About DBreitenbeck

David Breitenbeck is a professional freelance writer currently living in Southeast Michigan.

Memento Mori at Catholic Match

My annual Halloween piece is up at Catholic Match:

If you ever explore some of the old churches in Europe, or look over art from the old days, you’ll notice quite a few skulls.

Some of which are even attached to skeletons. They show up in some of the most unexpected places: on clocks, or in Cathedrals, for instance, or in the famous painting ‘The Ambassadors’, which features a distorted skull that only comes into perspective when viewed from the lower left. These are often supplemented by various grotesqueries and monsters decorating the church façade or capering about the pictures.

The message of all of this is the same; “don’t be complacent, but remember your death and what might await you beyond. That night of death is full of terrible things just waiting to grab hold of you, so take care before you find yourself venturing out into it.”

In other words, Christians have been doing Halloween, and doing it properly, for a long time. The macabre is as much a part of our heritage as anything else; it is the other side to the hope we have in Christ.

Therefore, the common call of Christians of the past was Memento Mori: Remember Death. As the prophet wrote in his book, “In all thy works, remember your last end, and thou shalt never sin,” and “Remember that death is not slow.” (Sirach 7:40, 14:12).

Read the rest here, and Happy Halloween!

“Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth”

Say not the struggle nought availeth,
The labor and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.
Arthur Hugh Clough

“Sail On!”

Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind, the Gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores;
Before him only shoreless seas.

The good mate said: “Now must we pray,
For lo! the very stars are gone.
Brave Adm’r’l, speak: what shall I say?”
“Why say: ‘Sail on! sail on! and on!’”

“My men grow mutinous day by day;
My men grow ghastly wan and weak.”
The stout mate thought of home; a spray
Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.

“What shall I say, brave Adm’r’l, say
If we sight naught but seas at dawn?”
“Why, you shall say at break of day:
‘Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!’”

They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,
Until at last the blanched mate said:
“Why, now not even God would know
Should I and all my men fall dead.

These very winds forget their way;
For God from these dread seas is gone.
Now speak, brave Adm’r’l; speak and say—”
He said: “Sail on! sail on! and on!”

They sailed: they sailed.  Then spake the mate:
“This mad sea shows his teeth tonight;
He curls his lip, he lies in wait,
With lifted teeth, as if to bite!

Brave Adm’r’l, say but one good word:
What shall we do when hope is gone?”
The words leapt like a leaping sword:
“Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”

Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
And peered through darkness.  Ah, that night
Of all dark nights!  And then a speck—
A light! a light! a light! a light!

It grew; a starlit flag unfurled!
It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: “On! sail on!”

Joaquin Miller

 

Saint John Henry Newman

It’s rare that we get good news from the Church these days, so cherish it when it comes! Cardinal Newman, the great English convert of the 19th century, whose return to Rome sparked something of a Catholic renaissance in that noble, yet obstinate island kingdom, is now declared a Saint. 

Cardinal Newman is one of those writers whom I regard as something of a personal spiritual master – though alas, I haven’t read as much of him as I would like – along with St. Francis de Sales, Dietriech von Hildebrand, and Professor Tolkien. What I mean is that his approach to spirituality, his understanding of the world, and his insights are of the kind that fit especially with my own personality and make the most sense to me. This, incidentally, is one of the glorious things about the Communion of Saints: there are so many and they are all so unique that if one doesn’t make an appeal to you, there are always others who will. The transforming power of Christ can be expressed through an infinity of personalities; in one it leads to the recklessly joyful abandon of a St. Francis, in another the intense focus and genius of a St. Thomas, and in still another the energy and regal authority of a St. Lewis.

St. John Henry Newman (not to be confused – though I’m sure he will be – with St. John Neuman, Bishop of Philadelphia) was more of the St. Thomas school; a crushingly brilliant scholar and masterful writer, he found his way into the Church through careful study of the early fathers and church history, along with his perceptive understanding of the flaws in Anglicanism and Protestantism. The account of this journey he laid down in his masterful autobiography Apologia pro Vita Sua, then later presented a fictionalized account of his experience in Loss and Gain: the Story of a Soul, both of which I have read and highly recommend, not only for their spiritual and theological insights, but also for the beautiful portrait of a now lost world of manners, intellect, and peace: the world of the middle and upper class England of the early-to-mid 19th century. Newman was as much a part of that world as St. Thomas was of the Medieval, and his example and ideas of gentlemanly behavior are, perhaps, as important a witness as any other to us today.

