For Minor Miracles III (a)

It’s time for me to write about this blog and how it started and how it has continued. I have written on two previous occasions about “minor miracles,” one involving my father’s final days and one involving my beloved bride. (There are several more Katie mm’s I could recount, and I probably will before my blogging days are done.)
I was goaded into this post by Mary P., whose second comment on my St. Paul post of yesterday was too provocative to pass up.

In her first comment Mary began with St. Paul: It’s not like he got a book of instructions. . . . How do those of us waiting for that lightning strike figure out if something is God’s will? I’ve taken it to mean if you’re drawn to something, such as a particular action, but that action looks really challenging, but you can’t seem to get it off your mind, then God is probably calling you to do it. If you’re wrong, then God will make it pretty clear. 

In her second comment Mary wrote about this blog: You thought or heard or dreamed or SOMETHING and that started it. Your intention was different than what it is now. That doesn’t mean you didn’t or aren’t doing what God wanted/wants you to do, just because you thought you were doing it for another reason! Am I right that you hesitated when you realize the blog was morphing? Please understand I’m not picking on you, but you are the obvious example. The blog grew, and you began to see that it was having an effect on people that you never conceived when you started. Then Frank came onboard (did you think that was an accident? Not me!), and look at it now!

So, the bolt of lightning . . . or maybe . . .

Chapter 1 — The Breeze
I was in Maine with Katie in August, pretty much as you see me in the picture at the top of this post, a picture Katie took from her kayak. Yeah—relaxed, happy, open.

I had been thinking about starting a blog for my memoirs business. No techie myself, I had heard from a friend how easy it is to start a blog. So one day I logged on to and started Memoirs Unlimited, the blog. Clickers will find that there are all of 5 posts at that site, versus 280-some-odd posts and counting at YIM Catholic. Does that tell you something?

Back in the spring, I had been in touch with an old college friend, who I wrote about here. He’s #5 and #13 on the list. My friend asked me why I had converted and I had no ready answer. But being a writer I promised him I would write him some short essays about my conversion experience. Which I did, for his eyes only.

Two posts into my Memoirs Unlimited blog, the lightning bolt hit, although it was more like a gentle breeze from the open window of the bedroom where I set up my writing shop when we are in Maine. The breeze said, “That’s not what you want to do. You want to write about your conversion experience. And you’ve already written the first three posts, including one about the book that started it all, by Fr. James Martin.”

Now, here’s the beauty part. That thought made me pretty happy, so I logged onto Blogger and hit the start-new-blog button. As before, with Memoirs Unlimited, Blogger asked me what I wanted to name my blog, which would establish the unique URL. I stared at the screen, then typed: Catholic Convert. Blogger informed me that Catholic Convert was already taken, dummy. I typed something else equally generic, like New Catholic. That was already taken too, stupid. I typed two or three more ideas, was rejected each time, then stopped for a moment: What do I want to write about? I want to write about why I am a Catholic. . . . Well, obviously we have to come up with something oddball to beat this overloaded system. Then I thought: Acronym. Or maybe it was: Rebus. Or maybe there was no thought at all. I typed: YIMCatholic. Blogger dinged at me: Congratulations! You have a blog! Begin entering content!

Within minutes, the consequences of this chain of events hit me: If the title is “Why I Am Catholic,” every post will have to be an answer of sorts. That hit me like inspiration. Not my inspiration, I can promise you that. I did not think through the consequences before choosing the blog title. The consequences were there.

Chapter 2 —The Lightning Bolt
That was August 17, 2009. Over the first ten days, I posted eight times, including three of the essays I had written for my friend. I was very happy, almost giddy, writing some of these posts, but I thought I was running dry. Then, on the evening of the tenth day, while back home in Massachusetts for some business meetings, I received this e-mail:

Dear Mr. Bull,
Many thanks for your beautiful post,
which a friend passed along to me.
I’m delighted that my book helped
you so much, and so happy that the saints
have been your patrons and companions
in your journey into the church.
Jim Martin, SJ

I was flabbergasted. I had no idea anyone was even reading YIM Catholic. Honestly, I had next to no ambition about it, except to send each post to Katie, our daughters, Father Barnes, and three friends in the parish, Ferde, Carol, and Ellen. I thought that was my readership, give or take a lonely late-night Web surfer in Altoona.

