Sunday, August 17, 2014

St Michael the Archangel--cast those evil spirits into hell! ISIS in Iraq and Syria

No writer has expressed the sheer joy and wonder of Catholic conversion better than G.K. Chesterton. "It is like discovering a new continent full of strange flowers and fantastic animals," Chesterton wrote, "which is at once wild and hospitable."

Chesterton got it exactly right; Catholic conversion is indeed like discovering a new continent. When I became Catholic, I was introduced to a whole new culture--a culture with its own distinctive art, architecture, music and literature. I was introduced to the glories of Catholic history, to Catholic mysticism, to the lives of the saints. I have been a Catholic for 17 years, and Catholicism has been my great life adventure.
All of this was unexpected.
And among the unexpected accouterments of my new faith are the special Catholic prayers, a few of which I have memorized: the Rosary, the Memorare, the Prayer of St. Francis, the Canticle of Mary, the Anima Christi, the Hail, Holy Queen and on and on.

But my favorite prayer is the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, a militant, almost pugnacious prayer calling for St. Michael to help us in our fight against evil. It first came into use during the papacy of Pius XIII and was said after Mass during the early 20th century. In 1964, the Prayer to St. Michael was dropped as a regular postlude of the Mass, but it is being revived. I've heard it said several times after Mass over the past few weeks.

This is the short version:
St. Micheal, the Archangel, defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan and the other evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Here's what I like about this prayer. First, it acknowledges that life is a battle against evil and that the devil is a corporeal and palpable presence in the world. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the devil is real, and I like to hear other people express this sentiment in a public prayer.

Second, people who say this prayer are candidly asking St. Michael to cast Satan into hell along with the other evil spirits "who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls." I confess that I find this image very appealing. If indeed there are ill-spirited people seeking our destruction--and of course there are such people, why shouldn't those people be cast into hell?  After all, isn't that what hell is for?

On the other hand, asking St. Michael to throw people into hell makes me uncomfortable, even if those people have evil spirits and are prowling around seeking the ruin of our souls.  It doesn't seem like a very charitable sentiment. Nevertheless, I like this prayer; and I enjoy saying it after Mass.

In our postmodern world, we have just about abolished the notion of evil that is articulated in the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. Everything is relative, the college professors tell us; everyone's perspective is valid; no one's understanding of the world is more valid than another's.

But the militant Islamists in Syria and Iraq have unleashed hell. They have beheaded and crucified people; they have buried people alive; they've stoned people to death. They've murdered people who will not convert to their twisted religious beliefs.  These people are truly evil.

We may persuade ourselves that what is going on in Iraq doesn't directly concern us. Nothing is happening there that should interrupt President Obama's golf game, his vacation at Martha's Vineyard, his campaign fundraising events. But evil is creeping closer every day, and we may not be as insulated from it as we think.

Indeed, just today BBC News reported that ISIS had beheaded David Foley, an American journalist. Apparently, a video of the act was posted on the web; and the depiction of Foley's actual murder was deemed so disturbing that You Tube took the video of its web site.

Personally, I am glad the prayer to St. Michael is making a comeback. "St. Michael, defend us in battle."  Somehow these words are oddly comforting. And I sincerely hope St. Michael will cast the people who killed David Foley into the deepest bowels of hell.

David Foley: Beheaded by Islamist Extremists

Friday, August 15, 2014

I meet Mary in the Milk Grotto: Reflections on the the Feast of the Assumption in Lafayette, Louisiana

During the Christmas season of 2006, I accompanied a group of college students to Israel and the West Bank--the Holy Land. As I recall, I had no great desire to visit the Holy Land. I think I associated it with Protestantism because I had a dim childhood recollection that Baptists liked to visited the Holy Land so they could see the Jordan River.

So the Holy Land held no great interest for me. But my wife had visited Israel and the West Bank in 2004, and she was profoundly moved by the experience, so I took advantage of the opportunity to see the Holy Land for myself.

