Saturday, December 3, 2022



OK! I'll admit that it looked good for a couple of hours, but just wait a few weeks! 


Thursday, December 1, 2022



Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in
the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots
and ate our fill of bread!
Exodus 16:2-4

Change is a fact of life and there would be no life without it. Changes are coming at us faster and faster, making some of us more and more nervous. We need to know some facts about how change takes place and how to handle that change as it unwinds. 

Let’s imagine that you have made a decision to initiate some changes in your life – maybe quitting the old job you hate and setting out to look for a better job! Let’s imagine that something has happened in your life that is forcing you to make changes you don’t like it – maybe your spouse has suddenly died, maybe you have been served divorce papers or maybe you have to go to a nursing home. What can you expect to happen after those changes, whether they were initiated by you or forced upon you? 

In my estimation, the best scriptural story to explain what happens during a major change, welcomed or not, is the story of the Exodus. We read part of it today. Exodus is the story of people being called to something new, setting out in excitement at first, being tempted in discouragement to back out of the process when things get tough, the decision to keep going and finally arriving at a new level of happiness and satisfaction. In the story, the People of God are trapped in slavery in Egypt. They get an opportunity to escape and go to a country of their own.  At first, they were excited and filled with joy thinking that happiness would be theirs almost immediately. They did not realize that making a drastic change meant they had to change and change is hard. Making a decision to change and setting out is the easy part and so many simply try to “go back to Egypt” when the “harshness of the desert” gets to be too much.  They yearn for “the good old days” and start telling themselves that they weren’t so bad after all compared to the change they had to go through to get to their “promised land.” They begin to idealize their old life and forget about their slavery by telling themselves that “at least in Egypt we had meat and bread to eat! 

Take the example of an abused spouse who gets a chance to escape her abuse. She is happy to be free at last, but once away from her abuser, having been stripped of her self-esteem, she begins to get scared of what is ahead of her. She begins to tell herself, “What if I can’t make it? Where will I live? What if I end up living on the streets? Some tough it out and rebuild their lives, but many often at this point return to their abusers because the fear of the unknown becomes scarier than the abuse. They “returns to Egypt” so to speak.  They go back to their abusers because, as bad as it was, it was not as scary as being out there on their own.

Take the example of the person who is an addict. One day, they finally get up the courage to go to their first “recovery” meeting. They get excited about a possible new life. They like the program and the people around them going through recovery. Then a sober life gets to be too hard. It’s gets worse before it has a chance to get better and so they seek relief by going back to alcohol, drugs or serial sexual encounters. They convince themselves that their old life may have been bad, but it was not as bad as trying to stay sober.

Take the example of the changes in the church initiated at Vatican Council II. For many lay people and priests, the control exerted from the very top had become a version of slavery.  I remember the excitement after the Council. For me and many of the people who went through it, it was like “leaving the slavery of Egypt.”  Looking back, we were pretty na├»ve. It never crossed our minds that we would have to go through a “desert,” many years of confusion and disappointment. Now some of our members want to “go back to Egypt.” They idealize the “good old days” and tell themselves that they were not that bad after all and much better than the chaos that all this change has brought on! Others, refusing to turn back and determined to get through the chaos of a major change push on! Pope Francis, our modern day Moses, like the Moses of old, keeps telling us to keep going, keep going and don’t look back! Like the Moses of old, he is being cursed by those who want to “return to Egypt” and rebuild the old Pre-Vatican II church! Pope Francis knows that if the Church is to survive, grow and nourish the faith of the next generation, it has to change and adapt as it always has in the past. If it doesn’t, it is doomed to become an inbred little cult that will shrink even more into irrelevance.

Our country is going through a similar time of chaos and crisis. The country has been gradually changing for many years now. Some, like women, minorities and immigrants, like those changes and the freedom that they have brought about. On the other hand, these changes are forcing others to give up their privileged positions of power and status. They want to “return to Egypt,” “the way America used to be,” when things were “better” for them! As much as they try to keep our country from changing, they are fighting a losing battle. Women are not going to stand back and shut up! African Americans are not going back to Africa. Immigrants are not about to give up their time to experience the “American dream.” Women will lead! Out country will continue to become browner. Immigrants will continue to arrive, one way or another. We can't go back to Egypt - and we wouldn't like it if we could! Egypt has changed and so have we! 


