Thursday, April 15, 2010

Defiant Detachment

This essay is a delight so I have cranked up the scanner. It's from this week's Wanderer, which does have a website - you can find the front page here - but I don't know how to cite to the page that it's on. (If you'd all get a subscription, it'd save a world of bother. You know how much trouble I have with that scanner.) The title is "A Prescription for the Health Care Crisis". But ignore that. It's not another moan'n'groan about the Obama health thingummy. It's about putting first things first, which things may not be what you think. This piece reminds me how much I still owe to Walter Kerr's The Decline of Pleasure. And Josef Pieper's book on Leisure, the actual name of which I've forgotten.

Anyway. Herewith:

A Prescription For The Health Care Crisis

By John Dejak

One of my law professors once quipped — rightly, to my mind — that “the Constitution is dead.” Thus, the flurry of commentary regarding the much-touted “Obamacare” and the procedural maneuverings for its enactment as cutting to the very core of our constitutional system — while correct — is a mere symptom of the disease that has been raging for all of human history: the preference and focus on the temporal rather than the eternal. So far, I have said nothing note­worthy. This is not to suggest that intelligent commentary and commonsense activism are not important. Yet, the question arises: What ought we to do in the face of this continued diminution of our freedom and continued encroachment by the smart guys in government? Shouldn’t we primarily turn ourselves to the practical duties of politics and activism toward a restoration of our Constitution?

I answer that we should all have a beer and read Chaucer.

One of the great Jesuits of our day, Fr. Paul Mankowski, spoke of this very topic at the 30th Anniversary of Thomas Aquinas College in Ojai, Calif. He put the issue thusly: “Isn’t it obvious that, in a time of national crisis, pursuits such as philosophy and theology and the other abstract disciplines are a grotesquely irresponsible self-indulgence, that we should put aside these mind-games and apply ourselves to the practical tasks that face us? Or, even if we should decide to linger in the academy, doesn’t common sense tell us that it is metallurgy, not metaphysics, by which we do our part?”

Indeed this is the common query of well-meaning citizens everywhere. To be sure, we must be concerned with the issues of the day and not be cavalier about the significant acts of our politicians and elected officials. But a far more effective and defiant posture is to admit of the insignificance of politicians and elected officials. One can do this precisely by pursuing such things as philosophy and theology in a time of national crisis.

George Weigel, in his biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach in the life of the young Karol Wojtyla.

In what Weigel calls a “metaphor for his life,” he recounts a rather harrowing time for Wojtyla during World War II. The future Pope was a member of a resistance group that practiced cultural resistance to the ruling Nazi threat. On one occasion, as the group met clandestinely to read the great and heroic literature of the Polish people, a megaphone-laden truck traveled the streets of Krakow announcing the latest Nazi victories. At the time, Wojtyla was reading selections from the great Pan Tadeusz, when the truck announcing the victories passed the home. The other members of the gathering were fearful of discovery and the fate that would await them if discovered. The truck passed the house and the din of the announcement of Nazi victories overwhelmed the voice of the future Pope. Yet, Wojtyla kept speaking. He did not wa­ver. He did not look up. He kept speaking — reciting the poetry that for years had spoken to the soul of the Polish people and to the greatest aspirations of the human spirit.

Around the same time that Karol Wojtyla was making his stand, C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture to students entitled “Learning in War-Time.” In this lecture, which inspired Fr. Mankowski’s address to the students of Thomas Aquinas College, Lewis answers the question that Mankowski proposes and that faces us today.

He says: “Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself…if men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.” Men are different from other species, he said, in that “they propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the latest new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.”

Fr. Mankowski calls this “defiant detachment.” It is not only an attitude, it is an action. It is not passive, it is active. It is pursuing that which most pertains to the end for which man was made. This is our duty in life whether we live in a peaceful society or whether we live behind an iron curtain or in an iron lung.

Let us take up that cause, fighting in the realm of the practical to be sure; but, even more important, practicing the same “defiant detachment” of Lewis and Wojtyla.

Fr. Mankowski concludes his address with these words: “Because his holy defiance rests on a deeper obedience, because he knows, as Socrates knew, that no ultimate harm can befall him, the just man is made free of the world. Baseball has its place. Banquets have their place. Jests can be made on a scaffold. He can read Dante while under a bombardment and Ezekiel in a Dodgers’ bullpen. And even when the civilization that nursed him seems to be dissolving before his eyes, he can give himself cheerfully to Padre Pio and Weird Al Yankovic and Semitic philology.”

I would add to that, beer and Chaucer.

And I would add to that a rollicking reel on a good-sounding bagpipe. And a smooth strathspey setting step.


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