Category Archives: Background Perspective

Brothers in the Morning

“Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.” Alexander the Great

Last week on a cold early morning with a sharp wind coming up from the bay, I stopped at my favorite coffee watering hole where a small crew has been framing an addition in the back of the restaurant. Two of the carpenters were walking from their pick-ups parked in back, dressed for the weather, gloves without fingers, tool belts over their shoulders, talking quietly with easy familiarity.

I remembered thousands of mornings that began each day with similar working friendships: fence crews, carpenter crews, landscape crews, workshop crews of various kinds for fabricating doors, windows, cement forms, nailing pickets on fences, and most especially and fondly tree climbing crews. So many tree climbing crews, large or only two or three men, in Massachusetts, Maine, Colorado and Rhode Island. Convivial or occasionally contentious, we mustered each morning in weather fair or foul, and set about doing something together that needed doing.

We rarely spoke of politics or the news and never in meaningless loaded bludgeon words like inclusivity or diversity or multiculturalism; we talked about the coming tasks that day – the seventy-foot dead silver maple hanging over a swimming pool or roof or power lines, and how to get the damn thing safely on the ground without injury to property or persons, about chainsaws and handsaws, peaveys and winches, ropes and knots, solid high crotches in the tree to tie into, safe and central. We spoke of trucks, saws and chippers that broke down and trees that had almost killed us. We talked about wives and girlfriends and children and good looking waitresses and beer. In the trucks on the way to the morning’s job, we planned for and complained about the cold, the heat, the wind, the rain, the snow and ice. Sometimes we bemoaned the previous night’s disaster for Red Sox, Bruins or Patriots, or we celebrated a hard-won victory and the miraculous catch the center fielder made climbing the wall to save the game and how the bull pen finally closed out the late innings with no damage.

We spoke of real things, not in slogans, not cant and constructs, but in clear sentences to convey to one another our thoughts, hopes, fears, lives and plans.

“Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.” Kenyan proverb

The more experienced taught the new guys, and, of course, some mentors rode the rookies derisively for their lack of skills. But they watched out for them, nonetheless. Stopped them before they fell or cut themselves (or their ropes). The rough humor was constant. I remember getting into trouble about forty feet in the air with an ill-advised decision that left me dangling precariously. My foreman Bill yelled up that since Rita was such a beauty he and others on the crew would make sure to go over to console her if I couldn’t get myself out of the mess I was in.  Another day when I was coming down with my rope securely tied in, Bill lay in wait because I was coming down in an open area well clear of the trunk of the tree. He sprung from the bushes and grabbed my rope. With a quick expert roll, he wrapped my feet, preventing further descent. Then he spun me until I was horizontal and my mouth snapped open with centrifugal force.

The jokes were part of the training, training in skills, knowledge and teamwork. When the foreman issued an edict, debate was not considered. The seniors knew what they were about and taught as they had been taught, and their teachers before them. Bill was a gifted athlete and a savant climber, respected and liked. He taught neophyte climbers like me how to fall if necessary (he was a veteran of the 101st Army Airborne) and more importantly to avoid falling. Tension would build in the crew when truly unnerving challenges arose. Bill had a gift for defusing fear and self-focus; it was about the team, covering each other, keeping an eye out for each other’s safety, the ground men making sure the climber’s lines were never tangled in brush should he need to get out of harm’s way in a hurry. Lunch might include rock throwing or axe throwing contests, foot-lock climbing for height and time, arm wrestling or story telling of demented tree felling events in the histories of the more experienced.  The stories always had lessons.

Men have learned and worked together in such crews, each person with a necessary role in the team, since they hunted with spears and clubs. Worker’s guilds and medieval artist guilds evolved from those groups. The first universities were born of these patterns of order based on experience and talent; the teacher’s organization and the masons who constructed the buildings were so modeled. Men relate differently to and with each other in such crews than they relate to women or in mixed gender gatherings.  For those who have not experienced that brotherhood in crews, teams, the military, it cannot be fully understood.

“The anthropologist Lionel Tiger, in Men in Groups, earned the wrath of feminists when he suggested that men had been primed by the exigencies of the hunt to form hierarchically organized groups, with each man performing a particular task, all of coordinated in a team movement to bring down the mammoth or the wild boar. Some feminists countered by saying that women too had to form groups in order to locate and gather berries, which was a strange way of proving Tiger’s point. Berries do not run forty miles an hour. Berries do not have antlers, hooves or fangs.” From the section, “The Triumph of Brotherhood” in Dr. Anthony Esolen’s latest, “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture”, which I highly recommend.

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Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

Three Year Olds and Socratic Learning

“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.”  Lou Holtz

Angela and Meg 1988

Angela and Meg 1988

When our youngest daughter Meg was around four, we were walking around our old neighborhood in Providence. As we approached one house, we were accosted by a malodorous intrusion.  My first thoughts were ‘broken septic pipe’; my second was that all smells are particulate, which was not comforting. I realized that Meg was just trying to reconcile an unpleasant incident and her previous experiences with smells outdoors.  “Dad, is someone having a yucky cookout?” I read that the average four-year-old asks four hundred questions a day. I thought that was an exaggeration until we encountered Meg, a mischief always ready to throw something or run from a call home and always ready to ask a question, most of the time with five follow up questions. She outdid the most dogged of journalists.

Curious Mary

Curious Mary 2015

Our third granddaughter Mary may outdo her Aunty Meg with questions. She gauges the temperature in the room, especially when she thinks she may have crossed a line. “Are you mad?” “Are you sad?” “Are you happy?”  A couple of months ago, she wanted to clear up an issue of compelling interest to her at the moment. When she was instructed to stop picking her nose (which is a remarkably cute one), she immediately asked, “Can I pick the other one?” She needed to know if the prohibition was nostril specific – not an unnecessary clarification for a three-year-old. Curiosity is what leads us first to knowledge, then to understanding, and then perhaps with “know thyself” good fortune, wisdom – that most necessary of gifts.

The wisest teach with questions, many times not providing all the answers themselves, but leading each inquiring mind to seek the truth. Not to say that truth is solely subjective, but that finding elusive, objective truth is not for the weak of spirit or mind. Socrates taught with questions and reminded us that only by coming to grasp with our own ignorance do we scratch out the beginnings of wisdom. In the biblical history of Jesus of Nazareth, we observe that in all His recorded utterances, He answered directly only ten of the one hundred and eighty-seven questions He was asked. He related parables and stories. In those same scriptures He asked three hundred questions.