If there was any lightning bolt in this story, that was it, the e-mail from Fr. Jim in New York. I called Katie in Maine the following morning and gasped. She gasped back.

Chapter 3 — The Ego Trip
Chapter 4 — The Crisis of Faith
Chapter 5 — The Crazy Marine from the Old South Who May Be An Angel Or Something
Chapter 6 — Building a Community

To be continued . . .

Because of a Priest . . . or Not

A regular reader of YIM Catholic goes by the handle of Mujerlatina. Today she sent us an e-mail that I found pretty challenging. It begins generously with a capsule autobiography of her own spiritual life. Then it closes with a kicker. It’s worth a look and a comment.
Mujerlatina writes:

“Here’s a brief synopsis of my convoluted journey in the Catholic Church: born Catholic, raised Catholic, receieved the sacraments, product of horrible CCD program, grandmother was an influential person of popular piety (illiterate), Newman Center at Duke University and daily Mass with many Catholic friends, silent retreats yearly with Duke friends tagging along, devotion to the Rosary, devotion to St. Martin de Porres, participation in all-black Roman Catholic Gospel choir for eight years, missionary doctor in the Carribbean and Latin America, desert years angry at the Catholic Hierarchy and its political ‘mafia,’ more desert years, children and home devotions and Catholic schools, weekly mass, Eucharistic Devotion, prayer, study alone, solo spiritual journey.

“I’ve tried to ‘leave’ the church many times, but have found that it is in the ‘fabric of my being.’ The mysticism, the Real Presence, the devotions and popular piety all continue to call me ‘home.’ Honestly, I must say that my on-going formation as a Catholic has nothing to do with any clergy person! No priest, sister, nun or other consecrated layperson has had ANY impact on my spiritual journey. Is that a problem?? Is that ironic?? We are constantly being called to ‘pray for vocations,’ but while I do comply, I am often in wonderment that the clergy/consecrated laypersons I actually have met are ‘zero’ in my walk as a Catholic.

“Here’s my question: What role do these ‘people of the cloth’ play for most of the YIMC readers out there? I read that ‘Fr. Barnes’ and others are so impactful on some folks—but I suspect that there are a lot of people like me who, by the grace of God, cling onto the Catholic ‘ship’ without any spiritual advisor/priest, etc.

“What say you all?”

Though I Wasn’t Knocked Off My Horse

I used to think it would be just like St. Paul, my life changing once and for all. I still remember the feeling when I was in high school and college and even afterward. It would be like falling in love, or being knocked off a horse: All of a sudden I would be on the ground looking up. It would be pretty much the way Caravaggio imagined it (left).

 I have been thinking about the so-called “call,” the lightning bolt from the blue, since reader Michael Halbrook commented on it Friday, asking “How do you finally discern the call?” I responded with a post on Saturday, and a bushel of more comments came in. Frank offered his own superb thoughts about it yesterday. And now I wake up Monday morning to find the Conversion of St. Paul on my calendar and yours.

I recognize late in life that my own adolescent imaginings of a life-changing vision or wake-up call were just that, adolescent imaginings. Just like the dream of falling in love. And now that I put it that way, I realize that for myself, there was never a voice, not yet anyway (I’m still keeping my ears open), but there was a falling in love. Maybe that’s what happened to St. Paul, only Carvaggio just had a heightened sense of drama. He did paint a lover’s surrender, didn’t he?

But then falling in love is just like St. Paul’s falling off his horse, isn’t it? Because what I never realized when I pined for “love” was how hard it can be to stay in love, what a commitment the vow of marriage is. As someone said yesterday—was it Father Barnes in his homily?—there are hundreds of magazine articles about where to buy the best wedding cake, but no simple how-to manual for keeping a marriage sacred and intact.

Just so St. Paul. We think of his conversion, and for myself, I envy him. Being called by Christ? And then going on to write the book on Christianity for the Gentiles? As a writer and Catholic blogger, I can only hope!!

But the travel, the smelly companions, the martyrdom? I don’t envy that. When I was a child we had a Siamese cat named Nero. That’s as close as I want to get to Rome in the AD 60s.

