Tag Archives: sin

The Throwaway Bread

Since we’ve been having such nice weather recently, the other day I went to a local cafe for lunch, so that I could sit outside and enjoy the sunshine.  I ordered a large bowl of potato and leek soup, which came with a very lovely bread roll.  This was not the sort of hard, inedible thing you get at a wedding reception or charity dinner, but rather a beautifully shaped, crusty, oblong bread, something like a miniature baguette.

I had just sat down to eat my soup outside at one of the cafe tables, when a woman came up to me off the street.  “Can you buy me something to eat?”, she asked.  Not having any money to hand, I offered, “Well, I could give you my bread,” since I had not even touched the beautiful little loaf yet.  The woman then picked up the bread, looked at me with something which I can best describe as disdain, turned around and threw the bread in the street.

Chances are, as you read the forgoing, your first reaction was to criticize this woman for a lack of gratitude.  Or perhaps your reaction was that I should have ignored her altogether.  Or perhaps you think it would have been better not to offer her anything at all, if I didn’t have any money I could give her so that she could go decide for herself what she wanted to eat.  Or you might have reached the conclusion that this poor woman was simply not right in the head, for if she was mentally “all there” and hungry, she would not have thrown away perfectly good food.

All of these things are possible ways to look at this incident.  However I don’t want the reader to spend too much time thinking about the motivations of this particular woman or of this particular scrivener.  Instead, I’d like you to think about a more important lesson that we might be able to draw from this experience.

When we think about it a little more deeply, isn’t what took place a rather striking example of what sin is like?  Throughout our lives, God always offers us what we need.  Too often, if what He offers us doesn’t conform to what we want, what do we do with it?  We simply throw His gift away, and move on thinking we will get something better from some other source.

Now before you or I or anyone else starts thinking, “I would never do something like that,” I would suggest that it is time for all of us to swallow a big dose of humility.  Go read about King David or St. Peter, and ask yourself: do I really think so highly of myself, that I am better than they?  If the answer is, “Yes,” then frankly you have some rather significant problems to work out in your little gray cells. For I assure you, far better men than you or I have simply thrown away God’s gifts many times, and indeed you and I are doing so far more often than we might care to think.  While this incident with the throwaway bread was an isolated one, I hope that what we can take away from it may be beneficial to many of us.

As a matter of fact, this story has a terrific application for the immediate future.  Over the next few weeks, we are going to spend a great deal of time asking and answering the question, “What do you want?”, as we go about buying things for one other.  Yet how many of the things we say we want, are also things that we actually need? This something all of us should be thinking about, not just during the materialist nightmare known as the “Holiday Season”, with all of its meaningless excess, but more importantly as we consider the meaning of the spiritual nature of this time of year, which is of far greater importance than anything we may give or receive.

“Basket of Bread” by Salvador Dalí (1926)
Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida


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Don’t Touch That Stove!

We are all familiar with the expression, “getting burned” by someone or something.  We use it in the obvious sense, such as when we touch something very hot, and we also use it to mean that we have learned from a previous, negative experience.  We may also use the expression to mean that someone has given us a particularly harsh level of criticism.  Yet while this “burning” level of criticism rarely benefits anyone, we have now witnessed the banishment of virtually any type of corrective criticism in Western culture, to the point where no one seems to realize that something rather more important than someone’s personal feelings are burning.  And this state of affairs stems largely from the confusion of the fluctuating standards of personal taste with the unchanging standards of personal virtue.

While I cannot say that my opinions are any less…well, opinionated now than they were 20 years ago, it is clear to The Courtier that his opinions on many matters have softened somewhat as he has gotten older.  This is not so much because of an abandonment of a sense of standards, or a befuddling of a line between good and bad.  Rather it is a realization that some things, which are not intrinsically right or wrong in themselves, simply come down to a question of taste.

For example, both watching a basketball game and eating chicken wings are, in essence, matters of personal taste; for me, these things are both awful, and I do not enjoy them. We can certainly talk about whether or not we like these things, and why, without addressing any deep, important questions of our time.  Depending on our answer, we may not be asked over to Phil’s house next week to participate in the combination of both these things, but that’s as may be.  What is disturbing about our present age, however, is that we have confused expressing our personal taste, and the relative nature thereof, with the expression of concern over moral issues, which are not in fact relative.

