When Truth is Disturbing: Another Look at Wuthering Heights and the Purpose of Literature

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Flannery O’Connor

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, drew me in immediately, pulling me through every lurid page. Yet I felt oddly uncomfortable about how much I liked it as it is populated by selfish, angry, dysfunctional characters, only one of whom possesses much of a moral compass.

Like a good Catholic (I say that sarcastically), I tend to want to spend to time reading things that will edify or offer some great insight or meaningful lesson to take away, which I usually look for in Christian themes or uplifting messages. But this is exactly the attitude that Flannery O’Connor excoriated in her 1965 essay, “The Catholic Reader and the Catholic Novel,” in which she skewered the legions of “pious trash” that Catholics have written and that Catholics read. O’Connor argued that good art or literature has to be good in and of itself–that is, it must also be true. Something that disregards basic truths or doesn’t testify to them fully will inevitably be bad–no matter how pious.

She says, quoting Aquinas, “a work of art is good in itself…this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten.” When she cites him, she (and he) mean “good” in the metaphysical sense–that is the worth of the art comes from itself, not just from its relation to ideas we approve of. Goodness is one of the transcendentals; the others are truth, unity and beauty. Goodness, in this sense, is its desirability in so far as it exists, its ability to attract and move the will. It is a property co-existent with being, one that is not dependent on our feelings about it. To my judgement, “goodness” in a work of art will correlate with one or both of two things: its beauty and its truth.

In written work, with the exceptions of certain poetry, the value defaults to coming from truth. Then the value of being a Catholic writer or a Catholic work doesn’t come from having “uplifting” themes, but from being true, of offering real insight into reality and human understanding. Many secular works succeed at this; many Christian ones fail.

But, Catholic belief should be an effective instrument that contributes to a work’s goodness. Far from a shackle, O’Connor says, “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.” She further explains: “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.” Thus the Church’s understanding of the span of natural and supernatural realities is a magnificent insight that aids the artist or viewer in seeing and composing a true picture of the world.

Nevertheless, she says, the artist must still use her own eyes. The Church offers an extension of sight, not a replacement. O’Connor cautions that “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.” Just like grace does not exclude free will, the Catholic vision still demands the vision of the writer him or herself. Her insight is that Catholic literature is really anything that is true, but that something that pursues the whole scope of reality will inevitably be better. I think here of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Having established that good art is true. That leads me back to Wuthering Heights. Someone as wretched as the abusive Mr. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights still offers us a great catholic value; Healthcliff shows us a dark side of humanity, an anti-hero whose love, while real, is distorted and disordered and plays out to the harm of the generations, the cast of characters whom he taints.

Continue reading

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Freelance: Mother Teresa, New Saint, Championed NFP

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From my Truth and Charity Forum piece

She testified to the effectiveness of NFP, though it involves a break from Western reliance on artificial intervention: “So clear – those people in the street, those beggars – and I think that if our people can do like that how much more you and all the others who can know the ways and means without destroying the life that God has created in us.” There is no excuse for westerners, she proposes.

Further, NFP is consistent with the Church’s teachings on chastity and the importance of self-mastery: “The other day one of them came to thank and said: You people who have vowed chastity you are the best people to teach us family planning. Because it is nothing more than self-control out of love for each other.”

Mother Teresa’s remarks place natural family planning abstinence in continuity with the celibacy vows of priests and religious sisters and brothers. The Church calls all people to chastity, to integrate their desires with appropriate love of self and others.

Seen in the light of a consistent call to self-giving, her excoriation of abortion is not a “dogmatic” scourge upon women that her ideological detractors claim it to be, but a call to see the value of the person in a places, at all times, even within the womb. It is perhaps surprising that the nun renowned for caring for the aged and dying used her fame to speak for the other side of life, those still being made inside their mothers.

She saw the West as suffering from its own type of poverty, a poverty that could not see the value of human life. Her work and her words in their own ways testified to great worth she saw in each person, and she instructed those who would listen to do the same: “I want you to find the poor here, right in your own home first. And begin love there” (1979).

