Let’s not mince words: Moldova is a hole. Modify with any four letters you wish.
I mention Moldova because it’s where my paternal grandfather was born in 1901. An anti-Semitic rampage in his hometown, Kishinev, soon forced his family to leave for New York, where my great-grandfather labored as a carpenter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for eight dollars a week. Low skills, low wages, minimal English, lots of children and probably not the best hygiene — that’s half of my pedigree. The other half consisted of refugees.
I’m not alone. America is a nation of holers. It is an improbable yet wildly successful experiment in the transformation — by means of hope, opportunity and ambition — of holers into doers, makers, thinkers and givers. Are you of Irish descent? Italian? Polish? Scottish? Chinese? Chances are, your ancestors did not get on a boat because life in the old country was placid and prosperous and grandpa owned a bank. With few exceptions, Americans are the dregs of the wine, the chaff of the wheat. If you don’t know this by now, it makes you the wax in the ear.
.. Liberals can be squeamish about calling poor countries bad names, while conservatives such as Mark Steyn chortle that “nobody voluntarily moves to Haiti.” Which, let’s be real, is basically right.
Yet that’s beside the point. We are not talking about Haiti, El Salvador, Nigeria or any other country on the president’s insult list. What counts are the people from these countries
.. But immigrants are more likely to be fleeing those dysfunctions and prejudices than they are to be bringing them
- .. Dorsa Derakhshani, the international chess master from Iran who came to the United States last year because, as she wrote in an op-ed for The Times, the mullahs “cared more about the scarf covering my hair than the brain under it.”
- Vietnamese boat people did not bring fratricidal hatreds with them to America.
- Soviet refuseniks did not bring a Soviet work ethic.
.. They don’t bring crime to cities. They drive out crime by starting businesses and families in shrinking cities or underserved neighborhoods.
.. sub-Saharan Africans have “among the highest college-completion rates of any immigrant group.”
.. As for Haitians, MPI found they had a higher labor participation rate than the overall work force, and had median household incomes of $47,200 — lower than the overall U.S. median, but robust by any developed nation standard.
.. How can this be? It shouldn’t be a mystery. Immigrants self-select.
.. To really see it clearly, you must first rise up from a hole.
Donald Trump has not, to say the least, risen from a hole. But he is sinking into one.
.. It may be that it won’t damage him politically — Republican Party leaders, increasingly unshameable, will mumble mild disapproval until the news cycle turns — but it does damage the country. We have a president even more ignorant of America than he is of the rest of the world.
Spirituality is primarily about human transformation in this life, not just salvation in a future realm. While Western Christianity lost much of this emphasis, and became rather practical and often superficial, the Eastern church taught theosis or divinization as the very real process of growing in union and likeness with God in this world.  This is one of the many losses Christianity experienced in the Great Schism of 1054, when the popes of East and West mutually excommunicated one another.
.. Pope John Paul II was acknowledging that the Western church had largely lost its foundational belief in divinization, and in the practical order had even denied its possibility. Instead, we were just “sinners in the hands of an angry God” and even “totally depraved.” No wonder humans suffer from such lack of self-esteem today. We haven’t told them the central and foundational Good News! I believe this is the source of a lot of the anger and disillusionment with Christianity today.
The purifying goal of mysticism and contemplative prayer is nothing less than divine union—union with what is, with the moment, with yourself, with the divine, which means with everything. Healing, growth, and happiness are admittedly wonderful byproducts of prayer, but they must not be our primary concern. The goal must be kept simple and clear—love of God and neighbor, union with God and neighbor. Our common word for this state of union is heaven. Wherever there is union, there is a little bit of heaven.
Much of common religion is well-disguised self-interest—high premium fire insurance for the afterlife—instead of self-emptying love.
.. Most of the official Catholic liturgical prayers ask in some form, “That I or we might go to heaven.” (This is not a guess. I have counted!) Is there no other priority than my personal salvation? If it is true that lex orandi est lex credendi, “the way you pray is the way you believe,” then it is no wonder Christians have such a poor record of caring for the suffering of the world and for the planet itself, and the Church has fully participated in so many wars and injustices. We have been allowed to pray in a rather self-centered way, and that fouled the Christian agenda, in my opinion.
.. Jesus talked much more about how to live on earth now than about how to get to heaven later.
