“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Power of Gates Compels You? One Thing That Microsoft Can't Do

I'm interrupting the schedule of blogging topics that I have assigned myself for the next few months to say some things about Monday's Gospel and the Microsoft commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. A friend of mine who's a theology student sent me the ad suggesting that I write about it. He said, "[It is] one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen." In case you missed it, here it is (and in case it fails, here's a link):


My first thought is, wowall of that is true. We members of the human race have achieved amazing things through technology. All of those advances in medicine and science ended in new legs for that little boy and the new ears for that woman. There's no doubt about that, for their testimony is proof. But it's also true that way too many people have taken that fact and turned it into an idol. Christians know that faith and reason work togetherreligion and science can peacefully co-exist. Yet people today walk around clutching their iPhones (here's Jerry Seinfeld joking about that "juiced-up hard rectangle") in the way that people in the Middle Ages clutched their rosaries. The cart has gotten ahead of the horse in a big way.

So many of us are just like Kip from Napoleon Dynamite in our relationship with God: "Yes, I love technology, but not as much as you, you see; but I still love technology, always and forever." I experience this struggle every day when my baby goes down for his nap and I'm faced with the choice to engage in mental prayer for fifteen minutes as I plan and pledge to do or check my email, scroll through Facebook, or refresh my blog stats just for a sec. Screwtape has a blast.

Technology is a good, but it isn't the Good. It isn't an end in itself. Also, it doesn't do great things for us; people do great things for us with it. It's a tool, and our use of it makes us either better or worsebrings us closer to God and others or pushes us farther away. We have to struggle to keep this perspective when computers and phones and cameras are just so awesome right now. Everything that Steve Gleason says in the Microsoft ad (with the help of a computer) ought to be attributed to God, of course: "Technology has the power to unite us." ... "It inspires us."... "It gives hope to the hopeless." Without God granting us the gifts of His image and likeness, we would have never discovered all of the glorious truths of our universe through the power of our reasoning and intelligence. The ad features the lame walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearingso many of the miracles performed by Jesus in the Gospels. It's clear that the capacities of human imagination and ingenuity are amazing and even mind-blowingly so. It's easy to think there's nothing we can't do, nothing we can't control, nothing we can't master. Professor Patrick Deneen described this in an article from The New Atlantis while discussing two transformations which mark modernity:
In the second transformation, natural phenomena were to be understood not as a subject of theoretical study — that is, the object of contemplation — but rather, were to be understood as material to be worked on, as a domain that could be altered and transformed through human knowledge and activity. Action upon nature was to become the main object of modern science, particularly as inaugurated by Francis Bacon. The truly practical sciences were now understood to be the natural sciences which would act upon nature, altering its original form to exist in conformity with human comfort — to provide for “the relief of man’s estate,” as Bacon put it.
Theology, however, remains otherwise. It searches above and beyond while it teaches us our limits and our finitude. As Hamlet says to Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Here I want to focus on just one of those things—one of the invisible things in which was say we believe when we recite the Creed : demons. Let us consider demonic possession as one of the many things that technology simply cannot solve.

Exorcisms don't make it on the news too much. They're usually private affairs handled by the family of the victim and the local exorcist of their diocese. But our culture harbors a deep interest and even obsession with exorcisms, because like the "healed" people in the Microsoft ad, the afflicted victims and their witnesses have provided testimony. Every few years there appears another blockbuster all about this bizarre reality. I've never seen The Exorcist, but I have seen The Exorcism of Emily Rose and I think it is a really good and very important movie. At the very least, it depicts in vivid detail what possession really looks like, the priest is fantastic, and there's quite a surprising twist at the end. The movie explores the possible cause of Emily's transformation by pitting natural ones against supernatural ones in a courtroom drama setting. The most important piece of evidence is the audio recording of the exorcism itself (which used the tape from the real life events that inspired the movie). Ultimately it becomes clear that something supernatural is the cause, and only the supernatural can rescue the poor, tormented girl. 

I've heard plenty of homilies that have suggested that the possession and exorcism accounts in the Gospels are merely metaphors for sin and repentance or that these were all just physical or psychological disorders the people back then didn't understand. There might be some of that in a few of the accounts, but not this one:
And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:14-29)

Take three minutes to watch this scene from Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth. It's better than you remember, though it does leave out some of the important dialogue. In the Gospel passage, Jesus makes a distinction between types of demons, types of possession. Here he tells us that there is at least one kind against which science and technology are powerless. Only the power of Christ channeled through one of his ordained ministers will overcome this particular obstacle. Of course plenty of people simply reject this. They don't encounter the supernatural in their own lives, so it's easy not to believe in it. If you'd like to challenge your skepticism, I submit to you this story of demonic possession which came out at the end of last month. This ran in several regular news outlets. It's amazing and terrifying. Many reading this would still find it hard to believe. The events go far beyond what natural science can explain; their remedy is therefore beyond the scope of technology. 

