Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Medieval Wheel of Fortune

Lent is an opportune time to practice detachment from selfishness, material things and habitual sin. Before Fr. Robert Barron was as famous as he is now, I caught him by chance on EWTN giving a lecture on something called The Medieval Wheel of Fortune that strongly relates to the idea of detachment. I was very intrigued since it comes out of the middle ages and yet seemed so timeless.


It goes something like this; the Roman goddess Fortuna was the goddess of fortune and the personification of luck. Fortuna was said to govern the circle of life. Imagine we are firmly attached to the edge of a circle or wheel being helplessly spun around by Fortuna; a wheel containing 4 stages of life.

• Stage 1: I Reign – A zenith or climax. You are on top of the world.
• Stage 2: I Have Reigned – Things begin to unravel or are in decline
• Stage 3: I Have No Kingdom – All is lost. This is rock bottom.
• Stage 4: I Shall Reign Again – Positive signs return. There is hope.

A modern day example:
Medieval Wheel of Fortune
• Stage 1: We’re on spring break having the time of our life. Woo Hoo!
• Stage 2: We are tired and sunburned as we pack for the trip home. Darn!
• Stage 3: We arrive home late at night in the freezing cold to find two feet of snow in our driveway. D’OHH!!!
• Stage 4: We soon being planning next year’s vacation. Cool!
After the fall of Rome, the medievals took this wheel of life and Christianized it. What happens as you move closer to the center of a spinning wheel? It spins slower. What happens at the absolute center? It does not move at all. What would happen if we put Christ in the absolute center of the wheel; at the absolute center of our life? We would experience peace, become centered and detached from the fast edge of the wheel; life’s ups and downs would no longer control us, no longer exhaust us.

Stain glass rose windows seen in
medieval cathedrals come from this concept.
Theologically, we can say that we are either moving our souls toward God or toward “Self”. Moving toward God ultimately becomes Heaven. Moving toward “Self” ultimately becomes Hell. In the context of the wheel, we could say that we are either moving our souls toward the center of all things with Christ or out to the edge in an ever expanding circle of madness.
Fr. Barron brilliantly linked all this to an interpretation of the beatitudes that is all about detachment:
Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those detached from material things.
Blessed are they who mourn…Blessed are those not addicted to “feeling good”.
Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those not self-centered.
Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness…Blessed are those detached from sin.
Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are those who are detached from revenge.
Blessed are the clean of heart…Blessed are those detached from evil thoughts.
Blessed are the peacemakers…Blessed are those free from hatred.
Blessed are YOU when they insult & persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me …Blessed are YOU if you don’t care what people think!
Since I find visuals so helpful, I created a visual of what I learned. Click on the wheel below for a PDF version of The Medieval Wheel of Fortune.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Measure My Feet – A Warning about Your Imagination

My 4-year-old daughter recently asked me to "measure her feet". I could not figure out what she really meant. She then pointed to our digital bathroom scale. Think about it; you stand on the scale, look down, and a number pops-up over your feet........measure my feet. This is pure, unbiased observation logic with one incorrect assumption; the number must relate directly and specifically to the feet.
We observe something like standing on a scale; call it “A”. We then observe something else like a number appearing; call it “C”. We try to connect “A” to “C” by inserting “B” as a bridge in our mind. The result in our example is thinking the scale measures something about feet. All too often “B” comes strictly from our imaginations. Adults do this too. In my profession, we call it bad troubleshooting. In the spiritual life, it’s bad theology.
Example 1
Observation A:
I prayed for something
Observation C:
It did not happen
Imagination B:
God does not care about me

Example 2
Observation A:
My friend has sinned
Observation C:
My friend gets cancer
Imagination B:
God has punished my friend with cancer
A+B ≠ C

Have you ever listened to those who do not know their faith, talk about their faith? Have you ever heard the most theologically absurd things and ask, “Where do they get that stuff from?!?” Consider that it may have come purely from their imagination. Our imagination can instinctively take over if we have no other way to connect “A” to “C”. We then create our own personalized reality that is not real. This is a kind of insanity, and it is dangerous. This is why it is important to study good theology and apologetics in order to gain knowledge.

Scripture gives us a subtle hint on the topic. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”(Hosea 4:6) St. Augustine also makes mention in Confessions. “But who can invoke you knowing you not? For one who knows you not may invoke you as other than you are.”