.. But many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, pushed the goal into the future, making religion into a petty reward/punishment system inside a frame of retributive justice. (The major prophets—and Jesus himself—teach restorative justice instead.) Once Christianity became a simplistic win/lose morality contest, we lost most of the practical, transformative power of the Gospel for the individual and for society.
.. The branch that imagines itself to be separate from the Vine (John 15:1-8), acts as if it is separate from God. We call the result sin, but the real sin is the imagined state of separation. It is our own delusion and decision!
Disciplines of the Soul are the Basis of a Liberal Society
.. Restrictions on campaign contributions provide one example, prohibitions against hate speech another. The liberal vision of freedom deems these limitations legitimate if they are aimed at expanding the realm and reach of individual autonomy overall. Thus the paradox of liberalism: expanded government for the sake of freedom.
.. But many conservatives (and all the more so libertarians) root their complaints in the same radical individualism as the progressives they oppose. They don’t object to the liberal view of liberty. Instead, they see liberalism as betraying it. They insist, for instance, that public redistribution of wealth is a greater constraint on free choice than the economic want it is meant to address.
The same goes for campaign finance laws and many other liberal efforts to limit liberty for the sake of greater liberty. They deem the paradox of liberalism a fatal contradiction.
.. Poverty in this sense does not necessarily involve injustice. By contrast, government redistribution of property can directly impinge on our rights of ownership, and thus can easily be seen as unjust.
.. This conservative idea of liberty, then, is less concerned with giving different people equal power to make their choices matter, but more concerned with letting every individual do what he wishes with what he has—provided he does not take from others.
.. The progressive sees freedom as a power to act while the conservative sees freedom as an absence of restraint.
.. both seem to believe that advancing human progress is a matter of shaping society in a certain way, rather than of shaping the human soul in a certain way.
.. Modern thinkers since Machiavelli and Hobbes have tended to assert that the purpose of society is simply to meet our basic needs for security in our person and property and our desire for liberty in all other things. This minimal view allows us to hope that an arrangement of institutions, incentives, and interests that keeps us out of each other’s hair will be enough.
The market economy, too, is premised on the notion that if all we want is prosperity and comfort, then we should be able to achieve those in spades without having to argue about moral premises too much.
.. A population of citizens generally capable of using their freedom well, not the American Constitution or the market system, is the greatest modern achievement of our civilization. That achievement is the prerequisite for liberalism, whether progressive or conservative
.. To liberate us purely to pursue our wants and wishes is to liberate our appetites and passions. But a person in the grip of appetite or passion can’t be our model of the free human being. Such a person is not someone we would trust with the exercise of great political and economic freedom.
.. The liberty we can truly recognize as liberty is achieved by the emancipation of the individual not just from coercion by others but also from the tyranny of his unrestrained desire.
.. This liberty arises when we want to do more or less what we ought to do, so that the moral law, the civil law, and our own will are largely in alignment, and choice and obligation point in the same direction. To be capable of freedom, and capable of being liberal citizens, we need to be capable of that challenging combination. And to become capable of it, we need more than the liberation of the individual from coercion. We need a certain sort of moral formation.
.. Religious freedom, freedom of association, freedom of the press—these are liberties designed to protect our traditions of moral formation
.. the liberal political theory we claim as our birthright emerged in Britain after an era of nightmarish religious wars, in part to justify an already existing society in terms other than the contentious religious and political ones on which it had originally, gradually, come to be. This involved the formulation of an alternative creation story (man in the state of nature)
.. in essence, our liberal theories offer us truths wrapped in falsehoods—
- the truth that we are all created equal wrapped in the falsehood of a society built by independent individuals choosing to unite;
- the truth that we all deserve to be free wrapped in the falsehood that freedom is the absence of restraint.
The truths may add up to a case for the long way to liberty, but the falsehoods can easily be taken as a case for the short way: the liberation of the individual from outside constraints to pursue his wants as he wills.
.. The long way to liberty begins unavoidably with marriage and the family, and the case for the short way begins as a case against their necessity.
.. But work also buttresses dignity, inculcates responsibility, encourages energy and industry, and rewards reliability. It can help form us into better human beings and better liberal citizens. To see only its material utility is to imagine that work, like family, could be replaced by more efficient forms of distribution.