“Try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.” Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”

We have learned as a people and as individuals mostly by asking questions: the right questions. For those most difficult to understand questions, a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes, are necessary, and the illumination of history helps. This is most difficult, for to understand our history, wisdom is learning what the events of history were to those who lived them, not in the revisionist light of our own interpretation. The corollary is also dismayingly true. As contemporaries within our own defining events, we don’t know how they will turn out; what the outcome will be in a hundred years or twenty of this cultural phenomenon or this movement of our rulers or this election, we cannot know.  Our understanding while living within these events is indispensable, and the decisions we make elucidated by that understanding equally so, but we cannot know, definitively know. We can surmise based on what has happened to others in similar cultural changes, making analogous choices perhaps. While consequences are to some degree predictable, absolute certainty is not ours to have.

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”

So let’s ask a few:

  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that industrial capitalism and consumerism needs reform.
  • Is that needed reform to descend into revolution and chaos as the so-called Protestant Reformation did when the sixteenth century Church required reform from its excesses and faults? Is that reform to be clumsily centralized by a coercive government or localized to the town, the association, the parish, the congregation, the family and the person? Will we learn from the last century’s bloody experiments of “reform” of capitalism with fascist and communist usurpation?
  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that the hedonism and self-absorption of a culture cannot lead anyplace good.
  • Will we regain our footing and recover a culture that seeks happiness planted in the rich soil of wisdom rather than in dissociated pleasure, shallow rooted in ephemera and trifling entertainments and sexual license? Will our inclinations lead to further degradation of the dignity and individual worth of every human life? Will our lives tend towards despair or hope; fear and anger or persistence and courage; bitterness or joy; ignorance or faith; hatred or love; humility or the condemning certainty of the self-righteous? Will we spend our precious time in regrets about the past we cannot change or neglecting the present for the chimera of the future while today is all that we have?

 “As you get older, the questions come down to two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?” David Bowie

The final questions I leave to those much wiser than I.  From Hilaire Belloc’s brilliant book, The Great Heresies, “But sooner or later every human being who thinks at all, everyone not an idiot, is faced by this Problem of Evil; and as we watch the human race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that insistent question: Why should we suffer? Why should we die?”

And from John Henry Newman: “On my deathbed, issues that agitate me most now will then interest me not at all; objects about which I have intense hope and fear now will then be nothing more than things that happen at the other end of the earth. They will have no life in them, those things that once consumed me. They will be as faded flowers of a bouquet that do nothing but mock me. What will it avail me to have been rich or great or fortunate or honored or influential?”

 Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions
Are they lost or are they found?
Have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?”
  Bob Dylan, “Slow Train”


Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

Independence Day 2016

Father Nick Smith celebrated his seventy-five birthday last week. Although retired, he, like many a good priest of sharp mind, blessed with deep faith and good health, never really fully retires. Father Nick still celebrates Mass a couple of times each weekend and is listed in our parish bulletin at Saint Patrick Church on Smith Hill in Providence as Senior Priest. Educated originally in the city of his birth, Dublin, Ireland, he emigrated to the United States while still a young priest. Thoughtful, kind and with a smile that would calm the savage beast, we are blessed to know him. The gentle lilt of his native brogue in his homilies brings to mind the poetry of the Irish soul. His passion clear, his authenticity doubtless.

This morning’s Mass was no exception to his well-regarded homilies and earned him enthusiastic applause, which, as most know, is not the norm for Catholic Masses, although at St. Pat’s with Father Nick and our pastor Father James Ruggieri is not an infrequent occurrence. Both are extraordinary priests and homilists. For this Fourth of July, I asked Father Nick for a copy of his homily, and with his permission, share it with you as a guest blogger today for our celebration of this anniversary of our country’s birth as an independent nation, now nearing a quarter of a millennium. Warts and all.

 Independence Day, Father Nicholas Smith

Father NickIn recent years the famous Tall Ships have been in New England, including Newport, and I understand will visit Boston next year. It’s quite amazing the thousands who come out to see them: the parade, the pageantry, and the color of it all. And well they might.

The country was discovered by a man on a ship! The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on a ship! Many of us wouldn’t be here if someone back in our family tree hadn’t come to this country by ship.  Tall ships, small ships, passenger ships, cargo ships.  All in a very unique way remind us of who we are and from whence we’ve come.

Tomorrow is the 240th birthday of the founding of our nation. Independence Day is the commemoration of what those peoples sought when they landed on these shores long ago. The first boat people, sailing away from slavery, persecution, famine to a new world of justice and equality and peace. So we don’t celebrate the land at this time nearly as much as we salute a people who came and fought and in many cases died for the privilege of being free. That’s the gift of the Founding Fathers right there in the historic Bill of Rights! That we are all free – free to come and go – free to worship – free to vote for those we want to lead us, and vote out those we don’t.

But we remember—with some reverence even—we remember that this freedom is both delicate and dangerous. It doesn’t mean that you can do what you want. It has its limitations. And the fundamental restriction is, of course, that your freedom cannot infringe on the freedom of another.

As an immigrant myself, I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating.

  • No one would want to live in an America where you can be mugged or robbed or shot.
  • No one would want to be a citizen here, and be at the mercy of the Ku Klux Klan or the hatred of the Nazi Party.
  • No would want to live in an area where you’re threatened simply because you happen to be of a particular color or race or creed.

These are sad realities.

  • We’re not free when people in some areas of cities have to put five locks on their doors for protection.
  • We’re not free to walk down the street at night.
  • We’re not free in so many ways.

Because America the Beautiful is also America the violent. The abuse of freedom—a warped sense of freedom—freedom gone wrong is rampant.

Nowhere is freedom more delicate than in the whole relationship of Church and State. They should be separate. We should be free to worship how and where we want. But when you get down to the individual person, you cannot split him up. You and I are both American Catholics. Not one or the other, but both.

So when the priest in the pulpit speaks out on the sacredness of life or against abortion for example, not only is he free to do so as an American, but it’s his duty and responsibility as an apostle of Jesus Christ. What we’re free to do is to accept God’s Laws or reject them. What we’re not free to do is to make them, or twist them around to suit our whims. Jesus gave us God’s Laws, and we are followers of Christ.

Rejection, incidentally, of Christ’s laws didn’t begin today or yesterday. It can be traced all the way back to scripture. “Come to me. Come after me,” is essentially what Jesus is saying in that beautiful gospel today. Clearly, a significant number didn’t then, and don’t now.

