Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Scotland's national poet Robert Burns relied on traditional Scottish folk songs to compose Auld Lang Syne. Loosely translated, the ballad's name means "days gone by," and is best understood in a wispy, melancholic sense.

Scottish Poet Robert Burns
1759 - 1796

The tune is sung in Scotland to celebrate
Hogmanay, a festival characterized by the giving of new year's day gifts and lighting numerous fires of various intensities.

Burning Viking Longship
At Edingurgh's Hogmanay
- December, 2004

My understanding is that the old Scottish Kirk frowned on such celebrations.

Burns originally composed Auld Lang Syne in English with a light Scottish accent. His verse can be rendered in modern English thus:

Auld Lang Syne
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old times since?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for days of auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
And surely I’ll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.


We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.


And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give us a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.


Sunday, December 28, 2008


In a previous century there was much hope placed in science and much faith in material progress.

During that time, in the compartment of a train in France, an old man was one day praying his Rosary. At one stop, a young intellectual entered the compartment and sat down. After a while, not able to stand it any more, this student of modern science said to the old man, "Why do you pray the Rosary? Why do you pray? There is no God. Only science. Yes, science is the answer."

The old man remained silent. The youth, not wanting to hurt him, said, "Well, my friend, you mean no harm. You must lack education. Give me your address; I'll send you some books to enlighten you. Yes, they will teach you that science, and not prayer, is the answer."

Just at that moment it was the old man's stop. Before leaving the compartment he reached into his coat pocket and took out his card. He gave it to the intellectual, who bid him, "Good day."

When the train started again the young man looked at the card. It read:
Louis Pasteur
Institute of Scientific Research

Louis Pasteur

That story reminds me of a lunchtime conversation I had one day with a pair of irreligious co-workers. I'd made my normal sign of the cross over my meal, and that pious little act prompted one colleague to start an anti-religious monologue that ended with, "I'm convinced that one day science will provide a rational explanation for everything we observe in the universe."

I raised an eyebrow and said, "It takes a lot of faith to believe that."

The other agnostic at the table chuckled in spite of himself.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Vigil of Christmas (Christmas Eve)

The home is decorated with installments from my different Nativity collections. Pictured below are the various sets (missing is the wooden one I have at the office).

Irish, Ceramic

The crèche and Holy Family arrived first. A few months later a wise man and camel arrived. A few months after that, another wise man and a donkey. Then another angel. And so it went, month after month. The Gospel records that a whole choir of angels sang to the shepherds in the field, so I had to tell the manufacturer to cease with the shipments. When I received the first shipment, all-thumbs here promptly dropped the Holy Infant on the tile by the fireplace, and just like that the babe's head popped right off. I saved it with some Elmer's, but Kelly at the office remarked, "That's got to be worth seven years of bad luck or something."


Yes, the wise man on the left's head is missing. No, it is not a theme -- just bad luck (see note above).

Nativity in Tin

A gift from Diana, my youngest sister who escaped Florida to live in Brooklyn. The whole set folds up into the little tin box that the angel is standing on.

Year-Round Holy Family

I have this one on the bookshelf year-round.

Angel Nativity

This one is a Christmas tree ornament. The left bookend to the Traditional Nativity below.

Modern Family

A gift from my folks. The right bookend to my Traditional Nativity.

Traditional Nativity

The bread and butter Nativity. Sits on the china cabinet opposite me at the table, so that I see it when I dine.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas Photos

Christmas day marks the birth of Jesus Christ.

In the Catholic liturgical calendar, three Masses are traditionally said that day; the custom was begun in Jerusalem.
(1) Midnight: Mass in Bethlehem to celebrate Christ's birth into the world
(2) Dawn: Mass at the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem to commemorate the adoration of the shepherds
(3) Midday: to celebrate the eternal generation of the Word and the dignity of the Son of God

We maintain this custom at my little chapel of St. Michael's. Below are some photos from Christmas Day, 2007.

The Nave and Sanctuary
Nave for the Laity, Sanctuary beyond the Altar Rail for the Clergy

The Sanctuary
The Main Altar Decorated for the Christmas Feast

Main AltarThe Focal Point of Every Catholic Church

View From the Choir LoftReady for Mass to Begin

Third Mass, Christmas Day
The Reading of the Gospel
The season of Christmas, or Christmas-tide, begins December 25 and runs 12 days until January 6 and the Feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates a triple manifestation of Christ:
(1) to the Magi (and by extension to the Gentile world),
(2) in His Baptism, when the Voice from heaven declared "This is My Beloved Son,"
(3) in the miracle of the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tree That Owns Itself

The town of my college alma mater is also home to a famous social landmark: the Tree That Owns Itself.