Theologian Frank J. Sheed gives a stern warning about the imagination in his book Theology and Sanity. He says that since The Fall, there is nothing that can be done with the intellect until the imagination has been put firmly in its place. We’ve fallen into the habit of using our imagination as a crutch since it saves the intellect so much trouble. As a result, the intellect grows flabby and tired. It must learn to walk on its own again and this means great pain for muscles so long unused. This is easy to understand since we know that thinking is very hard, imagining is very easy…and we are very lazy!

Beware Your Imagination

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Chesterton's Racehorse

In a free society we get used to negotiating, settling, bargaining, haggling, meeting-in-the-middle and reaching across the aisle. These are great skills in the right context, but do not help anything in the framework of objective truth.
It’s easy to understand the difficulty with compromise when applied in the wrong situation. Gravity pulls us down. Can we work out some negotiation where gravity can pull us a bit to the left or a bit to the right? How about pulling down Monday thru Saturday, but then pulling us up on Sundays? After all, we can always take a vote, achieve a majority, and change the law. In this case, we change the law of gravity; it’s only fair.
Suppose a terrorist says, “I’m going to kill you.” How do we negotiate that position? Can you please kill me at an agreed upon future date, instead of right now? Can you just beat me within an inch of my life, but leave me alive? We need to be fair to the desires of both parties, don’t we? Be reasonable.
The above paragraphs sound absurd, but we do the same kind of bargaining with spiritual realities:
Perhaps the youngest humans can be declared “non-persons” and then killed. You don’t agree? Okay, how about just until the end of the 1st or 2nd trimester or some other subjective threshold? Can you agree now? No? Are you some sort of extremist wacko?
Let’s redefine marriage as any two people. How about any three people or four? Why not? Can’t we work this out?
Jesus is perhaps one way to heaven, but there must be many different ways we can agree upon. Be realistic.
Catholics need to compromise on this HHS mandate thing. Everyone knows that pregnancy and fertility are akin to diseases.
In the big-picture, looking at thousands of religious denominations in the world, we say that it is impossible for only one of them to actually be right. We try to negotiate all these beliefs somehow. The truth is always somewhere in the middle; we must diligently search for the middle-ground.
I once heard a very brief, but profound reflection from G.K. Chesterton about a horse race. Suppose there was a race with 20 horses and each horse owner was completely convinced, without a doubt that his horse will win. Must we then conclude that no single horse can possibly win? We’ll need to settle on a 20-way tie somehow? Of course not, one horse will win.
If you are Catholic, you are on the right horse and this horse will ultimately win. The question becomes, will you run the race with her? In the face of (perhaps) a brand new era of more direct attacks on religious liberty in this country, understanding this becomes especially imperative.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Death Penalty

This is a topic that shows how Catholic Faith and Reason really go hand in hand.  The death of any person is always a grave matter.  If someone is involved in bringing about that death, then it is a very serious matter indeed.  Most societies throughout history have each had their own policies on capital punishment and the United States, with its heritage from Western European civilization, is no exception.

The Church would state that the State has a legitimate right to maintain order.  

Attorney Robert Hutton gives several legitimate motives for a criminal justice system
  1. Protect citizens
  2. Rehabilitation of criminals
  3. Restitution
  4. Deterrent
However, there is one motive that is never a legitimate motive for a criminal justice system: Retribution.  By that, I am referring to revenge.

Capital punishment can be invoked using motives 1 and 4.  A dead criminal will never threaten another citizen again and there is some likelihood that other criminals will not commit capital crimes due to the penalty.   The efficacy of motive #4 is in dispute for at least two reasons.  The first is that studies have shown a low statistical correlation between the commission of capital crimes vs non-capital crimes.  The second is a consequence of a situation where a criminal has committed a capital crime (whether on purpose or by accident) and may decide that he has nothing further to lose in committing even more crimes.  

In 1995, Pope John Paul II published the encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” in which he states that execution is only appropriate "in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."   

This is echoed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2267: “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.  Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’"

Here he shows the balance between the goods of the protection of society and the good of the dignity of the human person.

So, as the ability of society changes to be able to better protect citizens though non-lethal means, capital punishment which had been the lesser of two evils is no longer so.  Again, since it had been very difficult to detain a dangerous criminal for life, capital punishment was tolerated for the sake of the greatest good of the innocent.  As it is now possible to preserve the lives of both the guilty and the innocent (and make possible the engagement of rehabilitation, motive #2), that is the preferable course.

How Reasonable is that Faith?