August 28, 2018

Integrity


They say integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching, even when it may work to your disadvantage, and this obviously because wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it, and right is right, even if no one is doing it. This simply means that integrity—besides being the moral excellence that the modern world most needs—is a very difficult virtue to practice. It has way more false fans than true ones, and more true enemies than real friends. Personal integrity requires that the person invariably act in accordance with his values. Of course, this is clearly an ideal standard rather than an achievable state. Sometimes having personal integrity means you will taste failure temporarily. As Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” In other words, integrity is a continuous challenge and a never-ending struggle against ourselves and the world around us.

Actually, as Job rhetorically once asked (Job 7:1), Nonne militia est vita hominis super terram? (“Isn’t man’s life upon the earth a military campaign?”). Or, as Seneca put it (Epistle 96 to Lucilius), Vivere militare est (“To live is to fight”). Maybe, in a time when peace is often confused with passivity—and war is almost always associated only and exclusively with death, terror, cruelty, and destruction—I guess we’d better rethink this whole matter and to rediscover the positive aspects of the concepts of fight, struggle and war. After all, there are unjust wars, but also just wars, there are bad fights and good fights… Let’s not forget Paul’s words (2 Timothy 4:6-8):
For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day; and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved his appearing.

July 18, 2018

Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil




And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil
By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.
If thou have power to raise him, bring him hither,
And I'll be sworn I have power to shame him hence.
O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!


~ William Shakespeare, King Henry IV,  Part 1




Have you ever experienced the power of telling the truth? Well, the fact is that, nowadays, no one expects you to speak the truth, they simply think that you are part of the “Big Lie” that underlies the Western culture on so many levels, but when you speak the plain truth out loud the energy that carries your spoken words to the ears of a listener is of a particular vibration, or frequency. This is the frequency of truth, and the universe is behind you. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness” (Harvard Divinity Address). Of course, sometimes you need to tell a little white lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or, say, to get yourself the timeout you need…, but speaking the truth should be something like a minimum requirement of decency, which should be inculcated from the childhood. Obviously, reality is different, and when you speak the truth you must expect the worst and assume that it will happen. Yet, nothing will be the same afterwards. As if a curtain had fallen. As in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

July 16, 2018

Prepare to Submerge Yourself in Silence


Someone—maybe from an atheistic point of view—once said, “Faith isn’t a virtue, it’s the glorification of voluntary ignorance.” Well, no truer words were ever written or spoken. Read this St. Ephrem the Syrian’s sermon on Faith if you don’t believe that’s the case—and prepare to submerge yourself in Silence…

The sea is mighty. If you want to fathom it, you will be overwhelmed by the force of its waves. One wave can sweep you away and dash you against a cliff. Suffice it, oh feeble being, to be able to trade in a boat. Faith is better for you than a boat on the sea. The boat, in fact, is guided by a rudder, but the tide can sink it. Your faith cannot sink, if your will does not wish it so. How desirable for the sailor to be able to manage the sea as he likes! He thinks in one way; the sea acts in another manner. Only Our Lord held sway over the sea, so that it became silent and stopped raging.
He also gave you the power to dominate a sea and calm it. Mightier than the sea is arguing and disputing is more violent than the waves. If the wind of inquiry rages in your mind, reprimand it and calm its billows! The storm tosses the sea about; your quibbles perturb your mind. Our Lord issues an order, the wind dies down and the boat slips peacefully through the sea. Control and bridle inquiry and your faith will be at peace!
The creatures, whose use you know, should convince you of that. For instance, you are unable to relinquish a drink, even if you collapse at the spring. Having drunk from springs you do not surely think you have taken them all in. You also fail before the sun and yet you are not deprived of its light. By the fact that it comes down to you (with its rays), you do not desire to reach its height. Although the air is quite extensive for you, a little bit of it provides you with life. Although it is your pledge, you ignore how great its mass is.
You receive from creatures their limited help and service and leave their vast unknown treasures in the chest. Do not disdain what is less nor long for that which is more. Let these creatures of the Creator instruct you about the Creator Himself: you should boldly ask His help and shy away from sophistry about Him. Accept the life of divine Majesty, but do not probe it! Love the Father’s goodness, but do not scrutinize His essence! Yearn after and love the Son’s blessedness, but do not inquire about his eternal birth! Long for the presence of the Holy Spirit, but do not try to fathom Him! The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are registered by their names. Ponder their names and do not mull over their content! If you want to scrutinize their essence, you are lost; if you believe in the name, you are safe. Let the Father’s name be a limit for you; do not surpass it trying to plumb His nature! Let the Son’s name be a wall for you; do not try to scale it to scrutinize His generation! Let the Holy Spirit’s name be for you a hedge; do not enter in order to understand! These names will be a limit for you and with them stop every investigation. You have heard the names and their reality. Turn to the commandments! You have perceived the laws and the commandments. Turn now to your way of living! You have accomplished it perfectly, then turn to the promises! Do not neglect the commandments to apply yourself to what is not prescribed! You have heard the truth in manifested realities, do not go astray in the case of hidden things! Truth is proclaimed in few words, do not search it with lengthy probes! Save your effort by being silent, O frail being!

