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Ups and downs of the Catholic Order of Preachers (Dominicans)

Friday, July 17th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — bearing in mind that ups and downs are transitory, and the eternal remains eternal ]

In what was effectively a DoubleQuote in my terminology (see note below), Gregory DiPippo at the New Liturgical Movement blog today juxtaposed two articles about the Dominican Order of Friars. One had to do with a downswing in vocations to the Order, the other with an upswing.


Fra Angelico


First, the downswing: “the shortage of vocations in the order of Saint Dominic has reached dramatic levels.” Sandro Magister writes in San Marco Must Not Die:

The fathers of the province of St. Catherine of Siena met again in chapter at the end of last May and reiterated to the superior general the request to suppress the convent of San Marco.

If that were to happen, in the cloisters and in the cells wondrously frescoed by Fra Angelico (see above the Annunciation, from 1442) there would no longer be any friar to pray. From the library designed by Michelozzo, the first library of the modern era open to the public, the robes of the learned would disappear. What has been for centuries a cenacle of men of letters, artists, bishops, saints, would give way to a trivial guest house.

The Masses in the church attached to the defunct convent would be officiated by someone from outside: from the not-distant convent of Santa Maria Novella, the only Dominican convent that would remain open in Florence.

Second, the reverse: “The man who sets aside his personal dreams to more perfectly subject himself to God is not primarily saying ‘no’ to the world, but saying ‘yes’ to a renewed life with God.” The Dominican Dominic Bouck writes in First Things:

After the ordination of eight of our brothers, there are over fifty of us studying for the priesthood or preparing to live life as a consecrated brother, about to be joined by fifteen more on July 25.

Among those roughly 75 men are lawyers, a medical doctor, a congressional staffer, professional musicians, a radio host, several PhDs and professors, a particle physicist from Stanford, a former Google employee, a dean of admissions at a medical school, Ivy Leaguers, Golden Domers, and more who were successful in the world, but sought a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church, and desired to serve his people.


It would be a tragedy for the Dominicans to close down their convent at San Marco, “as if the Franciscan friars were to decide to close the convent of Assisi” as Magister says — and in counterpoint, I’m heartened to receive news of an increased interest in the contemplative life here in the US.

A note for Fr Augustine Thompson, OP, who writes for the NLM bog and is the author of the standard work on St Dominic’s brother friar, brother founder and friend, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography: my DoubleQuotes format is a format for the juxtaposition of ideas, based on Hermann Hesse’s concept of the Glass Bead Game, and philosophical kin, to my mind at least, with Peter Abelard‘s Sic et Non.

Strategy at the speed of stupid

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Warren Buffett claims his master, champion investor Benjamin Graham, observed: “In the short-run, the market is a voting machine […] but in the long-run, the market is a weighing machine.” The Graham school of investment teaches focus on the weighing machine. Its students heed the call of the voting machine only when it gets them on the right side of the weighing machine. Favoring weight over vote let many Graham students profit more from weighing than others profited by voting. They gained more, and suffered less.

In the division of power between men in the larger market for power that is world politics, heeding the frenzy of voting over the slow tilt of weighing is as dangerous as it is desirable. Danger, like desire, comes clothed in bright flashing noise. Man is primed to vote when he should weigh by the cravings of the panicked beast deep in his fallen nature. Vivid easy commands more unthinking loyalty than just plain hard. With small things, this is survivable. With big things, this is life-threatening.

The current moment offers an easy and vivid contrast between vote bait and weight bait.

In one corner, we have the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), better known to Western voters as ISIS. ISIL is classic vote bait. ISIL is all vivid easy: they use easy and vivid theatrical atrocity to win the attention that wins votes. They have to. While theatricality is a luxury for the strong and ambitious, it’s a necessity for the weak and ambitious. It’s what you do when you have as little weight as ISIL.

Gorgeous George told young Cassius Clay, “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.” Clay saw wisdom: “I saw 15,000 people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, ‘This is a gooood idea!'” Gorgeous George was not the best professional wrestler, but he was easily the most vivid professional wrestler. His theatricality drew votes, increased his stock, and led viewers to vote him into being larger than life.