Before we require God to “call” us, I think we should meditate long and hard on how willing we are to answer the call. St. Paul answered, and we are still listening.

Because I Yearn (Music for Mondays)

As each week goes by, I accumulate clips of music to post on Mondays. I checked last night and found only one clip stored since last Monday. But what a clip. What a coincidence. Yesterday in choir, we began practicing a piece for Lent, “Sicut Cervus Desiderat” by Palestrina (left). That’s the music I set aside.

Here the piece is performed by the Westminster Cathedral Choir. The text is from Psalm 42: “Like the deer that years for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God. My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God? . . . ”

YouTube Preview Image

For the Love of St. Joseph I

March 19, 2008, was a decisive day for me. Easter Vigil was three days away, as was my reception into the Catholic Church. Throughout RCIA, I had planned to take Thomas More as my confirmation name, but I came into Mass that morning and discovered that it was the Feast of St. Joseph. That did it. St. Joseph took me by surprise.
I had been utterly clueless about him until that morning of March 19. In fact, I had even thought that the statue at the head of the right aisle in our church, which illustrates this post, was of St. Peter. I think it was Ferde who set me straight about that, as he has set me straight about many things Catholic.

I decided to take Joseph as my confirmation name because I realized that St. Joseph represents something more important to me than all of the worldly accomplishments or moral courage of Thomas More; Joseph represents the good father. For me, that is the highest standard, a bar that sometimes looks way over my head, although my own father seemed to glide over it effortlessly.

St. Joseph became my patron, and when my father got sick and died over the ensuing six months, I spent many minutes kneeling before this statue and another one in the Catholic Church in my parents’ town. I found myself in front of St. Joseph again this morning, under less dramatic but still compelling circumstances. Other than Mary, Joseph is the only saint I have prayed to, but I do pray to him. I believe that my prayers are heard.

St. Joseph’s Day is still nearly two months away, but I’d like to dedicate a few posts to him between now and then. Yesterday morning in men’s group, a non-parishioner and non-Catholic, Kirk Kvistad, gave a beautiful presentation of his own prayer-song compositions. I wish I could share some of these with you via MP3, but they’re not available yet.

However, Kirk started off the meeting with a prayer to St. Joseph that I had not seen before, and I can share that:

Oh, St. Joseph, whose protection is so great, so strong, so prompt before the throne of God. I confide in you all my interests and desires. Oh, St. Joseph, do assist me by your powerful intercession, and obtain for me from your divine Son all spiritual blessings, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. So that, having engaged here below your heavenly power, I may offer my thanksgiving and homage to the most loving of Fathers.

Oh, St. Joseph, I never weary of contemplating you, and Jesus asleep in your arms; I dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. Press Him in my name and kiss His fine head for me and ask him to return the Kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, Patron of departing souls—Pray for me.

According to a footnote Kirk passed along, “This prayer was found in the fiftieth year of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In 1505, it was sent from the Pope to Emperor Charles when he was going into battle. Whoever shall read this prayer or hear it or keep it about themselves, shall never die a sudden death, or be drowned, nor shall poison take effect on them; neither shall they fall into the hands of the enemy, or be burned in any fire, or be overpowered in battle.”

I do not know on what authority, if any, this footnote was written. But I do not disbelieve it.

Because of the Latin Mass . . . or Not

Our poll results are in, and interesting. If the Latin Mass were available, 23 percent of you said you would always attend the Mass in Latin. Always.

Admittedly, this is not a random sample, but we did receive over 200 votes and throughout the week of voting, this percentage stayed above 20 percent. Which means that one out of five voting readers of this blog would prefer to attend only Latin Masses.

The obvious follow-up question is, Who are you? And to your number we might add an additional 46 percent who said they would sometimes attend the Latin Mass. That means that nearly 70 percent would like to have the Latin Mass available at least some of the time.

Why? Why do you want the Latin Mass, at least some of the time? And while we’re at it, let’s add an additional 14 percent who said they don’t care what language the Mass is in. Which leaves only 18 percent of those responding who were adamant about keeping the Mass in English.

What is the appeal of the Latin Mass? This is a particularly interesting question for me, since as a convert I have never known anything but the English Mass.