June 1, 2018

Under the Linden Tree


Have you ever enjoyed the smell of linden trees in late spring to early summer? Sweet, heady, totally overwhelming with their aroma, in the Northeast of Italy these majestic trees—also known as lime trees (though with no connection to the fruit) or basswoods—usually blossom between the end of May and the beginning of June. Every time it’s the same wonderful olfactive experience. Only God knows how much I love this time of the year! The scent is so strong that you can smell it hundreds of yards away—actually, the odor is more pronounced further from the source! As soon as you get out or open the windows to let in the light of the day or the cool air of the night, the gentle and pervasive smell of linden trees spreads everywhere and reigns supreme. It’s something magical, it’s a kind of urban miracle that transforms the town into a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a fairy-tale.

Walther von der Vogelweide
Not for nothing in China, the linden is named the tree of forgetfulness because its energy is soft, gentle and it offers the sensation of warmth and peace. It’s also interesting that in the Hellenic period of Egypt, the masks of the sarcophagus of Fayoum were made of linden wood—which proves the sacred nature of this tree since ancient times—and that in the mythology of Ancient Rome, it was a symbol of marital love and fidelity in the couple. In turn, in Slavic mythology the linden was considered a sacred tree—in Polish folklore, the belief still exists that the linden tree planted in front of a house protects the family from the evil spirits…—while the Germans considered it as a sacred tree of the lovers because it had the capacity to give fertility and prosperity.

The linden tree also appears as a romantic symbol in medieval poetry. For example, there is a medieval love poem called Unter der Linden (“Under the Lime Tree”), which is one of Walther von der Vogelweide’s best-known pieces. In it, a naïve, common-class girl rejoices in her love experience under the linden tree, the crushed flowers still showing the place where the couple had lain. I’m quoting it because I think this is an appropriate way to celebrate the linden tree.

1. Under the lime tree
On the heather,
Where we had shared a place of rest,
Still you may find there,
Lovely together,
Flowers crushed and grass down-pressed.
Beside the forest in the vale,
Tándaradéi,
Sweetly sang the nightingale.

2. I came to meet him
At the green:
There was my truelove come before.
Such was I greeted —
Heaven's Queen! —
That I am glad for evermore.
Had he kisses? A thousand some:
Tándaradéi,
See how red my mouth's become.

3. There he had fashioned
For luxury
A bed from every kind of flower.
It sets to laughing
Delightedly
Whoever comes upon that bower;
By the roses well one may,
Tándaradéi,
Mark the spot my head once lay.

4. If any knew
He lay with me
(May God forbid!), for shame I'd die.
What did he do?
May none but he
Ever be sure of that — and I,
And one extremely tiny bird,
Tándaradéi,
Who will, I think, not say a word.