More at: http://truthandcharityforum.org/though-criticized-mother-teresa-chastised-politicians-championed-nfp/

What do you think of Mother Teresa’s critics?

Thought of the Day: Cheating = Narcissism + Self-Hatred

Cheating is when we try to take credit for the achievements of another person whether by looking at his or her answers on a test or by scamming taxes or unethical business practices.

I’d like to focus on academic cheating for this thought even though it applies to other scenarios.

I know the urge; we all do.

Cheating seems like it will help us; it promises to deliver the high letter grade that we feel we deserve but without the ability required to earn it on our own. Maybe we don’t have time to study or master the skill; maybe events beyond our circumstances made it impossible for us to study; maybe despite our best efforts, we don’t have the skill level to pull it off and we think that we really, really need the outcome–such as a high GPA in order to get into college.

Here’s the two-fold problem though: 1) narcissism – inappropriate love of self that puts oneself over and above all others in level of importance. Narcissism is what leads to the thought that we somehow deserve the good outcome even though we did not or cannot earn it on our own.

That is a huge problem because it is an affront to justice and truth. It prevents the people who did earn it from having their rightful place. For instance, if Todd (random example) cheats like mad and earns a place in the top 10% of his class, he probably displaced other students who should have been there because they actually performed better.

And as for truth, to receive credit for something we did not do is like replacing the siding on a house filled with termites. It may look nice for a little while, but the home is not truly whole, and it is unfit to live in. Continue reading

Recalling my first Ash Wednesday, an uncomfortable day

[This essay first ran on Ethika Politika. Full article available there]

My first Lent, I wandered around campus wondering if anyone would notice the smudge on my forehead. I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and had recently stumbled across the Catholic Church, her teachings, and her seemingly outrageous claims to truth. Encountering both the man who would become my husband and then the Church Fathers had led me to the troubling realization that maybe everything was not relative: that perhaps man’s darkness was real and that there was a real salvation, that perhaps God did exist and that truth, goodness, and beauty were more than romantic ideals.

A disinterested rationalism ruled the day on campus, the idea that all traditions and practices are something the educated person stands apart from, that she observes from a distance and perhaps with curiosity. This was well-known to any “critical thinker” and to the newly, ardently atheistic coeds in my residence hall. Actually to take part in a tradition, to claim it for oneself, is the only modern-day heresy there is.

Though intellectual commitments are often frowned upon by universities, they are inescapably human. All of us are born into complex networks of family, national, ethnic, religious, political, and other relationships that modern man tends to dismiss, viewing humans only as atomized, disconnected units. It turns out that claiming a tradition is not so radical after all.

Full Article Here:

https://ethikapolitika.org/2016/02/09/lents-bodily-exposure/

What was your most memorable Ash Wednesday experience? Or even just a time that you saw someone wearing ashes. I’d love to hear from you!

My essay, 2 places: The Desert Spirituality of Motherhood

This essay was first published on my usual home, The Truth and Charity Forum of HLI. Then the editors at Ethika Politika liked it and requested a few revisions and to republish. Here are links to both.

The Desert Spirituality of Motherhood on the Truth and Charity Forum:

“When St. Anthony of the Desert went out to the Egyptian wilderness to be alone with God, he probably didn’t think that he was setting an example for mothers. But I believe that he did. St. Anthony gave up the comforts of society in order to face himself and let God purify him. Perhaps this is not so different from the path of mothers and families and, by extension, all people striving to live in accord with truth and God.”

The Desert Spirituality of Motherhood on Ethika Politika

“And for what good? To be at the service of life, the greatest earthly good, and also at the service of the Lord, who created life. To bind oneself to a family, to a spouse and to children is really like a religious vow: It gives up a great many goods in order to grow in the good of commitment and formation. To do it well, it will take everything we have, and then some. It will lead us into the desert of our souls and present the furnace of solitude. It is here that we will stare darkness in the face and fall back onto Christ.”

-Finding our true vocation is a lifelong process I think. What has your journey been like?

