Thursday, October 31, 2013

Women's Intuition and Aristotle on Why Tired Babies Cry

There are two basic ways of knowing: intuition and rational thought. Intuition is the grasp of the truth immediately, while rational thought progresses through a series of steps to demonstrate a conclusion from several premises. We're all familiar with the notion of a "woman's intuition," which is often derided by men and is compared negatively to logical reasoning, which men associate with themselves. This is demonstrated humorously by a Monty Python sketch featuring an annoyed logic professor:
For example, given the premise, "all fish live underwater" and "all mackerel are fish", my wife will conclude, not that "all mackerel live underwater", but that "if she buys kippers it will not rain", or that "trout live in trees", or even that "I do not love her any more." This she calls "using her intuition". I call it "crap", and it gets me very *irritated* because it is not logical.
Now, this is an exaggeration, obviously, but it expresses the view that many men have toward "intuition."

It should be noted, however, that angels gain knowledge by intuition and not through rational thought; so, if women really are more intuitive, they are, in that way, more angelic than men. It seems we men have to go through all the extra work of logical demonstration when women can often recognize the truth right away.

Recently this was demonstrated to me. I was telling my fiancee how it is so mysterious to me that young children cry and throw fits when they're tired. When they're hungry, and are presented with food, they stop crying and eat. When they want a toy, and are given it, they cease their blubbering and play. But when they're tired, and have the ability to sleep well within their grasp, they don't sleep, they go on crying! Why? Why would this be?

My fiancee answered, immediately and matter-of-factly, "They don't want to miss anything."

At first I didn't understand. Wait.... what? Where did that come from? Where did you get that idea? Huh?

But then I thought about it a bit, and applied some lessons I learned from philosophy courses, and came to see she was right! Behold as I demonstrate, using Aristotle, that this woman's intuition is spot-on.

1. All human beings by nature desire to know. (The first line of Aristotle's Metaphysics.)
2. All knowledge begins with sense experience. (The foundation of Aristotle's theory of knowledge.)
3. Thus if one wants to fulfill the desire to know, one must be gaining sense experience or reflecting on it.
4. When one is sleeping, one cannot gain sense experience or actively reflect on it.
5. Thus, the need for sleep conflicts with the desire to know.

To a child, practically everything is new and wonderful and exciting. Every waking moment is an adventure of discovery--that's why the only way to bore a child is to make them sit still and keep them from exploring their surroundings. Sleep interrupts this exercise, causing distress and dismay in the child, whose desire to gain experience overrides their desire to allow this natural bodily function to take its course. We all face moments like this in our lives: when we need to go to the bathroom but are in the middle of an enthralling movie; when we're on the phone late at night with our significant other, enjoying every moment, but are fighting to stay awake; when we're listening to a fascinating lecture but are so hungry we contemplate eating our note paper. To kids, though, everything is as enthralling and exciting and fascinating as that.

Now, see, I had to spend two paragraphs explaining all that, whereas my fiancee nailed it in one sentence (and I'm sure many of you moms already got the gist before I wrote a word). Not every flash of intuition is going to be valid... but I'm willing to give it some credence.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What is a Sacrament?

OK, boys and girls, it's time for a little Catechesis 101. (Actually, this stuff is so basic, we probably ought to call it Catechesis 1.) Here follows a (not-so-) brief introduction to the sacraments:

The seven sacraments are signs instituted by Christ which communicate grace, that is, God's own life, making us participants in the very life of God--it would seem that they're pretty important then! Or, in the classic definition, a sacrament is "a visible sign of invisible grace."

A sacrament consists of two things: the sign (the visible), and the reality that the sign signifies and brings into effect (the invisible). Every sacrament signifies what it does and effects what it signifies. For example, Baptism through its pouring or immersing in water clearly signifies washing, but this physical washing also has the spiritual effect of cleansing us from our sins. The effect of every sacrament is sanctifying grace, the gift of God's own life that unites us with God. Each sacrament also gives us virtues and gifts particular to that sacrament. For example, Matrimony gives the wedded couple the grace to be faithful to one another as a sign of the fidelity between Christ and the Church.

The sacramental signs themselves are a combination of words and things. In the Summa Theologiae, Question 60, Article 6, St. Thomas Aquinas says that it is fitting that the sacraments combine words and material things for three reasons: 1) it mirrors Our Lord's Incarnation, in which the Word became flesh; 2) it mirrors the human person's composite nature of soul and body, whereby the matter touches the body and the words touch the soul; and 3) material things can be signs, but words help to clarify those signs (think of a stop sign--we might be able to learn that a red [or orange?] octagon means "stop," but having the word there helps). So, in Baptism, the material thing, the washing, is accompanied by the words that clarify what the washing is doing: "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Some people object that it is absurd or even denigrating for God to communicate His spiritual grace to us via material things--several of the objections in the Summa's sections on the sacraments make just this argument: "a material thing cannot communicate a spiritual effect." The prime piece of evidence against this was mentioned in the previous paragraph: the Incarnation. Our salvation was won precisely through God taking on flesh, taking on a human nature, and suffering and dying in the flesh for love of every single human being who will ever live. Was it unfitting of God to become man? Many heresies in the history of the Church have arisen from that very sentiment. (Perhaps I will make a post in the future about St. Anselm's argument from Cur Deus Homo on why it was fitting that God become man to save us.)