I told Father Barnes that I thought interest in the Latin Mass would wane as Baby Boomers and their parents pass on. (They are the only generations who remember the period before Vatican II.) Father Barnes said he thought just the opposite; he sees an interest in the Latin Mass among the young.

What do you think? Why does the Latin Mass appeal to you? As a member of what generation? I’d like to know because—two years a convert—I have never attended a Mass in Latin! The English Mass is the only Mass I know.

Because the Church is Rock and Sand

Here is a meditation written by Pope Benedict when he was only a priest, in 1971. It was offered as a comment to my post about the Tiber by a fellow blogger. For those of us reflecting on the Catholic Church, as we come or go or just stand gazing by the river, it’s worth thinking about:  

We can think of the Catholic Church by comparing it to the moon, not only for the relationship between moon and woman (as mother), but also because the moon does not have its own light. It receives light from the sun, without which it would be in total darkness.

The moon shines, but its light is not its own. Lunar probes and astronauts have seen that the moon is nothing but a rocky and desert-like wasteland. They saw rock and sand, the reality quite different from the image we held about it from antiquity. The moon is by and of itself nothing but rock and sand, but it does reflect light.

Is this not an exact image of the Church? Whoever explores it and digs into it with a probe will discover, as in the moon, nothing but desert, sand and rock – the weaknesses of mankind seen as dust, stones, waste. But the decisive fact is that even if she is nothing but sand and stones, she is also Light, by virtue of the Lord.

I am a Catholic because I believe that now as in the past, and independent of us, the Lord stands behind the Church, and we cannot be near Him without staying within His Church. I belong to the Catholic Church because despite everything, I believe that it is His Church, not “ours.”

It is the Church which, despite all the human weaknesses present in her, brings us to Jesus Christ. Only through the Church can I receive Him as a living and powerful reality, here and now. Without the Church, the image of Christ would evaporate, it would crumble, it would disappear. And what would become of mankind deprived of Christ?

I am in the Church for the same reasons that I am a Christian. Because one cannot believe, in isolation. Faith is possible in communion with other believers. Faith by its very nature is a force that binds. And this faith must be ecclesial, or it is not faith at all. And just as one does not believe, in isolation, but only in communion with others, neither can one have faith out of one’s own initiative or invention.

I remain in the Church because I believe that faith, realizable only in the Church and not against her, is a true necessity for the human being and for the world.

I remain in the Church because only the faith the Church professes can save man. The great ideal of our generation is a society free of tyranny, suffering and injustice. In this world, suffering does not come only from inequalities in material wealth and power. There are those who would have us believe that we can realize our humanity without mastery of self, without the patience of surrender and the effort to overcome difficulties; that it is not necessary to make any sacrifice to keep compromises which we accept, nor to bear with patience the constant tension between what should be and what actually is.

In reality, man can only be saved through the Cross and the acceptance of one’s own suffering as well as those of the world, which find their resolution in the Passion of the Lord. Only thus can man become free. All the other “offers at a better price” can only end in failure.

Love is not simply aesthetic and uncritical. The only possibility to change man in a positive sense is to love him truly by transforming him gradually from who he is to who he can be. That is what the Church can do.

Because of a Call . . . or Not

Yesterday’s post—a question really about why you have converted, fallen away from the Church, reverted, or are considering any of the above—drew detailed responses. I offered the hypothesis that many YIMC readers find themselves near the banks of the Tiber, and throughout the day yesterday, people were shouting back and forth across the river!

This leads me to imagine a new function for this blog, as a forum for those moving in and out of Catholic Land, a sort of virtual brochure rack for those waiting for the ferry, in either direction: “Vatican City on $25 a Day,” “The Papacy for Dummies,” and so on. (Don’t know about you, but I can imagine this movie poster thumb-tacked to the wall of the ferryman’s shack.)

YIM Catholic began last August as a personal soapbox for yours truly. I was uncomfortable standing outside my church shouting conversion stories, so I took my soapbox on-line. If anyone wants a good summary of why I converted, it’s right here. Frank joined up in November, and his personal story of trying to prove the Catholic Church wrong—only to find that it is right—continues to unfold in the series “To Be Frank.” Chapter 1 starts in the oddest of places, the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Books. Most recently, Chapter 7 credits a more common conversion link, Thomas Merton’s The Seven-Storey Mountain. For Frank’s story, click on “2BFrank” in the list of topics to the right.

