Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Catholic View of Death

I have picked this little excerpt because it is one of the few places GKC mentions today's saint, St. Cecilia. It is also an excellent corrective, as so much of his writing is, for the modern and popular view. But see for yourself, and you will have a resource for the next time someone brings up the question of death and suicide:
Now, of course, as I say, a Catholic knows the answer; because he holds the complete philosophy which keeps a man sane; and not some single fragment of it, whether sad or glad, which may easily drive him mad. A Catholic does not kill himself because he does not take it for granted that he will deserve heaven in any case, or that it will not matter at all whether he deserves it at all. He does not profess to know exactly what danger he would run; but he does know what loyalty he would violate and what command or condition he would disregard. He actually thinks that a man might be fitter for heaven because he endured like a man; and that a hero could be a martyr to cancer as St. Lawrence or St. Cecilia were martyrs to cauldrons or gridirons. The faith in a future life, the hope of a future happiness, the belief that God is Love and that loyalty is eternal life, these things do not produce lunacy and anarchy, if they are taken along with the other Catholic doctrines about duty and vigilance and watchfulness against the powers of hell. They might produce lunacy and anarchy, if they were taken alone. And the Modernists, that is, the optimists and the sentimentalists, did want us to take them alone. Of course, the same would be true, if somebody took the other doctrines of duty and discipline alone. It would produce another dark age of Puritans rapidly blackening into Pessimists. Indeed, the extremes meet, when they are both ends clipped off what should be a complete thing.
[GKC The Thing CW3:307-8]
And that fits in quite well, not only with our previous discussion of the knights, but even with our larger study of Science. Consider this again: "...he does know what loyalty he would violate..." Think about it...

Friday, November 18, 2011

About being awake

In my slow but on-going work on my Saga, I have had to consult some of the most unusual and rare references. It has been fun, and most instructive as well as surprising.

One of the most curious and rare references I am using is the Pontificale Romanum, which is the ritual book for bishops. It contains ceremonies like the various forms of ordination (lower orders, Deacon, Priest, Bishop); the consecration of a church or an altar, and many others. I was particularly interested in the ritual for the blessing of bells, which is surprisingly complicated and very beautiful - and perhaps another time I will say something about it. But there was something else which proved to be even more valuable, even as it blew me away.

For there is also a ritual called De Benedictione novi Militis = "On the blessing of the new Knight". (You can find an on-line edition here.) Wow. Talk about surprising! Yes, we could here go off into things like "just war" "capital punishment" or even "self-defence" - or about that most militant of psalms, the one everybody thinks is so peaceful, that begins "The Lord is my Shepherd" - which is quite fitting as a reminder to Bishops, since no real shepherd goes into Dark Valleys unarmed - but the Lord has His rod and His staff... and so we are comforted - which means strengthened.

Ahem. But I wanted to talk about that knight ritual. It is all very startling, but there is one bit which might be the most surprising of all. After the bishop taps the new knight three times with the sword - which is also blessed, and WHOA what a blessing it is! (Imagine a blessing for guns or fighter jets...) Sorry. After the three taps with the sword, the rubrics (instructions) run like this:
The Bishop with his right hand gives the new knight a light blow (slap), saying:
Exciteris a somno malitiae, et vigila in fide Christi, et fama laudabili.
(that is, roughly)
May you be aroused from the sleep of malice, and watch (be on guard, be vigilant) in the faith of Christ, and (in) praiseworthy reputation.
We may not be knights, but we ought to live like them: let us indeed be roused from the sleep of malice, and be watchful in the faith of Christ - which leads to a praiseworthy reputation.

And if you haven't picked up on the link from such a curious thing to Science-writ-large, you are still asleep. Take a GOOD LOOK again, and remember, you ain't gonna see very much of Reality if your eyes are closed...
No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:336]
Or, as I have quoted many times before:
...the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.
[GKC Tremendous Trifles 6]
You note he says "school" - this is a very Idea-of-a-University, Cardinal Newman sort of slant, you know: it's not just for Science, my dear literary and philosophical friends. Time to wake up and get busy...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The mysteries of light, or water - or Science?

It's been nine years since John Paul II proposed the Luminous Mysteries for the recitation of the Holy Rosary. I've been saying them rather often, and so I've had an opportunity to consider them - that is, I've not only done the usual meditation which is the point of the Rosary, but I've also done what might be termed "meta-meditation" - I've tried to consider a little about the mysteries themselves, and their arrangement and structure. No, I'm not going to go into this meta-meditation today; there's no space on all the disk drives of Earth that will suffice. I just want to point out something interesting I just noticed.

Other writers have pointed out that these mysteries provide a channel for pondering the Sacraments, and somewhere I mentioned something about how these might also be termed "the Mysteries of Water" because of the significant role water plays in each one. And recently I said how the Rosary might be considered the "hand-held lab" for the Gospels - which might rally begin my suggestion that there is some amazing relation between this prayer and Science.

But it was today's gospel - the story of Zaccheus, which of course falls into that fantastic wild-card msytery, the Third Luminous, "the Proclamation of the Kingdom" - which really underscores the relation of the two. It came, as our priest noted, just after the healing of the blind man yesterday... which I think contains that sad plaint, "kyrie hina blepso = Lord, that I may see!" That was the same motive which made Zaccheus run to find a vantage point, since he was short. (yeah, I said it)

But that is exactly what Science is all about. It is the real reason for experiments. We want to see. We do things with great care, in the most stylized manner, according to rituals far more rigid than any athlete at "play" or any precise society manners consultant - and we do them over and over and over and over; we demand reproducibility from our equipment, our reagent suppliers, from our associates or assistants - or students - whose lab notebooks we inspect or correct; we expect assiduous attention to every possible detail. It is DILIGENCE... it is love, a bring desire for Truth.