Technology is an attractive good because it is also a good we can master. And this makes it easy to set aside and draw a box around the things that defy technological explanation and masteryincluding God. Even those of us who do believe have to be reminded every once in a while. Faith is something that must be nurtured if it is to flourish. The prayer of the father in the Gospel passage above is really a perfect one for all of us: "I believe! Help my unbelief." For years I've been repeating this phrase in my heart at the moment when the priest elevates the consecrated Eucharist in the Mass. It helps me to experience that moment with both wonder and humility.

Wonder is certainly one word that comes to mind when I watch that Microsoft ad. But my hope is that humility will also followthe humility to realize that the human genius that develops this technology is a gift from God; and the humility to appreciate the limitations of technological tools, which stop where the natural order ends and the supernatural begins. In our time, the means of reason and rhetoric are being highly challenged by media technology. But the Church offers technologies (if you will) of its own that use reason and rhetoric differently and that submit to different standards of evidence, belief, and proof. Exorcism is among the most dramatic examples of this. When faced with the problem of demonic possession, Microsoft's claim to be a Christ-like healer will prove hollow. "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer"prayer which calls the supernatural power of God into our midst.

If you want more information about exorcisms, check out the book An Exorcist Tells His Story by Fr. Gabriel Amorth. I have some mixed feelings about its value mostly because of Tolkien's warning to Lewis as he wrote The Screwtape Letters (a book that I find extremely valuable) that delving too deeply into the craft of evil would have consequences; but I know a few people whose faith was significantly strengthened by it. What are your thoughts?

Next topic: A meditation on Divine Providence for Lent.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Empathy as a Key to Romance: Help from the Four Temperaments

Ten years ago this month, my husband and I had our first date. We usually make a big deal out of it as our own personal version of Valentine's Day. It's our time to reflect on what we were thinking back then and try to pull up some of the lovely memories from our earliest days together and fold them into our current appreciation of one another. When I look back at all of the things that have contributed to peace, happiness, and romance in our shared life, next to sacramental grace stands out one glorious gift: reading The Temperament God Gave You. (Be sure to read the description.) The concepts in this book totally changed my life and made my home safe for democracy. I don't remember which lady in our Mom's Book Club suggested that we read it, but I owe her my next born child (who may not ever exist without the help from this book! Ha!! J/k...j/k.). I had picked up snippets about the temperaments from reading lots of Shakespeare but had never thought to take them seriously as keys to better understanding everyone I've ever met. It is like the Philosopher's Stone of relationships.

The Oracle at Delphi gave us the aphorism, "Know thyself." Jesus added to that when he said, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." For my money, one of the best things that anyone can do to achieve these lofty goals is to get to know the four temperamentscholeric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmaticfirst described by the ancient physician Hippocrates and (once shorn of their association with the mistaken theory of the "four humors") just as relevant today. It's one of my favorite instances of the Christian tradition having assimilated, transformed, and developed further some good stuff from paganism.

The four temperaments help you to know yourself by offering a concise yet thorough primer on why you are the way you are. The more you know yourself, the more you can master yourself, the more you can give of yourself. It also teaches you to love your neighbor better by helping you to know and to build empathy for him or her. My husband and I have been most impacted by the handy "Temperament Combinations in Marriage" chapter as well as the the very practical one titled, "How to Motivate Yourself and Others." By learning about the deeply rooted differences and similarities between yourself and your loved ones, you can make a lot of progress towards genuine empathy and greater love.

Here's a quick breakdown of the four (note: with the emoticons, it's important to know that one's temperament is most strongly expressed when he or she is under stress; begin at top right and move clockwise):

Choleric: (top right) Extraverted. Productive; zealous; pragmatic; intense; confrontational.
Melancholic: (bottom right) Introverted. Loves truth, justice, principles. Reflective; slow to react or initiate.
Phlegmatic: (bottom left) Introverted. Loves harmony, peace, cooperation.
Sanguine: (top left) Extraverted. Optimistic; interested; creative; adventurous; fun-loving.
*Click here for the temperament test from the back of the book.

