Sol Pais and the Marketplace of Alienation

Sol Pais, the 18-year-old high school senior from Miami who led police in Colorado on a 24-hour manhunt, fearing that she would mark the twentieth anniversary of Columbine by shooting kids with a gun she had purchased, is dead, a victim of suicide.

USA Today linked to her blog.  It is filled with journal entries like this …

JANUARY 15, 2019

lately it feels like time has been moving faster than
usual. or better said, it feels like evolutions in emotions and sentiments
of mine have been occurring faster than usual, my views and
thoughts becoming more extreme and solidified as time
goes by. to be honest, i don’t know exactly where i am, and there is more than one
way that that statement applies to me. i feel like a pot of scolding water on the verge of boiling
over… so dangerously close to spilling over.. and what that may cause is yet
to be seen and most likely a hazard, to myself and others. i’m afraid of my currently unknown
capacity for pain and misery and anger. each time it gets exponentially worse
and worse. my soul is in deep suffering and dis-belonging. i have done
quite a good job at keeping all of the explosive energy
inside of me but every time… worse and worse. and worse. like a new
channel of emotion inside me opens and more anger and frustration and
sadness fills it. there are no adequate words to describe
the feeling.

This young woman was alienated, miserable, despairing and lost. 

And she, like countless others her age, found a marketplace that catered to this despair.  For one thing, she followed a number of bands that feed these lost souls more of the same, “entertainment” that profits off of such pain and angst.  She lists her favorite bands on her blog and gives samples of the lyrics of many of their songs.  The lyrics sound like her journal entries.

She also provides a list of links, including pages that advocate anarchy and satanism.

One of her handwritten journal entries makes it clear that she loves a boy.  Amidst the sketches of guns, bloody knives, the Columbine killers and a cage into which is etched the words I CAN’T GET OUT is an entry on love.

This boy seems to have returned her love at one point (though she has blocked out his name) – and yet even that is unclear.  And, though Sol Pais’s writing does not reveal a psychosis, it is not out of the question that this boy was perhaps an idealized version of one of the Columbine shooters, rather than a living boy she knew in real life.  It’s hard to say.

Whoever this mystery guy was, this entry is the only ray of hope in the entire blog.

There are entries in which Sol Pais hints at buying a gun and preparing for “the day”, and reminding herself that she will have to respond to the police.

It is quite sad that Pais was being at least partially public about this – and yet no one intervened before it was too late.  And though her online persona “dissolvedgirl” was an attempt at a form of anonymity, apparently the FBI and USA Today were able to access these posts and others – and so one wonders why someone closer to Sol Pais didn’t.  

Teens like this young lady are common.  I have worked with them for years.  This is not an unusual response to life – this brooding and potentially violent nihilism. 

This young woman was let down in many ways.  Not only were her partially veiled calls for help ignored, but she was given apparently unfiltered access on the internet to sites promoting satanism, violence and the kind of music that only fueled her depression and sense of dissociation and unreality.  

We can be thankful that she harmed no one else physically.  But her anguish and despair led her to kill herself.  May the Lord have mercy on her soul.

Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture

In December, 1948, at Pennsylvania’s Saint Vincent College, Erwin Panofsky delivered the second annual Wimmer Lecture.  Founded in the first half of the nineteenth century, the college was run by Benedictine monks, and the lecture series honored the memory of the founder abbot of Saint Vincent, Boniface Wimmer.

As he addressed students and monks and others, Panofsky’s topic, combining the architectural and philosophical fields, was “Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.”  As Norman F. Cantor put it in Inventing the Middle Ages (1991), Panofsky had the Midas touch that turned straw into gold.  Cantor cited as an example what was to him “an obscure American Catholic college” asking Panofsky to lecture on Gothic architecture, and the resulting book going through ten printings in a decade.

Erwin Panofsky was born in 1892 in Hanover, Germany, and died in 1968 in Princeton, New Jersey.  He was the same age as J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), but while Tolkien was mired in the trenches of the First World War, Panofsky had earned his doctorate from Freiburg.  In 1915 Panofsky published his first book; the following year, he was married.  While Tolkien was teaching at Oxford and writing The Hobbit, Panofsky, an assimilated Jew, had to disrupt his own academic career and flee National Socialist Germany for the United States.

That evening in December of 1948 the more perceptive members of his audience knew that Panofsky’s Wimmer Lecture on Gothic architecture and Scholasticism filled a niche in the field of medieval studies.  Like many great ideas, it is a wonder no one thought of it before.  And yet, what Panofsky revealed in that lecture was how a cathedral such as Notre Dame or Chartres was like a book by Saint Thomas Aquinas or Blessed John Duns Scotus.

Panofsky simply said by way of preface that it was but “another diffident attempt at correlating Gothic architecture and Scholasticism,” and one that “is bound to be looked upon with suspicion by both historians of art and historians of philosophy.”  The hard to please Norman Cantor said that this “fragile jewel . . . is a beautiful piece of speculative interpretation.”

