Make me a channel of legitimately sourced quotations

Emily Stimpson, bless her, once swatted down a story I’ve heard my whole life.  Stimpson says:

[T]he election of our wonderful new Holy Father, Pope Francis, has triggered an avalanche of people talking about the first Francis and his injunction to, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”

But see, here’s the thing. St. Francis never said that. We don’t know who did. But it wasn’t Francis. It’s not in any of his known writings. It’s not in any of his companions’ writings. It’s not in anyone’s writings about Francis for the first 800 or so years after his death.

Someone invented the quote and put it into poor St. Francis’ mouth. And ever since then, people have used it as an excuse to not evangelize with words, to not have the uncomfortable conversations or say the unpopular things.

I have also learned, to my great relief, that there is no compelling reason to believe that St. Francis ever wrote the spiritually flaccid “Make me a channel of your peace” prayer.

We can assume that these misattributions were honest mistakes:  somebody once upon a time said something that somebody else liked, and somebody else said, “Hey, that sounds like something St. Francis would say,” and somebody else took it to mean that St. Francis did say it, and so on, like a centuries-long game of telephone.  But no matter what the intentions, sloppiness with attributions can lead to real trouble, especially if the person to whom the quote is misattributed has some influential heft.

Even if you’re sure you have your attribution right, quoting people rightly can be tricky.  A few days ago, someone posted an inspirational image on Facebook.  Before a backdrop of cattails in the sunset, it said in golden script,

“It is in God’s hands. One must be content to leave it there. One must have Faith.” — C.S. Lewis

Something about that chewy use of the impersonal “one” made a gong go off in my head.  Did C.S. Lewis really say that?  The sentiment was too vague to be called false, exactly, but it sounded . . . chewy.  So I looked it up, and it turns out the quote is from Perelandra, where Elwin Ransom has been transported to an unfallen planet ruled by an unfallen Lady and her absent husband.  To Ransom’s horror, Hell has sent a representative to try to tempt the Lady into defying God.  It describes the thoughts that go through Ransom’s mind as he figures out what to do next — what God (Maleldil) wants from him. The quote in question is in bold:

He, Ransom, with his ridiculous piebald body and his ten times defeated arguments – what sort of a miracle was that? His mind darted hopefully down a side-alley that seemed to promise escape. Very well then. He had been brought here miraculously.He was in God’s hands. As long as he did his best – and he had done his best – God would see to the final issue. He had not succeeded. But he had done his best. No one could do more. “‘Tis not in mortals to command success.’ He must not be worried about the final result. Maleldil would see to that. And Maleldil would bring him safe back to Earth after his very real, though unsuccessful, efforts. Probably Maleldil’s real intention was that he should publish to the human race the truths he had learned on the planet Venus. As for the fate of Venus, that could not really rest upon his shoulders. It was in God’s hands. One must be content to leave it there. One must have Faith ….

It snapped like a violin string. Not one rag of all this evasion was left. Relentlessly, unmistakably, the Darkness pressed down upon him the knowledge that this picture of the situation was utterly false. His journey to Perelandra was not a moral exercise, nor a sham fight. If the issue lay in Maleldil’s hands, Ransom and the Lady were those hands. The fate of a world really depended on how they behaved in the next few hours.

So, yeah, Lewis said that, in the same way that Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true”: through the mouth of a character who’s immediately proven wrong. It was not a recommended course of action; it was an illustration of the sort of lies we can tell ourselves when we’re trying to get out of something.  Attributing the shorter quote to C.S. Lewis without context is only half a step above the Hollywood promoter who prints posters that say, “Critics say ‘[Y]ou’ll love this movie!  It’s full of … good scenes!”‘” when the critic’s actual words were, “If you’re a grade A moron, you’ll love this movie!  It’s full of nonsense, and has no good scenes!”

And of course, some people don’t even bother to be technically accurate.  Have you heard the story that Pope Francis, when handed the papal mozzetta, said waspishly, “Wear it yourself!  The circus is over.”  That quote turned out to be made up out of whole cloth,  either by someone who really did regard Benedict XVI as some kind of bling-happy, medieval vulgarian, or by someone who maliciously wanted to portray Francis as someone who saw Benedict that way.  Either way, there is no evidence that Francis said it — and, more importantly, there is no evidence that he is the kind of person who would say something like that.

As Shakespeare once said, there’s the rub.  Consider the purported source.  Listen to your spidey sense.  If you see a quote by a famous person, and it either sounds the tiniest bit “off” to you — or, conversely, if it makes you think, “Oh man, that’s exactly the kind of thing I knew he was thinking all along, and now we’ve got him” — then think, and do a little research, before you forward it to all your friends!

As Marie Antoinette once said, “Famous people say enough stupid things on their own without you making stuff up.”  Well, I bet it sounds better in French.

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This post originally ran in a slightly different form in The National Catholic Register in 2013.

Chasing pleasures and chasing God

All licit pleasures can lead us to God. All licit pleasures can prepare us to enjoy the eternal presence of God. That is what pleasure is for: to teach us, to form us, to remind us of what we once knew before our forefather Adam brought darkness and distance and forgetfulness between us and our creator. It is perverse to try to prolong pleasure past its purpose. It is profound to try to submerge ourselves in the source of all pleasure.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here.

Photo by Katya Austin on Unsplash

Trump’s presidency is one big cliché. Run for your lives.