To my great surprise, I had several deeply moving experiences while I was there, which I will always remember. But my most profound experience occurred in the Milk Grotto of Bethlehem.   The Milk Grotto is basically a cave where Mary and Joseph spent the night before taking Jesus to Egypt to escape from Herod. Here is where an angel visited Joseph in a dream and instructed him to arise in the night and immediately take Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

We celebrated Mass in the grotto, and then my group departed for the nearby Franciscan gift shop. I lingered, however, and reflected a moment about the frightened young couple who had huddled with their child in the darkness at the very place where I was standing more than 2000 years ago. At that moment, in my mind, Mary and Joseph and Jesus were not the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph were just a mother and father risking their own lives to keep their infant child from being murdered.

I recall two young sisters of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa's order) were also in the grotto, clad in their distinctive white habits with their striped blue veils. One of them licked her finger and pulled it across the milky substance that clung to the roof of the cave. Then she put her finger to her mouth to taste the residue that she had collected.   This milky substance, tradition tells us, represents the milk that flowed from Mary's breast in the grotto; and miracles of fertility have been attributed to it.

Seeing the sister's simple act of piety, I followed her example; and I too tasted the calcified deposits on the ceiling of the cave. It tasted like chalk.

And at that moment, I felt the distinct presence of Mary in the grotto with me, and I was seized with a brief certainty that she would grant me anything I asked if only I would ask immediately.  Without taking time to consider, I asked for something humble: "Mary," I asked, "make me a better person." And then the moment passed.

Today is the Feast Day of the Assumption of Mary, a holy day of obligation, when Catholics celebrate their belief that God assumed Mary into heaven immediately upon her death and that her body, which had been conceived without sin, suffered no corruption.   Being in Lafayette today, I attended Mass at St. John's Cathedral in downtown Lafayette.

As it happens, Our Lady of the Assumption is the special patroness of Acadiana, and the cathedral was at least half full for the noon Mass. We began the Mass by singing "Hail, Holy Queen," that beloved, simple and childlike song to Mary that I always associate with Catholic children.
Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above
Oh, Maria
Hail, Mother of Mercy and of Love
Oh, Maria
I was sitting near the front of the cathedral, and I heard hundred of voices swelling up behind me--the voices of young people and old people, most of them descendants of Le Grand Dérangement, the great deportation of the Catholic French Canadians by the wicked British in the 18th century.

 "Triumph, all you cherubim," I heard them sing. "Sing with us, you seraphim."  The words rolled over me, clear and strong, like a warm and benign physical force. "Heaven and earth resound the hymn," they sang. "Ave, Ave, Ave Maria."

And again I felt the presence of Mary. I felt she was pleased by our adoration, and pleased to be in our presence, just as she had been pleased to make her presence known to me years ago when I was alone in the Milk Grotto.

But I confess I am still waiting for Mary to answer my prayer. Mary, make me a better person.

The Milk Grotto, Bethlehem

Monday, August 11, 2014

For what cause would I send my own children or grandchildren to die overseas? Genocide in Iraq

As my small band of readers know, I have two blogs: a blog on Catholicism and culture and a blog on the federal student loan program. Occasionally, I comment on foreign affairs at both blog sites. Why do I do that?

Regarding my blog site on the federal student loan program, here is my explanation: The federal student loan program props up our nation's amoral, arrogant, and vapid higher education system; and it is this system that has educated our nation's political leaders who are now making disastrous foreign-policy decisions. 

President Obama and almost all his cronies were educated at places like Harvard Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Georgetown, etc., where they evidently learned no problem-solving skills or even the capacity to make foreign policy decisions based on our long-term national interests or fundamental principles of morality.

And you see where we are now: huge messes in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, sub-Saharan Africa, and Iraq.  So I have commented from time to time that the global mess we are in has its roots in our elitist, arrogant universities.