Characteristically, Panofsky drew upon his encyclopedic knowledge of Western art and philosophy and saw parallels.  He saw that the medieval Schoolmen knew that reason could not prove religious doctrine, but reason could make it manifest by shedding clear light upon it.  Panofsky understood that the Scholastic mind “insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of function through form,” and equally it “insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of thought through language.”

Function and thought, form and language:  Panofsky summed up what he called a Scholastic mental habit given to manifestatio, clarification.  “A man imbued with the Scholastic habit [of mind],” he said, “would look upon the mode of architectural presentation, just as he looked upon the mode of literary presentation, from the point of view of manifestatio.”  All the elements of a Gothic cathedral or a Scholastic argument were carefully articulated and clearly went together to form a reasoned whole.

As did Catholic theologians, Catholic architects of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries sought clarity of function through form.  Just as the intellect functioned to study and contemplate God, so a church functioned to worship God through the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  The Catholic faith teaches that Christ, while being fully divine, was also “of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting,” to use the words of the Athanasian Creed.

What follows from the Christian creed is the importance in Catholic culture not only of the intellect, but also of tangible material, whether bread and wine or stone and glass.  Panofsky’s insight was that through proportion and distinction of parts, a Gothic cathedral was as solid and precise in its service of Catholic doctrine as was the treatise of a Scholastic theologian.

Like his Catholic contemporary, Tolkien, Panofsky was captivated by the Christian civilization that emerged from the Roman Empire.  In his Histories, Tacitus had written that in Judaea under Tiberius, all was quiet (sub Tiberio quies), and yet any astute observer today can see that there developed, like a minor theme in music that recurs until it reaches crescendo, the literature and liturgy of the Catholic Church.

For Tolkien and Panofsky, medieval culture was vivid and complex.  Craftsmen created formulae for stained glass never again equaled, and scholars in then new universities debated questions of universal reality.  It was a world appreciating intricate patterns and rich colors, whether in illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, or jewelry.  Alongside those achievements of art and intellect roared the violence of war and the cruelty of nasty people.  In short, it was an era like our own, because human nature never changes.

While Tolkien used his love of the Early Middle Ages to create his own Middle Earth, Panofsky studied the art and architecture of the High Middle Ages and related it to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the poetry of Dante Alighieri.  Their various writings show that these twentieth-century students of medieval culture, one from Germany, the other from England by way of South Africa, felt an affinity for what has survived within Western civilization because they came of age when so much of that civilization was cracking apart under hammers and sickles.

As the tide of the twentieth century recedes, the books left on what William Shakespeare called in Sonnet 60 “the pebbled shore” are worth our while.  Within that span of a hundred years more books were published than ever before, yet few will survive time’s erosion of public memory.  Works once declared instant classics are forgotten.  Nevertheless, as Joseph Pearce noted twenty years ago, much to the chagrin of the intelligentsia there stands Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, still around after almost seventy years.  Also among the books surviving from the last century is Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.

People long to enter into a realm that takes them beyond this world.  For that reason they will continue to follow Bilbo and Frodo deep into Middle Earth, a journey like that of pacing contemplatively through a labyrinth in the floor of a medieval cathedral, or following the logic of a Scholastic argument.  As their guides through these mazes of prose and stone, they will return again and again to Tolkien and Panofsky.


(A much longer version of this essay appeared in the August, 2015, issue of American Theological Inquiry.)

Benedict and the Repair of the Vineyard


I have been waiting seventeen years for this.


Since the sex scandal in the Church became a major issue in 2002, no bishop or pope has addressed the situation with candor, and no bishop or pope has looked at the underlying issues.  


Until now.


“Pope Emeritus” Benedict XVI has written an essay which was published this week, “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse”.  The general reaction to this essay from news sources seems to be, “Benedict blames the 1960’s for abusive priests!”  Others are angry at things Benedict did not say, but I would like to focus on things Benedict did say, which I think are rather remarkable – because, for a long time now, it had begun to seem that the Church was not the Church.  


In Isaiah 5:5, God tells the Prophet, “Now I will tell you what I am about to do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be consumed; I will tear down its wall, and it will be trampled.”  When a hedge or any boundary is taken down, a vineyard is no longer a vineyard. It becomes indistinguishable from the wild lands around it, as briars and nettles take it over. God says to Isaiah that He will do this to His vineyard (Israel) because they have borne wild grapes, not cultivated ones.  In other words, Israel’s fruit has been indistinguishable from that of the nations around them. And God’s punishment is to give them more of what they themselves want and have produced.


And this has happened to the Catholic Church – or so it seemed.  It appeared that the Church had become as worldly as anything else in the world – only worse.  CEOs of secular corporations would never have gotten by with the negligence and mismanagement that our bishops have burdened us with over the past fifty years.


