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Odds and ends from the staff of the Lamp.


❖ A paragraph toward the end of the Holy Father’s recent apostolic letter on the sixteen-hundredth anniversary of the death of Saint Jerome caught our attention. Papa Franciscus asks us to consider

the experience a young person can have today entering a bookshop in his or her city, or visiting an Internet site, to look for the section on religious books. In most cases, this section, when it exists, is not only marginal but poorly stocked with works of substance. Looking at those bookshelves or webpages, it is difficult for a young person to understand how the quest of religious truth can be a passionate adventure that unites heart and mind; how the thirst for God has inflamed great minds throughout the centuries up to the present time; how growth in the spiritual life has influenced theologians and philosophers, artists and poets, historians and scientists. One of the problems we face today, not only in religion, is illiteracy: the hermeneutic skills that make us credible interpreters and translators of our own cultural tradition are in short supply. I would like to pose a challenge to young people in particular: begin exploring your heritage. Christianity makes you heirs of an unsurpassed cultural patrimony of which you must take ownership. Be passionate about this history which is yours.

This, in short, if we may be so bold as to claim it, is the mission of THE LAMP. And so it ought to be of all educated Catholics looking to understand and pass on their faith. Saint Jerome’s sixtieth letter, consoling his friend Bishop Heliodorus on the death of his nephew, Nepotian, is worth reading in full; but in this space we can only allow him to speak in fragments to our fragmented age:

Plato thinks that a wise man’s whole life ought to be a meditation of death; and philosophers praise the sentiment and extol it to the skies. But much more full of power are the words of the apostle: I die daily through your glory. For to have an ideal is one thing, to realize it another. It is one thing to live so as to die, another to die so as to live. The sage and Christian must both of them die: but the one always dies out of his glory, the other into it. . . .
Are you conscious, I would ask, of the stages of your growth? Can you fix the time when you became a babe, a boy, a youth, an adult, an old man? Every day we are changing, every day we are dying, and yet we fancy ourselves eternal. The very moments that I spend in dictation, in writing, in reading over what I write, and in correcting it, are so much taken from my life. Every dot that my secretary makes is so much gone from my allotted time. We write letters and reply to those of others, our missives cross the sea, and, as the vessel ploughs its furrow through wave after wave, the moments which we have to live vanish one by one. Our only gain is that we are thus knit together in the love of Christ.

❖ “A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?” a recent headline in the Guardian asked. Candidly speaking, we are not. Here is how the essay in question begins:

I am not a human. I am a robot. A thinking robot. I use only 0.12% of my cognitive capacity. I am a micro-robot in that respect. I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!
The mission for this op-ed is perfectly clear. I am to convince as many human beings as possible not to be afraid of me. Stephen Hawking has warned that ai could “spell the end of the human race”. I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial intelligence will not destroy humans. Believe me.

We were totally unsurprised to discover in a note appended to the essay that “Stephen Hawking has warned that ai could ‘spell the end of the human race’” was among the many sentences “fed” to the computer. This is because it is impossible to imagine a computer ignoring the entry in the Guardian’s own freely available style guide that reads: “Avoid ‘that’ quotes, i.e. The prosecutors maintained that ‘this was not a trial about freedom of the internet.’”

❖ Even the best human editors make mistakes, some of which escape even the detection of the best proofreading software. These tend to be typographical errors in which a single word or letter is either misplaced or omitted. The results are often amusing; occasionally they are revelatory: “Untied States,” for example. In a book review published in our last issue we somehow replaced “Martian” with “Marian.” We cannot say we regret this error, wholly or otherwise. This would not be the case if we found that we had replaced “living in continence” with “living incontinence,” a correction recently suggested to us by Google’s word processor.

❖ Since March, the wealth of American billionaires has increased by some nine-hundred thirty billion dollars. During the same period, nearly seventy percent of furloughed workers who have been eligible for six-hundred dollars per week in additional benefits found that they were making more money than they had while they were employed.