Through the hadith of Gorgeous George, “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!”, ISIL is now a top vote getter. It makes the voting machine ring with frenzy. While ISIL has no claim to be the most weighty strategic draw, it has a clear shot at the title for most votey strategic draw.

In the corner opposite, we have Russia. Russia is classic weight bait. Lots of classic weight bait. While ISIL seeks victory by cloaking its lightweight self in vote-drawing clamor, Russia seeks victory by cloaking its continent-spanning mass in weight-shifting silence. Crimea is taken by men without attribution. Russians without borders fight in the Donbass. Russia fights what the Arthashastra calls silent war, the War Which Cannot Be Named. Invasion happens by walking around.

Yet the unsleeping but easily distracted eye of official attention is reflexively drawn to the flash in the pan that is ISIL. ISIL jumps violently up and down, yelling “Look at me! Look at me!” with Made for YouTube clickbait barbarism. If there is a button for causing the voting machine to mindlessly suck up strategic bandwidth, be it genocide, retconned eighth-century nostalgia, florid rhetoric, scary men with beards, and over-the-top B-movie supervillainy, ISIL will furiously press it until its fingers fall off. They want to be seen: they have a scripted rendezvous at Meggido three hundred miles too north. If they can’t be a kufir magnet, they can’t be anything.

Since the most limited resource in today’s West of material plenty is attention, the blinking of ISIL diverts real power away from weightier matters. What Russia does carries more weight that what ISIL does. And ISIL can’t do much outside its territory except inflict bad theater on its viewers. Russia has nukes. ISIL has has YouTube. YouTube is huge to voting machine watchers. It’s marginal to weighing machine monitors except as just one input building towards a cumulative weight that tilts the weighing machine one way or the other. Nukes unleash weight with a speed that makes even the most shallow of flash voting look tardy.

Weighing Russia by investing sustained attention is strategy at the speed of smart. Voting for ISIL with any attention at all is strategy at the speed of stupid.

Camera angle: the place of aesthetics in analytics

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — suggesting that the ability to make “creative leaps” falls within the aesthetic realm ]

Kiefer Sutherland asleep towards the beginning of the movie Dead Heat:

Kiefer Sutherland in Dead Heat ca 8.30

And Mantegna‘s Lamentation over the Dead Christ



I don’t think there’s much doubt that the film-maker Mark Malone, was influenced by Mantegna’s mise-en-scène.

What interests me here, however, is not the diference between the two narratives, one secular, one sacred, nor the question of influence, but the opportunity this juxtaposition provides for me to stress that resemblance, or more generally, pattern (as in “pattern recognition”), is an aesthetic skill, with the corollary that the richest and most illuminating congruences between items of cognition across disciplines or media are those in which the parallelisms or oppositions are most exact.

It is the exactness of the formal correspondance between two thoughts, images, or events that permits their divergences to become salient to us, and in our search for insight, it will be precisely those correspondences which most richly illustrate this principle that will offer us the greatest possibility of fresh insight — which can then be explored with all the rigors our critical faculties can contrive.

On the history of the selfie

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — on self representation, avatars, and what we may be missing ]

Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen, aka The Conversion of the Magdalen


Where to begin?

The Washington Post doesn’t like selfies much, according to Galen Guengerich in the Religion, yes, the Religion section — in a post titled ‘Selfie’ culture promotes a degraded worldview he writes:

The 2013 word of the year, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, was “selfie,” which Oxford defines as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” The first use of the term, according to Oxford, occurred when a young Australian got drunk at a friend’s 21st birthday party and fell down the stairs. He hit lip-first and his front teeth punched a hole in his bottom lip. His response was to take a photo of himself and post it online for his friends to see. “Sorry about the focus,” he wrote, “It was a selfie.”


As usual, the Kierkegaard / Kardashian combo that tweets as @KimKierkegaard manages to straddle the worlds material (in the Madonna sense) and spiritual (in the sense of the Madonna):


I wanted to dig deeper — the WashPost Religion section, Kierkegaard, how could I not? I often want to dig deeper, and today I was driven to do so because today — not or the first time — I ran across a terrorism analyst and blogger named Cristina Caravaggio Giancchini, who uses a detail from her namesake Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio‘s Martha and Mary Magdalen (above) as her avatar…

Avatars are a kind of selfie, aren’t they?