On this great weekend, however, we want to look at the positive! God knows we get enough of the other. So, if nothing more, recall the immortal words of President Kennedy, words which every American child should know like you know the Hail Mary. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

The only America we can pass on to the people of tomorrow is the one we create today and love today. If you’re not satisfied with it, stop sitting on the sidelines and complaining. Work at making it better—doing your bit to make it a country of high moral standards, a country of neighborliness and justice and charity. A country where the phrase “In God we trust” is more than just words on a coin.

So what are we celebrating today?

  • We’re celebrating the past—the people of the ships—your forefathers, who sacrificed not only that we could be, but that we could be free.
  • We celebrate the future—the hopes, the dreams, the ideals we have for our children—and theirs.
  • But also, and most important in my opinion, we celebrate the present—one another—because all we’ve got is one another.

Let’s pray in this Mass that we can grasp anew something of the great gift of freedom—and the responsibility that flows from that gift.

Let’s pray that God’s kingdom

  • A kingdom of love, not hate.
  • Of hope, not despair.
  • Of peace, and not war

That this kingdom of God may penetrate our very beings and sweep through this land from ‘sea to shining sea.’

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Filed under Background Perspective

Science and Scientism, Part Two

“The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect human beings can start such battles. And only we can end them.” Dr. Francis Collins, who led the team that mapped the entire human genome. “The Language of God”

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

After the strident coverage of the scandals of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts, televangelists fell on hard times to the point where Billy Graham, who led more people to an altar call than any of the others, made the definitive point that he was not one. To many, televangelism became a punchline. A notable exception is the enthusiasm attained with his followers by one of the most successful of the current televangelists, although he is not a Christian one. His television series was a resounding success, produced by a fellow true believer, Seth MacFarlane, the animator who also produced a widely watched hit commercial series, “Family  Guy.”

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson came to broad public acclaim through the remake of the old Carl Sagan series from the eighties, “Cosmos.” Dr. deGrasse Tyson has it all: engaging personality, telegenic good looks, a pleasing, convincing voice, brilliant teaching skills, along with a great passion for and the certainty of his faith. He fills large public venues on his tours with high production value, entertaining presentations that sell out routinely. Dr. deGrasse Tyson is now a millionaire (and counting).

I have no objection to the science that he so ably teaches (in truth I love and read books on science regularly), but take issue with his other agenda: the aggressive deconstruction of other people’s faith. Joining Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Bill Nye and other apostles of the cult of scientism, he is not subtle, lobbing gratuitous enades right from the start of the Cosmos series using a shop worn atheist meme about Giordano Bruno[i].  He likes to fire up his flock with Tweets mocking anyone naïve enough to fall for the God myth.

Here’s a couple from December 25th, 2014 from a man clearly enamored of his own cleverness.

  1. ‏ On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642
  2. Merry Christmas to all. A Pagan holiday (BC) becomes a Religious holiday (AD). Which then becomes a Shopping holiday (USA).

The irony in #1 is apparent: Newton and many others who were seminal in Western science were deeply religious. #2 is factually wrong on sequence, dates and history (explanation in the article referenced in the footnote).[ii] The point of these was obviously not accuracy, it was self-satisfied mockery of other’s cherished beliefs. They reflect the central narrative of the scientism creed: the long struggle to climb out of the ignorance and mire of religion has finally triumphed, pulling mankind up from autocratic, stubborn ignorance and into pure, breathing-free reason; and, we, the deGrasse Tysons of the world, the enlightened, are its wizards.

“(Moderns) do not know that there are other methods (besides science) of finding the truth, such as honest, straightforward logical reasoning. They are less aware than previous generations of what good reasons are, for the very word ‘reason’ has drastically shrunk in meaning in modern philosophy.” Peter Kreeft,” Fundamentals of the Faith”

Their dogma ignores that modern science grew out of the soil of religion; there is no opposition, only complimentary and necessary perspectives. The founders of modern Western science were educated in church sponsored universities and faith filled, seeing no conflict between faith and reason: Newton, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal and many others. Many scientific advances have been made by priests and religious.  Here’s a few:

  • Father Jean Picard developed the first modern reasonably accurate estimate of the size of the earth. He was a contemporary of and collaborator with Isaac Newton, inventor of calculus and founder of modern physics.
  • Nicholas Copernicus, astronomer and mathematician, who formulated the math and calculations proving a heliocentric solar system, was a third order Dominican.
  • Gregor Mendel, father of gene theory and the science of modern genetics, was an Augustinian friar and abbot of the St. Thomas Abbey.
  • Father Georges Lemaitre
  • More recently, Father George Lemaitre, Belgian priest and teacher of astronomy and mathematics at the Catholic University of Leuven, first formulated the theory of an expanding universe in 1927, usually misattributed to Hubble, who published two years later. Father Lemaitre developed what became known as Hubble’s Constant, as necessary to those calculations, and first proposed the Big Bang Theory. After first challenging the theory, Albert Einstein met with Lemaitre, and after extensive review of the math, became a supporter.

Scientism is not science, but self-defines a schism between science and reason vs. religious faith and superstition.  This impoverished belief system violates a fundamental tenet of true science; by presupposing that no Creator exists, it distorts wide open inquiry to preclude any possibility of the divine. Rather than going wherever the evidence leads, scientism shuts down paths of examination.  If you want to maintain an open mind on the subject, I recommend some reading on this vast subject; it has far too long a history for a blog post. I briefly reviewed the slow devolution of philosophy to the current “enlightened” position of a false dichotomy between faith in a Creator and science in a couple of previous posts: Singularity and Beyond Singularity, but for a deeper look, I’ve included a short suggested reading list in a footnote[iii].

Science offers a valid, but limited understanding of our existence. Science is the specific study and understanding of physical phenomenon, mostly, but not entirely, based in the “scientific method” of observation of empirical and measurable data, then formulating hypotheses regarding those observations. Next it tests and hones hypotheses with experimentation, further observation and mathematics. Science is rooted, however, in broader metaphysical concepts: that we can trust our observations and reasoning, i.e. that our brains and observational equipment (biological and instruments) can be relied upon for accurate observation, and that the scientific method is valid. The foundation of science itself is a metaphysical concept that the universe is intelligible, and that human beings can come to understand that intelligibility. An intelligible universe would seem to indicate an intelligible origin. Great benefits have accrued to humankind through science and its practical cousin, technology, but also concomitant risk and always emerging ethical questions.