[Modern English translation by Raymond Oliver]

May 3, 2018

Do not Cast Your Pearls Before Swine


Rudeness is a contagious behavior that spreads rapidly, and, as we all know, is rampant everywhere nowadays. Edmund Burke once said that, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” Perhaps this suggests that, given the widespread diffusion of such contagious behaviors, weak people are the majority of humans. Be that as it may, however, well-mannered and kind people are becoming increasingly rare. At the same time, it must be said that, often, the ruder they are, the more demanding of other people’s time and attention they are. Clearly, they take too much for granted.

Fortunately, though, there are many antidotes to rudeness and oafish behavior, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I know some of them very well. One, and perhaps the most effective, is minimizing the contact opportunities with rude people. You have certainly heard the expression, “Do not cast your pearls before swine,” which is part of a famous Gospel passage (Matthew 7:6): “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast your pearls before the swine, lest haply they trample them under their feet, and turn and rend you.” (For a correct understanding of the metaphor, please note that the Jewish law regarded swine and wild dogs as unclean and unfit for close human contact, very likely because they were dirty, unkempt, lice-infested, and prone to attack or cause trouble).

Well, that’s not only a great Gospel passage, but also an inspirational piece of advice for everyday life. In fact, one of the possible meanings—in a lay sense—of the metaphor could be that we should not waste our time and energy on people who rebuff the rules of well-mannered behavior and live by the rules of the worst selfishness, self-aggrandizement, and callous disregard of others, including the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends. Of course, the Gospel doesn’t say that we have to despise the “dogs” and “swine”—those who don’t recognize something “holy” for what it is, and people who don’t show discretion, appreciation, or discernment—of the metaphor, and even less that we can treat them like garbage. Similarly, we must be patient and open-minded towards other people’s feelings and opinions, but at the same time, we must be firm on principles: all emotions are acceptable, not all behaviors are. Not everything is justifiable. This means that we have the right and duty to sanction bad conduct when it occurs. The above-mentioned sanction makes it so that we give the right message while protecting ourselves from an over-exposure to other people’s bad energy, so to speak. This is essentially a question of both ecology of mind and justice, inextricably intertwined with each other.

Of course, there are a lot of other “corrective actions,” but most of them seem to me to be either too extreme or too watered down, and far less effective than that above mentioned.

April 3, 2018

Out Beyond Ideas of Wrongdoing and Rightdoing



Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.


The above quoted verse is from a Rumi’s poem called “A Great Wagon”—here in the translation by Coleman Barks (The Essential Rumi, published by HarperCollins in 1995). Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, more popularly simply known as Rumi, was a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. His poems have been the best-selling poetry in North America for at least two decades. The most popular of them is probably “A Great Wagon,” which is somehow representative of the image of Rumi in the popular imagination of Western readers as a mystic beyond the realm of religious dogma. Actually, he wasn’t by any means a mainstream Muslim. In particular, he had a deeply transformative life experience—his meeting with the dervish Shams-e Tabrizi on  November 15, 1244—at the age of thirty-seven, that transformed an accomplished teacher and jurist into an ascetic, and changed his traditional Muslim worldview to an ecstatically mystical one, which provided the main inspiration for his poetry.

It is certainly not without reason that Rumi remains the most popular poet in America today. As Jawid Mojaddedi points out, to many who claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” his poems represent direct spiritual connection with a higher power: ‘There is a lot of correspondence between the teachings of Rumi and the increasing Spiritual But Not Religious trend; the popularity of both are undoubtedly related.’ Yet, he continues, ‘there is a huge difference between prioritizing the feeling of peace through individualistic practice and developing spirituality under the training of a master,’ as Sufism teaches—and Rumi was himself a Sufi—‘even though neither need be religious in the conventional sense.’

Rumi has sometimes been compared to Dante, with whom he was contemporary, even though Dante was much younger than him: when Rumi died in 1273, Dante was just eight years old. What is certain is that both Rumi and Dante closed the Middle Ages, because although their works are imbued with medieval thought, they introduce new concepts about life, love, compassion, and religion. It’s also certain that, according to both Dante and Rumi, beauty is a fundamental element in the road to truth, while love is the only way towards salvation.

