, John 20:38ff).

My point is this: the Roman Army had killing, especially crucifixion, down to an exact science. If a Roman centurion (commander of a hundred) said Jesus was dead, you can bet your soul and your eternity that He was dead.

My recollection of childhood is that Good Friday was almost always gray, dingy, cold, and barren. It seemed to fit. Today, as I write, it's sunny and warm. That fits too. Remember we're dealing with a mystery: no matter how much we think about it, we never get to the end of it.

But in our thinking, we have to remember that Jesus submitted Himself to this out of love. That's what it's all about.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Holy (Maundy) Thursday

I saw last night the moon was either full or one day lacking of full, so it looks like this is one year where Passover and Easter occur at the same time. And according to the calendar we use now, it's only three days past the actual date of the Last Supper, about which some scholars disagree (I think), but which Jim Bishop puts at Thursday, April 6, AD 30.

So today is the first of the Triduum or "three days" that are the holiest in the Catholic liturgical calendar, climaxing with the Easter Vigil Mass, after dark but before dawn, Saturday night-Sunday morning.

So who's Jim Bishop? He was a journalist who, in 1957, published The Day Christ Died, an hour-by-hour account of Jesus Christ's passion and death, from 6 pm Thursday to 4 pm Friday; with three interspersed chapters, "The Jewish World," "The Roman World," and "Jesus."

In my not-so-humble opinion, it is the best book ever published on the central point of human history. I've read it almost every Lent since it came out, when I was 13 or so.

I think most of us like happy endings, and of course this story, the most important story in the world, has a happy ending. But there's only the tiniest hint of that in the book.

As best I know, it's been the constant theme of the greatest saints down through the ages that to rise with Christ, we have to die with Him. He Himself said that unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will not bear fruit. Suffering is something none of us like and most of us would like to avoid. But Jesus and the saints, His most faithful followers, have said over and over again that the Cross -- our crosses -- must be carried if we're to be worthy of Him.

There's a very important notion in Catholic thought (it might be in other Christian denominations too, but I don't know), that of redemptive suffering. The idea (based on a passage in St. Paul) is that if we offer up our sufferings to Christ, He will use them to help redeem the world. So our suffering isn't meaningless, it isn't senseless; it has profound and eternal meaning. And I not only believe the idea, I like it -- because I'd go crazy otherwise.

Anyway, the more we immerse ourselves in Christ these next three days, the more we'll appreciate the joy of Easter. And the closer we stick with Him in our lives -- including carrying our crosses -- the better chance we have of "arising glorious with Him on the Last Day."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Jeanne's first letter to the English, spring 1429

╬ Jesus Maria

King of England and you, the Duke of Bedford, who declare that you are the regent of the realm of France; and you, William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and you, Sir John Talbot, and you Thomas Lord Scales, who say you are the lieutenants of this Bedford, render an account to the King of Heaven! Give up to the Maid, who is sent by God, the King of Heaven, the keys of the cities you have seized and violated in France. She has come here, by God's order, to reinstate the royal line. She is fully prepared to offer peace, if you are willing to give satisfaction, provided you agree to vacate France, settle the claims for the damage you have done, and repay the sums of money you have taken during all the years you have occupied this realm.

To you, archers, fellow soldiers, men of gentle birth, and all others, who are in front of the city of Orléans, by God's order go home to your own country. Unless you do, be prepared for further orders from the Maid who in a short time is going into action. You will suffer very heavy damage.

King of England, I am a military commander and unless you accept my counsel, this I will assure you: in whatever region of France I find your troops I will give battle and chase them and make them flee this country whether they want to or not. If they do not obey I will have them all slain. I have been sent here by command of God, the King of Heaven, to combat them and boot them body for body entirely out of France. If they obey willingly, I will show them mercy. And for you, do not make up your mind to remain here, for God, the King of Heaven and Son of the Virgin Mary, has given you no authority over this kingdom of France. Charles, the rightful heir, will have this authority. God, the King of Heaven, wills it! The Maid has revealed to him that before long he will take possession of Paris in good and glorious company.

If you are reluctant to believe this communication by the command of God and the order of the Maid, I caution you: in whatever place we encounter you, we will give battle and strike you down. There were will make such an uproar the like of which has not been heard in France for a thousand years. Have a firm faith in this. The King of Heaven will give such power to the Maid that neither you nor your armies will know how to injure her or the troops she commands. When it comes to might, we will see who has the better right!

Duke of Bedford, who now carry on the siege of Orléans, the Maid implores you not to force her to destroy you. If you do give satisfaction to her, you may yet live to see the French perform the most brilliant exploit ever turned to the account of Christianity.

If you wish to restore peace, I pray you to make reply in the city of Orléans which I hope to reach in a short time. If you do not act in this wise, you will ever bethink you of your heavy loss.

Written this Tuesday of Holy Week

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Faith and Reason - Fides et Ratio

I happened to turn on the TV this evening, and came in right at the start of Inherit the Wind, made in 1960, based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (no, not that Robert E. Lee) which in turn was based on the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925.

