Common Sense in the West Conference: July 17-20

Here’s a terrific opportunity for you to check out if you’re in the New York City area, or looking to get away for what sounds like quite a weekend for debate and discussion:

An upcoming conference co-sponsored by the Adler-Aquinas Institute, Renewing the West by Renewing Common Sense, will give those of you with a philosophical bent the chance to meet with others of like mind, in order to consider some of the issues facing Western society today, as old bonds fracture and need repair or replacement.  How does the church receive funding from the state going forward, if said funding increasingly has moral and ethically problematic strings attached to it? How do we see the question of theological anthropology now, in the wake of the new, trendy version of atheism? What can we learn from the ideas and leadership styles of figures like Ronald Reagan and St. John Paul II?  What lessons about tyranny from Socrates are still applicable in the present socio-political climate?

These are some of the topics to be considered the weekend of July 17-20 at the inaugural international conference, which will be held at the beautiful Seminary of the Immaculate Conception on Long Island  Registration is still available, and includes accommodation, meals, and receptions, but spaces are becoming limited.  You can find out how to register by visiting the Adler-Aquinas Institute site.

Even if you cannot attend, several of the talks at the conference will be streamed live on YouTube. Some of those which will be streamed include presentations on humanism and management, Dante, and the work of G.K. Chesterton.  If you subscribe to the conference’s YouTube channel, you will be able to catch those selected for broadcast.  In addition, selected papers from the conference will also be made available over on the Dead Philosophers’ Society.

For further information, and to be a part of the conference as it is going on, be sure to visit the conference Facebook page, and follow them on Twitter.  Those attending the conference or wanting to interact with those who are, will be using the hashtag #CommonSense to keep the conversation going.  The organizers are very keen on having those participating engage with the speakers and other attendees, so your thoughts, questions, and comments will be most welcome!

Immaculate Conception Seminary Huntington, New York

Immaculate Conception Seminary
Huntington, New York

 

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One Day, Three Very Different Women

Sometimes the calendar presents us with juxtapositions that, were they presented in a film script, would be dismissed as being too implausible to be believed; today is one of those days.  For not only is March 25th the birthday of feminist Gloria Steinem, it’s also the birthday of author Flannery O’Connor, in addition to being the Feast of the Annunciation,  when the Virgin Mary said “Yes” to becoming the mother of Jesus Christ.  Clearly, each of these women has left us very different legacies.

Steinem’s legacy is, in some sense, being debated this very day by Hobby Lobby and others at the U.S. Supreme Court, on the question of whether businesses can be forced to pay for contraceptive devices such as IUD’s which they find morally objectionable on religious grounds.  One can imagine Steinem’s opinion of this court case without even having to look it up.  Steinem has entered her twilight years with what could charitably be referred to as a checkered and hypocritical legacy, at best.

Of course, Steinem leapt to fame in 1963 for doing a good thing: exposing how women were abused by the Playboy organization.  The problem is, the pornographic world we now inhabit, as a result of the so-called liberation which she helped usher in, is unquestionably more degrading and abusive in its objectification of women than what preceded it.  Steinem’s efforts have led to the enslavement of millions of women AND men to the recreational sex and pharmaceutical industries, the spread of sexually transmitted disease to a staggering 1/3 of the U.S. population, the creation of countless commitment-free relationships, and the explosion of illegitimacy across all levels of society.  Not to mention, of course, that as she marks her 80th birthday, and wipes away the hoary cobwebs from her mind, one suspects Steinem will not pause to think about the millions of American children who will never see their own birthdays, thanks to her efforts on behalf of legalizing abortion on demand.

Flannery O’Connor is someone altogether different: not just from Steinem, but indeed from most people.  Her fiction is not easy to read, in that it is sometimes violent, strangely mystical, and can involve unusual sentence constructions.  There is also a dark, wry humor in her work, which takes some getting used to.  My most beloved professor in college loved Flannery O’Connor, and she tried desperately to get us to like her writing also.  However whether because of being a Yankee rather than a Southerner, or having a deep-seated aversion to reading about physical violence, for years I was unable to understand or appreciate her work.

Then recently, I read reports of the publication of a newly-discovered prayer journal from O’Connor’s student days in Iowa.  This piqued my interest, not so much because I was interested in changing my mind about her as a fiction writer, but because some of the excerpts struck me as being those of a kindred soul.  I read quotes such as, “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story- just like the typewriter was mine,” and I thought, “I *get* that.”  So I did what any sensible fellow should do under the circumstances: I bought a copy, and hopefully will be reading it a bit later on this Lenten season.

Finally we get to the great Feast of the Annunciation, on which Flannery O’Connor was born, and because of which her first name was actually “Mary”, in honor of the Blessed Mother – who as we know from St. Luke’s Gospel, said “Yes” when asked to become the mother of the Messiah. The Annunciation was a hugely popular subject in the history of Western art, as anyone who has studied art history knows.  One reason is that it allowed the artist to imagine what an angelic messenger appearing from Heaven might look like, as opposed to simply painting the humdrum and everyday.

Yet portraying the Annunciation also allowed a creative mind to consider what sort of person Mary herself was, at the moment she appeared on the stage of world history.  Keep in mind that, apocrypha and pious legends aside, other than Isaiah’s prophecy about her we really know nothing at all about Mary from Scripture up until this very moment when she consents to follow God’s Will for her.  What came after, of course, happened because she chose to cooperate, instead of trying to defeat or resist His Will.