As Nour Seblini puts it (“On Mystical Metamorphosis in Christianity and Islam: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Rumi’s Masnavi in Comparative Perspective”),

A search for absolute morals expressed with intense emotions and a spiritual ardor is a value shared in Rumi’s Masnavi and Dante’s Divine Comedy, the most influential medieval works of the East and West, respectively. Their inner selves undergo a purifying process from sins and get beautified with traits that permit their union with the Divine.
Love transforms the human heart by purifying its mirror and consequently prepares it to attract the Divine. Its personification comes in the figure of Shamsoddin of Tabriz that reflects the Sun of Truth for Rumi; while for Dante what is synonymous with such kind of love is the figure of Beatrice. Both poets, as it will be demonstrated in more details in this work, present love as the divine essence making the beloved a fundamental element in human’s search for the Eternal; in this way, love becomes the animating spirit of mysticism which in turn lies at the very heart of Dante’s and Rumi’s work. In the New Life, Dante’s declaration that “ladies understand Love’s every way” signals that love is the soul of knowledge. Dante the poet is seeking wholeness through love. A thorough examination of his mystical journey shows that since the beginning the quest was set by his love for a woman, Beatrice Portinari, with whom his relationship evolved back on earth in Florence, who would lead him through a synchronicity of time and eternity to his ultimate transcendence as he attains redemption.

Please note that in the first line of the above quoted verse, Rumi is talking of ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, not rightdoing and wrongdoing per se. Which roughly means that what we think to be good or bad is not necessarily what is actually good or bad. Our ideas, though we may believe them to be based on God’s Word and will, are much less important than Love. Love transcends everything. Omnia vincit amor et nos cedamus amori (Virgil’s Eclogues 10:69, Love conquers all; let us, too, yield to Love!).

P.S. Click here to read the full text of the poem.

February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday AND St. Valentine’s Day


Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day both occur on the same time this year, and that’s today. Of course “Ash Wednesday has precedence,” says Cardinal Dolan, “and the coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day would not lift for us the duty of fasting and self-denial.” But a more positive way to look at it, he continues, is that “both days center on the heart”:

The very symbol of St. Valentine’s Day is the heart, the icon of love, especially the romantic love between a man and a woman. We’ll send greetings and boxes of sweets that are both heart-shaped.
Ash Wednesday, the first of forty days of prayer, penance, and charity we call Lent, leading us to Holy Week and Easter, is also about the heart: a heart called sacred, wounded by unreturned love, broken by callousness and selfishness: the heart of Jesus.
This heart is on fire with love for us, but surrounded by a crown of thorns. It will be pierced by a spear on that Friday weirdly termed “good” on a hill called Calvary, a heart beating in the broken body of a man on a cross.
It is the love of this heart from which all true love flows. It is this Sacred Heart we trust this Wednesday; it is this Heart we turn to through our repentance and acts of sacrifice and atonement this Wednesday.
St. Valentine willingly bows to this Sacred Heart, for which even he lovingly gave his life eighteen centuries ago.

Now then, my dear fellow Catholics, have a Blessed Ash Wednesday AND a Happy St. Valentine’s Day!

January 27, 2018

The European R-Word


The whole matter has developed into a national scandal, to the point that even Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) President Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti felt it necessary to weigh in on this. “We thought talk of (the white) race had been buried for good,” he said after League Lombardy governor candidate Attilio Fontana recently said migrants threatened the white race. To be precise, Fontana said, “We have to decide if our ethnicity, if our white race, if our society continues to exist or if it will be wiped out.” Subsequently he said that it had been a “slip of the tongue,” and made it clear that it’s not about being xenophobic or racist, “it’s just about being logical or rational.”

