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Archive for August, 2015

Preface: To anyone who comments on this post, I will commit to reading and commenting on at least two of your own blog posts before the end of the 2015.

Yesterday, I asked for some feedback on whether or not people would like read part 2 of my post on Cecil the Lion, Planned Parenthood, and related topics.  I did so because the first post, “Felines Over Fetuses: Thoughts on Cecil, Planned Parenthood, and Other Things — Part 1,” appears not to have received any views.

Please — I know your time is extremely valuable, but if you could just take a moment to offer a comment on this present post consisting of either the word “yea” or the word “nay,” (“yea” if you are willing to read “Felines Over Fetuses: Thoughts on Cecil, Planned Parenthood, and Other Things — Part 2,” “nay” if you would rather not), I would very much appreciate it.

Again, you will not be offending me or hurting my feelings if you say no.  In fact, you will be doing me a favor.  If I get enough “yea’s,” I will plan on writing the second post.  If not, I will know to focus my time and efforts elsewhere.

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question markOkay — so it’s been three days since I posted “Felines Over Fetuses: Thoughts on Cecil, Planned Parenthood, and Other Things — Part 1.”  I have taken a careful look at my stats since then, and have found that the post has gotten no views.

I did have a “part 2” planned.  But before I expend the time and energy required to write the post, and to do it well, I would like to see whether or not this is actually going to interest readers.

So could I ask a very quick favor?  If you intend to read “Felines Over Fetuses: Thoughts on Cecil, Planned Parenthood, and Other Things — Part 2,” could I ask you to leave a simple one-word comment?  Literally, one word: “Yea.”

Or, if you will not be reading the post, I would appreciate it if you could comment “Nay.”  And please don’t think you will be offending me or hurting my feelings.  Some topics are of interest on WordPress, some aren’t.  That’s just the way it goes, and I’ve always understood that.  You will actually be doing me a great favor, because you will be saving me the time and effort of writing something no one’s going to read.

Just thought I’d ask.  Thanks for reading.

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Acknowledgements

“Question opening-closing” by Vadmium – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Question_opening-closing.svg#/media/File:Question_opening-closing.svg

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CecilI don’t have to tell anyone very much about “Cecil,” the majestic lion (the “feline” referred to in the title) recently killed by an American hunter in Zimbabwe.  If the veritable deluge of media coverage, worldwide outrage, and criminal investigations haven’t done that for me…well, just go ahead and Google “Cecil the lion.”  You’ll find plenty.

black bearMeanwhile, in the state of Michigan, state officials are cracking down on the black market trafficking of bear parts.  For more on this, see “Black market in bear parts nets three in Kent County.”

Albino ChildDuring a recent address to young leaders from African nations, U.S. President Barack Obama openly condemned the practice — still existent in parts of Africa — of killing albino people and harvesting their organs for ritual purposes.  He employed very strong language against this deplorable practice, rightly calling it “crazy,”and “cruel.”

Finally, we have the series of undercover videos featuring Planned Parenthood officials discussing the trafficking of the body parts of aborted fetuses.  Doubtless, this has bothered a great many people.  But how do responses compare with the popular attention focused on Cecil?  Or with the governmental response to both Cecil and the bears?  Or with Obama’s strong defense of the equal dignity of albino people as human beings?

All around, they come up way short.  But the fact that all of these matters are entering the spotlight concurrently opens the door to a much needed and deeply significant discussion, to which I hope to offer some small contribution.

Okay — at this point you may have read between the lines a little bit, and might therefore be thinking: “Hear we go — another Catholic stepping in to argue that human beings are more valuable than animals.”  And you’re right.  But I would also like to understand the cultural phenomenon I am addressing, so please don’t be misled into thinking this will be a diatribe of any kind.

I know the belief in human superiority can appear cruel and inhumane, and I understand the feelings of those who would make that argument.  So I’ll start with an explanation — why exactly do we argue that humans are more valuable than the beasts?

The best way to explain this is in light of the “degrees of being,” and what each degree implies in various circumstances.  If I strike and injure a rock, it’s no big deal unless it belongs to someone; the rock itself has no consciousness, and therefore cannot feel anything, and no real inner vitality, for which reason the action doesn’t make much difference.  Harming a tree or plant (which have vegetative vitality) carries a little more importance, but more because of the potential effect on surrounding wildlife and people than anything else.

man beating dogWhen it comes to the animal kingdom, there is much more of a sense of inhumane cruelty in mistreatment.  Why?  Because animals have sensory awareness, and they can feel it.

starving childHuman beings bring another dimension to the question.  A human person not only has sensory awareness and experiences, but also an “I” to tie it all together, a subject aware of the fact that “this is happening to me.”