Tuesday, November 29, 2022


by David McPherson
Oxford University Press
208p $70

Nathan Beacom
November 11, 2022

The Brothers Grimm tell the tale of a fisherman and his wife who encounter a magical, wish-granting fish. The couple wish at first for a nicer home but soon become dissatisfied with the home they are given and wish, instead, for a castle. As the charm of each new wish wears off, the couple’s demands grow more and more extreme until, finally, one of them wishes to become like God. With this, the fish loses patience, and the couple are sent back to their little hut.

David McPherson uses this tale in his book, The Virtues of Limits, to express the open-endedness of human desire, which culminates in an effort to “play God.” For McPherson, we human beings have a choice between two fundamental attitudes toward life and the world. Are we “appreciative and accepting” or “choosing and controlling”? While both are necessary features of any human life, McPherson argues, our lives as individuals and communities change radically based on which attitude we deem primary.

This volume is slim but wide-ranging. At fewer than 160 pages, it touches on existential, political, moral and economic questions. McPherson argues that this “accepting and appreciating” stance has implications for all realms of moral thinking. This proves to be a powerful frame through which to view a host of problems.

The book begins with the distinction between “appreciating” and “controlling.” The first attitude starts with the world and the second starts with my will. The paradigmatic example of this will-based approach for McPherson is Friedrich Nietzsche, who sees the aim of human life as imposing one’s will and growing in autonomy. But the Nietszchean view, McPherson argues, is really a non-starter. If there is nothing objectively worthy of willing, why will anything at all? All that is left is to simply go with whatever I happen to desire, but to take these desires as our authentic selves is to risk becoming slaves to passions, lusts, greed, hunger for power and so on.

The task of morality, then, is to place limits on our desires and our wills such that they accord with the given structures of the world and human nature. The master virtue in this regard, it seems, is humility, which recognizes that I did not make myself nor this world that I inhabit. I do not stand in relation to myself or to the world as lord and master, but as one receiving a gift. This leads to the second virtue: gratitude. These two virtues allow us to perceive properly the value of things; just as important, they allow us to feel at home in the world.

This posture of acceptance does not mean we should not right wrongs or cure ills, but that we should not place our desires above the world as given to us. McPherson illustrates this across a wide variety of domains. In bioethics, for instance, no one would object to a new treatment for cancer; still we should be concerned about the idea of genetically engineering our children. To dismiss any concern would lack a proper stance of humility before the dignity of human life and would invite the treatment of the human person as a consumer good.

In his section “Moral Limits,” McPherson applies his lens of limits to a selection of contemporary ethical debates. Among these is the debate over universalism and particularism, which has relevance for our concerns about globalism and nationalism. Universalism usually means that all people are to be given equal and impartial moral consideration, while particularism argues that our relationships to particular persons affect the nature of our moral obligations. A universalist might say that there is no reason why the suffering of someone in my town should receive more consideration than that of someone on the other side of the world. After all, both are human. A particularist, on the other hand, would say that naturally I have a greater moral obligation to my actual neighbor than to a random person in another country.

On the extremes, universalism neglects my concrete responsibilities to those near me for abstract humanitarianism, while particularism leads to chauvinism or nationalism. McPherson charts a middle path. He argues that the philosophy of limits recognizes that our sphere of most significant moral responsibility is limited to those who are actually “there” in our lives while still holding that in themselves, all people have equal dignity. This is part of what he terms “humane localism.”

This theme of humane localism runs through the section on “Political Limits,” where McPherson combines this idea of localism with the idea of accepting imperfection. He is especially intent on arguing against utopianism, which in his view risks injuring important human goods in its quest for perfection. An effort to radically equalize economic status, for instance, would potentially impinge on significant and non-negative forms of human freedom. Rather than obliging us to level differences, justice requires that we pursue the humbler goal of ensuring that everyone is sufficiently provided for.