If someone were to say to you that they do not care for a particular reality television program – and sadly one is spoilt for choice these days – because the people in it behave in a completely depraved fashion, the common response to such a statement is not one of, “We should complain to the broadcaster and get this off the air.”  Instead, the response is dismissive: “If you don’t like it, then you don’t have to watch it.”  Is that simplistic response really a legitimate answer to this type of criticism?

It should be obvious that since I do not want to watch said television program, because I find it morally objectionable, I do not need to be told not to watch it when I express a criticism of its moral content.  Obviously I have already reached the conclusion that there is something wrong with this content, otherwise I would have said nothing, and my purpose in raising the issue is not really for my own benefit.  Rather, it is for the benefit of both of us.

To put it another way, if I see a pot bubbling away on a hot stove, I know that it would be dangerous to touch that pot without some sort of protection.  Otherwise, I shall end up burning my hand.  Yet what is my obligation when I see that you are about to pick up that bubbling pot without using a tea towel or an oven mitt: do I simply stand there and say nothing, because I am not supposed to judge your actions?

Let us take this analogy a bit further, and look at what happens next.  Ask yourself, what happens when you decide to behave stupidly, and pick up that boiling pot, while I keep my mouth shut.  When you cry out in pain and anguish, am I supposed to just ignore you and go about my business? No: you would expect me to help and comfort you, providing you with some type of treatment, and taking you to the doctor if need be.

Now imagine that not only did I say nothing before you picked up that pot, since I cannot judge your actions, but I did nothing, as you stood there screaming and crying after injuring yourself.  If I did not help you, you would criticize me for being inhumane, and you would be right to do so.  You might even conclude that I was lacking in basic human decency, and that I was a cruel person with no feeling toward others.

Therefore why is it acceptable for me to assist you after you have ruined your hand, but not acceptable for me to warn you not to burn your hand in the first place?  For surely the latter is far easier than the former, let alone less costly and time-consuming for both parties.  If of course you do not listen to my warning and burn yourself anyway, then we can take that as it comes,  However if I can persuade you not to burn yourself in the first place, aren’t we both better off, in the end?

Our culture has gone so far in the direction of not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, that we are terrified to open our mouth and say that something is wrong or inappropriate, for fear of being criticized or shunned by our peers.  I must stand by and watch you burn yourself on the stove while saying nothing, and then clean up afterwards, again while saying nothing.  This is utter nonsense.

If we are to bring Western society back from the selfish malaise into which it has fallen, we need to start asking the questions which our contemporary culture does not want us to ask.  In doing so, we will be rejecting the assumptions which we are told are those held by reasonable people.  And if that is what is to happen, gentle reader, then I say, so be it.  I am not going to stand idly by and watch you injure yourself.

At the same time, remember that being right does not absolve you from helping another pick up the pieces when things fall apart.  We must be the very first at hand when someone needs our assistance and we are in a position to provide it, even if we find it unpleasant or inconvenient.  Otherwise, we are standing by the stove, saying, “I told you so,” as our fellow man writhes in pain from his poor decisions.  Not only does this do no one any good, but it is simply a variant of the gross selfishness which got us into our present mess in the first place.

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Don’t Be Afraid of Halloween

Yesterday in an online discussion with a friend in Ireland, I commented how fascinating it is to see Halloween gaining in popularity in Ireland and the United Kingsom recent years, to somewhat resemble our practices here.  He (correctly) pointed out that on the contrary, from his perspective it was fascinating to see how Americans had taken some of his country’s customs and made them more popular, since many of our traditions surrounding this holiday originally came from Ireland.  However regardless of the origins of the holiday, there is certainly a split of opinion in this country as to whether we even ought to celebrate it at all.

Of course as is the case with many such celebrations formerly associated with Europeans and Christianity, Americans tend to secularize such observances so as to diminish any serious lessons which might be drawn from them.  Witches, zombies, vampires, and the like are people who are cursed, rather than blessed, and we are supposed to fear them, and turn away from practices and habits that lead us down the path of sin.  Yet on this side of the pond, we are just as likely to dress up as one of those creatures for love of a good prank, as we are something not frightening in the least: a famous person, a member of a profession, a character from fiction, a visual pun, and so on, that makes others laugh at us and compliment how clever we are.

