“Morbid Symptoms”– Eugene McCarraher

Cardinal Timothy Dolan

A good essay is like a good compass: it points north, and the truth of its pointing helps us find our way. Eugene McCarraher’s “Morbid Symptoms” (November Commonweal) is just this kind of “true north.”

The essay– cultural critique disguised as a book review– uses the material in four recent books by Catholic clerics as a runway to gain speed, before soaring wheels-up over today’s American cultural landscape. The view is impressive. This is not McCarraher’s first flight; he knows where to go, and when to dip a wing so that we get a clear view down.

The essay, at 4000 words, is longer than most of us will want to take the time for. Religion in the Balance will be considering the article in smaller bits, over the next weeks. “Morbid Symptoms” gives us so many helpful vantage points, that it is worth lingering over.

It’s important to remember that while a major theme of the essay is criticism of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, our interest is in McCarraher’s critiques of America’s cultural life, and of a particularly unhelpful response by religious leaders– a response that is by no means limited to the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not into bashing Catholicism, and I don’t think McCarraher’s article is most fruitfully read in that manner.

Here is just a sample of what McCarraher offers– a critique of American culture that is much more penetrating, and therefore much more interesting, than the facile finger-pointing that we often get:

As Stanley Hauerwas perceptively reminds us in War and the American Difference, “America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death”; as unregulated accumulators and consumers of ever-expanding wealth, Americans share nothing in common “other than the presumption that death is to be avoided at all costs.”

More on this to come.

via Morbid Symptoms | Commonweal magazine.

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower….”

The Forces at Work in the Cosmos– Yarkovsky Effect

The near-miss asteroid last week raised questions regarding how these space rocks move in orbit. Astronomers are studying the “Yarkovsky Effect”– a subtle force caused by the uneven heating of an asteroid’s surface. University of Arizona astronomer Ed Beshore [excerpt below] likens the force of the Yarkovsky Effect to the pressure you feel when holding two grapes in your hand– an almost negligible force for the duration of a moment, but which, accumulated over millennia, has appreciable influence on an asteroid’s orbit. Over time, the Yarkovsky Effect can “move mountains.” (Beshore)

This is a reminder of how many and varied are the powers at work in the world– and a reminder that power is not just big and loud. Small pressures, applied patiently and relentlessly, can shift seemingly irresistable objects. So it is good to pause and recollect these small pressures, these soft powers: the powers of love and commitment; the powers of prayer and trust; the powers of truthful words and good deeds. They don’t move asteroids, but they can move the human heart.

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age” is Dylan Thomas’s poetic rendition of another power: the life-force, pulsing and moving, in flower and human alike. For some of us, Christ is the fullest expression of this life-force: the willing renunciation of domination (power over), and the willing embrace of suffering love/compassion (power with). Even death, we affirm, is not stronger than this force for life.

The asteroid story from The Christian Science Monitor follows:

For instance, when sunlight hits the surface of an rotating asteroid, the asteroid returns that energy to space in the form of heat.

“The heat acts like a tiny rocket thruster that can push asteroids out of otherwise harmless orbits,” he says. The reason: A rotating asteroid sheds the heat unevenly across its surface, in effect sloughing it off in the direction of “dawn” on the asteroid. This direction may or may not coincide with the direction the asteroid is traveling along its orbit.

Indeed, this force, known as the Yarkovsky effect, is thought to help resupply the inner solar system with asteroids that otherwise might have stayed in the main asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter.

A year ago, Dr. Beshore says, one of the mission’s team members performed “a really exquisite set of measurements using radar data and came up with a preliminary estimate for the kinds of forces” this effect imposes on OSIRIS-Rex’s target asteroid.

It’s about the same as “the force that you feel when you hold a couple of grapes in your hand,” he says, adding “that force, applied over millions of years, can literally move these mountains of rock around.” [Emphasis added]

Since the force also plays a role in shaping and reshaping the orbits of near-Earth asteroids, “it’s really quite important for us to make sure we understand this force much better.”

via Friday’s near-miss asteroid could help track more dangerous ones +video – CSMonitor.com.

Ash Wednesday and a Billy Collins Poem

To remember that we are ashes, and to ashes we will return, is a call back to our human life. It seems a little odd to be called back to the only kind of life we can have– that is, a human one– but the Ash Wednesday reminder addresses a beautiful (and sometimes very dangerous) silliness that is part of human nature: our tendency to forget that we’re not the center of the universe; to forget that we’re not gods; to forget that our time on earth is but a breath.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Remembering in this way sounds, initially, like a death sentence. What it is, really, is a life sentence. Remembering that we are dust opens the door into fully inhabiting the lives we’ve been given, into living more completely into this place and time. We don’t have forever.

And so I offer Billy Collins’ poem “Nightclub.” I like it for Ash Wednesday because, like Ash Wednesday, it is a poem that reminds us who we are , and invites us to embrace our human foolishness as the doorway into a fully human kind of beauty.


You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don’t hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.

For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else’s can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o’clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.

Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.

Billy Collins

A Cost of Breaking Taboo

Deaths in Action, and Suicides– US Military, 2012

The number of US military suicides received continual attention through the second half of 2012. As many sources have reported, the year total for suicides outnumbered the year total for combat deaths in 2012. The chart and graph above are from a story that  The Guardian ran last Friday.

Last summer we reviewed Karl Marlantes’ book What It’s Like to Go to War. While post-traumatic stress disorder is not related to all military suicides in 2012, it is related to many of them, and is also related to many of the suicides of veterans. As Marlantes explains (drawing from deep and painful personal experience), being intimately connected to killing and destruction puts the human psyche into contact with powerful forces of life and death– powers which we have traditionally labeled as “taboo” (Emile Durkheim) or “holy” (Rudolf Otto). In the sense intended here, “holy” does not mean “really really good; saintly”; rather, it means “having qualities of the divine.” While our bourgeois sensibility may recoil at the thought of killing and destruction as being “holy”, it is, in this sense: the giving and taking of life falls into the realm of those qualities we attribute to a god, or gods, or God.

There is always a cost to be paid, for being in contact with these powers of life-making and life-taking. No one enters the Real Presence of the Holy– and according to Marlantes, combat is like that– without being marked forever. As a culture, with our myths of mastery and control, we don’t get this. Consequently, many soldiers– mostly young men– get sacrificed for our disregard for even the most basic respect for divine power. The god of our Civic Religion has no power to shape a hopeful future, because it has no power to walk with us in the valley of the shadow of death.

Here is the link to the Guardian story:

Last year, more active-duty soldiers killed themselves than died in combat. And after a decade of deployments to war zones, the Pentagon is bracing for things to get much worse….

via US military struggling to stop suicide epidemic among war veterans | World news | guardian.co.uk.