“Can,” “how,” “how much and how many,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “who,” “why and why not,” and their relationships are the domain of science, however “ought” and “should.” are the province of ethics, informed by millennia of philosophy and religion. On this ground, scientism has staked its claim as well. Science is, well, a science, but scientism is a faith, a type of religion, albeit a secular and relatively new one. Scientism holds that science is the only reliable guide to truth, and that metaphysics, philosophy, religion, poetry, art and other forms of human understanding are speculative, subjective, relative and not up to the exacting standards of hypothesis, experiment and empirical observation. From this perspective, objective truth is solely contained in the scientific method.

As with all stories, this has no certain beginning; and shrouded in the mists of antiquity, the story begins when we start watching and paying attention. When and where you start watching, dear reader, is what you must determine with some study and thought, and dare I say, some prayer.

“Positivism and existentialism are no longer as popular as they were earlier in this century, but their essential mind-set has taken root securely in our culture, especially the false premise common to both philosophies, namely that reason equals science.” Peter Kreeft, “Fundamentals of the Faith.”


[i] Father Robert Barron comments on “Cosmos: A Space Odyssey.”

[ii] Word on Fire Blog, “What Neil deGrasse Tyson Misses About Science and Faith,” Joe Heschmeyer

[iii] This list is far from comprehensive, and many other references are omitted, but they will provide a starting place from a variety of perspectives. I have read them and know them to be clear and well written. There are many others. I apologize for the incomplete references, but Amazon links to all are included. Most are available in inexpensive paperback or Kindle editions:


Filed under Background Perspective, Culture views

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Norman Bird Sanctuary pond 11-15-15“He knows if you’ve been good or bad, so be good for goodness sake.” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”   1934, lyricist Haven Gillespie

If your high school yearbook was anything like mine (yes, they did have printing presses back then), many of the earnest and hopeful pictures of the seniors were autographed. We took them around to friends, who at the time seemed destined to be inseparable, and exchanged heartfelt good wishes for each other’s lives. Most would include their best expectations for their own lives in a line under their picture stating their goals and aspirations. A majority yearned most notably for happiness. I doubt there were many that interpreted that longing with a clear definition. Prosperity? A beautiful spouse and loving family? Good health and a long life? Multi bedroom houses and an expanse of weed-less lawn? A Porsche, a Harley or a Catalina 315 in Newport Harbor? Wilderness camping? A career with high earnings, fulfilling achievements and social recognition? A lot of fun, however construed, with multiplying diversions and entertainments – dances and concerts and travel to exotic places?

For some an adolescent meaning for happiness persists with inherent disappointment baked in – perhaps even to become pathology with a grinding need for distraction whether in sports or sex, drugs and rock & roll or toys of any stripe or a consuming career and pursuit of the accrual of wealth and stuff or celebrity and the praise of others. If the unrecognized intention is distraction, then distraction from what is the relevant question.

“Anyone that chooses to look back on his past excesses will perceive that pleasures (typically) have a sad ending: and if they can render a man happy, there is no reason why we should not say that the very beasts are happy too.” “The Consolation of Philosophy”, Boethius, (sixth century)

The ancients had a much different understanding of happiness and thought much of happiness a choice, not good luck or successful effort for what we moderns accept as achievement. For Aristotle, human happiness did not consist of satiated desire or momentary contentment, but living daily lives in quiet pursuit of first knowing objective truth, virtue and honor, then to instill virtue in our decisions great and small. He agrees “The highest good attainable by action is happiness,”[i] but defines what that means poles apart from contemporary interpretation.  Happiness is not dependent upon the ephemeral or somebody else’s opinion; happiness is not to be sought as a goal unto itself, but something revealed and familiar in silent reflection, nurtured in our daily thoughts, words and actions.

For Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, Aristotle’s definition is self evident, but they refine it further. Aquinas dedicates a segment of his Summa Theologica to happiness. “Since the last (final or primary) end is stated to be happiness, we must consider the last end in general.” [ii] He accomplishes this in great depth for an entire, beautiful section of his exposition on Ethics.  Augustine in his letter to Proba wrote, “We must search out the life of happiness, we must ask for it from the Lord our God. Many have discussed at great length the meaning of happiness, but surely we do not need to go to them and their long drawn out discussions. Holy Scripture says concisely and with truth: Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.” To be truly happy, it is necessary to first know God, and in so knowing, learn truth and virtue, then to live that life. This brings us to Christmas.

“You first loved us so that we might love You – not because You needed our love, but because we could not be what you created us to be, except by loving You.” “On the Contemplation of God,” William of St Thierry, abbot.

“The end of the ages is already with us. The renewal of the world has been established, and cannot be revoked.”[iii]  We could come up with a better plan than God did for reconnecting His creation with Himself unless that was the only possible plan: that the Bridge had to be of flesh and blood, born of a very young woman in a very remote area of the world. The mystery is not that this actually happened in Bethlehem. If we contemplate the reunification of man separated from God, God, Who is pure Truth, Love and Beauty could not do other than this loving reconciliation for it is His nature, His essence. How it was and is done is a wonder, but what else would it be?

Once genuinely knowing that truth within ourselves, trying to live a life worthy of it, a life of virtue, seeking to understand ever more deeply and love ever more fervently leads like gravity leads running water in a woodland stream to an inner peace and happiness[iv], to that “perfect and sufficient good.”  “So be good for goodness sake.”

“Above all things keep peace within yourself, then you will be able to create peace among others. It is better to be peaceful than learned.”[v]  So if in the context of this peace imbedded in an abiding happiness, we should feel offended or ignored or forgotten or taken for granted or hurt or angry or resentful or vainly knowledgeable in an ignorant world or upset with incompetence or obtuseness or arrogance we perceive in others, then these are opportunities for virtue and great peace.  A gift of opportunity is granted to reclaim peace, to recall the sufferings of others, to know that we cannot see into their souls and what grave secret burdens they carry. We can understand that our feelings may well up from a reservoir of hurt carried within us all that we can allow to drain off. Peace is better than to be right. Mercy and truth, but mercy first. Peace and right, but peace first. Humility before offended pride, which always is rooted in our own faults.  God bless you and yours this Christmas season and a Happy New Year.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is God, our Father dear,

And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love

Is man, His child and care.


For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.  