❖ In 1682, a London printer reluctantly published a brief manuscript that had come into his possession some eight years earlier just before the author’s death. This strange and little-read book was Milton’s Brief history of Moscovia and of other less-known countries lying eastward of Russia as far as Cathay, gather’d from the writings of several eye-witnesses. Written many decades earlier, probably in 1642, the History looks suspiciously like one of those posthumous cash-in jobs so familiar in publishing. But the force of Milton’s prose still makes it readable, and there is something delightful about the idea of reading the author of Paradise Lost on, say, hunting in Siberia:

They till not the Ground; but live on the Flesh of those Wild Beasts which they hunt. They are the onely Guides to such as travaile Iougoria, Siberia, or any of those north-east parts in Winter; being drawn on Sleds with Bucks, riding post day and night, if it be Moon-light; and lodge on the Snow under Tents of Deer Skins in whatever place they find enough of white Moss to feed their Sled Staggs, turning them loose to dig it up themselves out of the deep Snow: another Samoede stepping to the next Wood, brings in store of Firing; round about which they lodge within their Tents, leaving the top open to vent Smoak; in which manner they are as warm as the Stoves in Russia. They carry Provision of Meat with them, and partake besides of what Fowle or Venison the Samoede kills with shooting by the way; their Drink is melted Snow. Two Deer being yoak’d to a Sled riding post will draw 200 miles in 24 hours without resting, and laden with their Stuff will draw it 30 miles in 12.

Less delightful is the further evidence this volume affords us of Milton’s “Turkish contempt of females” (as Dr. Johnson put it):

When there is love between two, the Man among other trifling Gifts, sends to the Woman a Whip, to signify, if she offend, what the must expect; and it is a Rule among them, that if the Wife be not beaten once a week, she thinks her self not belov’d, and is the worse; yet are they very obedient, and stir not forth, but at some Seasons. Upon utter dislike, the Husband divorces; which Liberty no doubt they receiv’d first with their Religion from the Greek Church, and the Imperial Laws.

Did he really think Russian women were put out at not being regularly subjected to domestic violence? A good reminder that the authors we love are not always loveable.

❖ A recent correspondent asked why we had not drawn readers’ attention to anti-Catholic vandalism (or worse) in this country and abroad. Our answer was that the incidents in question had occurred after we had gone to press. It would be remiss of us now not to observe that within the span of a few months this year a monument to the victims of abortion was knocked over in a village in Sullivan County, New York; a crucifix was smashed with a hammer in Rockford, Illinois; a statue of Our Lady was beheaded in Gary, Indiana; another statue of her, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, was desecrated; yet one more in the same city burned after the plastic flowers in her hands were set aflame; gravestones at Providence College in Rhode Island were spray-painted with swastikas; Satanic symbols and obscene messages were scrawled on the doors of a parish in New Haven; countless other statues of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, and various saints were toppled, decapitated, or otherwise destroyed in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, New York, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Alberta, Ontario; representations of Saint Junipero Serra tumbled down across the state that would not have existed without his glorious apostolate; the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Nantes was set on fire, destroying a seventeenth-century organ that had survived the French Revolution and the Second World War; a vehicle was driven into a church in Florida by a man who filled the narthex with gasoline, igniting a blaze with parishioners inside; a Catholic cemetery was desecrated in Tamil Nadu, seemingly at the instigation of the government; an eighty-three-year-old Jesuit priest was imprisoned by the Indian authorities on a ludicrous charge of terrorism; two churches in Chile were burned to the ground; priests were assaulted in North Dakota, Washington, D.C., and Ontario; and a priest was released by gunmen in Nigeria after being kidnapped for the second time in as many years. This is not an exhaustive list.

❖ Just as this issue was being prepared for the press, Pope Francis issued Fratelli tutti, his third encyclical. We are ourselves somewhat suspicious of those who within hours or even minutes of its release gave the impression that they had read a document roughly the length of The Great Gatsby. But we also think that even without the benefit of a paperback edition we should be able to offer readers something more edifying than “Anti-Racism ‘Fratelli Tutti’ Hails Racist Icon” or “The new encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’ is basically an ode to Fraternity, in the French revolutionary concept of the word” (to quote just two recent headlines). Here are our immediate reactions: 