This Halloween, I have not made any significant effort to replicate the experience of last year, which ended up having a much wider impact for me on social media than simply dressing up for a party.  Perhaps my mood is a bit more introspective this year, and I need a break from some of the silliness associated with the secular marking of this date on the Church’s calendar.  For Halloween in the Christian context of course, is simply the vigil for the Feast of All Saints’ Day, November 1st.  It has nothing to do with promoting the latest toys, cartoons, or comic book action heroes, and everything to do with recognizing how much we need to strive to be like the saints, and how dangerous not making that effort can be.

For those of you in Washington who are up for it, and are willing to forego tonight’s revels in lieu of something sacred rather than secular, I would urge you to attend the beautiful, candlelit Vigil of All Saints held each year at the Dominican Priory of the Immaculate Conception across the street from Catholic University.  It is always very well-attended, and a beautiful commemoration of the lives of the great men and women who have gone before us in the life of the Church to their heavenly reward, led by the student friars at the Dominican House of Studies.  Other church communities in your area will no doubt be holding events this evening as well, if you look for them.

If however you decide to be out and about this evening, whether on your own or with little ones or awaiting trick-or-treaters, remember that just because something looks infernal does not mean it has no value to you.  After all, looking at a Goya painting or a Medieval misericord does not make you insane or demonic: it is when you cease to find such things abnormal or disturbing that you run into problems. Halloween reminds us that we are imperfect and can suffer grave consequences as a result, if we do not examine ourselves and try to do better.  Thus in point of fact, this reminder of the eternal consequences of our actions can be particularly beneficial for those of us who actually do need reminding that we are flawed, fallen creatures.

It is only by being aware of what is trying to bring us down, and our trying our best to battle through such things, that we can hope to be like the saints, whom we remember on the morrow.  Therefore Halloween, as I see it, can be both fun and serious, at the same time.  Fun, because let’s face it: it is simply fun to dress up and pretend to be someone else once in awhile.  Yet serious, in that we ought to look at the images around us and reflect on whether we are doing all we can to try and do better, all the time, rather than giving up and falling permanently into shadow.  So long as we take it in that light, Halloween is nothing to be afraid of.

Predella of the Saints and Martyrs from the St. Dominic (Fiesole) Altarpiece
by Fra Angelico ( c. 1423-1424)
National Gallery, London


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A New Bonfire of the Vanities

My friend Margaret Perry over at Ten Thousand Places sent me an article last evening about a rather bizarre form of protest taking place in Italy at the moment.  The director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum in Naples has begun burning works of art from that collection, to complain about government funding cuts due to financial austerity measures. This is being done with the support of the artists involved, and took place again today.

This kind of excessive, histrionic behavior is not the exclusive purview of the left, as students of art history are well aware. The reader may have heard the term “bonfire of the vanities”, which refers to a practice that was particularly popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Preachers would invite their listeners to bring sinful objects, or objects which might lead one into sin, to a public place. These objects would be burned, as a sign of contrition and repentance.

The most infamous exponent of this practice, though he himself did not invent it, was the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). For a brief period at the end of the 15th century, Savonarola established what was effectively a right-wing theocracy in Florence, at the very height of the Italian Renaissance. It was perfect timing for him, given that the ruling Medici had been banished for their excesses and heavy-handedness in ruling the Florentine people. Of course, what replaced them arguably turned out to be even worse, in what came to be almost a trial run of the Reign of Terror in France three centuries later.

Savonarola sponsored numerous bonfires of the vanities during his period of influence over Florence, but perhaps the most famous was the one which took place on Mardi Gras in 1497, when hundreds of works of art, books, and other objects were burned in the Piazza della Signoria, the large square in front of the city hall. During this conflagration, and in the ones which preceded it, we can assume that many bad things were destroyed, which were indeed occasions of sin for some people: objects associated with gambling, pornography, drunkenness, and so on. Yet many beautiful things which were not evil in themselves were also destroyed, including secular works by some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, as well as Greek and Roman antiquities, musical instruments and compositions, and works of poetry, drama, and literature.

True, not everything was destroyed that could have been; some objects remained out of the hands of the contrite artists who created them, or the mobs which Savonarola sent about the city finding this sort of kindling were not able to locate as many of these things as they might have liked. Imagine the loss to Western Civilization for example, if Botticelli’s iconic “Birth of Venus”, or his glorious procession of Greek gods in “La Primavera” had been destroyed, as they surely would have been if Savonarola had gotten his hands on them. Yet we do know that the great painter Fra Bartolomeo burned just about everything he had painted that was not of a sacred subject, and the loss to our culture of secular work from the hand of this brilliant draftsman is an incalculable one.