 “The Divine Image,” William Blake

[i] The Nichomean Ethics, 1.4, Aristotle

[ii] Peter Kreeft in Summa of the Summa, states in his notes, “’Happiness’ (eudaimonia in Greek, felicitas in Latin) means not merely subjective contentment, or rest of desire, but also real blessedness, the state of possessing the objective good for man.”

[iii] “Lumen gentium” from the Second Vatican Council.

[iv] “As Plato pointed out (Republic, Bk 9), all who have experienced both the greatest bodily delights and the greatest spiritual delights testify to the same results of this dual experiment: that the soul can experience far greater pleasure than the body. (It can experience far greater suffering, too.) All who doubt this simply prove they lack the experience and are in no position to judge.” Peter Kreeft, notes from Summa of the Summa.

[v] From “Imitation of Christ,” Thomas à Kempis.


Filed under Background Perspective

Word Sense

Janus, Roman god of transitions and opposites, looking to the past and future

Janus, Roman god of transitions and opposites, looking to the past and future

Most bloggers like words, are fascinated by words, enjoy thinking about and playing with words, and want to use the right words. Nerds essentially, poets with an unrequited love, and I fall into that category.

“In time small wedges cleave the hardest oak.”The Spanish Tragedy,” Thomas Kyd

“That is why a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24

Janus words are self-antonyms, and with some thought, we can find quite a few of them. “Cleave” is a bit antiquated. Thomas Kyd penned “The Spanish Tragedy” in Elizabethan times. When did anyone last tell their spouse he cleaved to her? Perhaps you cleaved the firewood with a splitting maul. More likely you split the wood. In modern conversation, allusion to cleavage most often involves immodest dress. Still, we understand the opposite meanings of “joined with” and “split” by their context.

How about the Janus word, “screen?” I’m wonky enough to look forward to watching a screening of “Pawn Sacrifice,” the new Tobey Maguire movie about the Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky world championship chess match in Iceland. Screen can also mean to hide from view, as in Hillary set up a private server for her emails to screen her communications from oversight and legal inquiry.

Oversight can mean to oversee and supervise, as in the Secretary of State has oversight responsibilities for the security of U.S. diplomatic missions and embassies across the globe. However, if an ambassador in a high risk country like Libya pleads for additional security forces, is ignored, doesn’t get the help he needs, then is murdered along with three other Americans in Benghazi, well, that’s an oversight of a different kind.

“Sanction” can connote approval or condemnation. We can discern its opposite meanings depending upon context to guide us, even within the same sentence. The weak Iran weapons deal with its unpublished side agreements tacitly sanctions Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions by removing all economic sanctions without enforceable inspection provisions, thus freeing up billions of dollars for Iran’s terrorist supporting enterprises.

More?  How about “trim,” which can mean “to decorate (add to)” or “to cut away?” “Fast” can mean to move rapidly or to stand motionless and firm. “Weather” can be used to describe wearing away over time or to persist unchanging in the face of adversity. A little thought and you can find others like “left” or “dust.” We don’t ponder these self-opposite words, and our brains adjust without pause to interpret them on the fly.

As I thought of these words, another came to mind that, while not exactly an auto-antonym, can connote, if not opposite meanings, vastly disparate implications for the human experience. Let’s explore the word “sense” in a little more depth.

“And I’m thinking ‘bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways. Maybe just the touch of a hand.” “Thinking Out Loud” Ed Sheeran

 Sense can mean hard headed evaluation and everyday common wisdom. “That makes no sense.” Or “Common sense is unfortunately not very common in Washington.” Sense has other inferences connecting us to feelings, intuition and imagination. “He had a sense of foreboding when his new partners stopped their conversation as he entered the room.”

Sense is a basic attribute of sentient beings. We need five senses as our means of learning about our environment. They become increasingly intimate and perhaps more primitive as we first experience them from far to near. We start to see from great distances; with a little help to the far side of the universe. Closer in, we begin to hear – the greater the distance, the louder the stimulus needs to be and the longer it takes for us to sense the disturbance. From explosion to the transcendence of music; the unwelcome intrusion of angry shouting to the whisper of a child with a secret.

Next in comes smell, always particulate, sometimes exhilarating, calming or pleasant, other odors offensive or even frightening. Closer in still come taste and touch, requiring physical contact with that which brings to us the sensation. Sweet and pungent, bitter and delightful, hot and cold, sharp and soft, pleasure and pain.

Within our most intimate relationships, all five senses intensify, and with the most personal of human contact with bodies intertwined, all senses heightened, we become one. Open to passionate sharing of our very selves, at its spiritual core, open to new life – both with each other and in co-creation with God. Not merely, “Let’s go lie down somewheres, baby,”[i] but “I in my innermost desire want our love to bear the fruit of a child, who is a lot like you.” The definition of marriage is an intimacy like no other inscribed in our nature as humans. The vagaries of cultural change can no more redefine marriage at its core than it can redefine our souls.

“What more do you want?”

“The truth,” she said. “For starters.”

We both fell silent for a moment. I said, “It was a hell of a lot easier for us to agree to have sex.”

She drew that big breath back in; her shoulders and chest rose. “Sex is always easier than the truth,” she said. “The Star of Istanbul” Robert Olen Butler

[i] “Coney Island of the Mind” Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Filed under Background Perspective


“Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe.” Albert Einstein

violin partita No 2 D Minor JS BachLast week Dr. Oliver Sacks died well; he wrote, thought and gifted mankind until the end. He was highly praised as a neurologist, author and for the partially autobiographical 1990 film, “Awakenings,” which earned Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Actor nominations for Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. Williams played the Oliver Sacks character. A fine writer, he penned a book, “Musicophilia” in response to Stephen Pinker’s statement that “music is ‘auditory cheesecake, an evolutionary accident piggybacking on language.’” [i]

Dr. Sacks “pointed to [music’s] ability to reach dementia patients as evidence that music appreciation is hard-wired into the brain.” He said in a lecture at Columbia in 2006 that “I haven’t heard of a human being who isn’t musical, or who doesn’t respond to music one way or another . . . I think we are an essentially, profoundly musical species. And I don’t know whether — for all I know, language piggybacked on music.” [ii]

Music is to me the deepest of human efforts to communicate, to impart information – intellectual and emotional – an amalgam of mathematics, symbols, human feelings and poetic beauty. Some is simple; some is more complicated. Musicologist Helga Thoene studied patterns and double coding in music. She applied a number/alphabetic substitution code to the notes of Bach’s exquisite unaccompanied Violin Partita in D-Minor[iii], a piece written after the death of his wife. Thoene discovered encoded within it the medieval Latin proverb, Ex Deo nascimur, in Christo morimur, per Spiritum Sanctum reviviscimus (In God we are born, in Christ we die, through the Holy Spirit we are made alive).

