The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Interview with an Exorcist

"My dear brethren, do not ever forget, when you hear the progress of lights praised, that the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist!" -- Charles Baudelaire, The Generous Gambler (1864)
For the believer, Satan seems to be extraordinarily busy these days. Since the onset of the First World War just over 100 years ago, humanity has suffered more than in all previous history, and all as a result of our sinfulness. The two world wars, the cold war with its threat of annihilation, the ongoing battle against Islamist terrorists, the increased persecution of Christians in every corner of the world, the slaughter of God's most innocent, the unborn, by the millions -- these and other modern horrors are all symptoms of the spiritual war being waged by Satan.  

I suppose the unbeliever would attribute the chaos of the past century to a variety of other causes. After all, if one does not believe in God, he can hardly accept the reality of sin. For the same reason the unbeliever cannot logically accept the existence of Satan. When the only reality is a material reality, the spiritual must be consigned to the fanciful.

Jesus Casts Out Satan
Over the years I've encountered many Christians, both lay and clergy, even a number of well-known theologians, who do not accept the existence of angels and devils. The idea of spiritual beings, a personal reality outside of our material world, seems to upset them. I suspect some even question the existence of a personal God and would probably prefer a Star Wars-like "force" to the Holy Trinity. Many do not accept such basic Christian beliefs as the truth of the Gospels, the miracles of Jesus, His bodily Resurrection, etc., etc.  And sadly, they teach and preach these distorted beliefs as if they come from the heart of the Church.

While these pseudo-believers work tirelessly to persuade God's people that the devil doesn't exist, Satan is roaming the earth doing his work. Fortunately the Church has not abandoned its beliefs. Pope Francis, for example, has repeatedly warned the faithful of the reality of the devil.
"The Prince of this world, Satan, doesn't want our holiness; he doesn't want us to follow Christ. Maybe some of you might say: 'But Father, how old fashioned you are to speak about the devil in the 21st century!' But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here...even in the 21st century! And we mustn't be naive, right? We must learn from the Gospel how to fight against Satan." [Pope Francis Homily, 10 April 2014].
Fr. Gary Thomas
Recently a Vatican-trained and formed exorcist, Father Gary Thomas, of the Diocese of San Jose, California, was interviewed by Wesley Baines of Beliefnet. It's a fascinating interview that deserves to be read by all Christians, especially those who question the existence of Satan. Here's the link: Interview With an Exorcist

And here's another brief article about Fr. Thomas and his ministry as exorcist: The Devil Hates Latin, Says Exorcist 
Even better, I've included the video of a talk by Fr. Thomas on his ministry. It's well worth watching.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Elections and Choices

I would never presume to tell others for whom they should vote. I won't even tell Dear Diane, although whenever we head off to the local polling place, I make sure she knows who will get my vote. After all I have an obligation to share my wisdom with my wife of almost 48 years, even if she chooses in her deeper wisdom to ignore it. Actually, we are almost always of one mind when it comes to things political, largely because we share a common worldview which appropriately drives our voting decisions. 

Today we voted in our state's (Florida) primary election by taking advantage of so-called "early voting". The meteorologists are predicting the arrival of a tropical storm on election day (Tuesday) so we thought it best to vote today. I realize I'm being grossly hypocritical because I'm actually against this now almost universal practice of allowing people to vote for a week or more prior to the official election day. Indeed, this really makes the election day almost meaningless. 

By designating only one day on which elections are held we emphasize the importance of voting for those who will represent us in our republic, and encourage citizens to make a sacrifice or two so they can cast their ballot. Sacrifice is never an option today, so I'm certain this early voting has become a permanent feature. The easier we make things, the less important they become.

This year, at least when it comes to the upcoming presidential election, many think we have been handed an odd choice. I believe I can say without fear of reasonable contradiction that there is real concern across much of the political spectrum. I also believe we can readily assume that no minor party candidate -- e.g., the Libertarian or Green candidates -- will be elected. Admittedly one or more of them could possibly act as a spoiler that siphons off enough votes to influence the outcome. This has certainly occurred in the recent past with George Wallace and Ross Perot the most obvious examples. But it takes no genius to predict that our next president will be either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. As I said above, to many it seems an odd choice.

On the one hand we have a woman whose relationship with the truth has been somewhat distant. Ideologically she is a leftist, although I suspect it's more by choice than belief. Hillary Clinton clings to the left because it offers her power. This seems to be her prime motivator. The left, of course, must lie because the left in all its Marxist forms is a failed ideology. It simply doesn't work. In reality it has little do to with helping the working class or proletariat; it's all about power. This, of course, makes it very attractive to the elites, who above all else crave power. They already have wealth and fame, so what on earth is left? Politically, however, one can't openly crave power; hence the lies.

