Science and Spirituality

Thou hast made us for thyself,

and our hearts are restless

until they find their rest in thee.

St. Augustine, Confessions

It’s amazing what social science can do, when not driven by ideological opposition to the objective order of things.

Looking back over the turmoil and triumph of his life, the Bishop of Hippo realized that God had always been with him, even when he had been thinking of anything and everything but God. In the end, meeting God was the key to meeting himself, as he really was, for the first time.

In a mirror image of Augustine’s journey, contemporary psychologist Clay Routledge has taken a close look at human nature, and found that it points back to God—or at least to religion, which points to God.

Observing that religious affiliation is declining in America, Routledge has the audacity to ask some hard questions about how that’s working for us. And the answers are precisely in line with what St. Augustine discovered centuries ago.

To begin with, Routledge notes that when people abandon religion, they don’t for that reason relinquish belief in things unseen. Even atheists can be shown to fear God (whom they allege doesn’t exist) more than they fear their fellow human beings.

Furthermore, though rationalists pretend that religion is opposed to science, a majority of practicing scientists think otherwise. Meanwhile, those who reject religion are likely to believe in “religious substitutes,” whose compatibility with science is genuinely dubious, such as “aliens, ghosts, astrology, and related ideas.”

Finally, Routledge considers the motivations driving religious or substitute-religious belief. Both types of conviction are strongly associated with our innate need for meaning.

While those in search of meaning are nowadays increasingly likely to seek it in substitute forms, however, the data suggest that—mirabile dictu!—traditional religion is far more successful at actually giving people a sense of meaning than are aliens, ghosts, and astrologers.

How does social science explain this superiority of religion? Further research supports the hypothesis that people derive meaning from “close familial, social, and community bonds,” which religion promotes. But this “sociological” point is by itself insufficient, even by the lights of empirical analysis.

For religion does more than tell people that they ought to cultivate social bonds. It actually enhances their capacity to do so. The chief practices of religion, such as public worship, private prayer, and the study of sacred texts, facilitate “order and structure,” “self-control,” and “moral concern for others”: the stuff of which flourishing relationships and societies are made.

In other words, it is “the spiritual dimension of religion” that is “vital to its social power,” rather than the other way around.

It seems that the fulfillment of our nature does indeed depend on an encounter with the One who designed that nature to be restless, until it finds its rest in him.

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Paradise and Pomegranates

Thy plants are a paradise of pomegranates with the fruits of the orchard.

Canticle of Canticles, 4:13

According to nutritionists, the pomegranate is a “superfood,” containing a high concentration of nutrients with a panoply of beneficial health effects. The fruit is also visually spectacular, as the above photo illustrates.

Sacred scripture chooses the pomegranate as an image of paradise: specifically, the paradise we find within our souls when we are wholly consumed by love of our heavenly Bridegroom.

Gregory of Nyssa notes that “the pomegranate is difficult for a thief to grasp because of its thorny branches, and its fruit is surrounded and protected by a rind bitter and harsh to the taste.”

“Once the pomegranate ripens in its own good time,” however, “and once the rind is peeled off and the inside revealed, it is sweet and appealing to the sight much like honey to the taste.” Even better, “its juice tastes like wine and affords much pleasure to the palate.”

The Bride of Christ, rather than becoming “soft by indulgence and enjoyment of this present life,” chooses “a life that has become toughened by continence. Thus virtue’s fruit is inaccessible to thieves,” who would have paradise on their own terms, “and is protected by the bitter covering of self-control.”

Beneath this rind of self-discipline, however, there lies concealed a fruit whose taste is sweeter than honey and more pleasing than wine.

Fittingly, the pomegranate is also chosen for the cover of this superb recording of Jan Dismas Zelenka’s sonatas, which prove him to be a master of baroque counterpoint second to none:

While there is no uninterrupted paradise on this earth, a foretaste of heaven becomes accessible even here below when we love the Lord, and rejoice in the blessings he bestows upon us now and in eternity.

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Hungering for Holiness

Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after justice:

for they shall have their fill.

Matthew 5:6

In classical philosophy, and in sacred scripture, justice is more (but never less!) than giving to each his due. Or rather, justice looks beyond what is owed in a mundane reckoning.