In any case, I found myself looking for the particular Caravaggio that contains that detail, discovering it was the Martha and Mary Magdalen, which you see that the top of this post — then kept on digging via Google to learn a little more.


Here’s what I found in a blog post titled Fingers and Mirrors: Caravaggio and the Conversion of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance Rome:

The inclusion of the mirror asks viewers to enter into a dynamic conversation about their own delight in the rich textures of the picture; alongside a powder puff and comb, it points us to Mary’s vanity, and her concern with the things of this world. Rather than showing Mary to herself, however, the mirror captures a diamond of light — a visual representation of the divine grace that inspires Mary to look beyond her earthly passions. The flower that Mary clutches to her chest is an orange blossom: symbol of purity.

As Debora Shuger realises, in a stimulating essay on early modern mirrors, for Renaissance viewers ‘the object viewed in the mirror is almost never the self’ (22). Such mirrors are, Shuger suggests, if not totally Platonic (reflected an absolute ideal), at least ‘platonically angled, titled upwards in order to reflect paradigms rather than the perceiving eye’ (26). Renaissance mirrors, she concludes, ask us to think differently about the mental worlds and self-awareness of people living in this period: ‘they reflect a selfhood that … is beheld, and beholds itself, in relation to God’ (38).

Pilgrims who travelled to Aachen in the fifteenth-century appear to have purchased small convex mirrors as souvenirs: as relics were carried through the thronging crowds, travellers held up the mirrors to catch a glimpse of them, and then preserved the mirrors as objects which, according to Rayna Kalas, ‘betokened that moment when the pilgrim had a vision of and was visible before the sacred relic. … Every subsequent glance at this mirror memento might serve to remind the believer of that glimpse of sacred divinity’. In Caravaggio’s painting, though, Mary looks away from the mirror which might capture her reflection (the ‘dark glass’ of Corinthians?), and towards her shadowed but persuasive sister.


We began this post with the idea that our 21st century ‘Selfie’ culture “promotes a degraded worldview” — and here by way of contrast, in the use of hand-held mirrors in 15th century Aachen, we see what we are missing…

… a glimpse of the sacred, in which the sacred glimpses us in transcendent return.

In good, really good company

Friday, January 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameronmildly NSFW if your office can’t handle Leonardo, which IMNSHO we should be able to manage now in this 21st century CE — and besides, it’s the weekend ]

Well, we here at Zenpundit have a particular interest in creative thinking, and this last evening I unexpectedly found myself in excellent creative company…

…in a months-old blog-post by an old friend, an astrophysicist by profession who goes by the name Cygnus on the web — presumably after the constellation that harbors Deneb, and also Kepler-22b, the “first known transiting planet to orbit within the habitable zone of a Sun-like star” (WikiP, since I know no better). Cygnus means “swan” in Greek, and Zeus became a swan for his own imperious purposes when he saw LedaHelen of Troy being one of their offspring (see eggs in Da Vinci‘s image below), with the Trojan War ensuing.


Here’s then, is the A-Z of creative folk, as Cygnus pulled it together last April as part of an “A-Z- Challenge” — I’m honored and awed to be named in the company of such as Andre Breton, Donald Knuth, George Carlin, Octavia Butler, Samuel R Delany, Dame Frances Yates and the rest:


For April 2013, my theme for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge was “An A to Z of Masters of the Imagination that You Oughtta Know About.”  In other words, on each day I profiled a person whose brains were just overflowing with weirdness and creativity.  Here’s a list of the posts:


So that’s Cygnus’ list — quite a dinner party! You’ll recognise some members of your own constellation of creatives here, perhaps — feast on some of those you’re not yet familar with! Cygnus blogs about games and such at Servitor Ludi.

As for me, I’ll simply offer you William Bulter Yeats‘ great poem Leda and the Swan, to celebrate the company I just found myself in, and close out a memorable evening:

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                 Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

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