I have always loathed Savonarola, not because he was actually wrong about many of the excesses of the church and society in his day, but because of his arrogance and his methods, particularly with regard to encouraging the destruction of art.  It strikes me that something similar is going on in Naples at the present time.  The thinking behind Savonarola’s actions, and that behind the actions of the Casoria gallery, appear to be quite different, superficially. The former is ostensibly about conversion from sin, while the latter is about government funding of the arts. Yet ironically enough, both are expressions of personal vanity on the part of those advocating these extreme measures.

Rather than being what he ought to have been, an inspiring, fiery preacher, with a sense of his own personal humility as a created being and remembering his vow of religious obedience made before God, Savonarola set himself up as the ultimate arbiter of Christian orthodoxy, which he must emphatically was not. In the process of consolidating his temporal power and encouraging his followers to adhere more closely to his personal cult, he fostered a kind of reverse iconoclasm, where the only acceptable art was Christian in nature. And as devout a Christian as I am, I cannot imagine a world without portraits by Sargent, landscapes by Corot, still lifes by Zurbarán, and so on. The result was a cultural disaster, more designed to show the personal power of Savonarola over his subjects – who later rebelled and executed him – than to encourage a universal good.

In the case of the Casoria gallery, a museum director who genuinely cared about the art under his care would not be setting that work on fire, were he in fact acting selflessly in this matter. I suspect that this sort of stunt does nothing to tug on either the heart- or purse strings of the average, rational Italian citizen. The man in the street probably finds most of the type of art shown at the Casoria rubbish anyway, and is more concerned about not being able to pay his rising utility bills, or that his children cannot find a job, given the poor state of the economy at present.

These actions on the part of the Casoria are a perfect embodiment of the maxim against cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Chances are a pencil-pushing, number-crunching government bureaucrat in Rome, who has to make decisions about budgetary matters for a living, is not someone who is going to care very much if some ugly works of art are burned in the street by a publicity hound in Naples. If the goal is somehow to hold the Italian government hostage until it finds more money which it does not have, then I suspect a great deal more art will be burned at the Casoria before something is done.

At the end of the day, this bizarre publicity stunt is a new, fully secular incarnation of the age-old bonfire of the vanities as practiced by Savonarola and his regime. The stated intent of the old practice was to encourage the sinner to reform his life; the stated intent of the new is to encourage funding of the arts: both are good ends in and of themselves. Yet the means by which these ends are being sought say more about the egos and desire for personal fame of those coordinating these efforts, than about the causes which they claim to be advocating.

“The Execution of Savonarola” by Unknown Artist (1498)
Museum of San Marco, Florence.


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The Lure of the Scarlet Tulip

Last evening I watched a documentary about the phenomenon of “bubbles” in financial markets – or the myth of them, depending on your point of view – in the context of the housing and financial crises.  The debate among the various experts interviewed centered around the question of whether a financial market can still behave rationally, even when humans give in to emotions in making their decisions.  However the debate never really looked at the elephant in the room, which must be taken into account when discussing why human beings do what we do, and if the reader will indulge me, I would like to take a look, myself.

Historically speaking, one of the classic examples of a financial “bubble” was a phenomenon known as “Tulip Mania”, which hit The Netherlands in the 17th century.  The introduction of the tulip from Turkey led to ever-increasing prices for tulip bulbs in Holland, peaking in about 1636-1637.  At one point, a single tulip bulb was allegedly trading for more than the price of a good-sized house, or at about ten times the average annual income for a skilled laborer.  Eventually, someone had the good sense to say, “I’m not paying that much for a flower,” when a single bulb of the rare and coveted “Semper Augustus” tulip illustrated below was offered for 10,000 guilder; within a fairly short period of time, the market for tulip bulbs subsequently collapsed.

For a people famed for their prudence and business acumen, some of the Dutch really went off the deep end speculating on this rather humble commodity.  Yet this speculative boom happened not so much because the Dutch loved and appreciated growing rare flowers – which as it happens they still do, and they are in fact are THE dominant players in the world’s flower industry.  Rather, it took place because those who decided to play this game did so for the same two reasons why these types of speculative transactions always take place.