Since every being, consciously or unconsciously, seeks its preservation and perfection, true justice is nothing less than providing what is requisite for the perfection of every being—and above all those beings, like human beings, created in the image and likeness of the One truly perfect Being.

While those who are poor in spirit are blessed to perceive that nothing matters in comparison to God, those who hunger and thirst after justice—that is, after the perfection God makes possible for them, and desires them to attain—are blessed to see the goal for which the sacrifice of lesser goods is eminently worthwhile.

St. Paul, chastising his body and refraining from all things that he might receive an incorruptible crown (1 Cor. 9:25-27), is a model of poverty and hunger rightly combined.

Since we are spiritual and social beings, our own perfection is impossible without the love of God, the only true Good, and of our neighbor, whose share in that Good is part of our own.

Though it is imperative that we curb our unruly desires for created things, seeking and using them only insofar as they are useful in the service of God, it is equally imperative that we stoke our desire for God and his justice.

No matter how much fuel we throw on that fire, its heat will never exceed the measure of God’s infinite goodness.

And with the hunger for holiness, unlike the hunger of the world, the greater we allow our desire to grow, the greater the abundance with which our bountiful Lord will fill us on that glorious day!

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A Song to His Honor

And the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God.

Mark 16:19

Praise God in his kingdoms, extol him in his honors, acclaim him in his splendor. Seek to express his praise rightly when with assembled choirs you make a song to his honor! ~ J. S. Bach, Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen

This cantata captures the strange mixture of joy and sadness with which Christ’s disciples were (and are) faced in his Ascension.

On the one hand, our Lord takes possession of his heavenly throne; on the other, he leaves us on earth to cope with kingdoms of unbelief, afflicted by devils, confusions of tongues, serpents, and other deadly things.

Yet Christ does not leave us alone! “It is expedient that I go,” he explains, “for if I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn. 16:7).

As we pursue our mission to teach all nations to observe the Lord’s commands (Mt. 28:19-20), it is none other than the Holy Ghost, God himself living in our souls, who enables us to “convince the world of sin, and of justice, and of judgment” (Jn. 16:8).

Awaiting the commemoration of the Paraclete’s first coming, let us renew our dedication to the joyful work of his kingdom, that one day we may share in his unalloyed glory, singing an eternal song to his honor!

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Freedom in Action

Whenever someone contemplates reality in pure pursuit of knowledge and without regard for immediate practical purposes;

Whenever someone, oblivious of possible usefulness, disadvantages, danger, or even death, is able to say,

“So it is; this is the truth!”

(e.g. “The Emperor has no clothes!”)—

Then we witness, in an eminent degree, human freedom in action.

Josef Pieper, Knowledge and Freedom

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Our Lifelong Friend

The bridegroom came:

and they that were ready,

went in with him to the marriage,

and the door was shut.

But at last came also the other virgins, saying:

Lord, Lord, open to us.

But he answering said:

Amen I say to you, I know you not.

Matthew 25: 10-12

A fundamental fact of eternal life is the finality of divine judgment. Though we are given many years to repent of our sins and accept the invitation to prepare ourselves for eternal union with our Creator and Redeemer, we are nonetheless free to reject this invitation.

For those who choose this latter option, there comes a time when they realize their error, and it is too late to repent in earnest.

Our Lord explains to St. Catherine of Sienna how this happens, and how he in his justice and mercy must bar the door of heaven to such unrepentant souls.

When they see that they cannot escape from my hands, the worm of conscience (which, as I told you, had been blinded by their selfish love of themselves) begins to see again. And in the realization that their own sins have brought them to such an evil end, this worm of conscience gnaws away in self-reproach.

If such souls would have light to acknowledge and be sorry for their sins, they would still find mercy. But if they pass the moment of death without that light, grieving more for their own plight than for having offended me, then they have come to eternal damnation.

Then my justice reproves them harshly for their injustice and false judgment. And not simply in general terms for their pervasive habits of injustice and false judgment during their earthly lives, but even more for that particular unjust judgment by which at the very end they have judged their own wretchedness to be greater than my mercy.

This is that sin which is never forgiven, now or ever: the refusal, the scorning, of my mercy.

Strictly speaking, God judges us according to our judgment of him on the day of judgment.