A little etymology may help to bring to light two important aspects of sacraments. The word English word sacrament derives from the Latin word sacramentum, which means an oath or a promise. This is a fitting term because in the sacraments God has bound Himself by a promise to act through their administration: God has promised that when someone baptizes, that baptism will have the effect of cleansing the person of their sins and regenerating them as an adopted child of God (Galatians 3:26-27); God has promised that when the priest says in the Mass, "This is my body," that bread which he consecrates will truly become the Body of Christ. And when we participate in the sacraments, we too are making an oath or a promise, a promise to cooperate with God's work in our lives and be bound to Christ as a branch is to a vine (John 15:5). So the word sacramentum denotes this promising or binding.

Its Greek equivalent (that is, the Greek word which is translated into Latin as sacramentum) is mysterion, which means, as you might have guessed, mystery, that is, something which is hidden and has to be revealed in order to be understood or known. This is why we sometimes refer to the sacraments as the "sacred mysteries," and the Eastern Orthodox churches regularly do. Referring back to the classical definition above, something in the sacraments is invisible, is hidden from our eyes, but at the same time is hinted at by the visible sign and revealed by faith; the material sign signifies and reveals a spiritual reality. The sign of washing with water reveals the hidden, spiritual cleansing which baptism effects. The sign of the appearances of bread and wine reveals the hidden reality of Christ's Body and Blood, which is our spiritual nourishment. St. Paul calls marriage a great mysterion which refers to Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32)--most English Bibles today translate it "mystery," but it could just as easily be translated "sacrament."

This notion of "visible sign/invisible effect" dovetails with another way St. Thomas gives us to conceive of the sacraments: as the spiritual life mirroring the physical life. Each of the seven sacraments corresponds to a major aspect of our incarnate lives. We all begin life by being conceived and born, that is, generated; in Baptism we are re-generated in new life in the Spirit. We grow into full maturity, just as in Confirmation we become perfect adult members of the Church. (This does not mean that this sacrament need be delayed until adolescence or early adulthood, for as St. Thomas points out, spiritual age does not correspond to physical age--one can reach spiritual maturity as an infant. [ST III, Q. 72, A. 8, corpus].) We are nourished, just as the Eucharist provides us spiritual nourishment. We require healing and easing of our pains, just as Penance and Anointing of the Sick heal our spiritual wounds and provide us comfort. We form relationships and propagate new members of the species, just as in the spiritual life we are bonded with another person and co-create new life with God--and in both the secular and spiritual worlds, this is done in Matrimony. And we form societies that require structure, order, and administration for public needs, just as Holy Orders creates servants and shepherds in the Church to teach, govern, and sanctify us.

Finally: is any one sacrament greater than the others? Yes! That sacrament which the Second Vatican Council called "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium 11): the Eucharist. The reason for this is very simple. In each of the other sacraments, we come into contact with God for particular effect or help in coming closer to Him in the spiritual life. In the Eucharist, we come into contact with God in a most perfect way: we receive Him in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. We can't get any closer than that! The other sacraments are ordered toward us being able to be joined to God in this most perfect way. In receiving the Eucharist, we enter into a sacred unity with God, a holy communion, if you will.

The sacraments are moments of encounter with God. Participate in them as often as you can! Go to confession! Receive the Eucharist! Don't be afraid to be anointed if you're seriously ill! Don't pass up the opportunity to be united with God, to receive His grace, to have His help in this life. Lord knows we all need it... which is why he gave us the sacraments.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How is an Angel at My Side?

In honor of today's Feast of the Guardian Angels, I'll give a short example of how seemingly abstract philosophical and theological reasoning can provide beautiful insights into the faith. Ready?

We know that we each have a guardian angel whose task it is to watch over us, protect us from spiritual harm (and, in some cases, physical harm), nudge our consciences when we consider doing wrong, and so forth. Our guardian angels are always at our side.

This raises a question, however. Angels do not have bodies; they are pure spirits. Since they have no physical bodies, they can't be said to be in any particular physical place in a physical way, e.g. "at my side." So what does it mean to say that my guardian angel is always present with me, "at my side"?

St. Thomas gives us the answer. He tells us that an angel's relation to place is not according to physical presence but rather according to "contact of power" (ST I, q. 52, a. 1). In other words, an angel is said to be located wherever it is that the angel is working or turning its attention.

Let's put these two things together: if an angel is said to be in a place according to its directing its power to that place, then if our guardian angel is always with us, that means that our angel is always working on us, attentive to us, directing its power to us. Your guardian angel is constantly working for your spiritual well-being.

A beautiful and consoling thought, made possible by a truth cultivated by "dry scholastic speculations."