It's a powerful movie, partly because some of it (I'm not sure how much) really happened, and, to my mind, mostly because it's a clash between science and religion. Now I have to qualify that. It seems to me the movie portrayed a clash between atheistic science and very fundamentalist religion; in other words, two opposite poles -- two extremes -- which I think a Catholic thinker would avoid, because neither pole represents the balance that Catholicism offers.

I'm currently reading John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio, in which it seems (I'm only a little way into it) he insists there's no real conflict between real science and real religion. This is a notion that, as far as I know, the Church has held since at least Aquinas and probably further back than that. (I understand the great Fathers of the first few centuries adopted the methods and some of the terminology of Greek philosophy, in order to attempt to make divine revelation clearer.)

Anyway, in the textbook used for the course in medieval history at the University of Minnesota in the late 1960s, Robert S. Hoyt's Europe in the Middle Ages, there is a good five-page discussion of Aquinas. One of the principal things Prof. Hoyt says in the book about St. Thomas is this (on p. 383):

"To summarize Thomas' view of the Christian universe, part is cognizable by unaided natural reason , and it is connected in logical probability with the second part which must, ultimately, be accepted on faith. But if revelation be granted as providing valid premises or first principles, this second part also can be shown to be no less rational than the first part. The two parts of the Thomistic universe are nature and supernature. The conclusions concerning nature can be demonstrated to be true; nature can be demonstrated to be consonant with supernature as revealed, in the sense that by arguments from natural reason no revealed truth can be demonstrated to be false and all revealed truths can be demonstrated to be not impossible. The Christian universe is thus coherent: its parts fit together logically if faith is accepted, and if faith is not accepted it still cannot be shown that the two do not fit together logically. Hence the final conclusion that the universe is one and rational."

G. K. Chesterton wrote a little book on St. Thomas (I highly recommend it to anyone) which Etienne Gilson -- arguably the finest scholar of St. Thomas -- praised by saying, "I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas."

(Chesterton wrote a great heap of equally brilliant works too; my favorites are Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man.) In one of these books he came up with a brilliant little quip which I stole and used against an atheist (or at least agnostic) professor of philosophy at the U. of M. about 1969: "Faith and reason are not incompatible. It's an act of faith to believe your thinking bears any relation to reality."

Religion has the Ten Commandments, science has the ten postulates of Euclid. A rabbi I read many years ago said that the Ten Commandmants are not the last word in morality, but the first word that must be said before any others can be. As to Euclid, the statement "Any quantity equals itself" is either self-evidently true or it's nonsense. The common thing is that whether with morality or science, you have to start somewhere. You have to have first principles, or else you've got nothing. You can't put Descartes before the horse. :-}

Friday, April 3, 2009

About Women

I just finished reading a really good book titled The Privilege of Being a Woman, by Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, former Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Hunter College of the City University in New York. Her "take" on womanhood is thoroughly Catholic, and of course "from the inside." She has many good things to say, that I think modern young women would do very well to read and practice -- such as demanding Respect (with a capital R) from the men in their lives (and behaving in a way to command it).

Sometime during my freshman year in high school, 1958-59, we had a priest come in to give us guys a mission. I don't remember all he said, not even most. But one thing I remember very well. Not the exact words, but it was something very much like this:
"The chalice at Mass holds the blood of Our Lord. The womb of Mary held His developing body. With every girl you meet, remember that her body is like that chalice, because she can cradle new life within her, just as Mary did. Respect that. Don't. You. Ever. Forget. It!"

That has stuck with me for half a century. It's good solid Catholic thought. Now I don't pretend to have been a perfect guy all my life (the details are nobody's business but mine and God's) but at least back then I got set on the right track by faithful Catholic teachers, and I've never seen any good reason to change my mind.

So I think nuns and moms are really something. That's fulfilled womanhood, if you ask me!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Windy Wednesday

I see from reading the news that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. There are a few things that give me some relief from that.

The first is that God really is taking care of things, no matter how unlikely it may seem at any time. The second is that from my studies of history, I know that the world has always been going to hell in a handbasket, so what's new? The third is that there is nothing I can do about it, so I may as well spare myself the worry, and save my energy for the things that are right under my nose and that I can do something about.

One thing right under my nose is preparing for house and yard work this spring -- if we ever get a spring this year. One of the things I like about late winter is that there's no shoveling and it's too early for yard work. (The soil in my yard has thawed only about two inches down.) So I stay in, tidy the house, and read books.

One book I'm just finishing (for the third time) is Philip Trower's The Catholic Church and the Counter-Faith, an account of philosophy since the so-called "Enlightenment" era, and the impact of that on the modern world. Very interesting, but it has taken me three readings to get out of it what I have gotten. It's not light bedtime reading.

If I want light bedtime reading, I grab a detective story or murder mystery. "Whaat?!" you may well say. I like detective stories and murder mysteries. I grew up on Sherlock Holmes, and I'm fond of Roderick Alleyn, Mr. Campion, Father Brown, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Brother Cadfael, and Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I like the escape, the intellectual challenge, and the characters; but above all I like it that, in a murder mystery, justice is usually served in the end.