In his “Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus” of 1333, the Sienese painter Simone Martini portrayed the Virgin Mary not as a cowering, uncertain and now-pregnant teenager, nor as a self-confident queen setting out to conquer the world, but as a woman who has just been presented with some very unsettling news by an unexpected visitor.  Had Steinem been present she would have called Gabriel all sorts of names culled from reading too much Simone de Beauvoir, and rushed the Blessed Mother off to the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic.  Yet there is a timeless humanity here, in this nearly 800-year-old depiction of Mary, which I suspect O’Connor, who was so often presented with unexpected and indeed unwanted news in her own life, would have related to.

The difference lies in the reaction of each of these women to what they are being confronted with.  Whereas Steinem’s choice has always been to blame others for her own misery, and to try to drag down as many into misery with her as she can, O’Connor’s decision was to follow God’s Will in her life, no matter how difficult that might have been.  In this, she had a deeper understanding of the “Yes” to God’s Will, given by the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, and the implications of such consent, than do those of us who live lives of relative comfort and good health.

In her story “Temple of the Holy Ghost”, O’Connor describes a young girl on the cusp of adolescence, who worries that she can never become a saint.  Through some unusual and unexpected events, she experiences a profound spiritual revelation about the Will of God, even though that lesson is not apparent to those around her.  As the story ends, one senses that she has begun a great spiritual journey, as did the Virgin Mary, beginning on this Feast of the Annunciation, and as did Flannery O’Connor, who grew as both a writer and a woman of faith.  These are the two women among the three whom we should celebrate, even as we pray for the conversion of the other, who will no doubt be receiving the lion’s share of attention on this day.

Detail of "The Annunciation" by Simone Martini (1333) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Detail of “The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus” by Simone Martini (1333)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence

 

Hope and Shoelaces

Have you ever stopped to think about how you learned to tie your shoes?  It’s a skill which is pretty close to a necessity, at least in Western culture.  For me, the experience was rather difficult, yet now I can look back and say that I learned about fear and hope, and how they motivate us.  Perceiving the difference between these two motivators is a much more valuable lesson than simply learning how to work with shoelaces.

When I started kindergarten, I was playing with action figures and watching Saturday morning cartoons, just as most 5-year-old American boys do.  Unlike my classmates however, I was already at a comprehension level somewhat more advanced than theirs.  I read adult-level books on subjects such as astronomy, Egyptology, and paleontology, for example, and enjoyed listening to Haydn and Beethoven symphonies.  In short, I was (and still am) a nerd. 

Yet whatever intellectual capabilities I may have had, there was one thing which I absolutely could not get down: tying my shoes. In fact, I was the very last person in my kindergarten class to learn how to tie my shoes properly.  Despite my interest in subjects like physics, I would sit there for hours trying to figure out how in the world to coordinate my fingers to pull the two ends of the shoelace into a bow.

As the school year wore on, I became more and more embarrassed by the fact that I seemed to be the only one who could not tie his shoes. Frequently, I had to go to my teacher for help, if my shoes became untied on the playground.  She would show me how to do it, but try as I might I simply could not replicate her movements.  And kids being kids, my classmates started to take note of my inability to learn this skill, and began mocking me for it.

At home, my parents did their best to try to help me learn how to tie my shoes, although with my being left-handed and naturally clumsy, no doubt I tried their patience no end. Despite hours of practice, I seemed to make no progress at all. I became deeply upset, and asked God why He couldn’t just show me how to tie my shoes.  Yet I was doing so not because I thought it was important that I learn, but rather so that the kids at school would stop making fun of me.  In other words, I was motivated by fear, rather than hope.

Then one day in late spring, as I was approaching my 6th birthday, I remember being in the coat closet – or “cloak room” as they were called in Catholic schools – and noticing that my left shoe was untied.  By this point, I had become so used to being mocked that I just accepted it and told no one about the regular taunts I received.  I still wanted to learn how to tie my shoes, but whereas before I wanted to do so in order to avoid humiliation, now I wanted to learn how to do it because I was really looking forward to moving up to first grade, and being in school all day long.  I knew there was a risk that I might not be able to go, unless I could tie my shoes.

So instead of asking for help one more time, I bent down to try to tie my shoe.  And for no apparent reason, everything finally fell into place.  Eureka!

I was so overjoyed that I ran out to tell my teacher the good news.  I can still remember the look of relief on her face when she found out I could do it.  No doubt she had not been looking forward to writing an end-of-year report on whether I was ready for 1st grade, explaining why I still could not tie my shoes.

Last evening I thought of this experience following a conversation with someone whose opinion I value highly.  Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about what I ought to be doing with my life, since I just keep ploughing away, doing what I do, but at the same time sensing that I ought to be moving in another direction.  To date, I have seen no lifelong instruction manual saying,  “Here’s what you should do next.”  The response to my observation was, maybe He already has shown you what to do, but you just haven’t realized it yet.

And that comment brings me back to where this blog post began.  Because when it came to learning how to tie my shoes, I did not have a supernatural messenger appear beside me and guide my fingers, no matter how much I wanted someone else to just make things happen for me.  People showed me what to do, but my primary goal for a long time was not to improve myself, but rather to escape from something negative.  Fear, rather than hope, was my motivator.

Eventually, I stopped worrying and starting hoping.  I wanted to succeed and move up to 1st grade, so I could enjoy all of the knowledge I would be able to pick up there.  I wasn’t going to get there if I kept worrying.  Instead, I chose to keep trying, until eventually I was finally able to achieve what I needed to.

Sure, I would have liked the instant gratification and deliverance from self-doubt that a sudden answer to my prayers would have given me.  Instead, I had to learn – not for the first time – the virtue of holding on, and persisting in the face of the unknown, whatever the difficulties.  In other words, by having to wait so long, I had to learn how to hope.

And hope does not disappoint.