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.

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

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.

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