And Benedict is frank about this.  He is not so much blaming the 1960s for abusive priests as he is pointing out that the sea change in our culture at large affected the Church as well – a Church that tore down its own hedges.  People have always sinned sexually – in the Church and out of it. But with the so-called sexual revolution, we began to worship our desires and to look at license as salvation. It’s not Christ that saves us, it’s indulgence.  R. R. Reno, in writing on Benedict’s essay refers to this as the “culture of release”. St. Paul, roughly 2,000 years ago, was more blunt. “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:19).


Coincidentally or not, it was in this post-concilliar age of “sexual revolution”, it was in this “Culture of Release”, beginning in the late 1960s, that the hedges were torn down.  The vineyard was infested with the worst kind of weeds – especially in the seminaries, which were given over to the cultivation of various forms wild grapes – and poisonous grapes at that.


Consider one example Benedict gives.


One bishop, who had previously been seminary rector, had arranged for the seminarians to be shown pornographic films, allegedly with the intention of thus making them resistant to behavior contrary to the faith.


In the very next paragraph, Benedict says


Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood. My books were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk.


Let that sink in.


Seminarians were shown porn and prohibited from reading Ratzinger. They hid orthodox theology and read it on the sly as if it were porn; and consumed porn in class as if it were orthodox theology.


This is nothing short of a demonic inversion.


And the rector who showed these young men sex films was made a bishop!


Leon Podles identifies this man.  It was the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan (a diocese famous for the complete meltdown of the Catholic Faith under his charge).


Naturally, what remains unsaid in Benedict’s essay is how his predecessor John Paul II could have promoted someone like this to the episcopacy.  Certainly, the problem was not just the “removal of the hedge”, but appallingly bad administration by the various gardeners. In fact, the heart of the scandal has always been not the horrific abuse perpetrated by a significant number of clergy, but the sometimes criminal behavior of the bishops in facilitating the ongoing abuse and in covering it up.  


Benedict points out that canon law was largely to blame, a situation he tried to work around when he convinced the Vatican that the CDF, which he was leading at the time, should have jurisdiction over these matters.  But regardless of the point Benedict makes concerning canon law, it is in the midst of his explanation of the canonical issues that Benedict says what, for me, is the most perceptive thing in the essay.


Allow me a brief excursus at this point. In light of the scale of pedophilic misconduct, a word of Jesus has again come to attention which says: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).


When reading this, one would think, “Of course.  This is the central verse that condemns anyone who would abuse a child,” but Benedict goes further.  


The phrase “the little ones” in the language of Jesus means the common believers who can be confounded in their faith by the intellectual arrogance of those who think they are clever. So here Jesus protects the deposit of the faith with an emphatic threat of punishment to those who do it harm.


This is astonishing.  This is an admission that the abuse was not just sexual.  “The little ones” led astray include any of us who have been “confounded” in our faith “by the intellectual arrogance of those who think they are clever”.  


A seminary rector who exposes his charges to pornography is leading the little ones astray – even if the little ones are adult seminarians who, in their innocence, are eager to serve God.


Priests, authors and theologians who twist the teaching of the Church to convince us that our god is our belly (or that part of us that’s a few inches below our belly) are leading the little ones astray, even if the little ones are middle aged folks who faithfully go to Sunday Mass.


In fact, the theologians Benedict refers to in his essay (some of whom he names) who are intent on denying the objectivity of Goodness; who insist that morality is whatever works best for us in any given situation; who become indignant at any check on the culture of “release” – these theologians are leading the little ones astray.  And this includes such armchair theologians as (perhaps) your music minister, your “liturgist”, your CCD teacher, and any other heterodox Catholics who proudly bear wild grapes in what used to be a vineyard but is now a mixture of briar patch and trash heap. In fact, chances are you are being led astray by your pastor and your bishop, as well.


But we have a right to the Faith!  And canon law should protect this right.  Benedict insists upon this. “Canon law that corresponds to the whole of Jesus’ message must therefore … also protect the Faith, which is also an important legal asset.”


However …


In the general awareness of the law, the Faith no longer appears to have the rank of a good requiring protection. This is an alarming situation which must be considered and taken seriously by the pastors of the Church.


What astonishes me about this essay is that Benedict is speaking with the voice of the Church – a voice that has been silent on this matter for at least seventeen years.  


The Abuse Scandal grew up in a clerical culture that was antichristian.  That’s a fact. That’s obviously not the whole explanation for the Scandal, and it is certainly not an excuse, as some are portraying it – and orthodox and traditionalist clergy have been abusers as have heterodox and liberal ones.  But the encouragement of indulgence is a problem. Such an atmosphere does not breed saints.


The gardeners were deliberately destroying the garden.  They were sowing and cultivating weeds. They still are, many of them.


And yet Benedict, in this essay, has at least repaired the hedge – if only by pointing out where it once stood – and where (with our hard work and with God’s grace) it will stand again.


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