With 27 possibilities (26 letters and one number for a space), the odds of this sixty eight character (with spaces) phrase occurring perfectly and randomly are one in 27 x 27 x 27 and so on 68 times (2768), a very large number – quite respectable odds against pure chance. What is a reasonable person’s reasonable inference about the Ex Deo statement? Applying his considerable genius to create a beautiful piece of music, Bach applied intelligence to impart additional information and intended it to be there. That, of course, is the point.

“The most beautiful experience we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science…” Albert Einstein

Other instances of improbable odds occur in nature. If in the formation of the universe the ratio of the gravitational force-constant to the electro-magnetic force-constant increased by as much as one in 1040 (one with 41 zeros after it), only small stars would be formed. Decrease it by the same amount, only large ones.[iv] Both are needed. Large ones produce all the elements in their thermonuclear center and disperse them with supernovas for their use in new stars and planets; small stars survive long enough to sustain a planet with life. An image to help understand the odds? They are akin to a sharpshooter with a rifle hitting a quarter, but a quarter 20 billion light years away at the outer edge of the observable universe.

Closer to home there is the DNA structure and sequencing for a human being, or even a single protein. To bog down the blog with the details of the math, biology and chemistry would flood too many ideas with inadequate space to explore them. A far better job of it than I could ever attempt is to be found in “God’s Undertaker” referenced in the footnotes. I’ve mentioned this book before, and for any fair minded and motivated curiosity, it is well worth a few evenings of reading. Clearly written and not beyond anyone with a minimal familiarity with scientific and mathematical topics – nothing beyond high school is necessary to understand the concepts.

The formation of a single protein or even more so the human genome DNA generated randomly over eons of time and prebiotic chemistry is doable – as long as we accept one in 10123 odds, or approximately one out of the estimated number of protons in the known universe. Science has succeeded in creating with various manipulations of natural events, such as simulated lightning strikes into the hypothesized primordial soup, some, but not all of the necessary amino acids for all the proteins needed by life. Not a single protein by spontaneous confluence of any kind has been produced in this manner. Artificial proteins, yes, with elaborate computer modeled lab procedures, but with any process mimicking randomness – not even remotely close. Neither has double helix pairing such as the AGCT structure of twenty billion of such pairings in precise sequence in human DNA been shown to be possibly random. The introduction of intricate instructions and information is necessary.

The point is one discussed before in this blog. There is zero proof of any kind that these more complex prebiotic chemical processes took place randomly, nor, despite numerous efforts, have they been close to duplicated in a laboratory.

I was  justly criticized for naming the choice for a theistic vs atheistic or even agnostic perspective on these things as a faith decision. I think that is because it can be confusing to those who don’t see a choice for “no God” or an unprovable God as a faith decision. Rather let’s agree to call it a belief system that undergirds one’s world view. Materialist/naturalist vs. intelligent design. Reflect, then, on the ponderous and convoluted reasoning set forth by the materialist to explain away the odds. Is not the reasonable inference by a reasonable person that the evidence points to an infusion of the necessary information from an intelligent source? That the against-all-odds, irreducible complexity of life is more simply explained by a designer – an Occam ’s razor for our existence?

Are those who trust a designer as more likely than a random accretion as the cause for the presence of elements and the fine-tuned chemistry, physics and biology of life less enlightened than the nature only true believer? If it is credible that the Ex Deo proverb is coded within Bach’s partita by accident or for that matter that a partita or a Bach or the longing and beauty of the human mind creating music was somehow a chance happening like ink drops on a piece of paper, then I suggest you are not following the evidence to lead to your conclusion. That isn’t science; it is belief.

Science that takes as an axiom that all conclusions must find a naturalist/materialist result is not science that follows the evidence, but presupposes and limits its findings to the detriment of the search for truth.

   “I want to know God’s thoughts. The rest are details.” Albert Einstein

[i] Quotes from Peter Leithart’s blog piece in the journal, “First Things.”

[ii] Ibid

[iii] As played by Arthur Grumaiux:

[iv] Please see “God’s Undertaker. Has Science Buried God?” by John C Lennox for in depth analysis of these examples.


Filed under Background Perspective

Shrouded 2

“Well, if I had my way, Lord, in this wicked world, Lord. If I had my way, Lord, I would tear this building down.” “Tear This Building Down,” Blind Willie Johnson

starry nightIn an email response from Anthony and a blog comment from my son, Gabriel, we exposed what I find to be a quintessential dichotomy with profound implications, a crucial discussion. The accepted secular wisdom based in pervasive skeptical humanism is that there is an irreconcilable divide between science and religion. This antagonism is promulgated and encouraged by the science only coterie and is depicted as the enlightened modern mind vs the deluded ancient superstitions of the ill-informed.

I’ve read Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, but personally found their “explanations” dissatisfying and smug. Sagan proclaims at the beginning of the popular “Cosmos” television series (and follow up book) of the eighties[i]The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever shall be.” Neil de Grasse Tyson recently updated the series for PBS to great acclaim. He, too, subscribes to a philosophical structure called Naturalism, which holds that everything that exists is within one all-encompassing system of nature, whose cause will ultimately be explained only by science. As Gabriel wrote in his comment posted about the Shroud of Turin, the absence of an explanation using our current scientific abilities does not mean there is no explanation. Like you said, it’s a mystery… for now.”

The shroud is a mystery, but not exactly in the sense that Gabe understands it. Science has explained the ‘how” to a great degree: as was described in the previous post, it was not painted, but imposed upon a microscopically thin outer layer of the fabric in a phenomenon akin to a photographic exposure with an enormous burst of ultraviolet spectrum energy greater than all known sources of such energy in a burst of infinitesimally short duration in a perfect replication front and back of a body crucified and uniformly superimposed on the cloth. This was replicated, but only imperfectly on a very small sample of cloth because of the limitations of available energy and the ability to project it absolutely perfectly uniformly over a large area.

The problem with the defined “how” from a pure scientific method perspective is duplicating the experiment. Hypothesize, test, publish the results and confirm when the experiment is duplicated by others, right?[ii] Very difficult to duplicate since we have no way of generating such energy from the inside of a body scourged with a Roman flagrum, crucified and lanced: difficult to find a grant to fund such research and difficult to find a volunteer subject, I would expect. Perhaps as Gabe suggests, someday science will be able do so. Let me state for the record, I don’t volunteer as the guinea pig.