We’ve all felt it, both for ourselves and, sympathetically, on behalf of other people.  It is our sense of the sacred inviolability of the human person.

There is, however, another side to this — that of responsibility and guilt.  If, or example, a lion injures or kills one of its own kind or another animal, what guilt does it incur?

None.

If that lion injures or kills a human being, what guilt does it incur?

None.  It is a non-rational animal, without the necessary resources to make free-will judgements and decisions.  It is driven by in-built instinct and cannot be held responsible for its actions.

Now let’s reverse the situation.  If a human being exercises cruelty toward another human being, s/he incurs graver guilt than if s/he were to exercise cruelty toward an animal; but s/he incurs guilt in both cases.  In fact, to behave in this way does more harm to the acting subject than to the victim, because the nature of a rational being is such that it degrades itself by bending its will toward such actions.

I want to leave you with that for now.  If you will bear with me, I’ll pick up with this reflection in the second post, in which I will explore the cultural phenomenon evinced by my earlier media references more deeply.

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Acknowledgements

1. “Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park (4516560206)” by Daughter#3 – Cecil. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cecil_the_lion_at_Hwange_National_Park_(4516560206).jpg#/media/File:Cecil_the_lion_at_Hwange_National_Park_(4516560206).jpg

2. “Ursus americanusDetail” by Greg Hume – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ursus_americanusDetail.jpg#/media/File:Ursus_americanusDetail.jpg

3. “Albinisitic man portrait” by The original uploader was Muntuwandi at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albinisitic_man_portrait.jpg#/media/File:Albinisitic_man_portrait.jpg

4. “Stamps of Germany (Berlin) 1972, MiNr 420”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stamps_of_Germany_(Berlin)_1972,_MiNr_420.jpg#/media/File:Stamps_of_Germany_(Berlin)_1972,_MiNr_420.jpg

5. “Childwarsawghetto”. Via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Childwarsawghetto.jpg#/media/File:Childwarsawghetto.jpg

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Today is the Feast of the Assumption, which is ordinarily a Holy Day of Obligation (abrogated this year in the United States, as it falls on a Saturday).  Last year I shared my own reflections.  This year, I’ll defer to the wisdom of Brett Fawcett 🙂

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Never Teach a Pig to SingGospel “tie-in”:

Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.

-Matthew 7:6

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Instead of trying to answer that myself, I will defer to Fr. (soon-to-be Bishop) Robert Barron.  Do I do that too often?  Maybe…but consider it an exercise in humility on my part 🙂

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Vintage John Paul II — from his visit to Washington, DC in 1979.  Give it a watch, if you have a moment.  It’s just a little over 8 minutes, and its message rings true today.

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Still_Alice_-_Movie_PosterThe very beautiful and exceptionally talented Julianne Moore took home her first Academy Award this year, after four previous nominations.  Among the many worthy roles she has filled, that of Dr. Alice Howland in Still Alice is easily the most poignant, heartbreaking, and…well, real.

still alice openingHowland is an accomplished linguistics professor at Columbia University and a happily married mother of three.  As the film opens, we see her enjoying dinner at a first-class restaurant with her husband John (Alec Baldwin) and their three children — Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish), and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) — in celebration of her 50th birthday.

By turns, we see her as an ardent jogger, a renowned scholar, and a “hostess with the most-est.”  Throughout all this, though, we also see signs of trouble.

It starts small.  She forgets the names of everyday things.  She thinks the people around her are talking about people other than the individuals about whom they are actually talking.  She forgets the word “lexicon” at a linguistics lecture.  Something is clearly wrong.

She consults a neurologist, who runs some very thorough tests.  After a short time, she is given the bad news: She has early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease.

alice deterioratingAs the film progresses, we see Alice’s mental condition deteriorate rapidly.  More painfully, she experiences it.  Memory loss, and the resultant compromise affecting one’s hard-earned sense of identity, is a tragedy in all cases; and yet it is also in each case unique.  Alice’s case is particularly tragic given that for the whole of her life, she has defined herself in terms of her intellectual prowess and her facility with language; now, both are being taken away from her.