As for my blog on Catholic culture, I comment on international affairs because my Catholic faith compels me to take stands on international affairs if moral principles are at stake. Servant of God Dorothy Day was a pacifist; she even opposed American involvement in World War II. I am not a pacifist; but I believe we should not send Americans to die or be maimed in order to defend unjust national interests.

Now to the subject of this blog.  Ever since the United States abolished the draft, it has excused everyone from joining the military who choose not to do so.  Since that time, it has been mostly young men and women from working-class and impoverished families who went to war.  Barack  Obama's children will never put on a uniform, and neither will the children of most of the people who serve in his administration or in Congress. I can almost guarantee you that no hedge fund manager or corporate CEO has a child who served in a combat role in Iraq or Afghanistan.

And--to be fair, I would not willingly see my own children or grandchildren fight in Afghanistan or Iraq. I am grateful that none of my family members have had to go to either place.

So  for what cause would I send my own children or grandchildren to die overseas in a foreign war? To fight Hitler, obviously.  That would have been an easy decision for me. But I would not have supported the firebombing of a civilian population as the U.S. and Britain did in Germany. Nor would I have supported the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki--even though my own father was in a Japanese prison camp when those bombs were dropped and the dropping of those bombs may have saved his life.

So here is my position. I believe the United States should calibrate its policy of military intervention around basic human rights and the rights of religious minorities and virtually nothing else.  In the Middle East right now it is almost impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Is the Assad regime in Syria morally superior to the forces that oppose it? Who knows? Is the military regime that runs Egypt better than the Morsi government that the military overthrew? Again, who knows?

So I propose that the United States should take this stand: We will not go to war against any government that protects  basic human rights and respects the rights of religious minorities.  Thus if the Assad regime protects Christians in Syria, we would support it over ISIS.  If the Military junta respects Egyptian Christians, then we would support it over the Islamic Brotherhood. And we would intervene to help nations facing outrageous atrocities against innocent civilians like the genocide in Rwanda and the kidnapping of more than 200 school girls in Nigeria by Muslim extremists.

Right now, ISIS is overrunning parts of Iraq and threatening Kurdistan.  ISIS terrorists are committing genocide against religious minorities in the region--including Christians.

The Christians of the Middle East (and increasingly in sub-Saharan Africa) need American military help. With apologies to Dorothy Day, I think we should give it to them. Surely, if there is any emergency important enough to send a hedge fund manager's son to die in the Middle East it is the current crisis in Iraq.  God help me--this emergency might even justify sacrifices from my own family.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Russians turn to St. Sergius, but the New York Times is skeptical: Is postmodern America on the right side of history?

According to the New York Times, Russian pilgrims have been flocking to the shrine of St. Sergius, which is located not far from Moscow.  St. Sergius founded the first monastery in Russia and is sometimes seen as the father of a united Russia.

But the New York Times is skeptical and suggested in a recent article that President Vladimir Putin is exploiting St. Sergius to bolster his political agenda. "Some historians and church figures are crying foul . . . ," Times writer Neil MacFarquhar wrote, "over what they say are the Kremlin's efforts to reshape the saint's legacy to enhance political goals, fostering what one critic called an 'official cult.'"

Far be it from the Times to ever show respect for anyone's religious traditions--particularly the Russians' religious traditions, who have refused to bow down obsequiously to President Obama's postmodern vision for a new world order. Farquhar's article, just short of snarkiness, is yet another scornful piece about Vladimir Putin and Russia's foreign policy.  Indeed,it has become fashionable in America's elitist media to refer to Putin as a bully, an egotist, and a scheming manipulator. And Putin's espoused religious beliefs are given no credibility whatsoever.

Putin, after all, has unsettled the Obamacrats because he has so smoothly outmaneuvered the Obama administration--first in Syria and now in Ukraine. So--since the United States is unable to charm Putin or make him cower, let's scorn him and diminish him; let's convince ourselves that Putin and the new Russia are a mere distraction. In particular, let's convince ourselves that Russia's activities in Ukraine will come to nothing.

