The Heights and Pitfalls of Ambition

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It was a very DC moment… I was sitting on the National Mall admiring “The Dome.”  Contemplating the US Capitol, ambition practically emanates from the building.  It’s very name, spelled consciously with an “o,” reaches for antique splendor.  It’s a reference to the “CapitOline Hill” center of the greatest empire in western history, Rome.  But back to the 21st century… Ambition oozes from the place: the desire to serve our country, and all-to-often a desire to serve one’s career.  Both of these desires typify life in our city.  The fact the both these desires typify life in our city frustrates many, but it shouldn’t surprise.  To be clear: this post isn’t about pointing fingers, judging, or apportioning good and bad desire to any group(s) of people.  Rather, it might be good to look at the concept of ambition itself through eyes of faith.  For this we turn to an old friend, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas tells us (ST II.IIae q131 a1) that ambition is the seeking of honor, and that “honor denotes the reverence due to a person in witness of his excellence.”  Not so bad, really.  In fact it has a ring of justice to it.  If I do something excellent, it ought to be recognized.  That’s certainly what Aristotle thought in his Ethics.  And if that’s where ambition ended it’d be a purely good thing… but as with most of life, ambition is more complicated than that.  Why?  Because: (a) We tend to take more honor to ourselves than our excellence deserves… and (b) If we become concerned only with taking honor to ourselves, we fail to give anything to anyone else (whether it’s honor, or basic necessities like food, or love).  As always, Thomas talks about this twisting of ambition in terms of “inordinate” ambition.  It’s not that ambition is always evil, but when we pursue it in “inordinate” ways it can ruin us and fail to serve our neighbors; everyone loses.

It’s something we all do… and I do mean ALL of us.  St. Augustine talked about it recalling a childhood incident when he stole a pear.  It wasn’t even a ripe pear (he tells us), so why’d he do it?  In the end, he wanted to receive the praise and honor of his pals who watched the whole thing happen.  One doesn’t have to work under the dome to understand ambition.

DC’s stoney edifices are sprouting evergreen boughs.  Shop windows magically fill with gift ideas.  Maybe all of us can use the signs of the season as inspiration to turn inordinate ambition back toward the generosity that characterizes us and our hometown at our very best.

Peace on Earth and in DC

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I was doing one of my favorite DC things… waiting in line for coffee and a croissant.  As my scarf slipped, a university student noticed my collar.  He asked if I was a priest from Georgetown.  The mistake was understandable, but as a proud graduate of GWU and it’s Newman Center, his words fell hard on my ears.  There’s not much love lost between DC’s two big schools of international affairs.  …but, I digress.  The student and I had a pleasant conversation waiting for our lattes.  He said that he was studying journalism, but had a real passion for the new Social Justice major at GU, and was considering a related graduate degree.

How wonderful this young man’s ambition to help others, to improve our world.  How quintessentially Washington!

“Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.” -President Kennedy

It was also apropos of the season of “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  A cynic might ask… “Is a better world really possible?”

A partial answer lies proof of the existence of God “from desire.”  (Here, I’m drawing not only from the proof itself, but from Father Robert Barron’s 11/19/14 reflection on it).  In a nutshell: An innate or natural desire indicates the reality of the thing desired.  We get hungry because food exists and we need it.  The argument hinges on our desire being innate, not psychologically contrived.  I cannot have an innate hunger for dinosaur meat since I have no experience of dinosaurs… I can contrive that it might be interesting to taste T-Rex but that’s all it is, a contrivance.  Likewise I can suppose that Zambian food might be interesting, but never having experienced it, I can’t say that I desire it.

All people, especially the most in need among us, desire a better life.  We’ve experienced hints and inklings of it.  From time to time, history has even proven it possible.  St. John Paul II called it “a nostalgia for original beauty.”  The desire and reality of a better life is so real that it drives some to crime, others to cross deserts on foot in search of a better life.  It drives us to work hard to give our kids a better life than we had.  At its height the desire and reality of a better world can drive men to total self-gift (think Abe Lincoln or Gandhi).

Any student majoring in social justice… anyone with a concern for neighbor really, has a long hard fight in front of him.  It’s important to keep an inner place where we can regularly recollect the reality of the good we’re fighting for.  Pop-psychology calls this a “happy place.”  Origen said, “There should be in us a kind of spiritual paradise where God can walk and be our sole ruler with his Christ.”  I call it my inner cathedral.  Insofar as innate desires testify to the reality of the good we seek, we can hold on to those desires and keep them as part of that inner place, where we’re recharged to fight the good fight ahead.  One more way of seeing desire through eyes of faith.