Most people are a combination of two temperaments with one being dominant and the other secondary. Of course, there are many things which add further dimension to these bedrock tendencies. All of the nurtured features that overlay these natural inclinations must be taken into consideration. The book is very eager to assure that personality is distinct from temperament in that it is the collection of cultivated habits and life experiences which further define our uniqueness. The authors are not advocating that their reader attempt to reduce others to their temperaments, setting aside all of the nuances there to be appreciated. Instead, it provides contenta springboard, if you willfor better communication. For example, I am a choleric-sanguine married to a melancholic-phlegmatic. We're a classic case of "opposites attract." Because my husband first captured my attention by being the life of a party one night, I assumed that he was just as extraverted as I am; so I proceeded to book social engagements for us about 4-5 nights per week. I couldn't understand why he would start groaning when he looked at the calendar. So, we had a lot of stress in this arena of newly-married life. We couldn't figure out a way to level with one another.

By contrast, take the example of melancholic Mr. Bates from last week's Downton Abbey. Sanguine-phlegmatic Anna is distressed that Bates is off by himself looking sullen and anxious. He tells her, "Your husband is a brooder, and brooders brood." She does not respond with, "Well, snap out of it," as a choleric might. Instead, she says, "Well brood on me, then." She accepts that this is his tendency and chooses to redirect it towards a more positive end.

If you invite me to your wedding, you're going to get this book. I know the cover is kind of meh (I put a pretty wrapping-paper cover on mine), but it is the best tool for marital harmony that I can possibly give to another couple. What ten years of loving my husband has taught me is that we're always happiest when we're taking the time and the energy to consider each other's distinct viewpointgenerally (remembering our temperaments) and specifically (appreciating the particularities of the given circumstance and observing carefully each other's language, verbal and otherwise). This is how empathy fans the fire of romance. Nothing tells me that I'm cherished by my husband like his accurate articulation of what I'm experiencing and his offer to share the yoke. I think about that as I look around at all of the couples at weddings. I like to imagine how they compare and contrast temperamentally. Here's a hilarious photo of some married friends of mine at a reception which reads as if it were a caricature:

I promise that this is not staged. Everything about it is perfect, from the colors of their clothes to the light fixture shadows behind them which seem to represent their respective capacities for this party. You just know this sanguine wife and melancholic husband complete one another in the only way that he and she can. Neither is daunted by the other; they appreciate their differences and do not begrudge one another for them. I give this book as a wedding present because I wish someone had done that for me. If I had known from the get-go that my husband is drained by socializing rather than energized (like I am), I could have spared us at least a dozen fights about "over-committing" and "being so lame." If I had known that nagging is the worst thing that I could do to inspire my husband to take out the trash every morning, I wouldn't have seethed through my coffee steam a thousand or so times. Choosing to say, "It makes such a difference in my day when you take out the trash on your way to work. Thank you so much *kiss*!" has been infinitely more productive than an exasperated, "How many times do I have to remind you to do this? Do I have to put it in your hand and open the door myself??" I now know that when he does not take out the trash, it's not a deliberate choice to make my life harder (my go-to choleric assumption about most things); rather, he's contemplating the next chapter of his dissertation or dreaming of a world without modern architecture. It's not what I would be thinking about as I crush a yogurt container under the lid of the trash can, but it is one of the things that I love about himhis ever-teeming mind.

One of my favorite scenes from Brideshead Revisited is when a very drunk Sebastian vomits into Charles's window and his fellow reveler attempts to explain the situation:
I trust that you will forgive my friend. The wines were too various. It was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault - it was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the very root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.
This is how God is with us. He is all-knowing and all-merciful. We are called to imitate that greatest empathy. Now that I have a clearer understanding of how my husband thinks, I more easily and happily give him the benefit of the doubt; which is no more than the courtesy that I give myself all the time. "Love thy neighbor as thyself." This is a mandate of our faith. And it is a burden made all the lighter when we realize that the unique temperament of our beloved is the very Will of God, and that God shares with us His Divine Spirit to keep our wedding vows a whole life long.


If you're interested in artistic representations of the four temperaments, you'll find countless paintings, sculptures, allegory plays, and even a ballet. If you want a musical interpretation, I highly recommend Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, Opus 16. Its movements and their respective temperament illustrated are as follows:
  1. Allegro collerico (Choleric)
  2. Allegro comodo e flemmatico (Phlegmatic)
  3. Andante malincolico (Melancholic)
  4. Allegro sanguineo — Marziale (Sanguine)

 This Valentine's Day, have fun listening with your spouse and noticing all of the musical features which best represent your temperaments. Do you hear all of that thunder and lightning in the first movement? Yeah, that would be me.