While some on the center-right agreed there was a real risk to Italian society in the numbers of migrants arriving here, the mainstream media and parties condemned the comments. European leaders, in turn, expressed concerns about what they consider an increasingly xenophobic tone of the campaign for the March 4 general election. Even ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose center-right Forza Italia party is the League’s coalition partner for the elections, said Fontana’s comment had been “unfortunate.” But he also said that it would be “a serious mistake to focus too much attention on one wrong word and not on the risk that Europe loses its identity.” On the same wavelength, but even more strongly, League head Matteo Salvini said Italy was “under attack.” “Our culture, our society, our traditions and our way of life are threatened. An invasion is under way,” he said. However, even Matteo Salvini failed to pronounce the word ‘race’. Why? Because in Europe, unlike in the U.S., the word ‘race’ has been banned. Italy is obviously no exception, even though the Constitution itself expressly talks of different ‘races’. In fact, Article 3 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic reads as follows: “All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and social conditions.” In other words, according to the fundamental law of the country, different races do exist, but nonetheless, you cannot pronounce the word in question. One of political correctness’s many mysteries.

Now we all know there is a social science bias towards the belief that  the differences between the different races are so minimal that they don’t qualify as a strong enough reason to think that there are actually separate races. Accordingly, there is actually only one human race and that is Homo sapiens, and by consequence the correct term to use is ethnicity... Yet, even though the differences are minor they are real and they do define a person’s race—or ‘ethnicity’, ‘ethnic background’, or whatever you like to call it. Therefore, if the exclusion of ‘race’ as a term means denying the genetic differences between groups of people, there is something deeply wrong with the whole concept. Ask a physician about this, and he/she will tell you that he/she sees the differences between races in how they are affected differently by infectious diseases, genetic diseases and cancer. To be precise, from a physician’s point of view asking a person’s ethnicity is basically a cultural question, asking their race is asking something else. The terms are not interchangeable.

As Bruce T. Lahn and Lanny Ebenstein wrote in an opinion piece in Nature (“Let’s celebrate human genetic diversity,” October 8, 2009),

A growing body of data is revealing the nature of human genetic diversity at increasingly finer resolution. It is now recognized that despite the high degree of genetic similarities that bind humanity together as a species, considerable diversity exists at both individual and group levels […]. The biological significance of these variations remains to be explored fully. But enough evidence has come to the fore to warrant the question: what if scientific data ultimately demonstrate that genetically based biological variation exists at non-trivial levels not only among individuals but also among groups? In our view, the scientific community and society at large are ill-prepared for such a possibility. We need a moral response to this question that is robust irrespective of what research uncovers about human diversity. Here, we argue for the moral position that genetic diversity, from within or among groups, should be embraced and celebrated as one of humanity’s chief assets.

The current moral position is a sort of ‘biological egalitarianism’. This dominant position emerged in recent decades largely to correct grave historical injustices, including genocide, that were committed with the support of pseudoscientific understandings of group diversity. The racial-hygiene theory promoted by German geneticists Fritz Lenz, Eugene Fischer and others during the Nazi era is one notorious example of such pseudoscience. Biological egalitarianism is the view that no or almost no meaningful genetically based biological differences exist among human groups, with the exception of a few superficial traits such as skin colour. Proponents of this view seem to hope that, by promoting biological sameness, discrimination against groups or individuals will become groundless.

We believe that this position, although well-intentioned, is illogical and even dangerous, as it implies that if significant group diversity were established, discrimination might thereby be justified. We reject this position. Equality of opportunity and respect for human dignity should be humankind’s common aspirations, notwithstanding human differences no matter how big or small. We also think that biological egalitarianism may not remain viable in light of the growing body of empirical data.

Somewhere in the Web I also read that the mantra that “Race Does Not Exist” is roughly similar to claiming that “Teeth Do Not Exist” or perhaps “Hills Do Not Exist,” with the latter being an especially good parallel.

It is perfectly correct that the notion of ‘hill’ is ill-defined and vague—what precise height distinguishes a pile of dirt from a hill and a hill from a mountain?—but nevertheless denying the reality or usefulness of such a concept would be an absurdity. Similarly, the notion of distinct human races—genetic clusters across a wide variety of scales and degrees of fuzziness—is an obviously useful and correct organizing principle…

Generally speaking, common sense should lead us to think that mentioning and being aware of racial differences is not the same thing as racism . In fact, racism is assuming those differences have an innate value scale attached (one is better than another), it’s “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary). But as Voltaire once said, “Common sense is not so common.”