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.

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!

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?

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.

Oh no! It’s… Clogged Washington!

images-3Washington has many faces: monumental DC, quiet Sunday morning DC, buzzing active DC, and of course… clogged DC.  You know… It’s that map of the Mall on the front page of the Post the day before every holiday… the map with all those red lines where open streets should be… the metro announcements that begin, “Blue Line service will be suspended until…”  Clogged DC can be spontaneous too; when you hear the sirens of a sixteen car motorcade coming out of nowhere.  ..and God forbid you should get stuck behind a Metro Access van.  Parades, protests and presidents are a regular part of life here.  Consequently so is the virtue of patience… one hopes.

Patience is the virtue that disposes us to protect good reason against passion (especially sorrow). -St. Thomas Aquinas

Patience it is whereby a man bears evil with an equal mind, lest he abandon with an unequal mind the goods whereby he may advance to better things. -St. Augustine

Standing on a metro platform, or stuck in traffic on a crowded bus at rush hour, patience can be hard to find, but don’t make it harder on yourself than necessary.  Consider this…

Virtues are habits built up over time.  They always involve struggle, sometimes failure, but over time they involve growth.  Patience is hard for everyone, but every struggle brings us closer to achieving that habit and keeping sorrow at bay.  Growth in virtue never stops until we [hopefully] reach heaven… which means some degree of struggle will always be with us.  Is there any comfort in this world?  Certainly…

By definition, when we’re stuck in traffic, we’re stuck with others.  Waiting on a metro platform is rarely a lonely event.  We’re all in the same boat.  That’s a comfort unto itself.  It’s also an opportunity for us to frame the struggle for patience as setting a heroic example for the person next to us.  Somehow when we’re doing it for another person – even a stranger – struggle becomes more tolerable.  Who said you couldn’t look at traffic with eyes of faith?

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“Use your words…”

Words have power.  In high school, Bro. George began Senior English, “In the beginning was the word…” (Jn 1:1).  Words form our sense of self.  Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading makes a full man; conference makes a ready man; writing makes an exact man.”  Whole civilizations have coalesced around words.  Italy’s fractious provinces and principalities found common identity in Dante’s Comedia Divina (written in vernacular Italian) long before they identified with the tricolour flag.  The British established the architecture of modern commerce and globalism by spreading their language to the 25% of the world’s population once held under their imperial sway.  Gandhi, Dr. King, and many others have moved whole populations to control just anger, channeling it into effective non-violent protest.  And most recently, consider the “Washington Redskins” (need I say more?).  Words have power.

That’s why today’s Washington Post article “Redefining the N-Word,” by D. Sheinin and K. Thompson is so fascinating.  Before going any further, let me say: This post is not meant to come down on any side of any argument about any word.  Today, I’m marveling at the process of talking about words, and a very few of the many phenomena that influence that social conversation.  The WP article in question is spurred by he NFL’s latest attempts to ban the n-word from use on the field.  It raises some interesting questions (some in the article, some just in my own musing):

Do words have an absolute / fixed – value?  …or do words depend wholly on context for their fullest definition?  In English, probably a little of both… and when a word seems to move between those to categories confusion and concern result.
What is the role of history in language?  Throughout English history, words have morphed in meaning and weight.  What seems to be so new is the speed with which words change… Has there ever been a time when a word (e.g. the ’n-word’) has -in the course of one generation- so radically and frequently changed?  What role has instant print, radio and now digital media played in that process?
Can language be controlled by coercive force (e.g. a school district …or here, the NFL)? …and even if it can be so controlled, should it be so controlled?  Does today’s article display features of Orwell’s “1984,” or Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”?
Traditionally linguistic questions could find resolution… a final stamp of (dis)approval, either in academia or in the daily language of civil government.  Does such a lexical court of final appeal exist today?  Has English, at least in the U.S., split into so many mutually exclusive socio-cultural sub sets that emotionally charged words like “Redskins” or the “n-word” will forever be without final definition?

I dont’ have a final answer to any of these questions, but ongoing debates about words can serve as a great forum for our own personal formation as each of us strives to use language prudently and temperately for the good of others and the glory of God.

Beauty Poverty and the Public Good

Recently, a colleague and I were talking about the planned Eisenhower Memorial in the heart of DC. Among many hotly debated questions about Washington’s newest memorial, my friend pointed out one sure thing: it will be expensive… not by the standards of the whole federal budget, but when you think of how many meals could be bought for the poor, houses that could be built for the homeless, medicines provided to say… Eisenhower’s surviving veterans.

It’s a classic debate: Beauty vs. “Utility” and an important one, one we should have frequently to keep us true.  True to what?  The balance of corporal and spiritual goods.  Caring for our fellow man is a moral imperative, to be sure… but so is the spiritual reality of reminding ourselves where we come from and what kind of world our fathers (including God our Father) wanted for us.  “Walking around” inside our father’s dreams for us guides us.  It also helps our self-understanding to transcend the limited life-span and circumstances we inhabit.

Last night’s PBS News Hour offered up a great example of this in Detroit.  Our neighbors to the north have struck a “grand bargain” to move their city out of bankruptcy.  As part of it, a consortium of non-profits, including the Ford Foundation, are donating money to secure public pensions AND to safeguard the Detroit Institute of the Arts.  Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation expounded beautifully that saving the Art Institute for future citizens of Detroit is not a luxury it’s a NEED for the soul of the city.  I would highlight the stunning premise here: that a community of citizens does indeed have a soul!

Jesus strikes this same balance in his ministry.  On the one hand he gives us an absolute command to serve the bodily good of our brothers and sisters in need.  But in John 12 he also blesses Mary of Bethany for pouring a year’s worth of aromatic ointment over his feet, washing them with her tears and drying them with her hair.  Extravagant?  Certainly… but Jesus blesses this extravagance.  I guess we could say that if the human body needs sober regulated nourishment for it’s health, the human soul needs extravagant love for its best good.  If our monuments, houses of worship and other public spaces serve that good, it’s well worth it.

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For more, consider listening to Fr. Saward’s marvelous talk (10/11/14) to The Catholic Arts Society

Imagining Happiness

J. LaFarge - Fisherman Spearing Fish (1895)
J. LaFarge – Fisherman Spearing Fish (1895)

A visit to Tahiti would exciting, but on the off chance that you’re not going any time soon, you can find this painting at the National Gallery of Art.  I enjoy strolling the impressionist wing from time to time.  The hazy (not quite the right word) quality of impressionist art gives me the feeling that I’m inside someone else’s imagination peering at distant locales.

The Gallery has a GREAT website (www.nga.gov) where you can find pictures to fire your imagination and launch you to far off places  before returning refreshed to your day’s tasks.  What is it about using our imaginations that’s so restorative?

St. Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics spoke beautifully and frequently about the importance of the imagination as a place where we can engage mysterious or unseen realities.  Theres’ nothing more human than spending time with God.  Taking time to use our imaginations in positives ways during the day (dreaming of: vacations, positive plans for family, future successes at work) can whet our appetites and drive us to achieve worthwhile goals… or even to make needed course corrections in life.  Consciously engaging our imagination can also be a pro-active part of what is all too often a reactive day.  A few moments when we give our will permission to run after the truest and deepest yearnings of our heart.  If we do this in honesty with ourselves then the exercise of imagination can strengthen us to pursue our truest good: happiness through self-gift.  Don’t discount the power of your imagination to play a wonderful role in guiding your life… to Tahiti or otherwise.