.. Progressive economic policy at least since John Maynard Keynes has appealed to a sense that the ideal economy would be less focused on work. But this view ignores the formative potential of work beyond its utilitarian value.
.. in higher education, we are increasingly squeezing out liberal learning to make room for more skills training and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees. We surely need technical education, but that cannot be all that education means.
Liberal learning is out of step with our times because it offers us not vocational skills but the shaping of habits of thought and practice. It forms our souls through exposure to beauty, to truth, and to the power of the sublime that we can only glimpse through the mediation of rare artistic genius. It is, in this sense, closer to an aristocratic idea of leisure than to the modern idea of training.
.. We have almost all agreed that leisure is an opportunity for entertainment and unmediated pleasures. It would not be easy now to make the case for a different understanding of leisure as an opportunity to build habits of virtue, although some people do of course continue the practice of such edifying leisure.
.. “Local institutions are to liberty,” he tells us, “what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people’s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it. Without local institutions, a nation may give itself a free government, but it has not got the spirit of liberty.”
.. But if the long way to liberty is truly to lead us to a freedom that is more than license, it must draw as well upon an ideal of human emancipation that is more than political.
.. Religion in this sense offers a direct challenge to the ethic of the liberal society, and an explicit correction of its excesses.
.. And what is true of religion in particular is true more generally of the institutions of the long way to liberty: They are foundational to liberalism not so much because they counteract its vices as because they prepare human beings to handle the burdens and responsibilities of being free.
.. In our time, a commitment to the long way requires us to defend against a corrosive pseudo-liberalism. Championed by some progressives, but too often enabled by conservatives, it encourages precisely philistinism—a form of freedom that is but license for the morally unfree, and actively disparages every form of nobility, refinement, dignity, order, and transcendence.
.. What happens on the long way to liberty is so offensive to today’s progressives because the authority of our traditional institutions stands in the way of the social transformation they desire.
.. The progress that progressives dream of involves remaking the social order so that it becomes friendlier to an idea of liberty as the emancipation of the will—remaking society so that it becomes finally worthy of the liberated, autonomous individual.
.. But this has things backwards. Real progress very rarely looks like social transformation. It more frequently looks like personal transformation
.. bearing the duties and responsibilities of freedom without being prepared for them poses great dangers, especially the danger of abandoning our liberty in return for security or the passing pleasures and distractions of our abundant age. This danger is avoidable only if we take the long way to liberty
the ones who have done it wrong and are humble about it (the younger son and the tax collector) are the ones who are forgiven, transformed, and rewarded.
.. Those who are proud of how they have done everything right—but also feel superior to others, or feel they are now entitled—are not open to God’s blessing.
This is Jesus’ Great Reversal theme. He turns religion on its head. We thought we came to God by doing it right, and lo and behold, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong—and growing because of it! The only things strong enough to break open our heart are things like pain, mistakes, unjust suffering, tragedy, failure, and the general absurdity of life.
.. We must be led to an experience or situation that we cannot fix or control or understand. That’s where faith begins. Up to that moment it has just been religion!
The only real perfection of which humans are capable is to include, absorb, forgive, and transform human imperfection. Humans are conduits and transformers much more than self-sufficient generators. Such is the character of a whole (and holy) human being.
Both Francis and Clare let go of all fear of suffering, all need for power, prestige, and possessions, and the need for their small self to be important. They came to know something essential—who they really were in God and thus who they really were.
.. Francis did not wish for himself or his followers to be priests, to take higher places on the Church’s hierarchical ladder of education, prestige, and power.
These hallmarks of the Secular Franciscan Order (from the formation manual For Up To Now) can be claimed and practiced by anyone:
- Simplicity (A spirituality that is genuine; without pretense)
- Poverty (Love of Gospel poverty develops confidence in the Father and creates internal freedom)
- Humility (The truth of what and who we really are in the eyes of God; freedom from pride and arrogance)
- A genuine sense of minority (The recognition that we are servants, not superior to anyone)
- A complete and active abandonment to God (Trusting in God’s unconditional love)
- Conversion (Daily we begin again the process of changing to be more like Jesus)
- Transformation (What God does for us, when we are open and willing)
- Peacemaking (We are messengers of peace as Francis was)