Coming Soon: Holiday Season Series!

Sometimes you see things that just make you think.
Sometimes you see things that just make you think.

Entering the Thanksgiving – Christmas season (known to Catholics as “Advent” because we await the “advent” or “coming” of Christ) I’ve had a number of inspiring experienes:  (A) sitting on the Mall admiring the Capitol… yes, even with all the scaffolding on it  (B) attending the wake of a Bishop who just died (C) meeting a student from Georgetown who’s majoring in “Social Justice.”   Very diverse encounters to be sure, but they got me thinking about a major theme for this season and this town: desire.  Over the next few days I’ll be posting on some different dimensions of desire in our life as Washingtonians:

  • “On Ambition”
  • The Desire for “Peace on Earth and Goodwill Toward Men”
  • “The Deepest Roots and Highest Aspirations of our Yearnings: ‘The Love that Moves the Stars’ ”

I hope you’ll find these musings both edifying and useful.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Highways Byways and Hospitality

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The beginning of conversation at just about any DC get together: “So what do you do?  Where are you from?  Where’d ya go to school?”  We’re all from somewhere else; a fact very much on everyone’s mind as Thanksgiving travel looms.  This past weekend I spent a bunch of time in airports myself, traveling to/from a college friend’s wedding.  The experience of strange airports, and hotels took me back to the start of my life in DC.  Then (1999), Washington was a shiny new airport called “National.”  It was hotel lobbies and university tours.  It was coffees at “XandO Cafe” and “Kramer Books”… and it was infinite excitement at even the possibility of an [unpaid] internship that would spread democracy (somehow) through my best efforts… on a copy machine.

I’d be willing to bet that many of us can recall some variation on this theme in our own DC story.  It’s an important part of DC’s identity and culture: So many of us are from somewhere else.  So many of us arrived in this place in need of hospitality, vulnerable to one extent or another.  On the flip side, the shared experience of moving to DC disposes our fellow citizens to give hospitality to visitors and new arrivals.

…All good stuff to think on as we travel the highways and byways later this week… and even more so as all roads lead back to Washington after the holiday.

For further reading, consider ethicist Leon Kass’ excellent book, “The Hungry Soul.”  In it, Dr. Kass maintains that all the best dimensions of our humanity (including the vulnerability/hospitality dynamic above) play out in the experience of dining… which is another wonderfully Washingtonian experience!  Happy Thanksgiving DC!

Hidden treasure!

DC's Very Own Spanish Steps, seriously.  Have you been to them?
DC’s Very Own Spanish Steps, seriously. Have you been to them?

DC has so many hidden gems… This is one of my favorites for Strolling on a nice day! (22nd St NW above Mass. Ave.) What are your favorite hidden treasures in our city?

El Greco? El Great-o!

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Ask anyone if they know who Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) was, you’ll get a blank stare.  Ask anyone who El Greco was, you might get a few less blank stares.  Ask anyone who’s been to the El Greco exhibit at the National Gallery of Art and you’ll get a stare, but it won’t be blank, it’ll be filled with awe.  El Greco was a Greek painter (from Crete) whose talent with the brush led him to begin an artistic career in Renaissance Rome before leaving the Eternal City for an artistic career in Spain.  Combining oriental piety, with stylistic trends from the Venetian and Roman schools, El Greco’s achievements in Spain are a credit to his name Theotokopoulos (“God Bearer”).

Libraries have been written about El Greco’s work.  What most interested me about the NGA’s exhibit was his synthesis of Greek Italian and Spanish influences into style all his own.  Looking at the eternal truths of Christ’s life through this artist’s singular lens made me think about them in new ways… And isn’t that what sacred art does at its best?  In the words of St. John Paul II,

“Art renders visible the perception of the mystery which makes of the Church a universally hospitable community, mother and traveling companion to all men and women in their search for God.” (JPII, Letter to Artists)

When it comes to El Greco’s style, it was all his own, but was it perhaps something more: a gift… could something that is both so unique and so true be a gift from God?

“When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desires and is able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the bridegroom [Christ] who has smitten them with this longing.” (Nicolas Cabasilas, Life of Christ, II.15 )

So there are two forces in play: eternal truth and seeing eternal truth in a new way that nevertheless preserves that truth.  From a Catholic point of view, this is the essence of what Vatican II tried to do… and what new evangelization is trying so desperately to do.  Whether you’re Catholic or not, the concept of presenting transcendent truths for the respectful consideration of ones neighbor is never a bad idea.  In this regard, maybe all of us could take a lesson from Domenikos Theotokopoulos.