Loss and Gain mostly amounts to intelligent young Englishmen sitting around holding intellectual discussions. For me that’s enough to make it interesting, but I suppose it’s an acquired taste (though there is a very funny scene near the end where the hero is besieged by advocates for fashionable new religious communions, apparently figuring that if he’s considering Rome he must be up for grabs). Apologia is definitely worth reading both for the insight into his own life and for the brilliant argumentation on display (it was prompted by a slanderous attack by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, author of Westward Ho!, who was a virulent anti-Catholic and accused Newman of being secretly in the employ of the Roman Church all along. Seeing the Saint destroy his accusations is a delightful exercise in proper argumentation).

Alas, I’m not in a position to give a really good overview of St. John Henry Newman’s life or works: I’ve read (or listened to) several, but he is a great river and I can’t claim to have explored more than a few stretches. Suffice to say, he is an ornament to the Church, and his kind of clarity and intellectual insight are desperately needed today.

I shall let him have the final word:

“[T]here is no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and…a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below must embrace either the one or the other.”
-Apologia

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on;
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on;
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.

So long Thy pow’r has blest me, sure it still
Wilt lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

Ora pro nobis.

Thought of the Day 10 – 12: On Strange Spiritual Fears

I think most of us have strange, unconscious fears. These are things we would never argue or claim out loud, which we’re barely even conscious of, but which guide our actions more than we realize.

For instance, many people have the idea that if they say “I have never been stung by a wasp,” it will guarantee that they will be stung before long. Now, no one would actually claim in so many words that what they say influences the insect kingdom, but it’s a kind of half-conscious notion arising from a combination of hearsay (everyone loves an irony story), superstition, and unexamined experience (that is, most everyone has had the experience of a thing happening for the first time shortly after commenting that it has never happened).

For me, I realized that when I’m praying for something, I feel like I have to be very specific and explain exactly what I mean for fear that, if I’m not, I’ll get something that is technically what I wanted, but the worst possible example of it. Basically imagining God and the Saints in the role of those evil genies who always grant wishes as maliciously as possible. E.g. if I ask St. Joseph to find me a job, I have the idea he might answer with, “son, there is a crab boat with your name on it!”

Obviously, this isn’t the case; God loves us, and the Saints presumably have left any malicious humor behind. The nice thing about these fears is that once you recognize them, they fade pretty easily as they’re so patently absurd.

Talking Climate Change at ‘The Federalist’

Another post is up at The Federalist: in this one I give some reasons why I’m skeptical of what is now called ‘Climate Change:’

You see, I can’t judge from what I don’t know (e.g., climate science), but I can judge from what I do know. I know something of history, something of philosophy, and something of human nature. I can observe what people are doing at the moment and listen to what they actually say.

Doing so, I note that the vast majority of people, including the cause’s most vehement advocates, are no more qualified to judge it scientifically than I am. Does anyone really believe that any of those people marching in Washington have the knowledge and ability to interpret data from a global climate survey? Have they sunk the necessary hours of study and objective research into this subject to be able to say what they say with any certainty, assuming they could ever be certain?

Of course they haven’t. They are going entirely off of what certain experts have told them — namely, a specific selection of experts who have come to their attention because the media has elevated them and political groups have championed and funded them. These climate change apologists are in no position to critically examine these expert claims.

Average Voters Cannot Verify Climate Change Claims

Now, if there is, for instance, a genuine international crisis (e.g., Venezuela), then people have resources to verify it. They can read testimonies and see photos and video of the event, and in the last resort, they can go there to see for themselves. If it is a question of domestic policy, people can consider their own experience and knowledge to judge which approach to, say, taxation seems to be the best.

People cannot do this with climate change. The signs of the crisis come down to weather and to intensely complex reams of data that require specialized knowledge to interpret. The latter is out of reach for almost everyone. The former could be used to justify just about any theory since it is a proverb for unpredictability and changeableness.

If you tell people the earth is getting warmer, they will remember all those hot summer days and snowless winters they experienced and say that warming is very likely. If you tell them it is getting cooler, they will remember the mild summer days and bitter winter nights and say cooling is also very likely.

The fact is, the average voter has no way to adequately judge the question of climate change. Yet he is assured that it is an existential crisis that must be dealt with immediately and by any means necessary. Politicians and media activists are thus urging him to favor certain actions to combat a crisis that he has no way to verify. Worse, this message tends to be directed toward impressionable young people — that is, those with the highest emotions and the least ability to examine these claims.

That is an extremely dangerous state of affairs for a representative government.

Read the rest here.