And then there's Donald Trump, the New York businessman and reality TV star who has publicly rejected the political establishment, including that of his own party. During the primaries he embarrassed many of his far more politically connected opponents by beating them soundly, and he did so by changing the rules of political campaigning. Ignoring the grammar of political correctness, he speaks his mind to the delight of his followers, who view his off-the-cuff style as a refreshing change from the usual canned stump speeches of most candidates. But far too many of his comments have also been excruciatingly embarrassing. He has effectively communicated many populist goals, but has been less effective describing how he will achieve them. Faced with such a candidate, the mainstream media, always the useful pawns of the political left, smell blood in the water and are engaged in a savage anti-Trump feeding frenzy.

But with the election just weeks away, Donald Trump seems to have altered his brash, unpredictable style to good effect. And Hillary Clinton, plagued by an expanding battery of scandals, doesn't appear very presidential. Who will actually become our next president is anyone's guess, for the pollsters certainly don't know.

It's easy to place labels on candidates, as I have already done, calling them liberals or populists or conservatives or libertarians, but such labels have little meaning these days. Sadly, the lines of belief between political parties have also become increasingly blurred. 

What separates us one from another today is something far deeper than party or mere politics. As Eric Voegelin made clear, on one side we have those who accept the existence of a transcendent moral order, who believe in the "permanent things" of T. S. Eliot, "the inherited principles, mores, customs, and traditions that sustain humane thinking and preserve civilized existence for future generations" [See Allen Mendenhall, "To Educate in the Permanent Things"].

"But the Church cannot be, in any political sense, either conservative, or liberal, or revolutionary. Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things; liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things." [T. S. Eliot]

Opposed to these are those who reject these permanent things, who believe that this earthly existence is all there is. These are the ideologues: the utilitarians who admit no authority except that which achieves a desired end; the Marxists whose materialist view of the world excludes all transcendence; and even the true libertarians who accept no limits on human freedom. 

As we go to the polls in November we must decide, then, where each candidate falls. Does he or she believe and act based on the reality of a transcendent moral order, or is the candidate just another ideologue.

Personally, I take a rather gloomy short-term view. I believe our nation has just about run its course. We have come to the point where a near majority of our citizens realize they can demand whatever they like from government, and that the working minority will pay for it. This, of course, cannot continue for long and will necessarily lead to the dissolution of our constitutional republic. We have already seen the start of this as long-cherished constitutional limitations and freedoms have been cast aside by both our courts and our executive branch. Eventually the limited government designed by our nation's founders will either be threatened by a second civil war or evolve into some form of authoritarian or totalitarian state. Civil wars rarely end well and totalitarian states always collapse due to moral decay, corruption, and financial failure.

But over the long term we have nothing to fear because God is in charge. He is the Lord of History and he has raised up men and women to do His work in the world whenever the world turns against His eternal plan. Evil will never triumph.

Our Owl

The two owls continue to return to our tree each afternoon, so I can only assume the nocturnal hunting in our neighborhood is good.

They perch high up in our large live-oak tree, probably 60 or 70 feet off the ground. And like our previous resident osprey, they are camera shy and tend to fly off when they see me with my camera. I've had to shoot quickly and because a tripod is too unwieldy the photos aren't as crisp as I'd like. But they're not too bad. I took this photo a few minutes ago. Just seconds later the owl flew to another, more concealed perch. Beautiful birds.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Books Read (or Reread)

I'm not certain, but Dear Diane might believe I read entirely too much. I would, of course, disagree. How can one read too much? I suppose she considers my reading excessive if it keeps me from tackling the "honey-do" list or causes me to forget to take out the garbage. Actually, I exaggerate because one of the pleasant things about retirement is that I have more time for both reading and garbage. Indeed, I not only have more time to read, but I can also read whatever I like. No more need to read thick, ponderous tomes on business strategy or sleep-inducing publications on naval organization, the sort of stuff that monopolized a good part of my working life. Now I can devote an evening to a novel, or a few short stories, or a good biography, or even a volume of poetry. And if I like I can stay up way past my normal bedtime. Yes, retirement has its advantages.

When we made the move to our retirement home here in Florida, I purposely got rid of more than 1,000 books. Our previous home, a large, 200-year-old rambling house on Cape Cod, had plenty of room for books. And whenever I ran out of shelf space, I simply built another bookcase. But now, after more than a dozen years in our current, much smaller home, my personal library has once again expanded to a level where it far exceeds the available bookcase space. And additional bookcases are simply out of the question. Books are now piled up on the floor of my den. Dear Diane in her usual kindness has said little about this affront to her sense of tidiness, although I detect a look of mild hostility whenever she glances through the doorway. I appreciate her silence.