PS: Also of note in El Greco’s work: the influence of Toledo, Spain – his adopted home.  A number his works include the architecture of Toledo in the background… a testament to the enduring power of good public architecture.

Note: I found the exhibit much more rewarding after seeing the 30min video in the conference room on the lower level of the Gallery.

Happy Hours’ Truest Happiness

How good and how pleasant it is,
when brothers dwell together as one!
-Ps. 133:1

What’s so happy about happy hour? …or spinning class? …or social media for that matter?  It’s the other people, isn’t it?  On the flip side, one of the greatest tragedies of city life is that people can live in the midst of a metropolis and feel completely isolated (What St. John Paul II referred to as the “anonymity of the city”).

More than most, Washington is a city built for community.  Think about it, an artificially created jurisdiction whose whole purpose is to bring together representatives from across a continent.  Even the physical layout of our city is meant to bring people together: our many parks, traffic circles and other green spaces.  My grandfather once commented, “It’s a tragedy that people should fight so viciously in a place so beautiful.”  Contemporary additions to our communal dynamic include the Metro system and now social media.  Consider how excited people are that the silver line is nearing completion… Where does that come from?  The DC bar and restaurant scene, and now the advent of coffee culture all serve to bring people together because that’s where people are happiest – in the company of friends. Why?

Catholic tradition holds that made in God’s image and likeness, humans are most human when they live in community.  God is one God in three Persons (Father Son and Holy Spirit).  So we form families – unified domestic communities of persons.  Likewise we seek out friends for a drink after work, for exercise and recreation at our gyms… and now, we use social media [at its best] to extend that communion across vast distances and circumstances.

Looking to Genesis we find that when Adam was alone, there was something incomplete?? about him, and so our humanity was split-in-two “God made man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (1:27) Adam needed a partner with whom he could share his life and his love (Gn 2:20), and so came Eve.  There is a need in our humanity to resemble the Trinity.  Is it any surprise that so many of Jesus’ greatest moments happened around dinner tables (Cana, Zacchaeus, Martha and Mary, the Last Supper to name a very few)?

…just something to think about next time you find yourself smiling at a Happy Hour, or feeling good about your next trip to the gym to workout with a friend.

Also try visiting the webpage for our local Young Adult Ministry, which hosts great sessions of Theology on Tap.

Reverence? for our Mobile Devices?

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Pass the windows of any DC coffee house, glance around you on the metro…when it’s warm again, look to any park bench and you’ll see it: Washingtonians reading.  To all those grade-school teachers who warned millennials that watching TV would stop us from reading, this certainly counts as a plot twist!  Admittedly some people now use their mobile devices for video games on the long bus ride home… and those who are reading aren’t necessarily plumbing the depths of Plato or Plotinus… but let’s look for the good with eyes of faith!

St. John Damascene writes:

The apostles saw Christ in the flesh: they witnessed his sufferings and his miracles and heard his words.  We too desire to see and to hear and so to be filled with gladness. …Since he is no longer physically with us, we hear his words read from books and by hearing our souls are sanctified and filled with blessing and so we worship, honoring the books from which we hear his words.”

St. John is talking about specifically liturgical texts, but we can telescope his teaching into the world.  For Catholics, all truth finds its origin and end in Christ the living Word of God.  Searching out truth can always [then] be a Christ-centered experience… a touching of the divine.  That’s what’s so exciting about the proliferation of mobile devices.

Whether in novels or treatises, the great truths of our human experience are now available at the touch of a screen.  Many of our classic texts are even available for free.  Case-in-point: a friend of mine wrote nearly his entire theology thesis based on resources kept on an iPad.  Another colleague keeps his entire library in his pocket.  New note taking options on devices like the Kindle even allow for the cross-referencing of texts and one’s own thoughts.  Truth in the palms of our hands.

Consider this too, all technology is in one way or another an extension of the person wielding it (Pop culture example: Thor’s hammer, Tony Stark’s “Iron Man” Suit).  Very often these tools extend/magnify our strength.  In the case of mobile devices we’re extending something else though, our reason… that gift which makes us most like God.  …quite a thing to share with the world.

Mr. [Fred] Rogers once testified before the US Congress that the space between a child and a TV is sacred because of the personal formation possible there.  Likewise for St. John Damascene the space between a reader and a sacred text… and for us the space occupied by our mobile devices.  Whether in a coffee house, in the Metro, on a park bench, reverence for the good that can happen as we search for truth can help form us into the best versions of ourselves.  Pretty cool, huh?