As wave after wave of bizarre news rolls in from the White House, some Americans may be tempted to think, “We’ve never seen anything like this before!” But that’s not so. The Trump presidency is actually one long string of tired ideas we’ve heard a million times.

But here’s the catch: tired ideas are somewhat more startling when someone actually acts on them.

You remember that scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the ship picks up a passenger. and they discover that he’s come from the island where dreams come true. At first, the sailors can’t believe their luck, expecting to find loved ones alive again, or to be reunited with old flames.

Not so fast.

 

“Fools!” said the man, stamping his foot with rage. “That is the sort of talk that brought me here, and I’d better have been drowned or never born. Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams — dreams, do you understand — come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.”

There was about half a minute’s silence and then, with a great clatter of armour, the whole crew were tumbling down the main hatch as quick as they could and flinging themselves on the oars to row as they had never rowed before; and Drinian was swinging round the tiller, and they boatswain was giving out the quickest stroke that had ever been heard at sea. For it had taken everyone just that half-minute to remember certain dreams they had had–dreams that make you afraid of going to sleep again–and to realize what it would mean to land on a country where dreams come true.

The voyage of the ship of state in 2017 comes to mind; only it’s the Island Where Commencement Addresses Come True. You’ve been to one or two of these snoozers in your lifetime, right? Your head droops, your tongue begins to loll out of your mouth as you hear the speaker drone on and on through platitude after platitude.

Well, say what you will about 2017, it hasn’t been boring. Here’s a few clichés that wake you right up when they come to life and start picking out new drapes for the Oval Office:

You can be anything you want to be if you believe in yourself. You can become head of the Department of Education even if you know less about the inside of a classroom than your average hornet could pick up before it got squashed by the janitor. You can get an appointment to almost any cabinet post, and the only qualification you’ll need is that you are completely untainted by experience with or knowledge of your post.

Don’t let other people tell you what to believe, as long as you hold your truth in your heart. Although it’s probably not wise to claim Your Truth was just a slip of the tongue when you you have already told the world Your Truth three separate times.

Don’t let anything divert you from pursuing your passion. Not marriage, not consent, not bodily autonomy. Just grab.

Never let anyone else define you or put artificial boundaries on what you can achieve. Separation of powers, schmeparation of powers. States’ right, schmates rights. Limited government . . . well, you get the schmidea.

Don’t sit back and let your friends shape the future. Be the change you (for some ungodly inexplicable reason) wish to see in the world.

But do lean on your friends. Lean hard.

Reject being limited by labels. People want to call you “pro-life,” that’s fine. You’ll take their vote. But you’ll go ahead and gleefully reject child refugees, gut legal protections for kids with special needs, openly mock the disabled, enthusiastically promote torture, and yank health insurance from the poor, including children and pregnant women.  And test out your awesome new military powers by killing an 8-year-old American girl. Let them label you “pro-life!”  You’re bigger than any label.

Reach for the stars. Or the Vatican. Or Russia. Or . . . just hang around in your bathrobe watching TV and leafing through drape fabric swatches.

And finally:

No matter what they take from you, they can’t take away your dignity. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing, updated several times daily.

 

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Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

Oh, such depravity. Tell me more!

What interests me is how eager so many people were to believe that the sick, twisted, evil of California just got a little sicker, more twisted, and even eviller. There is a very fine line between drawing back in horror and swooping in with glee, and thousands of outraged readers, bloggers, pundits, and shock jocks vaulted right over that line.

Why? Because evil isn’t content with prowling around like a ravening lion, looking to devour this and that. It wants us to sit on the sidelines and cheer it on, munching popcorn as we enjoy the spectacle.

Read the rest of my latest for the Catholic Weekly here.

Rogue Laughter in a Flippant Society

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Whether you call it a defect in our understanding of tragedy, or a defect in our understanding of comedy, it amounts to the same thing, because a society that avoids tragedy is a society that does not understand comedy — and so it has no idea when to laugh and when to cry.

Read the rest at the Register. 

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What are you doing for catechism this year?

All right, YOU catechise this, if you’re so smart.

For the older kids, in 7th, 8th, 10th, and 11th grades, I give up. Wait, no, that’s not what I meant to say out loud. What I meant to say is that we haven’t found either EDGE or LifeTeen to be a good match for our family, and every time I try to read something aloud to the kids, or do a pre-packaged curriculum with them, something happens to capsize the whole endeavor.  It’s some combination of the kids being in three different schools, and me and my husband working four different jobs, and the kids having this dumb idea about having social lives, and me falling into a prenatal coma around 6:00 every night, that just makes it difficult to keep up with the diligent inquiry into beginner’s theology that I always imagined enjoying in the soft quiet of evening with my older kids. And no, we can’t do anything in the car. I don’t want to explain why. We just can’t.

Read the rest at the Register.

Why give birth? Why love?

Wow.  Many, many thanks to Garard Nadal for posting this incredibly pro-life short film from Unilever:

I do not know what Unilever’s Project Sunlight is about, but man, the clip is lovely, and will do much good. A great companion, as a matter of fact, to this comic illustrating a quote from C.S. Lewis, who died fifty years ago today.  (Thanks to Jason Bach for sharing the comic on Facebook!)

Hope doesn’t mean you know nothing will go wrong.  As Lewis says:

The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.