By the time Frank was on board, I had begun to develop a new phase in my own YIMC writing. I was moving beyond answers to “Why RU Catholic?” (I mean, how many reasons do you want from me?!) to an ongoing meditation on my daily life as a Catholic: what I heard at Mass this morning, the crazy things guys said at men’s group, the innocence and eagerness of my fourth-graders in CCD, books I’m reading, stuff I want to share—always through the lens of the fundamental question, why Catholicism makes sense.

To go through your day, every day, pondering just why you are Catholic is a blessed exercise, as I am finding.

But now a third chapter in the life of this blog suggests itself: While remaining a double-wide soapbox for Frank and me, it can be a forum for you as well. At least, that’s the message I take from yesterday. Your comments suggest so many interesting questions that concern and sometimes plague “Tiberians.” So, beginning right here and right now, I’m going to begin tweezing out some of these questions and posing them to the YIMC community at large (we few, we happy few).

Michael Halbrook wrote:

I’m intrigued by a question you didn’t mention, that I see my father (born, raised, and still Southern Baptist) wrestling with as he considers coming into the Church: How do you finally discern ‘THE CALL’? That’s his biggest hangup right now. He feels he WANTS to be in the Church, and he is at peace with the doctrinal and liturgical questions, but he says he’s still waiting for a bolt-of-lightning-like call. Did one or both of you have that moment when you really felt the call? Or was it a slow evolution that eventually made the need for the bolt of lightning less important? How did your discernment impact you, and vice-versa?

I’ve got to run to early Mass, so I’m going to resist the temptation to answer this question now. (You know I could.) I will comment later today. As I hope Frank will. And you . . . ?

A Question from the Banks of the Tiber

I have a hypothesis about this blog, and frankly I’m not sure whether Frank agrees. My hypothesis is, this blog is most compelling for people near the banks of the Tiber, meaning (a) recent converts, (b) those considering converting, or (c) cradle Catholics who have left the Church and wonder, maybe secretly, about returning.
There’s a simple reason for my hypothesis. Frank and I are both recent converts. We were on the other side of the river not so very long ago. We were standing, to take another metaphor, in C.S. Lewis’s “hall out of which doors open into several rooms.” For more on this, see Frank’s first post on Mere Christianity.

But out of that hallway and onto the bank—Frank and I, having just arrived on the Vatican side of the river, remember clearly what the view looked like from the other bank—and how beautiful the Vatican City side is upon arrival. We have a certain perspective that resonates with (a), (b), and (c). And some of the questions that perplexed or motivated us seem to matter particularly to these three groups of readers.

One of these questions, that of the liturgy, elicited many comments in the past week. I posted on it several times, including here and here. New converts (a) love the fullness of the Catholic liturgy, even as we wonder about the new Missal. Those who think of converting (b) wonder about giving up their own liturgy, like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Those who left the Church but might come back (c) may wonder why Vatican II tossed the Latin Mass overboard.

So here’s my question to you: What’s your question? What’s your issue? What is or was the issue that is most central to your personal choice about which side of the Tiber you want to be on? Or to return to Lewis’s metaphor, if you are standing in the hallway, what does the Catholic door look like to you? What about it attracts (attracted) you? What troubles (troubled) you?

Does your question concern:

  1. the liturgy?
  2. the Bible (whether Catholicism is “bible-believing,” as Frank wrote)?
  3. the authority of the Pope and Catholic bishops?
  4. the Church’s position on social issues?
  5. something else?

Here’s my answer, a quick one, I promise. I didn’t have any questions the day I stumbled into St. Mary Star of the Sea and pulled down my first kneeler. But I suppose if I had dug deep I would have answered (4), the Church’s position on social issues. Not because I had thought deeply about life, traditional marriage, and the like, but only because the magnetic pull of our secular culture is so powerful, I was afraid to break its hold over me, to stand apart from it. I cannot walk through the corridors of the mall, or pass the display windows of Victoria’s Secret or Brooks Brothers or Abercrombie & Fitch without feeling that magnetic power. I cannot step into a political discussion at a cocktail party in some liberal precincts around Boston without feeling alone. I cannot pick up the Boston Globe or switch on the network news without remembering that to choose Catholicism is the most countercultural choice I ever made.