Surprised and touched by La Boheme

The Promenade at the Kennedy Center
The Promenade at the Kennedy Center


Puccini’s La Boheme, had a much greater effect on me than I was expecting.  The storyline was simpler even than the synopsis I read two nights ago… Girl meets boy, they fall in love, girl gets sick, girl dies. The music, the music was much more.  It’s going to take some time to unpack the power of Puccini’s melodies.

The Surprise – La Boheme is principally about people in love, but what really stuck me was their poverty.  Mimi dies of consumption, brought on poor conditions.  In every scene, poverty is an unseen character as the cast cajole their way out of paying rent, trick the aloof Alcindoro into picking up the lunch tab or pawn clothing just to buy food.  In Act I, Scene I, Rodolfo (a poet) burns his poetry just to stay warm.  The duet he sings with his roommate Marcello elevates the moment through their fraternity, but there’s a symmetric tragedy to burning your living just to stay alive.  At the end, Mimi dies shortly after her friends have run to pawn their clothing for medicine.

I spent some time today meditating on the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”  In relation I consulted the social teaching of the Church to see how I might conceivably have preached Mimi’s funeral.  Catholics believe in a concept called the “destination of material goods” (Catechism Para. 2403-04).  All resources are ultimately intended for the flourishing of the human family.  St. John Paul II said,

“Christian tradition has always understood this right [to property] within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” (Laborem exercens, para. 14.1-2)

NOTE: St. John Paul precedes this with a warning that this teaching “diverges radically from Marxist collectivism… and it differs from the program of capitalism.” Neither system can claim the Church as its own.

What the Church’s social teaching is getting at is this: Before we are “labor or management”… before we are “poor or rich” all of us are “people” … People who can love and sacrifice for each other, just as Christ does.  On that basis we should at least work to keep each other alive and healthy… before we worry about increasing each others property.  Such indeed was the case for poor Mimi, who – as one capable of such love – deserved better than to die for lack of medicine.  …Certainly something to think about as the holidays and (more urgently) the cold weather arrive in the capital of the richest nation in the history of history.

Check out “Touring Tips” for thoughts on Dining before Performances at the KC.

No humdrum life for us

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Tonight, I make pilgrimage to the pantheon of DC culture: The Kennedy Center.  La Boheme is closing this week and I’ll be going to see it with a friend.  It’ll be my first time seeing/hearing this classic of the repetoire.

Among the many adjectives ascribed to opera, one must certainly be, “Over the top.”  Storylines are frequently complex, never dull.  Plots range from the very most tragic to the heights of Olympian triumph, never neutral.  The music represents an incredible synthesis of melody and character development, perhaps the world’s first form of multi-media entertainment.  And then there is, of course, the volume (‘nuff said).  Yes, opera is superlative… and because of that many people turn away from it.  “To each his own,” I suppose, but opera can prove a great exercise in measuring how we live.

Chapter five of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church frames the life of human beings as an ongoing response to what, in the Church, we call the “universal call to holiness.”  The most condensed summary I can manage is this: God invites and affirms that all people can be more like him; each in a way particular to his/her vocation and life circumstances lived according to the truth.  Not a bad starting point for leading one’s life… but something we can easily lose track of.  Commenting on the universal call, theologian Marianne Schlosser (Univ. of Vienna) comments in the winter 2013 edition of Communio International Catholic Review,

“Holiness in every day life as inconspicuous as it may be, is not humdrum…  The language of a call to holiness is challenging, indeed, ‘steep’ – an ‘arduum’ is sought and hoped for from God.”

And here, we come back to the world of opera.

Opera’s etherial heights and infernal depths mark the dimensions of human experience, perhaps not as we see them, but certainly as God created them.  Mothers and fathers balancing the struggles of child-rearing, work, social and civil life are saints and heroes; likewise the idealistic young intern moving to DC to make our country a better place.  Reading the synopsis of La Boheme last night, I discovered that it is the story of poor hard working students who fall in love.  They pawn their meagre possessions for food and medicine.  They wear tattered clothes.  They die.  Nothing could (to human eyes) seem more humdrum, but Puccini’s music helps us to see their ordinary lives through eyes of faith in which heroic love and tragic death reveal something deeper about ourselves, a touch of the divine… so that even at the tragic end we stand up and applaud beauty in the opera, and in ourselves.