The dichotomy is not science vs religion, but naturalism vs theism.[iii] I suggested in my email to Anthony that naturalism and science are not the same, are not coterminous. Many advocates and practitioners of the scientific method have been and are theists as well as scientists.

To believe that eventually science will explain all that is, is a through the looking glass view reflecting back the much derided “god of the gaps” accusation leveled at the theists, wherein God exists in our minds only because we haven’t been able to explain something yet by science. But in the naturalist’s view, it is dogma that we will eventually with the right methodology and equipment explain it all. Just please acknowledge that “The cosmos is all that is, ever was, or ever shall be,” is every bit as much a statement of faith as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Naturalism, indeed accepting the scientific method as the sole arbiter of discovering truth, is a metaphysical concept.

“If you ask how such things occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man….” From “Journey of the Mind to God” by St. Bonaventure

Downstream of the institutionalizing of skeptical humanism in culture, for good or ill, has been profound change. For instance, with naturalism comes the death of God and with Him, the demise of natural law integral to not only physical ecology, but moral ecology. Truth has become subjective and self-interpreted, and as Justice Antonin Scalia stated in another outnumbered dissent last month, “Words no longer have meaning.” This does not seem to me an improvement. When there is no natural law accepted as a standard of justice or truth, we are cut adrift. There is no purpose. “What is the meaning of life?” or “What am I supposed to do with this life?” or “Why are we here?” become questions without relevance. Whatever truth serves to get us nervously whistling past the graveyard suffices, but objectively has no benchmarks.

When the majority of a court, no matter how august, (many times a slim majority of only five people) can redefine not only the U.S. Constitution, but reality itself, we get results that redefine our humanity. The court is merely reflecting the culture in which it is immersed. Dred Scott v Sandford didn’t make black human beings saleable commodities. Roe v Wade didn’t make pre born babies less than human. Obergefell v Hodges doesn’t make sweaty sheets or even abiding affection into a marriage. We create our own redefinitions of what’s real and what’s ridiculous. To wit: mutilating surgery doesn’t make a Bruce into a Caitlin or a hero, just a sad, disturbed, maimed human being who went from an outsy to an innsy with some ill placed cuts and hormone injections. Culture wars escalate, but natural law doesn’t change. Veritas vincit.

As I was weeding the garden yesterday, marveling at lush provision, I was struck by its simple splendor. Like looking up into the starlit wonder of a moonless, cloudless night sky, or wandering at leisure Sachuest Point Wildlife Refuge, I am always delighted by gratuitous beauty. The old thought experiment comes to mind: waking up on the beach of an uninhabited island and in exploring I come across a tight roofed, freshly painted cottage near the water’s edge with a comfortable bed, a well-stocked pantry, and a relaxing chair on a pretty porch; I ponder its origins. I could, like the naturalist, make the assumption that the cottage was serendipitously left by eons of the fortuitous actions of wind, sand and water over time. Lots and lots of time. Maybe a meteorite, an earthquake or climate change. Or I could come to another, not unreasonable conclusion, that we live on this fragile, beautiful great blue ball as gift, similarly well provisioned. And believe it is fitting to contemplate origins and purpose, meaning and where we are headed. Is it not in such contemplation that we will find the peace our nature seeks?

“I could not exist unless I were in thee from whom are all things, by whom all things are, and in whom are all things…Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.” Confessions of St. Augustine.


[i] Quote and some of the ideas on naturalism are shamelessly purloined from “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?” by Dr. John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy at Oxford University

[ii] Not all of science is easily repeatable or able to be duplicated. Cosmologists who spend their lives studying the origins of the universe and what happened in the first nanoseconds of the Big Bang would be dismayed to learn their work is not really science after all.

[iii] Giants of the scientific revolution were theists: Newton, Boyle, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and the list goes on. It is when ideology, beliefs outside of science or worse, politics, insinuates itself into the science that is at issue. Darwin would be a prime example. He determined that skeptical humanism would be enhanced if his theory of natural selection could explain all the great gaps in evolution (especially species jumps), so he spent much of his life proselytizing to great effect in the popular consciousness. While natural selection is a proven hypothesis for the most part, undirected evolution from proto proteins to human life is far from cast in stone. The APG climate change science rift is a current example of political and ideology’s unseemly influence over pure science.


Filed under Background Perspective


“Life teaches you how to live it if you live long enough.” Tony Bennett

Orig__ShroudIn the late eighties much was made in the secular press with barely suppressed glee of the carbon dating tests conducted on the “Shroud of Turin” that “proved” definitively that it was at best medieval pious art and at worst just another fraudulent prop thrown up by a dying religion–certainly not the authentic burial cloth of Jesus. I remember thinking that late nineteenth century revelations of the shadowy photographic negative image deepened the enigma of how the shroud was fabricated, but, while fascinating, was not essential to my faith one way or the other. I was fully prepared to accept it as the work of a skillful medieval artist.

The “Shroud of Turin” is currently on public display for the next few months. Many still believe it is the burial cloth which wrapped the body of Jesus. Since the startling discovery in 1898 that the image of a scourged, crucified man wrapped front and back is seen much more clearly in a photographic negative, scientific inquiries have been made to ascertain or debunk its origin. The results are mixed, but the presence of human hemoglobin and blood serum is undisputed: type AB negative and possessing both X and Y chromosomes, hence male. How the image was created remains a mystery.

The carbon 14 dating was done on tiny samples clipped from the edges of the cloth in 1988. The samples were necessarily tiny because carbon dating techniques destroy the tested material. The results came back that the cloth was dated between 1260 and 1390. The findings have been disputed, positing that the samples may have been contaminated from repairs woven in by nuns after the shroud was damaged and rescued from a medieval fire. Computer models of the results were unusually scattered unlike other more consistent data from typical carbon date tests.