In this life, there is always time for the sinful to repent, or for the just to fall. Being creatures of habit, however, we can never trust in the possibility that, having lived according to “pervasive habits of injustice and false judgment,” we will suddenly find the light to judge better at the unexpected moment of trial.

Instead, selfish habits may cause us to interpret our own folly in a narcissistic manner. In that case, we will (God forfend!) continue to offend our merciful Lord to the end, forcing him to close the door of his mercy upon us forever.

It is much wiser to begin today—at this moment—to cultivate the habits of justice and judgment which, by the merciful grace of God, will enable us to look lovingly upon the face of a Judge whom we will recognize as our lifelong friend.

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The Revolution We Need

It does my heart glad to read about this miniature, contested, but powerful restoration of freedom and sanity in the town of Vail, Arizona.

When the school board announced that it would continue to impose masking on the hapless children of this community of 10,000 souls, the parents rose up in a rebellion described by their local paper as “very orderly, if impassioned.”

Faced with the courageous meekness of those appointed by God as the primary teachers of the young—their own parents—the hirelings who thought they could muzzle the poor little ones in their pretended care instantly retreated.

Having scattered these wolves in sheep’s clothing, the parents proceeded to elect a new school board, and rescind the offensive masking measures.

This is not, of course, the end of the tale. Though our bureaucratic masters make a living pretending to respect and serve our interests, in truth they have grown contemptuous of the needs of actual persons—or of anything reminiscent of reality.

In response to this reasonable revolution, “School officials say district leaders are working on a letter to send to all parents as a reminder that the mask mandate remains in place.”

If we wish to regain our liberties and reestablish a legal order founded on the laws of nature and of nature’s God, the fight is far from over: it is barely even begun.

May this little shot fired in Arizona be the Lexington and Concord of the revolution we so desperately need today!

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Behold Thy Mother

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is just.

Honor thy father and thy mother,

which is the first commandment with a promise:

That it may be well with thee,

and thou mayest be long lived upon earth.

Ephesians 6:1-3

When Jesus therefore had seen his mother,

and the disciple standing whom he loved,

he said to his mother: Woman, Behold thy son.

After that, he said to the disciple: Behold thy mother.

And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own.

John 19:26-27

This Mother’s Day, let’s not forget to pay our respects to our own mothers, and to any other mothers we are blessed to know, in person, in proxy, or in prayer, as circumstances allow.

Let’s also remember to reach out to our Mother in heaven, in whose honor we have the double assurance, from the old law and the new, of receiving the promised blessing of Our Lord:

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ!

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Treasures New and Old

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) was the eighteenth child of the great J. S., and his youngest son. He learned music from his venerable dad, and from his big brother Carl Philipp Emanuel.

J. C. eventually settled in London, but launched his musical career in Italy, after converting to the Catholic faith. I intend to discuss his magnificent Requiem Mass in a future post, and have already gushed a bit over his stunning rendering of the 50th Psalm, Miserere.

Though I am no musicologist, I gather that the mode in which this youngest of the Bachs composed is known as the gallant style. Retrospectively, it represents a transition from the baroque to the classical. The contemporary listener will hear more Mozart than “Bach” in J. C. Bach.

On point of fact, the young Mozart studied with J. C. for several months, and both Wolfgang and his predecessor (and successor) Haydn were influenced in their art by the “English Bach.”

In my opinion, J. C. has a highly distinctive and disarmingly cheerful musical voice. Frequent recourse to brief but striking tensions, and occasional but formidable forays into weightier themes, anchor his good humor in a foundation of truth.

Exploring his works is definitely a top priority for this musical hobbyist.

Here, Anna Kislitsyna and Irene Moretto capture the spirit of J. C. admirably, in this performance of his Sonata for Two Keyboards in G Major:

Since the gallant Bach lived in an age when the medieval harpsichord was being supplanted by the modern fortepiano, it is a stroke of genius on the part of Kislitsyna and Moretto to deliver this duet, which could be performed on two harpsichords or two pianos, with one of each.

Hearing these beautiful instruments together, conveying the work of a man who wrote exquisitely for both, is a lovely reminder of the nature of genuine tradition, which preserves all that is good from the past, while making room for new manifestations of eternal truths.

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