Letters to Peregrinus #23 - On Five Rules for a Madding Crowd

Dear Peregrinus (Thursday, 9 AM):

In a text by Romano Guardini (1885-1986)[1] I found this: “The animal does not err in matters concerned with the conduct of its life. If it does, it is sick and it perishes. But a person can err, and so he or she is confronted with the task of learning.”[2]

You wrote to me about the inner tumult you have felt roiling your peace before, during, and after the national election, and now continuing into the early days of the presidency of Donald Trump, our 45th president. I use that word “our” deliberately, because it seems unworthy of any American ever to postulate that whomever we have elected fair and square is the president only of those who voted for him or her, and who may then be rejected by those who did not. “He is not my president,” we hear shouted from the madding[3] crowd, at least in these parts of our land.

Actually, we all can testify to the shouting going on in our local and national politics, have seen shortness of temper in people who need to learn temperance, and have noticed a willingness among us to abandon a sturdy habit of courtesy in the way we talk to each other.

As to the virtue of courtesy – one of the “small” but essential virtues for living up close to people – I think this. St. Ignatius of Loyola (1492-1556) judged the practice of courtesy so important (because so easy to ignore when oneʼs passions are high) that he commanded its practice in his famous “Presupposition” in the Spiritual Exercises [22], which reads in part: “[I]t is necessary to suppose that every good person is more ready to put a good interpretation on anotherʼs statement than to condemn it as false.”[4] St. Ignatius aligns nicely with St. Paul, who in his great literary effort to mediate the cataclysmic[5] diversities recognizable among the Christians of Rome, wrote his own “presupposition”:

Romans 12: 9 Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. 11 Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute [you], bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. [6]

Now, if Leroy Jethro Gibbs of NCIS (the television series) can govern his life by a set of Rules, teaching his team to abide by them in their common pursuit of a difficult, and still hidden, truth, then, I can offer five Rules of my own in relation to the madding crowd.

Rule #1 – Distinguish among the clamoring voices a voice that lives the truth it speaks. In short, not all voices are worth listening to. It is one thing for the First Amendment to grant “free speech” to all our citizens. But it is quite another for a person, through long discipline and reflection and discernment, to have earned the right to be heard. St. Paul speaks of people whose voice is but “a noisy gong or a clashing cymbal.”[7]

Rule #2 – Learn to respect the human capacity for self-centeredness. There exists in human beings an enduring propensity towards what the “fathers and mothers of the desert”[8] called philautia – “self-love”, or perhaps less ambiguously, “self-centeredness.” It is one of the most destructive of all vices,[9] because it is so difficult for even a very good person to recognize as controlling his or her motivations. Philautia in one of the two mother-passions; i.e., human passions that give birth to all the rest of the disordered and disordering passions of the soul. One may discern, for example, the presence of a self-serving person or group (a social or political clique) when such a person or group is so loud in denouncing others that we can only hear them, or when a person or group is so noisily “being a voice to the voiceless” that the voiceless have no chance to be heard. All of this is part of the human mess, but we need not be helpless in the face of it.

Rule #3 – Train the spiritual powers that the Holy Spirit gives and activate them in the public square with skill and holy cunning[10] when they are needed. God poured out on us Christians the gifts of His holy Spirit not so that we might enjoy the fruits, or “boast,” but so that we unfailingly use them to save our race from itself. Christians are an embarrassment when we fail to recognize when our citizenry needs from God what God has entrusted us to give to them. This is not about Christians being a privileged special interest group (heaven spare us that mistake), but about us demonstrating a Christ-like way of being a good human being. St. Paul writes, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”[11] We are for this.

Rule #4 – Learn patience to an exceptional degree, because we are still too slow to comprehend what really is happening. It is a consolation to recognize how little we actually know about systems as complex as even a single human being, let alone a city or State or society teeming with them. I have learned the value of a pause, a deliberate making-still of myself, when in the midst of being pushed or shoved or bullied by the passions of others. The Psalmist wisely wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10 NABRE) Patience, in this context, means listening – a practice of prayer-in- the-midst; listening with every part of myself alert to the subtle “prompting” of God who whispers – “Go this direction.”

Rule #5 – Fight with every possible weapon the contagion of ill will and evil speech. Evil speech and ill will are contagious – a toxic spiritual virus that even the most vigilant is susceptible to catching when so many are infected. I pray, old friend, that you will help me by calling me out, holding me accountable, when I get infected. It is not friendship to let such a virus, so corrosive of trust and the common good, to stand unchallenged in our friends. When you see this in me, rebuke this with the courtesy and courage of Christ who said to a storm, “Be silent!”, and it was.

Thinking of you, old friend, and always counting on your prayers for me, who loves and believes in you,

Rick, SJ


[1] See a short piece by Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles on Romano Guardini, who (the latter) is one of the most significant Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, and whose influence was profound on other very famous and influential European theologians. See at https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/laudato-si-and-romano- guardini/4808/.

[2] Guardini, Romano. Learning the Virtues: That Lead You to God, pp. 131- 132. Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] The Oxford English Dictionary concerning the adjective “madding” – “Becoming mad; acting madly; frenzied ... that which makes a person mad.”

[4] From the translation by Fr. Louis J. Puhl, SJ. That phrase “it is necessary....”, which I have emphasized in boldfaced type is remarkable. Such courtesy is not optional; it is necessary.

[5] The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “cataclysm” – esp. “a political or social upheaval which sweeps away the old order of things.”

[6] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ro 12g9–18.

[7] This we find at the beginning of his sublime description of human and divine Love at 1 Corinthians 13.

[8] This refers to the Christian men and women hermits who began to occupy the remote places of the Sahara in Egypt beginning in the 3rd century CE. Their famous exemplar and organizer of the “desert way” of being a Christian, and what became – “the spirituality of the desert” – was St. Antony of Egypt (c. 251-356 CE).

[9] The Oxford English Dictionary concerning the noun “vice” – “evil, immoral, or wicked habits or conduct.”

[10] The Oxford English Dictionary reminds that the original meaning of “cunning” was – “The capacity or faculty of knowing; wit, wisdom, intelligence.”

[11] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ro 12:2.

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