Two Reasons Cleaning is Not Below You

Are you a feminist? A modern woman (or man) who knows who you are, who takes yourself seriously, who works hard and expects a lot.

Do you think cleaning is below you? Does folding clothes, dusting, scrubbing a scummy dryer, vacuuming, wiping windows or otherwise performing manual labor in your home bother you?

It does for me sometimes.

But I am also a Christian and a believer in social justice and the truth of the Gospel that Jesus came for everyone, including the poorest of the poor.

And there is something very fishy about finding or believing oneself to be above any sort of manual labor (provided it isn’t inherently unethical…such as mafia hit man).

The truth of Christ is the truth about all men, and it was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as this: we are “created equal.” This equality does not include all abilities, but includes our value and worth. In the Christian tradition, we say all people are created in the Image of God.

1) To believe that I shouldn’t have to clean my house or do my laundry is to believe that I am better than such activities, but I am not. It is often a subtle expression of a deeper classism, or the idea that I am not the type of person who has to do demeaning work like cleaning toilets. That’s for other (aka lower) people.

But while classism is real, even in America where we pretend it isn’t, classism is never true. That is, it does not describe the true reality. The reality is no group of people are better or worse than others, especially because of such things as race, income, or geographic location or education level. The reality is that we are all interconnected individuals who have gifts and hardships, who are trying to seek the good, regardless of how warped any person’s perception may have become. (The warped search for the good is what sin is).

Many people put air in their own tires; some people do it for a living. This type of technical maintenance is not irrelevant or inconsequential. On the contrary, it is the stuff of life itself; it provides the raw matter which philosophers philosophize about. And it takes care of us, of our family and friends.

To sweep a floor or cook a meal can be a great act of love, of care-taking, of gratitude for the kitchen and home that we have.

To believe ourselves above such work is to take our gifts for granted.

[Caveat: If we pay someone to help clean that house, that may not be bad provided we respect the gift they are providing us, that we pay fairly because we understand that their work is valuable and helps support him or her and their family, and if we acknowledge that we are not above such work even we do not do it ourselves.]

2) Mother Teresa said, “If you want world peace, go home and love your family.”

Johann Goethe said, “Let each man sweep in front of his own front door and the whole world will be clean.”

What these mean is that if we take care of our part, of our tiny slice of the world, of those around who are in need, the whole world would change. So often, we view actions as meaningless because they do not impact the entire global state of affairs. But the opposite is really true. If we do a tiny thing, but do it earnestly and truly, those are the actions that change the world. If we all did our part, all would be healed.

Jesus said, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

And he is God! So what we do to those around us is how we respond to God, which is about as big a deal as you could possibly get.

So then, to clean your own house, to do things that seem below you is to express in a small way a gratitude and a type of solidarity with all people who work. There is of course much more to living the Gospel than cleaning one’s house, but it is a small piece, and every piece counts.

So let me rehash this phrase yet again, “If you want social justice, go home and clean your house.”

 

The Metaphysical Good of Children

girl-199x300From the Truth and Charity Forum: The Metaphysical Good of Children

“Too often we think children have value based on how the parents feel about them. Melissa Harris-Perry, host on MSNBC said in 2013, “When does life begin? I submit the answer depends an awful lot on the feeling of the parents. A powerful feeling – but not science.” That answer is trouble because it ignores actual reality in favor of feelings, granting to some humans’ feelings the status of ontological truth while simultaneously and incoherently denying value to other humans and their feelings. Feelings do matter, but they do not determine reality.

“Harris-Perry added that “An unwanted pregnancy can be biologically the same as a wanted one. But the experience can be entirely different.” This statement is true in itself. However, the reality of the child’s life and goodness is determined by the biology, not the experience of the parents. Granted, we ought to be very sensitive to the feelings of such women and seek to provide as much non-judgmental support as possible. However, the requirement of support stems precisely from the reality and goodness of the child who is already in existence and growing to maturity.