Lest one think that the acceptance of imperfection and inequality makes McPherson merely a proponent of capitalism, the section “Economic Limits” reveals he is just as concerned about the lack of limiting virtues in the market economy as he is about addressing this deficiency in government. Against an ideal of unlimited economic growth and wealth accumulation, he argues for “contentment” as the counter-virtue to the vice of greed. Economic freedom, like human freedom, needs to be oriented to the common good and to a conception of a good human life.

Like Wendell Berry, McPherson wants an economy that is defined more by the flourishing of home and family life than by the profits of a handful of powerful corporations.

McPherson’s book is guided by the spirit of Wendell Berry, with an argument for an economy that respects the limits placed on us by the health of our environment and the integrity of our ecosystem, as well as by the health of our communities. McPherson suggests a need for “economic decentralization,” where dispersed ownership of resources and capital is necessary for healthy market competition. He, like Berry, wants an economy that is defined more by the flourishing of home and family life than by the profits of a handful of powerful corporations.

The book concludes by making a case for the practice of the sabbath. Just as our moral investigations, our life projects and our work must begin by properly appreciating the world and life that are given to us, they must also end with appreciation. The goal of our moral, political and economic efforts is in fact a kind of celebration of life lived fully and well. This, and not Nietzsche’s understanding, is the real “yes-saying” to the world; it is the path, as McPherson says, to “being at home in the world.”

Readers may well differ here and there with McPherson on particular questions of economics, justice or government. Still, the value of the lens of “limits” for our moral and philosophical investigations is clear throughout. The book stands as a rebuke to aspects of both the left and right of our political and cultural divides. More important, it offers an attractive alternative in the form of embracing the world as a gift with humility. Doing so, we can hope, might give us a greater respect for persons, the environment and human nature.

The Virtues of Limits is written in a way that is accessible to the non-philosopher and will be of interest to many. It will provide much food for reflection and contemplation for any reader engaged in the grander questions of our moral, economic and political life. Some of the arguments he addresses would have done well with further treatment, but, at the same time, the book’s breadth serves to give the reader a sense of the versatility of limits as a lens.

Returning to the story of the magical fish: Joseph Ratzinger, in his Introduction to Christianity, writes that the error of Adam and Eve is not that they wanted to be like God, but that they thought to be like God meant merely to become powerful—to become masters of the universe. In fact, to become like God is to be in a relationship of love and self-gift. For Christians, to become like God is even to become humble and a servant to all. This true “becoming like God” is an alternative to the “playing God” that concerns McPherson. Perhaps this is the lesson of the fairy tale.

For Christians, God is the suffering servant, the lover of humankind and the lover of the world. To become like God, then, is not unlike assuming the stance of love and appreciation that defines the sabbath. Those who are not Christian, McPherson argues, can still see the value in this idea of goodness. We might think of the author himself as a philosophical fish trying to remind us, like the couple in the story, that human happiness does not lie in the unlimited fulfillment of our desires, but in our proper relationship to the gift of life.

Nathan Beacom writes from Chicago, Ill. His writing has previously appeared in Comment magazine and The Des Moines Register.



Sunday, November 27, 2022



Come let us climb the mountain of the Lord
that he may instruct us in his ways and we
may walk in his paths.
Isaiah 2:1-5 

When I was a 27 year old priest, ordained one year, I went on the first of five back-packing trips to Europe with college students from Somerset Community College. Somerset is down at the eastern end of  Lake Cumberland. Before we spread out across Europe, we would spend a week camping out in Taize, a small, sleepy  French village on top  of a hill overlooking the vineyards of Burgundy. We were part of hundreds and hundreds of students a week from all over the world. I will always be grateful for those five trips and the experiences I had those summers.

It didn't take me long to realize that American students who went to Taize were a bit different from European students. Unlike American students, the typical European students could speak two or more languages. Unlike American students who knew all about American pop music and films and almost nothing about American politics and even less about the politics of other European countries, the typical European students knew all about American music and films, but they also had a great familiarity with, and interest in, American, as well as in European politics.

Another noticeable difference back then was that the American students started partying the first night, even before they had gotten to know any of the students from other countries, while the Europeans tended to wait till they had something to celebrate. It was only after a few days, after they had  made some new friends, that their celebrations started and the wine began to flow!