Much of my library consists of books useful in my ministry as a deacon, but the majority of the books were bought simply to read. Sometime soon I must take the time to sort through them all and donate some to the parish library or to the book-sale room at our local public library. In the meantime, I will continue to read. 

In recent weeks I've read a few interesting books that I thought I'd share with this blog's small but discriminating audience.

The first three are biographies...

Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark, the Biography, by Martin Stannard, W. W. Norton, New York (2009). 

Muriel Spark (1918-2006), one of the great literary figures of the last century, was a fascinating woman who led a remarkably interesting life. Brought up in Edinburgh in a secular Jewish family, Spark converted to Catholicism in mid-life. Over the years I've read several of her novels but knew very little about her as a person. Martin Stannard has filled that gap with this exhaustive biography. Before she died Spark gave him complete access to her voluminous personal records and placed no restrictions on him as he probed deeply into her life and work. I truly enjoyed this book about a talented writer and brilliant woman.

Sanctifying the World, the Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, by Bradley J. Birzer, Christendom Press, Front Royal, VA (2007).

Christopher Dawson ( 1889-1970) is perhaps the least-known 20th-century figure who deserves to be well-known. Dawson, an English Catholic scholar, was part historian, sociologist, economist and theologian all packed tightly into one remarkable mind.

Among Dawson's contributions to our understanding of both past and present, his writings on the Middle Ages and the role of the Catholic Church in the formation and development of European civilization are, to me at least, most noteworthy. He was a major influence on such notables as T. S. Eliot, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Russell Kirk. 

Bradley Birzer's biography (2007) is especially timely since interest in Dawson has grown in recent years with many of the scholar's books once again in print. I first read Dawson over 40 years ago, and have since read and reread many of his works. After reading Birzer's biography I suspect you, too, will become a fan.

Oscar Wilde
The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, by Joseph Pearce, Ignatius Press, San Francisco (2004).

Over the years I've enjoyed a number of Joseph Pearce's biographical and critical studies of such writers as Roy Campbell, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and William Shakespeare. All have both delighted and informed. Not surprisingly this biography of one of the world's most misunderstood literary figures is also pure delight. Pearce brings the real Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) into clear focus, pushing aside all the ideology and pretense that for so long have kept the man hidden from view. Like all of Pearce's books, it is well-written and well-researched. Unusual for me, I actually read the book in a single sitting, unable to put it down until I turned the last page at 2 a.m.

And now for a couple of classics...

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Devils, by Fyodor Dostoevski, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK (1992).

I first read this novel in 1971 while aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam. Because our helicopter squadron would be aboard the USS Ticonderoga for many months, I had taken a large stack of books with me, and among them was Devils.

The third of Dostoevsky's major novels, Devils was written in 1871, exactly 100 years before I opened it for the first time. The novel was a kind of awakening for the younger me in that it presented the reality of atheism and its consequences. In it we encounter the culture of disbelief in all its ugliness. We see what Dostoevsky actually meant when he told us, "If there is no God then everything is permitted." A few years ago someone borrowed my hardcover copy of Devils and never returned it; but then last month I picked up a paperback edition at the local Barnes and Noble and enjoyed the novel even more the second time around.

G. K. Chesterton
Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton, Scripture Press, New York (2015).

OK, you might not consider this book a "classic", but my definition of the term as applied to books is somewhat personal. For me a classic must be written before I was born and must still be in print. 

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote Orthodoxy in 1908, one year before my parents were born. A quick glance at Amazon's listing for the book will confirm that it is still in print in multiple editions. The book is perhaps Chesterton's greatest, in that it has probably influenced the thinking of more people than any other of his works, and that's saying a lot. Chesterton is a marvelous teacher who teaches you on the sly. He makes you laugh and then, placing the truth right in front of you, dares you to reject it. Orthodoxy is a story of experiences and conversion and understanding, a story every Christian, indeed every human being, every child of God should read.

And now...some other fiction I've enjoyed in recent weeks.

I've come to believe that many of the best writers of fiction are women. I suspect that some of the women who know me would find this surprising. But it's true. For example, I've always believed that Jane Austen deserves to be ranked among the top three English novelists. And Muriel Spark, whose biography I mentioned above, is another I'd rank among the best. Among her novels, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Memento Mori, and The Mandelbaum Gate are probably my favorites.