In 1978 the Vatican invited a U.S. lead multinational scientific team of thirty three with seven tons of equipment to examine the shroud, giving them unprecedented access. They found no evidence of artificial pigments that would be associated with a forgery. The color of the image is somehow photo etched on the outer, microscopically thin (0.000028 of an inch or 1/30th of one fiber of a 200 fiber linen thread) layer by an inexplicable process. In the final report, the STURP (Shroud of Turin Research Project) team concluded “no combination of ‘physical, chemical, biological or medical circumstances’ could adequately account for the image. The Shroud of Turin, the STURP team concluded, ‘remains now, as it has in the past, a mystery.’”[i]

In 2002, three different series of extensive testing were conducted on the Shroud – two chemical analyses of the materials of the linen and the stains and one microscopic mechanical examination of the original weave, comparing it to a database of all known weave and hem sewing patterns of linen. All three confirmed dating compatible with the historical time of the life and death of Jesus.[ii] See the footnote reference below for detailed explanations. The original carbon dating was found to be inaccurate; the area from which the samples were taken were compromised (the medieval patches and backing cloth added after the fire damage). The patterns of blood stains and the image on the shroud were consistent with crucifixion by the Roman government and burial practices of devout Jews.

Next, Physicist Paolo Di Lazzaro and colleagues from Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) spent five years trying to duplicate the shroud’s image using state of the art lasers to focus short bursts of ultraviolet light. In 2011, they published their partial success on a few square centimeters of raw linen. They were unable to match all the physical and chemical characteristics of the shroud or to produce anything close to the full size human image on 53 square feet. The team found that to emulate an image of that size, albeit imperfectly, would require laser “pulses having durations shorter than one forty billionth of a second, and intensities on the order of several billion watts, which exceeds the maximum power released by all the ultraviolet light sources available today.” Presumably the ultraviolet light sources available 2,000 years ago or to a medieval forger were fewer. Dr. Di Lazzaro said, “One could look at hypotheses outside the realm of science, a sort of miracle, but a miracle cannot be investigated by the scientific method.” Just so.

How the image was created remains a mystery. There may be for some a lot at stake. As one wag posted in a long chain on Facebook regarding the current exposition, “My faith does not depend upon its authenticity, but your atheism utterly depends upon its inauthenticity.” Or as William James famously wrote, “In order to disprove the assertion that all crows are black, one white crow is sufficient.”

“Ask yourselves whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action.” St. Gregory, the Great.

[i] See April 17, 2015 article in National Geographic.


[ii] Summary of the chemical analysis and linen studies:




Filed under Background Perspective

Jail Break

“You going to get used to wearing them chains after a while. Don’t you ever stop listening to them clinking.” From “Cool Hand Luke”

Norfolk Prison“Holy Mother of God!” cried my great aunt Isabel Manley (Aunt ‘Tot’). She stood at the sink looking out the kitchen window into the woods and the railroad tracks behind their house. Her brother Charlie had escaped from the Norfolk Medium Security Prison in the adjoining town about five miles away. He emerged from the trees behind the house and Aunt Tot spotted him. Charlie was the baby of the family. He worked for the town as a laborer, which may indicate limited ability, but from a family with some connections in the town.

Two plain clothes detectives were waiting for him. My mother, when she was about twelve, and my grandmother, Molly Manley Laracy, had gone to the West Street house to await developments after the news circulated in Walpole about Charlie’s breakout. The cops waited patiently while my great grandmother, Margaret McHugh Manley, served Charlie what turned out to be (I believe) his last home cooked meal. He was twenty nine. What happened after that remains fuzzy.

“You know, that’s the first thing that got me about this place, that there wasn’t anybody laughing. I haven’t heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh, you lose your footing.” Ken Kesey, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

 In the depths of the Depression, Charlie Manley robbed a gas station with a toy gun. His motive is unknown.  Piecing together the story from my ninety four year old mother and my one hundred and three year old Aunt Mary left some gaps. Other than the prison break story that my mother related to me recently, neither has any strong recollection of Charlie: he was kind to them as young girls, quiet, and a little shy, worked hard.

His older sister, Julia, married Timothy Cullinane, who rose through the ranks to become the respected and more than a little feared big Irish chief of police in Walpole. Timmy was jovial to his grand nephews and nieces, red faced, well over six feet with broad shoulders and a barrel chest. Their home was the family Christmas afternoon gathering place for a buffet feast, storytelling and laughter while we cousins were growing up. I learned as I got older that Uncle Timmy was not to be trifled with as a cop, however, and more than a few skulls suffered some dents from his night stick as a patrolman, then sergeant. His only child, Marie, taught at Boston College for many years.

No Irish Need ApplyCharlie’s father, Dan Manley, worked for the railroad as many Irish did, as a switch operator, steadier employment than many immigrants enjoyed. Aunt Tot stayed in the West Street house and took care of her parents, the proverbial Irish spinster working as a carder, combing cotton at Kendall Mills, Walpole’s largest employer. She and her brother, my Uncle John, lived in the house all of their lives, drifting into a mostly uneventful retirement. John had one healthy lung left after injuries sustained in a German mustard gas attack in the trenches of 1918 France. What I remember most about John was wry kidding of his grand nephew, his smoky laugh and his yellow, nicotine stained fingers. What I remember most about Aunt Tot was her cackling laugh that terrified me as a young boy. The smell of the old house lingers, cigarette smoke, a faint scent of aging and fading decrepitude – flower patterned, rough textured, lumpy living room furniture and a wall of full bookshelves, not show books, but gently worn. John’s pile of books rested on a side table by his lounger near the back window. Tot and John died within months of each other in 1966. Kid brother Charlie died in 1959 at the age of fifty six in the Bridgewater State Prison Hospital for the Criminally Insane, having never climbed out of “the system.”

“I listened to them fade away till all I could hear was my memory of the sound.” Ken Kesey, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

How Charlie made his way from Norfolk Medium Security Prison work parties in the local fields to deep incarceration in Bridgewater and why he fell from view from the family and everyone else is a mystery I hope to understand some day. Research on a forgotten prisoner who died over fifty years ago is a slog. No one at Norfolk Prison or Bridgewater State Hospital is amenable to giving out information over the phone. Perhaps someday I’ll find time to drive there and ask for the records. Whether they are forthcoming is a tale for another day. I hope it is not a “Cuckoo’s Nest” dreadful story of the incorrigible escapee the system cannot slot or handle, who succumbs to a thirties era enforced lobotomy and early death. The Irish family closed ranks tightly, and my mother and aunt have no idea what became of him.

A Hassidic rabbi once wrote this prayer: Let me not die while I am still alive. Did Charlie spend his years yearning to go back to what he had? When did he realize it wouldn’t be there anymore? He made mistakes beyond mending and became a ghost. There was no happy ending for Charlie.

“If he breaks a thing down, there is no rebuilding; if he imprisons a man, there is no release.” Job 12:14

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Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life