Friday, October 7, 2011

Apple and the Church

I was greatly saddened this week, as many people were, by the death of Steve Jobs.  He made possible many of the innovations that we take for granted, even though we didn't know that we needed them (or that they could exist) just a few years ago.

In listening to the news coverage, I was struck by how they kept coming back to the early days of Apple and how it has grown over the years.  The thought occurred to me that this is something (very vaguely) like the Church itself, and its growth through history.

Catholic traditions and practices are often objected to by people claiming that they take their instruction straight from the Bible.  The mantra that I often hear on it is that the early Church didn't meet in lavish buildings, or use incense, or wear special robes or use candles, or whatever.  "These are traditions of men," they call, "and they were denounced by Christ!  The Catholic Church has corrupted traditional worship by adding in all of these things."

The first thing to ask is: How do you know that they didn't use these things?

The second takes us back to Apple.  In the early days of the company, Jobs and his friends worked out of a garage, begged equipment and did whatever else they needed to do in order to get things going.  There was a lot to overcome and certain things, like comfort or new clothes, had to take a backseat for the moment.  No doubt, they would have liked these things at the time, but keeping the dream of Apple alive was more important, and they could get them later when their company was a success.

Apple was a success, and it didn't stay in a garage.  If one had only the original records of the company and a snapshot of what Apple is today, they would likely balk at the improbability of it all.  It moved through its infant stages and now has a complex network of stores and retail alliances, coordinated through the company headquarters.  In addition, they have a large hold on the public attention.  When a new product is released, even those who don't like Apple sit up and take notice.  Like it or hate it, Apple is hard to ignore.

Likewise, the Church began small.  It started in a single room one morning, where a dozen or so people had gathered to pray.  From that humble beginning, the Apostles went forward and proclaimed the good news.  It was uncomfortable, paid nothing and the odds were entirely against their mission succeeding, except for one thing: God was with them.  For nearly three centuries, they and their successors struggled to share their enthusiasm with others, sacrificing everything to ensure their mission would bear fruit.

It did.  The result was that, when the Church could get things like proper vestments, candles and incense, they incorporated them, to worship God how they had always wanted to in the first place, but (often) had to forgo at the time.  It would have been the height of folly to remain confined to the Catecombs.  The Church needed to grow, and it grew.

Today, as with Apple, one would hardly suspect these humble beginnings by looking at the Church now.  There are tens of thousands of parishes that are largely self-sufficient, but are coordinated by their Bishop and of course the Vatican.  When the Pope visits another country, or releases an official statement, people take notice; some to rejoice, others to mock and ridicule.  But they are not able to ignore the Church and her influence on the world.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Vineyard and Virtues

The prayer group this Saturday was really good.  We were discussing the readings for this Sunday (27th Sunday in the A cycle) about the vineyards (Is 5:1-7, Mt 21:33-43) and St. Paul to the Philippians (Phil 4:6-9).  When checking the cross-references in the Catechism, I was struck by the message the Lord was sending.

The first reading is referenced by paragraph 546 (emphasis mine)
Jesus' invitation to enter his kingdom comes in the form of parables, a characteristic feature of his teaching. Through his parables he invites people to the feast of the kingdom, but he also asks for a radical choice: to gain the kingdom, one must give everything. Words are not enough, deeds are required. The parables are like mirrors for man: will he be hard soil or good earth for the word? What use has he made of the talents he has received? Jesus and the presence of the kingdom in this world are secretly at the heart of the parables. One must enter the kingdom, that is, become a disciple of Christ, in order to "know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven". For those who stay "outside", everything remains enigmatic.
Wow. It was quite telling that this comes in the section about the proclamation of the kingdom. This was one of the same paragraphs referenced last week when we heard about the two sons sent to work in the vineyard.  For the reading this week, it suggests that it is not enough that the vineyard produce fruit, but that it produce good fruit, or it will be torn down.

The second reading is referenced by paragraph 1803 (again, emphasis mine):
"Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." [Phil 4:8]
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.
The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.
[St. Gregory of Nyssa, De beatitudinibus, 1: PG 44, 1200D]
 I love the verse, but had not connected it with the virtues before.  However, it was the additional reference to good works that really caught my attention today.  In the first reading, God showers down his blessings, his graces, on the vineyard; yet it still brings forth wild grapes, sour actions.  In the second reading, we get the reference to the virtues, the fruit of grace and human effort.
Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.
The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love.
-- CCC 1804
This leads to a key in understanding a moral interpretation of the verse.  God has given us everything that we need to live a virtuous life, his graces a goal, and our free will.  However, sometimes we get so tangled up with the task that we lose ourselves in it.  It becomes a means for and in itself and is no longer directed toward God.  When this happens, the fruit produced from the effort is no longer the good fruit intended, but a sour and pitted shadow.  When we set a particular work up as our good, virtue is not the result, but self-love and in some cases, pride.

True virtue is always directed toward the good, but it does not have a connection with evil.  Aspects that normally are associated with the virtues (and sometimes mistaken for them) can be set up as the good to be pursued and followed at all costs.  Of course, this always brings destruction, because God does not want us to set up something else, no matter how noble, as a false god.  If the seeds of the virtues become poisoned in this way, the only thing that can be done is to uproot the plant; to disrupt the action and stop the individual from continuing the action which could lead to idolatry.  That is why God tears down the vineyard in the first reading; it is the only way to uproot the problem vine and give the cultured grapes the chance to grow.