Now that I’ve made the choice, or it made me, the magnetic field is reversed. Ironically, the Church’s position on social issues—its distinct countercultural stance—is precisely one of the most compelling reasons I remain a Catholic. Go figure!

But I promised you quick. What’s your answer?

YIMC Book Club, “Mere Christianity”, Week 1

Good evening to our faithful friends at the YIMC Book Club. After a dramatic come from behind finish, our winner was Mere Christianity by noted author and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. So without further hesitation, let’s wade into this week’s reading, which included the Foreword, Preface, and Chapters 1 & 2.

Mr. Lewis begins the book in the Foreword by stating that he intends only to write around what All Christians can agree on. As stated in the post with the syllabus, Lewis is not going to try to determine whether the Catholic Church, or any denomination or offshoot of it is the true Church. Indeed, this may even explain the popularity of this book to a degree. Lewis seems to have adopted this quote by Rupertus Meldenius (circa 1627–1628), which is often attributed to St. Augustine, as his mission statement for the book:

If we preserve unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in both, our affairs will be in the best position.

Given that the authority of the Catholic Church is considered a “non-essential” to Lewis, is it any wonder that his friend J. R. R. Tolkein was dismayed when Lewis joined the Church of England instead? After all, by what authority are the essentials of the Christian faith determined? I understand his intent though, as questions regarding the intricacies of different denominations, and the political bickering that a non-Christian sees as conflict, may indeed drive someone away from Christ instead of into His arms. Sort of like my post this morning regarding the bickering about a new Missal. Yawn!

Instead, the idea of the great hall of the mansion with many rooms is given to us. Of course, with over 300 orders, and several rites reporting to Rome, including the recent olive branch extended to the Church of England, and thousands of parishes spread far and wide, this description is apt for the Catholic Church as well. To me, considering which room you are comfortable in is like choosing which parish or mass time you feel most comfortable in, so his point here is still valid, as was waiting in the hall, which I did for a very long time.

Is anyone out there surprised to hear that this book was first delivered as a series of radio broadcasts during World War II? I know I was. Is it even imaginable that a major broadcaster today would invite a discussion of Christianity on the air to the public today? Highly unlikely. Maybe somewhere in the hinterlands of cable television channel selections, but not on the main channels. Think of the hue and cry that Brit Hume endured recently when he hoped a certain celebrity would find Jesus Christ, and you will know what I mean. And yet, when the entire Luftwaffe is bombing your country every night with squadrons of bombers and V-1 and V-2 rockets, maybe people become a little more open-minded and forgiving about such discussions.

So we will keep these background events firmly in mind and find no fault in Lewis when he claims that the book is not “academic, philosophical musings” but instead “a work of oral literature, addressed to people at war.”

Chapter 1 starts with an appeal to standards of behavior that everyone is expected to know. Lewis states that this used to be called the Law of Nature in the classical era. St. Anthanasius in The Incarnation of Our Lord said as much when he wrote this in the mid 300′s:

It is, indeed, in accordance with the nature of the invisible God that He should be thus known through His works; and those who doubt the Lord’s resurrection because they do not now behold Him with their eyes, might as well deny the very laws of nature.

And this as Lewis sees it, is the Law of Human Nature, which may be upheld or broken by man, unlike the physical Laws of Nature with which we are familiar such as the laws of gravity etc.

He goes on to explain questions of cultural differences regarding the idea of “right” and “wrong” behavior. As Lewis asserts, these differences really haven’t amounted to much, regardless of whether you are a Dutch nobleman or the noble savage. But the funny thing is that as soon as someone claims there is no “real” Right or Wrong, they quickly take back that notion almost immediately when the issue of “fairness” comes into play. The very idea of “fairness” means that a Law of Human Nature is real and therefore there is a “real” Right and Wrong. My RCIA instructor, our parish priest, explained this as our conscience, and guess what? None of us are really obeying or “keeping” this Law of Nature. If you think you are, Lewis says you don’t need this book (and I say you are delusional).