But I am not buying the Times' interpretation of Putin, Russia, or the current international crisis. I think the Obama administration and the elitist media have made two mistakes in interpreting the current tensions between the United States and Russia.

First, Obama's people and the Times believe that America and America's foreign policy are morally superior to Putin's Russia; and that's not true. Let's go back over recent events concerning relationships between Russia and the United States.

Obama first drew Putin's ire when his administration lied to Russia about American activities in Libya just before the fall of the Qaddafi regime.  The U.S. assured Russia that we were only going to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, and Russia acquiesced.  But in fact American military forces launched air strikes over Libya, ensuring Qaddafi's demise--and look how that turned out.

Putin concluded, as he said publicly, that the U.S. lied to Russia about its intentions in Libya, and you know what? Putin is right.

Moreover, a great deal has been made about Russia's annexation of Crimea.  How underhanded, the Americans say. But the American government was scheming to overthrow a democratically elected government in Kiev, maneuvering to replace Viktor Yanukovych with their favored politician.  Remember the Secretary of State official's dismissive comment about European opinion about American intervention--"Bleep the EU!" she said.

So the U.S. can't really say that it holds the high ground in the Ukrainian crisis. We helped create this mess by intervening in Ukrainian political affairs in a bumbling and condescending way.  And it backfired on us.

Second, I believe Obama and his supporters are wrong to say that Russia is on the wrong side of history.  Obama has referred to Russia as a "regional power," a nuanced insult meant to convey that Russia has been eclipsed on the world stage by Western-style postmodernism--exemplified by the United States and by Obama himself.

But I'm not so sure Russia is on the wrong side of history, and I'm certainly not convinced that the U.S. is on the right side of it.  The United States has cowed the world for a century, manipulating national economies, starting regional wars, killing civilians with drones in countries with which we are not at war.  We have acted arrogantly, ignorantly and with total disregard for other nation's cultures and values. And we've financed it by printing more money. Personally, I  don't see how this can go on forever.

Meanwhile, the Russians are returning to their Orthodox religious heritage--or at least some of them are. And if Putin's religious convictions are questionable, at least he proclaims religious convictions, which is more than we can say about almost anyone in President Obama's administration.

No--America's government is not morally superior to Russia's, and America may not be on the right side of history.  Obama can dismiss Russia as a minor regional player, but China--perhaps with Russia as a partner, is formidable. Meanwhile, militant Islam is on the move--shattering all of America's fragile accomplishments in Afghanistan and Iraq and driving relentlessly into sub-Saharan Africa.

I would feel much better about where our nation is going if Americans, like the Russians, turned to their saints--if we looked for spiritual guidance from Servant of God Dorothy Day as the Russians are looking to St. Sergius.

But we are not looking for spiritual guidance. Our nation's government, our President, our elitist media and our elitist universities are driven by nothing more than hubris, arrogance, greed, and the quest for power.

And we are underestimating Putin and the Russians. Napoleon and Hitler underestimated the Russians, and it didn't turn out so well for them.


Neil MacFarquhar. From Pilgrims, Putin Seeks Political Profit. New York Times, August 3, 2014, International Section, p. 4.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

House of Cards or another way of life: Americans have only two choices about how to live--we can be Postmodernists or we can be Catholic

Over the past couple of weeks, I have immersed myself in two outstanding works of fiction: House of Cards, the wildly popular television series about Washington politics; and Myles Connolly's elegant little novella entitled Mr. Blue.

Francis and Claire: Ruthless
Millions of people have watched House of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright play Francis and Claire Underwood, an utterly ruthless political couple in Washington DC. Francis starts the series as the Congressional Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives but by late in the series he has schemed his way into the Vice President's Office. Claire ran a non-profit when the series began, but she gives that up to devote her life to full-time villainy.