Americans do something similar to that every year at this time. Traditionally, the Church asks us to use the four weeks of Advent as a time to prepare ourselves, from the inside out, for the celebration of Christmas.  However, we tend  to skip Advent and move right into celebrating Christmas, putting up decorations and playing carols, sometimes even before Halloween and Thanksgiving, without much thought to its meaning.  Since we skip over reflecting on what Christmas is really all about, we are now calling it the "holiday season," as if we were a bit embarrassed by its real name - "Christmas." The number one "Christmas card"  now,  according to "Family Feud," is one with greetings from "Santa Claus."  Like American students at Taize, we now start the party as early as September without stopping long enough to consider exactly what we are actually celebrating - other than some kind of vague "holiday togetherness."            

I am not here to throw cold water on decking the halls with boughs of holly, tree trimming, bright lights, Christmas cookies, fruit cakes or even shopping for presents. All I am saying here is that all that emphasis on external preparation can end up making this religious holiday more and more meaningless if it is not preceded by some internal preparation.  Maybe it is a sign of old age, but I think the Catholic celebrations of Christmas in the past struck more of the real balance. We celebrated the Season of Advent with some slightly somber, even longing music, with a little fasting and with a touch of starkness.  The tree wasn't usually decorated until Christmas Eve and even if it needed to be decorated early, it was often hidden in a sealed off room until it was "time." Christmas music was pretty much restricted to school plays until Midnight Mass or Christmas morning when it thundered joyously from the choir lofts of our Churches. In other words, the celebration of Christmas began on Christmas and went for twelve days after Christmas! Now Christmas ends pretty much as soon as Christmas dinner is consumed!  While the stores are taking down all the decorations, and putting out the Valentine cards, the Church seems so "behind the times" as it tries to hold to its ancient traditions of celebrating Epiphany and ending the Christmas season with the Baptism of Our Lord by mid January!

What am I trying to say here? As one spiritual writer put it, "It's easier to put on slippers than to carpet the world." As an individual, me trying to change our culture's way of celebrating the holidays, would be like me standing in the median of the Watterson Expressway trying to get speeding cars to drive in the opposite direction. My attempt would not only fail, but the cars flying by would only see me as another "nut case" loose on the highway and probably call the cops.

Since I cannot carpet the world, I have decided to put on slippers. I have decided a few years back not to get sucked personally into our culture's way of celebrating Christmas, but to decide on my own how I will celebrate it.  I feel like I am swimming against the stream, but each year I simplify, simplify, simplify! Each year, I try to do less external preparation and try to prepare myself more and more internally.  I realize that this is much harder if you have children, but I still believe something can be done! Advent offers us a great opportunity to teach the kids a little about the idea of "delayed gratification."              

These words from our first reading from the prophet Isaiah (2:1-2) provide us with an outline for claiming our own personal Advent Season. 

Let us climb the mountain of the Lord that he may instruct
us in his ways so that we may walk in his paths.

"Climbing the Lord's mountain" is a metaphor for simply trying to "rise above all the hustle and bustle" and stepping away from "all the excess and chaos!"  Instead of trying to do more and more and trying to make things "bigger and better," I try to do less so as to make room to think about what all this means, so as to listen to the message of Advent more carefully in order that it might  better "instruct me in his ways" so that ultimately I might better "walk in his paths" in the coming year. 

"It is easier to put on slippers than carpet the world." By ourselves, you and I will not be able to change the way our culture celebrates Christmas, but we can decide how we will celebrate it! We can choose to change our own behaviors! We can choose not to join the stampede with the rest of the herd! We can make a start this year by doing a little less external preparation and a bit more internal preparation.   We can choose to carve out some time to "climb the mountain of the Lord," to rise above the madness, for a few minutes at least, so that we can be "instructed in his ways" and maybe "walk in his paths" a little better during the coming year.  Maybe we can still do a little this year to prepare ourselves from the inside out and then even a little more next year and then even more than that the year after!  Slowly, but surely, maybe we can be part of taking Christmas back from those who don't believe in it anymore and feel just fine with lumping Jesus together with Santa, Rudolf, Frosty and other cute mythical figures! 

This Advent, let us climb the mountain of the Lord, (above the noise and chaos of the season), that he may instruct us in his ways so that we may walk in his paths.