“I take this view from the classical metaphysics. Metaphysically speaking, everything that exists is good in the sense that it is willed and loved by God and expresses a perfection of being. Martin Vaske, S.J. explains in his Introduction to Metaphysics, “Unity, truth, and goodness are called transcendental properties because they are true of every being as being” (179). That means that everything that exists is good in so far as it exists, and this goodness, this desirability or lovableness is intrinsic to the being itself and not dependent on the perceptions of humans. He continues, “Beings have metaphysical, or ontological, truth independently of human knowledge; so also beings have metaphysical goodness independently of our willing them” (192).”

***

“It is, of course, true that there are real difficulties of raising children, such as sleep deprivation and potential financial strain. But these are simply part of the reality of life. If we can accept that, instead of viewing this as a massive injustice, we can start to enjoy the goodness that is before our eyes instead of looking around it to view only our inconvenience. Our happiness is served when we embrace reality and work with it, instead of trying to fight against it.”

Full article here.

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/children-are-good-regardless-of-our-feelings/

Hypocritical Christians Messing with Your Faith? 3 Reasons to Stay Calm

[This post appeared originally on the Truth and Charity Forum as part of my Faith Objections series]

“Fortunately, the Westboro Baptist Church, famous for the “God hates fags” signs, really are outliers. But generally yes, this criticism of the Church is resoundingly true; there are hypocrites among us. Even in smaller settings, I myself and my friends have run into petty bureaucracy and slights in the offices of our own local churches.

So, how can I continue to believe when the lived examples of believers so often fall short? When I myself fall short as well?

….

What are we to do then with this beleaguered institution full of fallible people, especially the Catholic Church which claims infallibility?

Three reasons that undergird my continued Faith are these 1) Jesus came to heal sinners. 2) The Church has both divine and human elements, and we human elements err frequently, but are still guided by the divine. 3) At a basic level, at least we are hypocrites; we fall short, but we have an ideal to aspire to.

Jesus Came For Sinners

When the Pharisees take offense at Christ eating meals with tax-collectors, prostitutes and other sinners, He answers them: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). God sent His Son, Jesus, into the world precisely because we humans had screwed up; Christ is the remedy for the Fall of the human race in Adam and Eve. He came because we do sin, or perform misdeeds or hurtful actions, to use a more modern-friendly term, quite a bit. The entire role of Christ in the Incarnation is to draw us back to God because we can’t do it ourselves, though we do cooperate with our free will.

Hypocritical conduct is scandalous, and it turns people away from the Church, which is a true tragedy. Somehow though, Christ himself knew that sinners would be part of the Church. He taught, that there was a farmer, God, who sowed grain (the Church) in a field, Continue reading

Stop Trying to Harvest Life’s Peak Moments – Centesimus Annus

From JP II’s Centesimus Annus: His 1991 Encyclical on the 100th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, widely considered the first Church encyclical on social teachings:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.75 It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments. (36) ….

one notes first the poverty or narrowness of man’s outlook, motivated as he is by a desire to possess things rather than to relate them to the truth, and lacking that disinterested, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them. (37)

I love this. I find in Catholic theology and thought a truly unique invitation to contemplate that which is truly good in life versus what things are the distractions.

I think in my own life I have often succumbed to the temptation to confuse having with being–ie if I have a cool outfit, I am cool. There’s no easy way to explain this because we don’t have a vocabulary for it.

But happiness and a good life are not different. Happiness is not a moment, not even a collection of peak moments. True happiness is a life well-lived, a life of dedicated work to people and ideas that matter. That sort of effort is itself the reward.

I hate the analogy of apple-picking, but it demonstrates so clearly. It’s fun to go pick apples in the late summer and early fall; I visit an orchard and spend an hour or less plucking the prettiest products of the branch. I bask in the sun and feel very pleased with myself for connecting with nature. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, but it remains a grab in the dark for a “peak moment,” those oh-so-perfect looking scenes in my head which will make me happy if I simply gather enough of them.