Tree That Owns Itself
Corner of Finley and Dearing Streets - Athens, GA

It turns out that the original tree fell about 100 years ago, but an acorn from the downed white oak was planted on the same spot and grew to its present stature. Some locals now refer to the younger oak as The Son of the Tree That Owns Itself.

Legend has it that the original landowner cherished childhood memories of the tree, and deeded the tree and all land within eight feet to the tree itself.

Legally this gratuitous act is a myth and has no merit -- outside of
Middle Earth, a tree has no capacity to consent to receiving anything.

As even the ancient pagans knew, however, myths were meant primarily to nourish and exercise the imagination.

In nuce.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Morals and Ethics in Economics

By way of addendum to this morning's entry, today's column from David Warren titled Market Failure is worth perusing.

Morals and Ethics

To say that a man lives a moral or ethical life means that he lives the way he ought in light of what he is.

When I talk about what a man ought I'm alluding to his nature as the
moderate realists define it. Man in his nature possesses:
* the vegetative powers of reproduction, growth, and nutrition common to all living things;
* the appetitive and knowing powers shared with animals; and
* the rational powers of intellect and will.

Man is not a spiritual soul trapped in a material body, he is a composite creature that is both soul and body. The soul is the animating principle of the body; what's more, the soul is immortal and lives on after the death of the body.

That's where the philosopher leaves off and the theologian takes over to say that the body and soul will be reunited at the consummation of the world, when everyone who ever lived will be raised from the dead and their bodies rejoined with their souls* -- that, and the two will either share eternal happiness in Heaven or unending suffering in Hell. Miserere nobis.

A proper moral system, then, accounts for these points when determining how a man ought to live.

The terms "morals" and "ethics" can be used interchangeably -- they mean the same thing. The Latin word mos (moris) means custom, and the Greek word ethos means pattern of conduct.

Some years back I'd picked up the notion that morals meant what made for right and wrong in one's conduct while ethics was the systematic study of morals. That notion wasn't accurate -- there is no such distinction justified by the history of the terms themselves -- but I don't think it did any harm.

I did once come across a notion that did do harm, however. I was in graduate school taking a class that touched on statistical validity in surveys, and we were having a discussion about how to ethically acquire information about individuals. One student seriously proposed the idea that an appeal to morals was actually an invocation of religion, whereas an appeal to ethics was merely an appeal to doing what was right and avoiding what was wrong.

There are a number of problems with that formulation -- for starters, the line of demarcation between what is and is not religious is not so clear as my former fellow student implied; it also assumes knowledge of right and wrong without attention to how we know something is right or not.

But those are really minor points. The real motivation behind the argument was that it served as a mechanism for dismissing out of hand anything but contemporary and novel criteria in discussions about ethical conduct.

How so? Simple: the modern accepted wisdom is that all old standards are steeped in religion, and therefore can be passed over; only modern, secular values uncontaminated by religious notions need be considered. Naturally there were no criteria offered for what was a moral vs. an ethical standard, which left the door wide open for dismissing any position one didn't like as moral and therefore religious and therefore irrelevant.

If people really are their own self-referential authors of right and wrong then everything really is relative, which means there is no God, which also means that there is no reason to submit to any constraint of my conduct unless I feel like it. It is the ultimate in worship of one's own ego.

Which, in fact, is what the serpent told Eve in the Garden: eat of the forbidden fruit, and you shall be like God, knowing right from wrong. He didn't hiss "you will be like God in that you can perform miracles and even create whole worlds," but "you will replace God as the supreme moral arbiter."

As Eve's reply shows, even a preternaturally perfect intellect can have a bad day.

* This belief in the resurrection of the body is an act of Faith, and is why Christians put a stop to the pagan practice of cremation (except in emergencies -- e.g. war, plague). Cremation did not make a comeback until the atheists of the Enlightenment dusted it off and re-introduced it to spite the Christians. My own estate plan paperwork makes absolutely clear that I am not to be burned. I would also never consent to assist at someone else's cremation -- naturally, on moral grounds.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

I received my picture of
Our Lady of Guadalupe as a birthday gift from my wife in April, 2000. In February I'd returned from my first Ignatian retreat, and I spoke with great enthusiasm about this image of the Blessed Virgin.