Perhaps this is the main factor motivating her, when she is still relatively lucid, to make a video message addressed to her “future self,” in the event that she should progress to the point at which existence becomes intolerable.  She leaves instructions for finding a bottle of pills which, if she takes a large number at once, will draw her into a quick and peaceful death.  You could call it a premortem suicide note.

When the time at last comes and she discovers the video on her laptop, Alice quickly seeks out the pills and nearly succeeds in following through with her own advice.  She is, however, interrupted by the arrival of her caregiver, and the opportunity is gone.

kristen stewart still aliceThe film ends with Alice’s daughter Lydia, who until now has lived in California pursuing an acting career, moving home to become her permanent caretaker.  At this point Alice is barely able to speak, and her cognition has been reduced almost to the rudiments of mental functioning.  Sitting with her in the living room, Lydia reads her the lines of a play (which she presumably once either starred in or auditioned for) in which the spirits of the departed unite in harmony to protect the world.

She asks her mother if she can tell her what the material was about.  Alice offers her somewhat slurred, one-word reply: “Love.”

Ok — there is a lot more to the movie than my summary suggests.  But this is the “skeleton” of the film, and the material most relevant to the analysis I intend to offer.

Speaking as a Roman Catholic, I am struck first and foremost by the light the final scene casts upon the rest of the film.  Viewed in the right light, Alice’s journey can be seen as a human reality that, like so much else in this world, points beyond itself to something infinitely bigger, something of profound significance to the spiritual life.

If you read the great saints and mystics throughout the ages — from St. Paul to Thomas a Kempis, St. John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, and on and on — you’ll find they all say the same thing: Once a soul has progressed to the higher stages of the spiritual life, God will put it through what is called the Dark Night of the Soul.  This describes a state in which the soul is, by the invisible workings of God, stripped of all attachments and consolations, both of the senses and of the intellect…in fact, even the spiritual joys of the earlier stages of the spiritual life are taken away.  It is tantamount to a forfeiture of the ego-self, along with everything it thought fundamental and defining in terms of its identity and happiness.

At this point the soul stands in a sense between heaven and earth.  It has not yet received — indeed, is not yet quite ready for — the joys of heaven, and yet it can no longer take delight or comfort in the things of earth.  It is in this state that the soul is most fully united with Christ’s sufferings on the Cross.

After this, emptied of all selfishness and all created things, the soul is finally ready to be fully permeated by the Spirit of God.  From then on, the soul can truly say: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19-20).

But this does not amount to anything like a Christian “Nirvana.”  Paradoxically, one finally discovers one’s true self in this experience, after having turned away from him/herself.  For at the height of the contemplative life we become connected to that Power which not only created us, but continues to create us even now.  This is also to discover at the deepest center of our own being the same Power at the deepest center of the being of all other people, and indeed of all created things.  Hence, in the Lord, we find the great value of all that exists, as well as the depth of our fellowship with one another and with all creation.

Still_Alice_Ocean

Let’s be clear about something: Alzheimer’s is not the Dark Night of the Soul, and the Dark Night of the Soul is not Alzheimer’s.  But life here below is significant — that is to say, full of signs.  And just as the health-building diligence of one who exercises strenuously is a kind of earthly sign of the spiritual diligence that ends in glory, so Alice’s case and others like it can potentially point to the salutary role of suffering in the spiritual life.  And the fact that the loss of all of Alice’s faculties leaves her only with the fundamentality of love likewise points to the fact of love’s primacy as ultimate reality (see 1 John 4:8).

While the majority of us will not likely reach the aforementioned height of contemplation in this life (thankfully, we Catholics believe in Purgatory), any progress in the spiritual life is priceless and expands our humanity.  And suffering, borne patiently, has more power to help us along the way than almost anything else in this life.  Had Alice Howland known about this, perhaps she would not have been so quick to arrange for her own suicide.  Likewise, the rest of us should think twice before turning to “compassionate death” as an answer to serious suffering…indeed, even terminal suffering.  For to take this route is to deprive ourselves and our loved ones of an invaluable opportunity, and to reduce the unfathomable greatness of human personhood to a form of dignity that, at best, fits an animal.

Sorry this took so long, but I really wanted to make it in just one post with this one.  Thanks for reading.

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1. “Still Alice – Movie Poster” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Still_Alice_-_Movie_Poster.jpg#/media/File:Still_Alice_-_Movie_Poster.jpg

Remaining images obtained through a Google image search.

 

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