Yes, these are the Mysteries of Science... We seek to know more about the One Who said "I am the Truth."

May St. Albert the Great, patron of Science, intercede for us as we work in this field, and may Mary, the Seat of Wisdom, enlighten our eyes to see...

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A Blank, Empty, and Awesome Gift

I had lunch with an old friend a week or two ago. He, like me, is a doctor, and we had an interesting conversation, as we always do. One of our unfinished conversations, begun some years ago, concerned the nature of Science, and its "Division and Methods" - I had promised him a copy of that famous study by St. Thomas Aquinas (his commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius) and had finally given it to him. We were also discussing my curious project - also now aged some many years, to which I am finally returning, and I remarked on the interesting relation between doing or PRACTICING Science and CONTEMPLATING the doing... so very astutely linked in Boethius' well-known The Consolation of Philosophy.

And as we talked, my friend the doctor said, "You ought to have a lab notebook... I have a spare one - we don't use them any more, it's all electronic now... I'll send it to you."

And he did. It's very nice: a fat thing much like the old "composition notebooks" we used in grade school, but with heavier covers, and about an inch bigger than a standard laser-printer page. It's all scored into grids - what some call "graph paper"... uh... about which I may have to tell some jokes one of these days. Ah, it's the sort of thing that makes me laugh, like when I (as a mathematician) hear people talk about GROUP therapy... hee hee! (Let's say the Rule together, shall we? A set and an operator which have Closure, Associativity, Identity and Inverse... these constitute a Group.) Ahem. Anyway, like the hairs of our head, every grid-lined page of this notebook is numbered - and yet there are TWO of each page, so you can make a carbon copy. The copy can go in your file, while the original stays bound in its place.

Ah, it sits there, so tempting - and my bottle of ink and my pen are waiting...

I debated posting this over on the Duhem Society blogg, since it is quite apropos of our discussion there on "the Scientific Method" and related matters, but I felt it would work better here. Another time I will say some more about this splendid gift - sure, it may sound very Chestertonian to contemplate a blank notebook with such admiration, but then why shouldn't we?
The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:244]
We scientists must also have a starting point - sometimes we call it providing a control, other times we speak of reducing the independent variables, or excluding the personal dimension or the biassed approach... and this is why we need as thorough a grounding in philosophy as we do in mathematics - or (and it will shock some of my readers) or in literature. Yes - for if you cannot read and cannot write, you can neither consult the Authorities, nor can you publish your results. And then you are not doing Science at all. You may be enjoying yourself, but that does not "constitute the thing" we are doing - no, not at all. Then the word is not Science, but Selfishness - or, in extreme cases, Solipsism.

I would like to write more on this - though it probably belongs over in the DS blogg. But I have some work to get to... and so... oh yeah. There is one other thing I must tell you. There was also enclosed a note which reads:
Remember, it goes:
(1) Date
(2) Title
(3) Materials
(4) Methods
(5) Results
(6) Conclusions

And remember, it's for Posterity!
Yes, indeed. I am truly grateful to be reminded - our work is for Posterity. Let us proceed with God's help, in our lab or office or home... and do all for the Glory of God, and as a work of love for our neighbors. Yes... let us not lose sight that even the most abstruse and theoretical studies can be for our neighbor's good, even for society:
It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:43]
What a great gift! Thanks, Doctor. Soon I hope to begin using the notebook, and I will surely bear all this in mind as I work. Now, ahem, ahem... where did I leave my lab coat?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Exspecto in resurrectionem mortuorum

Do I believe in Ghosts?

Of course I believe in Ghosts! I say it every Sunday: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. = "And I expect the resurrection of the dead."

Yes; you know the ancients had a real fear of ghosts, rather akin to the typical movie sort of thing. It's one thing to be startled by something unexpected - like a bump in the night, which might be the furnace or a passing truck or a dog burping - or a family member turning over in bed. But there was once a view that the dead had nothing but antipathy for us, and death "the great unknown" was a source of fear.

As the Pink Panther once said of a crushed "priceless Steinway":

Not any more.

Things changed that Sunday morning in spring about 2000 years ago, when the women went to the tomb and found the unexpected - and for the first time since creation Surprise had dawned on human beings - and it was found to be very good.

Well, that unexpected (though predicted) news began to have an effect on people, and it changed their attitude to death - so much so that even the art and labelling of graves and tombs were altered.

Evidence for this was found in a very ancient cemetery - a pagan cemetery - buried under St. Peter's in Rome:
...it contains an undoubted Christian grave. The name and the span of years are no longer preserved, only the words "Anno(s)" and the decisive, though somewhat mutilated "Deposita". The use of the word deponere for burial is for practical purposes exclusively Christian. The body is entrusted to the earth but only as a depository, that is, on condition that it may be recalled. This simple word thus encloses a belief in the resurrection of the body.
[Engelbert Kirschbaum, S. J. The Tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul 32]
Oh my.

You recall the parallel line in Chesterton... it's perhaps the most grand line of so many grand lines:
Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:382]
What a great epitaph:

Our God Knows the Way Out of the Grave!

May the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.