First, those involved in the market thought that if they could buy at a certain price, however ridiculously high, they could then turn around and re-sell it to someone else when the price went up.  Second, the more people saw that their peers were getting into the market and doing well, the more they thought that they might be missing an opportunity if they did not get involved themselves.  One could make the argument that these were irrational, emotional decisions, given that a tulip bulb is a humble object of limited practical use, or one could make the argument that since not everyone in Holland was swept up into Tulip Mania, the overall rational market forces actually worked, by limiting the damage this speculation did overall.

I am certainly no economist or brain researcher.  However I would suggest that there is something more powerful going on than mere emotion or number-crunching in the ridiculous inflation beyond reason of the price of tulip bulbs, stocks, or houses.  For rather than being a question of emotional response, per se, as some psychologists would argue, or the “invisible hand” beloved of economists, what many do not adequately take into consideration when looking at these types of events is an even more powerful draw on human action than emotion or money: the attraction of sin.

In 17th century Holland, we can understand how Tulip Mania happened, but we cannot ignore that at bottom it ultimately came about because of a combination of two sins: greed, and envy.  The former is the more obvious, and perhaps perversely the more rational, of the two.  If I am able to convince someone to purchase at a higher price something which I obtained at a lower price, I make a profit; there is certainly no sin in making a reasonable profit off of your work, whether you have manufactured something yourself, or whether you have been able to go out, find, and sell goods which someone else is willing to pay a premium not to have to go out and make or find for themselves.  However, when your plan is to take advantage of the weakness of another in order to make a profit for yourself outside of all proportion to the amount of work you have put into the sale, then Mammon is probably knocking at your door.

The sin of envy is perhaps not as obvious, at first, but it is just as important a motivation in these speculative markets as greed.  If Jan sees that Hans is raking it in by selling tulip bulbs, building himself a better house and buying fine silks for his wife and daughters, then Jan may have a change of heart on the lunacy of inflated tulip bulb prices.  Jan may want to get involved himself, so that he can “keep up” with Hans, or even try to surpass him in the accumulation of wealth and possessions.

With all of the media hand-wringing and political talk going on of late about how the financial and housing crises happened, and what we ought to do about it given that so many are still struggling, no one seems to have stood up and said the real reason why these things happened.  When we get down to the heart of the matter, they took place not because of insufficient legal safeguards, easy credit terms, or bad economic forecasting: they happened because of sin.  The thousands of foreclosures we have seen took place for the same reasons given above, i.e. greed and envy.

There is a great deal of focus on blaming the banks and other financial institutions for giving in to a crippling level of greed, and on blaming our government officials for failing to protect us from it.  Certainly they should not escape our scrutiny, for helping to make this mess happen.  Yet they did not do this on their own, and in seeking to cast the blame on corporations and legislatures, we are lying to ourselves about the truth of why this happened, just as the Dutch did with their tulips stained an infernal red.

The fact remains that no one seems to be willing to ask the more uncomfortable questions of themselves, their families, and their neighbors, such as, “Why does a middle-income family of four need to purchase a brand-new, six-bedroom, five-bathroom house?”, or “Does a lower-income single parent raising two children really need a home renovation loan to get a hot tub and a sunken patio put in?”

The answer, of course, is sin.  If sin was unattractive, we would not have such a demonstrable problem with it.  We can all point to examples of how otherwise rational, healthy human beings seem to get sucked into doing things that they know, deep down, they ought not to do.  As St. Paul puts it, in his Letter to the Romans, at 7:15, “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.”  I would suggest that this is the key factor which experts are missing, in trying to understand why both markets and, sadly, otherwise rational people behave as they do.

Rather than getting caught up in trying to justify or explain our individual actions, we would be better off simply admitting that we do fall into this pattern of behavior, and realize that it is a fundamental part of human nature.  No matter how hard they might try, no economist or politician can stop people from hurling themselves into sin.  If you are absolutely intent on throwing yourself off a cliff, and I cannot persuade you of your folly, or put guards and fences around every clifftop, then there is ultimately little I can do to prevent you from doing it – even though I should still try.

Once we emerge from our present financial difficulties as a result of the most recent appearance of the infernal sister act of greed and envy, we will no doubt have a good period of expansion, before they re-appear again for their next performance.  This is inevitable, because of our fallen human nature, whatever an economist, psychologist, or other expert may say to the contrary. The best we can hope for is to try to keep these two sins in check, as we are able.  Yet ultimately it is for each of us individually, in how we behave, and therefore in the example we set for others, to refrain from indulging in them.

“Semper Augustus Tulip” by Unknown Dutch Artist (17th Century)
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California

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