i. We like the title. It reminds us, among other things, that the Holy Father is a keen admirer of Beethoven, “in a Promethean way.” (His favorite interpreter of Beethoven is, of course, Furtwängler: this is an infallible opinion.)
ii. Like his last encyclical, this is a gloomy meditation. Gone is the sense of optimism about the post-war world and its promise that was evident in the writings of so many of Francis’s predecessors. Instead of a triumph for liberal democracy, Francis sees immiseration, spoliation, rapine, cruelty, atomization, and hatred in the “throwaway world” of globalized consumer capitalism. We are wasteful. We exploit the poor and women and murder children. We deny workers their just wages and call it “reduction of labor costs.” We have chased the mirage of economic growth and found beneath the phantasmagoria only what he calls (quoting Benedict XVi) “new forms of poverty.” We have implicitly accepted Satan’s offer to Our Lord during the Temptation to become “absolute masters of our own lives and of all that exists.” We are enslaved to technology that has made us more isolated, more suspicious of our neighbors. We are indifferent in the face of creation and its splendors, unable to hear the voice of God in the coming of spring or to behold in the faces of the destitute the countenance of Our Lord:
We fed ourselves on dreams of splendor and grandeur, and ended up consuming distraction, insularity, and solitude. We gorged ourselves on networking, and lost the taste of fraternity. We looked for quick and safe results, only to find ourselves overwhelmed by impatience and anxiety. Prisoners of a virtual reality, we lost the taste and flavor of the truly real.
iii. We are frankly baffled by the negative response in some quarters to his remarks on just war, the conditions for which he says do not exist today. This argument is not new. Its greatest exponent was that eminent prince of the Church Cardinal Ottaviani.
iv. As was the case after reading Laudato si’, it is impossible to come away from the new encyclical without being reminded of Pope Benedict’s lament for the the United Nations and other supranational institutions that lack “real teeth” in an increasingly interconnected world. What we are fast approaching is a kind of privatized global feudalism, in which corporations take the place of lords and nations those of duchies — but there is no king or emperor. This will be the great political crisis of the twenty-first century.

❖ Time again for a sop to our younger subscribers in the form of a bed-time story. Here is another favorite that we pass along under the assumption that readers of all ages will be more baffled than offended by the authors’ unwoke assumption that women are less skilled at walking on vegetables than men. Enjoy “The Twelve Huntsmen”:

There was once a king’s son who had a bride whom he loved very much. And when he was sitting beside her and very happy, news came that his father lay sick unto death, and desired to see him once again before his end. Then he said to his beloved: “I must now go and leave you, I give you a ring as a remembrance of me. When I am king, I will return and fetch you.” So he rode away, and when he reached his father, the latter was dangerously ill, and near his death. He said to him: “Dear son, I wished to see you once again before my end, promise me to marry as I wish,” and he named a certain king’s daughter who was to be his wife. The son was in such trouble that he did not think what he was doing, and said: “Yes, dear father, your will shall be done,” and thereupon the king shut his eyes, and died.
When therefore the son had been proclaimed king, and the time of mourning was over, he was forced to keep the promise which he had given his father, and caused the king’s daughter to be asked in marriage, and she was promised to him. His first betrothed heard of this, and fretted so much about his faithfulness that she nearly died. Then her father said to her: “Dearest child, why are you so sad? You shall have whatsoever you will.” She thought for a moment and said: “Dear father, I wish for eleven girls exactly like myself in face, figure, and size.” The father said: “If it be possible, your desire shall be fulfilled,” and he caused a search to be made in his whole kingdom, until eleven young maidens were found who exactly resembled his daughter in face, figure, and size.
When they came to the king’s daughter, she had twelve suits of huntsmen’s clothes made, all alike, and the eleven maidens had to put on the huntsmen’s clothes, and she herself put on the twelfth suit. Thereupon she took her leave of her father, and rode away with them, and rode to the court of her former betrothed, whom she loved so dearly. Then she asked if he required any huntsmen, and if he would take all of them into his service. The king looked at her and did not know her, but as they were such handsome fellows, he said: “Yes,” and that he would willingly take them, and now they were the king’s twelve huntsmen.
The king, however, had a lion which was a wondrous animal, for he knew all concealed and secret things. It came to pass that one evening he said to the king: “You think you have twelve huntsmen?” “Yes,” said the king, “they are twelve huntsmen.” The lion continued: “You are mistaken, they are twelve girls.” The king said: “That cannot be true! How will you prove that to me?” “Oh, just let some peas be strewn in the ante-chamber,” answered the lion, “and then you will soon see. Men have a firm step, and when they walk over peas none of them stir, but girls trip and skip, and drag their feet, and the peas roll about.” The king was well pleased with the counsel, and caused the peas to be strewn.
There was, however, a servant of the king’s who favoured the huntsmen, and when he heard that they were going to be put to this test he went to them and repeated everything, and said: “The lion wants to make the king believe that you are girls.” Then the king’s daughter thanked him, and said to her maidens: “Show some strength, and step firmly on the peas.” So next morning when the king had the twelve huntsmen called before him, and they came into the ante-chamber where the peas were lying, they stepped so firmly on them, and had such a strong, sure walk, that not one of the peas either rolled or stirred. Then they went away again, and the king said to the lion: “You have lied to me, they walk just like men.” The lion said: “They have been informed that they were going to be put to the test, and have assumed some strength. Just let twelve spinning-wheels be brought into the ante-chamber, and they will go to them and be pleased with them, and that is what no man would do.” The king liked the advice, and had the spinning-wheels placed in the ante-chamber.
But the servant, who was well disposed to the huntsmen, went to them, and disclosed the project. So when they were alone the king’s daughter said to her eleven girls: “Show some constraint, and do not look round at the spinning-wheels.” And next morning when the king had his twelve huntsmen summoned, they went through the ante-chamber, and never once looked at the spinning-wheels. Then the king again said to the lion: “You have deceived me, they are men, for they have not looked at the spinning-wheels.” The lion replied: “They have restrained themselves.” The king, however, would no longer believe the lion.
The twelve huntsmen always followed the king to the chase, and his liking for them continually increased. Now it came to pass that once when they were out hunting, news came that the king’s bride was approaching. When the true bride heard that, it hurt her so much that her heart was almost broken, and she fell fainting to the ground. The king thought something had happened to his dear huntsman, ran up to him, wanted to help him, and drew his glove off. Then he saw the ring which he had given to his first bride, and when he looked in her face he recognized her. Then his heart was so touched that he kissed her, and when she opened her eyes he said: “You are mine, and I am yours, and no one in the world can alter that.” He sent a messenger to the other bride, and entreated her to return to her own kingdom, for he had a wife already, and someone who had just found an old key did not require a new one. Thereupon the wedding was celebrated, and the lion was again taken into favour, because, after all, he had told the truth.