My Birthday Present
In the Living Room

In some ways changing your creed is not unlike learning to speak a new language, when your grammar is still atrocious and your vocabulary is limited and your Neanderthalic pronunciations make the accomplished speakers cringe in pain. Similarly, I had completed the Catechism by the time I was Baptized, but solid as that foundation was there was still more building to do in terms of assumptions to be reconsidered, bad habits to be weeded out, weak virtues to be reinforced and strengthened, and decisions and friendships and commitments to be re-evaluated.

Phoenix was home to the chapel where I went on my first retreat. I was beyond thrilled to be there in no small part because back home we hadn't yet been able to save enough pennies to begin construction on our own church, which meant that we were having Mass in places like hotel conference rooms (where I was Baptized and Confirmed) and the basements of parishioners' homes. Thus, I'd been a Catholic for over a year before I went to Mass in an actual church.*

Day one of the retreat I crept down early to the retreat chapel and slipped inside, for the first time in my life alone with
my Lord in the tabernacle.

To the right as you enter the chapel is a
votive stand, and above it is a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I knelt before the image and lit a candle, then asked the Mother of God to help me find the answer to a perplexing question during the retreat. The right answer presented itself to me that day during one of the conferences. I repeated this each day of the retreat, with the same result each day.

On the last day of the retreat I made a pledge to the Blessed Virgin to be one of her foot soldeirs.

Our Lady of Guadalupe and Mexican Cross in Tile & Tin
The latter courtesy of the Amadors

God always answer our prayers, and that prayer was no exception.

* Sometimes I'm asked what I "get out of" my religion, as if it were a kind of hobby or self-help program. The answer is that I don't do it for a personal payoff, I do it to love and honor God. The early Christians managed in the Roman catacombs, so I have no complaints about my tour of duty in the Catholic Hotel; even so, it is useful as a refutation of the "religion as reward" assumption.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


The year I lived in Ohio my wife and I met a couple named Ric and Barb. Ric was cognisant of being a stereotype: he was a liberal Long Island Jew who ran a bagle shop.

One day over lunch Ric quizzed me, "Sean, do people in the South really name their children Bubba?"

The answer is no -- Bubba is just a nickname. Before I could finish chewing my food and give a smart-alec response to Ric's smart-alec question, however, Barb chimed in.

"Ric, do people from New York really name their children Guido?"

I laughed so hard I could have choked on my food.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Himself in Germania

This photo was snapped when I was in Germany in 2007.

Himself in Germany, June, 2007

The trip was lovely.

The itinerary:
May 31: Atlanta, Amsterdam, Munich
June 1: Munich, Altotting
June 2: Altotting, Eichstatt, Rothenburg
June 3: Rothenburg, Dettelbach, Bamberg, Wurzburg
June 4: Wurzburg, Walldurn, Wurzburg again
June 5: Wurzburg, Fulda, Marburg, Cologne
June 6: Cologne some more
June 7: Cologne, Aachen, Trier
June 8: Trier, Mosental, Rhine cruise to Rudesheim, Frankfurt
June 9: Frankfurt, Atlanta

Photos on Flickr at

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Winning Shot

A high school senior in New York made the game-winning shot as time ran out. The fellow spent a lot of time on the floor -- he tried to draw a charge at one end and hit the deck, then took a tumble while throwing up a prayer that had no business being anywhere near the goal.

When you're good, the luck follows.

My friend Joe said, "That's how I shoot. That could have been me making that shot!"

The guy wasn't even looking at the basket. Uncanny.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Home for the Holidays

Yesterday I helped decorate the office. My wrapping skills have fallen off since last Christmas, however: the wrapping job I put on one box looks like it’s intended for a gift from the Island of Misfit Toys.

One co-worker was heard to jokingly say that we weren’t decorating for Christmas, we were decorating for the holiday season (naturally, this tidbit hadn’t been included in the office memo). Of course, the word “holiday” is derived from Holy Day, which in this case means Christmas – but what do I know?

Another co-worker offered that the decorating was for a variety of holidays during that time of year – he said to not be surprised if a Kwanzaa bush showed up. I told him that if someone brought in a Kwanzaa bush I would set it on fire (in the non-Mosaic sense). “Not feeling the love?” he asked. “Bah-humbug,” I said.

I did think about starting a conversation along the lines of what I wrote
here, but there wasn’t the opportunity (or the interest on the part of my colleagues). Maybe next year.

Laus tibi Dómine, Rex ætérnæ glóriæ.