So we have this ideal of behavior implanted in us and yet we fail to live up to the standards we have set for ourselves and for others. This standard is the Law of Nature. Lewis admits (whew!):

I am just the same. That is to say, I do not succeed in keeping the Law of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I am not keeping it, there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm.

This sounds like my kids’ answers when I ask why didn’t you do your homework, or clean up your room?

The question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature. If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?

Very good point, Mr L., and as Don Henley croons in Dirty Laundry, we love ripping to shreds the reputation of anyone who doesn’t live up to the Standard.

The truth is, we believe in decency so much—we feel the Rule or Law pressing on us so—that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility. For you notice that it is only for our bad behaviour that we find all these explanations. It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves.

This sounds like my conscience talking to me, all right! Blame the bad on something else, while taking all the credit for the good stuff! Lewis sums up the law and its effect on us with the following two points:

First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

Maybe of “clear thinking” but not necessarily immune from fuzzy thinking either. Chapter 2 begins with Lewis, before going any further, answering some common objections to what seems pretty clear regarding this Law of Nature and our knowledge and violations of same.

For example, some people wrote to me saying, ‘Isn’t what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn’t it been developed just like all our other instincts?

he argues against this as follows,

But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.

Yes, don’t blame the instrument, kiddo, look at the player! And now the Law of Human Nature is shortened to “Moral Law” for simplicity’s sake.

But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same.

Just like everybody pulls for Luke Skywalker and the ragtag rebels vs. Darth Vader and his powerful Sith Lord. We love to pull for the underdog! And doing the right thing is often unpopular, or even downright dangerous!

The thing that says to you, “Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,” cannot itself be the herd instinct. The thing that tells you which note on the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.

And what of the overriding power of the instincts for doing good?

. . . we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which was always what we call “good,” always in agreement with the rule of right behaviour. But you cannot. There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes tell us to encourage. It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses- say mother love or patriotism-are good, and others, like sex or the fighting instinct, are bad.

Remember our past discussions on the Just War doctrine of the Church or Chesterton’s argument of the Lion laying with the Lamb, but still being a Lion?

All we mean is that the occasions on which the fighting instinct or the sexual desire need to be restrained are rather more frequent than those for restraining mother love or patriotism. But there are situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual impulse and of a soldier to encourage the fighting instinct. There are also occasions on which a mother’s love for her own children or a man’s love for his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness towards other people’s children or countries.

Seriously, look at the effects of Nationalism run amok when Lewis gave this radio address.

Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think once again of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the “right” notes and the “wrong” ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or any set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.

But wait, Mr Lewis, you say, how about settling on one overriding value proposition on which to base every action? Sort of like the Prime Directive (which never seemed to stay constant BTW) in Star Trek! Ah, if only life were so simple. Black and white with no shades of gray. What planet are you on?

The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials “for the sake of humanity,” and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.

But, but, Christopher Hitchens says— Sorry Chris, this isn’t like learning our multiplication tables, brother. Lewis argues that this law of right behavior is something known but unlearned. Some learned things are conventions but others, like mathematics, are real truths. And Lewis argues that progress means not just changing but changing for the better. We have had lots of progress and Qohelth in Ecclesiastes argues that we keep running into the same problems time and time again, progress be damned. But isn’t there one best way of doing things and thinking through these moral problems mankind faces? The dream of all those guys who invented time & motion studies? The holy grail of behavioral scientists?

The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.

And the Christian standard is what he is referring to here. That standard that has been given us by God, paid for by the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and passed down to us by the Apostles and martyrs and on to us through the Church. Lewis concludes this chapter, and we this weeks section with these thoughts:

But one word before I end. I have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, “Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?” But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did-if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.

The Death Penalty? Don’t get me started, Mr. Lewis, but I think I get your point. Of course, there is that little story in the Old Testament about a certain witch in Endor that King Saul visited once. But that is another story, for another time.

What comments do you have to share, club members? Any passages strike you in a particular way? Please share your thoughts and impressions with your YIMC Book Club companions! Pass me the hors d’oeuvres!