In my own life, I sometimes wonder why God has stopped me from engaging in some good work.
Why God? I just want to sing in choir/attend classes/teach RCIA! Wasn't that a good enough plan?  How could it displease you?  I'm trying to serve you!  Usually, when I've calmed down, God will politely remind me that I have other priorities, and sometimes, that I was letting pride in my actions creep in.  He's asked me to let go of a lot in the past year, and it's taken me some time to recognize that he was right to ask it of me.

God, grant me the grace to trust you when you are trying to keep me from falling into sin.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Tent

Having a thought today about survival.

Let us imagine a tent.  It is a research station in the Antarctic, visited only twice a year for supplies.  Living in this tent are five men.  Four are old friends, but the fifth is a recent arrival.  The other four are not fond of him.  He disrupts their work with questions, has a different sense of humor that bothers them and his habits are foreign to them.  They had mentioned at the last delivery that they were willing to take on another man here, but they had never expected someone like this.

One night, one of the group, the eldest, decides that he has had enough.  The newcomer has got to go.  He consults with his companions and they agree that they are not happy with their new acquaintance either.  One suggests that they could wait until the next supply run, but the eldest man will not hear of it.  "He's ruined several of my plans with his interruptions," he complains.  "The mere thought of him is upsetting!  He must go now."

The second in the group agrees: "He snores so loud I can't get any sleep.  He took three bites out of the sandwich I'd left in the fridge and I was the one who lost lab space to his stupid projects."

The other two are a bit taken aback.  They don't like the newcomer, but this is a bit extreme.  "It's fifty below out there. He'll die if we throw him out!" one protests.  "We have plenty of food and space, why not just wait until the next supply run?  We can make arrangements to get him shipped out of here by then."  They argue for a while, but they can't hide that their frustration with their companion.  He has disrupted things. Within a few hours, the third is swayed by the promise that everything will return to normal and nobody need ever know.  The fourth, fearful of damaging their friendship, consents as well.

After the newcomer goes to sleep, the four men pick up his bunk and place it outside.  "It's not murder," says the eldest, seeing the fourth man is still very uncomfortable.  "It will be peaceful.  He'll freeze, but he won't wake up while it's happening.  This way, he won't have to deal with us and the insult of not being wanted here and we don't have to deal with him."

Is what these men did wrong?  They didn't hurt the newcomer, aside from removed him from an environment where he could survive.  They constituted a majority in a place that could be considered sovereign.  They felt they eliminated all acceptable options and the only one left, though it was one they did not particularly like, was the one that they did.  He wasn't wanted.  So what, if anything, was wrong?  Just a question...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Pre-nuptial Agreement

While having a conversation with good friends the other day about their upcoming marriage, we fell upon the topic of pre-nuptial agreements.  Both my friend and his fiancee mentioned that they needed to get in contact with a lawyer who could assist them in setting one up.

Quite aside from their reasons for wanting to do so (which shocked me very much), I was disturbed by the very concept of a pre-nuptial agreement.  It seems to assume from the get-go that the arrangement (one can hardly call it a marriage) will come to an end before either individual does.  In other words, it will not last, and both parties are trying to protect themselves from damage if (or more accurately, when) the relationship dies.

Contrast this with the Christian idea of marriage.  Note that I am not speaking of a marriage between two Christians, but of marriage as what the Church understands it to be.  This relationship is indissoluble, therefore, assuming it will or could end is absurd from the outset.  There are not two pieces that could be put back into their original condition again, but one single piece that if separated would mean the annihilation of not only the new single piece, but destruction of any form of the originals also.  If it helps, think of marriage like a nuclear fusion.  Each is individual before the fusion, but after the process, one cannot speak of there being two molecules joined, but only a single one.  To destroy that single one in an attempt to recover the originals will leave you with a soup of sub-atomic particles that may reform into atoms again, but not the original atoms you began with.

Secondly, in a Christian marriage, you give all of yourself.  To not do so is to not really have a Christian marriage at all.  You must open yourself completely to your spouse.  This, by its very nature, is a dangerous thing to do.  Any time that you reveal something of yourself to another, you risk being betrayed by them: being hurt, being cheated, lied to, etc.  This means that in a Christian marriage, you are making yourself completely vulnerable.  You have entrusted everything you have to another, knowing that this could end badly.  However, you are also entrusted with all of your spouse, and their hope that you will not betray them either.  Without this intention of total trust, and the attempt to have it go both ways, a marriage cannot be made.  If you intend to keep something back, a possession or habit that you would hoard for only yourself, then you are stating that you would rather remain an individual with a loose attachment to another individual.  You do not intend to be married.

It may help to remember that marriage is supposed to be analogous to our relationship with God.  He has already stated his intention to give us everything, to give us even Himself.  Our Christian life is an attempt to do the same in return, to give our very self back to God, completely and without reservation.  There is nothing that we can hold back, nothing that we can state is ours and that God has no business poking in.

As always, I may be missing something.  Any other thoughts on the subject?