The real satisfaction is not in the serene, beautiful moment–because a moment is just a moment and it passes away immediately. Real satisfaction is in the dedication to the entire process of planting, nurturing, watching grow, weeding, pruning, watering and finally, yes, picking, cooking and preserving. Real satisfaction is in the authenticity of hard, honest work (of a variety of natures).

Consider mothering. The peak moments are my little girl’s first steps, her precious laugh, my toddler boy’s love of his birthday cake. But if I could swoop in and capture all the peak moments without the whole process of life, those moments would be empty. Those moments are meaningful because I have nursed them when they cried, laid beside a restless, sick infant, cleaned up the peanut butter, made a thousand bland lunches and calmed the tantrums. I could even miss the “peakest” of moments (though it’s nice to have them), such as the birthday parties and the first steps, and still find satisfaction and joy in my life as their mother because I would still be a part of that life-long process of dedication.

Consumption, materialistic consumerism, tries to trick us by offering the peak moments as though they can be seized or grasped without the whole-life process of dedication, work and sacrifice. “Want a perfect body? Buy this Vitamix Blender. A healthier you awaits.” As though the moment of enjoying one’s physical appearance in the mirror can be obtained by the $40.00 purchase alone. In reality, the blender likely delivers neither the happiness nor the perfect body. Only effort sustained over months towards the end goal of a healthy diet and body will bring us closer to our ideal–whether or not we have a Vitamix (no offense Vitamix).

And materialistic consumerism is also much nastier than that mere level of lying to us, the buyers. In a disordered emphasis on profit, corners are sometimes cut, people hurt in the process of production for excess. Now, there are certainly legitimate purpose of marketing–to put audiences in touch with something they might actually need. And those creating and selling products certainly do need to earn a living. And capitalistic enterprise can be engaged in well and virtuously.

Oh but how easily it morphs into false promises and misleading visions of happiness. This is why I love the quote above, John Paul II tells us that it is “necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth.”

Yes. Yes. This and only this is the hallmark of a good life and consequentially of true satisfaction and peace. Constantly grasping for happiness in new experiences, products and achievements is a race to nowhere. The only thing that matters is to seek the truth, to strive to live in accord with it, to contemplate beauty and goodness, and to love God and others…just like Christ taught.

Recent Pieces by Me from Elsewhere on the Web

Recently I’ve had two essays posted to the Truth and Charity Forum at Human Life International.

As I sent them there instead of posting them here, I’d like to include a link to them:

Ideas matter: Eugenic Ideology in Germany and Abortion in America

“The film [Nazu Medicine ]ponders “how could these doctors” have carried out such unethical experiments, treating human beings like mere lab rats, often leaving them disfigured or dead. Near the end, one astute commenter concludes that given the environment in early 20th century Germany (and America) that was saturated in pro-eugenics ideologies and the scientific (though actually pseudo-scientific) emphasis on the superiority of the Arian race, that the doctors under the Nazi regime were actually following through on their ethics, not violating them. He points out that many of them bought into the German rhetoric of superiority and viewed themselves as saving the world through purifying it, which was the highest aim of eugenics as a theory.”

Whole essay here: http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/ideas-matter-eugenic-ideology-in-germany-and-abortion-in-america/

Catholic Social Teaching in A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol has been famously reproduced so many times it can seem trite. But there is an enduring wisdom to its pages that keeps the tale significant: it offers insight into human nature, the value of the person, the true worth of money, and the purpose of society and even life. As simply an honest man of good will, not himself a Catholic, Charles Dickens draws many timeless principles into his narratives, which dovetail nicely with elements of Catholic social teaching. A Christmas Carol’s general agreement with Catholic thought reveals how these principles really are evident to the human mind, if it reasons well.

Solidarity

The story opens on Christmas Eve with Scrooge in his office with Bob Cratchit, his employee. Scrooge receives a few visitors and his response to them serves to demonstrate just how far astray from human values he has erred and simultaneously highlights what his proper attitude should be.”

Whole essay here: http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/catholic-social-teaching-in-a-christmas-carol/

So what do you think?