Alice Thomas Ellis
Another English woman novelist whose works I've thoroughly enjoyed is the late Anna Haycraft (1932-2005), who wrote under the pen name Alice Thomas Ellis. I've read six of her many novels and especially enjoyed The Sin Eater, Unexplained Laughter, and The 27th Kingdom

Her novels (at least those I've read) are all touched with her special brand of humor and populated with remarkable female characters. A complicated woman, she converted to Catholicism at the age of 19, considered becoming a nun, but eventually married Colin Haycraft, who owned the Duckworth publishing house. The mother of seven she understandably didn't write her first novel until she was in her forties. She also became an outspoken traditionalist Catholic who, as a columnist, wrote often about the liturgical abuses of the post-Vatican II Church.

I've also recently reread several of the short stories of Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), something I'd recommend to anyone who has never read this woman's wonderful fiction. She remains at the top of my list of great American writers.
Flannery O'Connor
Finally, I must add an oddity, a book which isn't easy to find since I don't believe it has ever been reprinted. I found it in a used book store some years ago but never got around to reading it until last month. It's a travel book of sorts, a genre I've always enjoyed, particularly those written in the  nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Harry de Windt
The book in question has the absolutely wonderful title, Through Savage Europe, and was written in 1907 by an Englishman named Harry de Windt (1856-1933). He was an Army officer, noted explorer, and travel writer who wandered throughout much of Europe and Asia writing about his experiences and the people he encountered. "Savage Europe" is his description of his eventful travels through the Balkan states and Eastern Russia during the years preceding World War One. I enjoyed the book immensely but will always prefer the travel writings of both Evelyn Waugh and V. S. Naipaul. that's what I've been reading this summer.

More Big Birds

Cormorant with a fish
If you're a regular reader of this odd blog of mine, you'll know that I find birds especially interesting. Over the years I've taken note of a wide variety of things, ideas, and experiences and gathered them under the heading "Personal Proofs of God's Existence." They are "personal" proofs because many likely have meaning only to me or to those few who share my strange way of viewing creation. The number of these proofs now approaches 100, and the presence of birds in our world was among the earliest. Some day, perhaps, I will list and explain them all...but not today.

I find the existence of birds to be inexplicable from a human or scientific perspective. Those who believe that birds and other flying creatures simply evolved are fooling themselves. When you consider all the physical changes that would be necessary to turn a terrestrial creature into a flying creature...well, those changes simply could not happen all at once; and there would be zero likelihood of them happening one at a time over time since each change in itself would have no evolutionary purpose. 

No, to me birds are wonderful examples of God's whimsical approach to creation. It's as if He looked forward to us still-to-be-created humans and thought, "Let's give these earth-bound, air-breathing creatures of My image and likeness something to contemplate, something to set their minds a-soaring, something they would never imagine on their own. We'll give them birds and bugs, creatures that can fly above the earth and through the air." What a delight that creative act must have been -- and "God saw that it was good."

Owl #1 giving me the eye
As a former Navy pilot, someone who truly enjoyed flying, I was amazed that I, too, could fly above the earth and through the air. I also enjoyed watching birds in flight and could only marvel at their capabilities. And then, one day, while flying my Navy helicopter off the coast of Southern California, I spotted a large cormorant maneuvering over a school of fish. He was beautiful to watch, a remarkably skilled aviator, who suddenly dove into the sea and finally surfaced with a large fish in his beak. It was then that I asked myself a fascinating, rather profound question. Would man have invented airplanes and other flying machines had God not created birds or other flying creatures? Without God's creative act would man have even considered the possibility of flight? It's an interesting question without a definitive answer. But my guess is "No."

Anyhow, as you might recall, some weeks ago I was enthralled by the osprey who had taken up residence in a large live oak tree behind our home here in Florida. (See posts here and here.) He visited us daily, usually in the morning and evening, for almost six weeks. And then, just a few days ago, he was gone. We had grown accustomed to his high-pitched screeching and his shyness when it came to photography. Whenever I entered the yard, camera in hand, he would stare accusingly at me, and then moments later fly off. We will miss him but trust he'll return next year.
Owl #2 ignoring me
Interestingly, though, nature has apparently replaced our osprey. Two days after his departure, we noted the arrival of two large owls that have taken up residence in the same tree. I know little about owls, so perhaps a reader can let me know what type we have here. Sometimes the two of them perch on the same branch, five or ten feet apart, but they're usually father apart on separate branches. We see them in the late afternoon or early evening, probably getting ready for a night of hunting. Our neighbors have begun to notice them too, especially those who own tiny, yappy, toy Yorkies -- you know, the kind some women carry in their purses. I suspect a three-pound dog wouldn't have a chance if one of our large owls chose him for dinner. 

God is good. Through His Creation He gives us so much to think about and talk about.