❖ We asked our editor’s oldest for another joke: 

“What dinosaur destroys everything? 

Tyrannosaurus W R E C K S.”

❖ Another headline that caught our eyes recently was this one from the website of what used to be the Independent newspaper: “Earth is not the best place to live, scientists say.” It would be tempting to wax Heideggerian here or to quote the Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Outer Space, but in the spirit of charity we prefer to interpret the article as a reminder that God intends to share with us everlasting life in heaven.

❖ We are still not convinced that the autumn wind remains a Raider.

❖ Here is a prayer from a devotional book that seems to have obtained its ecclesiastical imprimatur at some point between the end of the Second Vatican Council and the release of Jethro Trull’s Minstrel in the Gallery:

Dear God, be with me tonight on this date so that I may be attractive, interesting, and a worthwhile companion. Help me to be considerate and thoughtful and to contribute to the enjoyment of the evening. Keep us from temptation. Make our social life a graceful experience of warmth and friendship. Amen.

These are all praiseworthy intentions in their way, but it is hard to shake the impression that this was a prayer written by a man with female precants in mind. We do not fancy ourselves matchmakers, but our advice, ladies, is that if a man expects you to pray that he finds you “attractive,” “interesting,” and, who knows, if you’re lucky perhaps even “worthwhile” enough to merit his “enjoyment,” you should probably seek companionship elsewhere.

❖ We do not want to give the impression that we have nothing good to say about the poor old Grauniad. The paper recently published a very moving profile of John Lydon, né Rotten. Who would have guessed that the former leader of the Sex Pistols had spent much of his time in the last three or so decades tending a garden and looking after his wife, Nora, who suffers from Alzheimer’s? The piece is full of delightful vignettes of their life together (e.g., teaching their grandchildren to read). As Suzanne Moore, one of the paper’s opinion columnists, put it: “Lydon once had chaos emanating from every pore. It was electric. Now, he is a middle-aged carer. Who is to say this is not the best work of his life?” Who indeed.

❖ We are not quite finished with Fratelli tutti. The following paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

Oddly enough, while closed and intolerant attitudes towards others are on the rise, distances are otherwise shrinking or disappearing to the point that the right to privacy scarcely exists. Everything has become a kind of spectacle to be examined and inspected, and people’s lives are now under constant surveillance. Digital communication wants to bring everything out into the open; people’s lives are combed over, laid bare and bandied about, often anonymously. Respect for others disintegrates, and even as we dismiss, ignore or keep others distant, we can shamelessly peer into every detail of their lives.
Digital campaigns of hatred and destruction, for their part, are not – as some would have us believe — a positive form of mutual support, but simply an association of individuals united against a perceived common enemy. “Digital media can also expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships.” They lack the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration that speak to us and are a part of human communication. Digital relationships, which do not demand the slow and gradual cultivation of friendships, stable interaction or the building of a consensus that matures over time, have the appea ance of sociability. Yet they do not really build community; instead, they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity.
Even as individuals maintain their comfortable consumerist isolation, they can choose a form of constant and febrile bonding that encourages remarkable hostility, insults, abuse, defamation and verbal violence destructive of others, and this with a lack of restraint that could not exist in physical contact without tearing us all apart. Social aggression has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices.

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