As the series progresses from episode to episode, Francis and Claire throw just about every minor character under the bus. Francis frames an idealistic reporter and gets him thrown into federal prison. Claire betrays her former lover and leaves him publicly swinging in the wind. Francis murders an alcoholic Congressman named Peter Russo to help clear the way for Francis to become Vice President. And he shoves his old lover Zoe in front of a subway train.  Even Freddie, an elderly and lovable black guy who runs a barbecue joint in Columbia Heights, is totally destroyed because he became a pawn in Francis's international power game.

Interestingly enough, the power couple's names--Francis and Claire--evoke St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi--perhaps the most saintly of all Catholic saints. Saints Francis and Clare have remained famous over the centuries for their gentleness and their devotion to the poor. But modern-day Francis and Claire are the anti-St. Francis and the anti-St. Clare.  Indeed, most Christian viewers would probably view them as a sort of conjugal Antichrist.

The original Francis and Clare
Mr. Blue, which Myles Connolly published in 1928, is an entirely different kind of fictional work.  J. Blue, the protagonist, is a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi.  Like the original St. Francis, Blue walks away from a life of wealth and lives totally in the service of others.

Mr. Blue is a Catholic who fiercely declares that human life would be meaningless without Christ. "Without Christ," he tells a friend, "we would be little more than bacteria breeding on a pebble in space or glints of ideas in a whirling void of abstraction."

As the book ends, Blue is in a Boston hospital, where he is dying, worn down by a life of poverty and service to the others. Are you afraid of death, his friend asks him?  No, Blue replies, he has decided to "take a chance on God's mercy."

Blue has a keen sense of the glories of Catholic culture, which stands in opposition to the spirit of the age, and which he labels "scientific agnosticism."  "Scientific agnosticism is here for a long stay," Blue predicts, "because it is not a philosophy but a somewhat vainglorious state of mind."

Scientific agnosticism could not be  successfully opposed by reason or argument, Blue tells his friend, but only by another state of mind. And what I think Blue meant by that is that scientific agnosticism--what I would call postmodernism--can only be opposed by an entirely different kind of culture, a life-affirming culture that produces saints.

Today, most Americans are postmodernists; they are secularists, materialists and relativists.  They don't bother to call themselves atheists because they don't think enough about the existence of God to feel any need to declare themselves on the subject.  Most Americans--particularly affluent Americans educated in the nation's elite colleges and universities, are obsessed with power, recognition, and the accumulation of wealth.

In fact--a lot of us are well down the road to being Francis and Claire Underwood, the ruthless postmodernists who think about nothing but how to advance themselves.  I don't think many Americans would be willing to shove a young woman in front of a subway train as Francis Underwood did, even if they were educated at Harvard (where the ficional Francis Underwood went to law school). But a lot of Americans would betray a friend in an instant to move a little higher up the path to power.

No, there are very few Mr. Blues among us--very few saints. And if we were forced to locate our spiritual status on a sliding scale between Francis Underwood and Francis of Assisi, most of us would be much nearer the ruthless Congressman than the saint.

But, to be fair to everyone, we have few models to guide us toward the Catholic life.  There are many more Francis and Claire Underwoods in our society than Mr. Blues.

But let us at least look for models of wholesomeness; let us at least look for the flickering fires of Catholic culture and the joyous Catholic life.  And--I feel quite deeply--one of the best places to look is in the witness and writings of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.  Dorothy and Peter lived smack in the middle of America's industrial economy and yet they committed their lives to building a society "where it would be easier to be good."

And when we reach the end of our lives, what will we be thinking about? Those of us who lived like Francis Underwood will probably be thinking about our vitae, our accomplishments, our baubles and awards. Perhaps we will be thinking in our last moments about old hurts and grudges.

And those of us who lived the Catholic life, what will we be thinking about? I think, like J. Blue, we will be thinking that we took a chance on God's mercy; and we will be at peace.

In our postmodern age, we have only two choices about how to live: We can live like Francis and Claire Underwood in House of Cards or we can try to be good Catholics.   Really, we only have two choices before us--only two.

Dorothy Day