Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Surfer Angel of Ipanema

Today the Wall Street Journal wrote a worthwhile article about Guido Schaffer, the Surfer Angel. In 2009 he drowned at the age of 34 just months before scheduled to be ordained a priest. He took care of the poor and homeless in the slums in Rio. He had a medical clinic. He had prayer groups where they would say the Rosary. And he loved to surf, and used surfing as an occasion to spread the Gospel. Many from all walks from Bishop to homeless, recognized his precious holiness and came to his funeral. They transferred his body to the Our Lady of Peace in Ipanema.

In the Wall Street Journal you get quotes from his close friend and associates:

This man is an example of my favorite kind of saints. Not contending. Not crying out in the streets. No controversy. Just living the Gospel in his own fresh manner.  He had something special going.  

Pleasing to God, having been made beloved, and living among sinners, he was transformed.
He was quickly taken away, for malice could not alter his understanding, nor could deceit beguile his soul.
For fascination with entertainment obscures good things, and the unfaithfulness of desire subverts the mind without malice.
Completed in a short time, he fulfilled many times.
Truly his soul was pleasing to God. Because of this, he hastened to bring him out of the midst of iniquities, but the people see this and do not understand, nor do they place such things in their hearts:
that the grace and mercy of God is with his holy ones, and he watches over his elect. (The Book of Wisdom 4:10-15)


Monday, February 23, 2015

Saint Gregory of Narek!

I am excited about Pope Francis' newly proclaimed Doctor of the Church.  What an exceptional choice!

Saint Gregory of Narek (951-1003). He was from Armenia and a vibrant member of this brilliant Christian culture which was about to get invaded and destroyed toward the end of his life. And he wrote this tantalizing book they call "The Narek".  It is considered the greatest work of Armenian literature.  They use lines from his Narek in the Armenian Liturgy. Naturally I wanted to learn all about this.  I never even heard of him!  So I found an introductory link.  And I started to read his Book and some of it reads like Shakespeare.

Here is an introduction of his Book:

And here is a section from this Introduction written by Thomas J. Samuelian.  Quote:

The Fragrant Sacrifice of Words

For St. Gregory, prayers are not only meant to enlighten or to serve as a means of communication with God. They are also meant to be things of sincere beauty made of thoughts and words—thoughts and words being the best offering that could be given by the creature God honored with his image and endowed with the higher faculties of cognition and speech. As St. Paul said of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: "I have all and abound: I am full... an odor of sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God (Phil. 4:18)."  St. Gregory explains the experience of grace and inspiration as "the thunderbolt of wisdom... upon the movements of my tongue... that I might offer thanks to You with unfailing voice and unbroken speech (Prayer 22e)."

His incantational style of cascading verses and Homeric listings contribute to making these prayers charming in the etymological sense of the word. They exude grace. As the Evangelist Luke wrote, "Out of the good treasure of his heart the good man produces good... for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks (Luke 6:46)." That grace is expressed in the vividness, abundance and variety of images that St. Gregory employs to turn the ineffable sighs of the heart into human words of prayer to God.

His images cover a wide range of recurrent metaphors. For example, he often uses the image of a field and weeds, a common theme from the Gospels, or the ship wreck and the sea. Some of the other most common images are horses, pottery, judgment, debts/mortgages, and healing salves and remedies.  Following the Gospels, St. Gregory constructs "word pictures" and uses parabolic language to make the invisible graphic, the ineffable expressible, the obscure clear, and the unknowable graspable.

The generosity of images, language and metaphor is striking, as St. Gregory transcribes his vision of the object of his adoration and contemplation into a rapid sequence of phrases from a wide range of perspectives.

Spare me that I may not
labor without birth,
sigh without tears,
meditate without voice,
cloud without rain,
struggle without reaching,
call without being heard,
implore without being heeded,
groan without being comforted,
beg without being helped,
smolder without aroma,
see you without being fulfilled. (Prayer 2c)

Two cups in two hands,
one filled with blood, the other with milk,
two censers flickering,
one with incense, the other with crisp fat,
two platters piled with delicacies,
one sweet, the other tart,
two goblets overflowing
one with tears, the other with brimstone,
two bowls at the finger tips
one with wine, the other with bile,
two windows of sight
one crying, the other erring,
two refiner's cauldrons
one heating, one cooling,
two outlooks on one face
one mildly affectionate, the other fiercely raging,
two lifted hands
one to strike, the other to shield, (Prayer 30c)

The piling on of metaphors and similes and the repetition of formulaic contrasts and paradoxes are entrancing. The repetition and variations of sound and ideas set up a two-fold resonance, within the text and between the text and the reader/listener. Each image in the text casts light on the other, and each speaks to different people at different times in different ways:

Look at me,
I am
unworthy of good, undeserving of favor,
incapable of love, drawn in by the strands of sin,
wounded in the depth of my inner organs,
a broken palm tree,
spilled wine,
damp wheat,
breached mortgage,
ripped up verdict,
counterfeit seal,
deformed image,
singed garment,
lost goblet,
sunken ship,
crushed pearl,
buried gem,
dried up plant,
broken beam,
rotten wood,
mutilated mandrake,
collapsed roof,
dilapidated altar,
uprooted plant,
oily filth on the street,
milk flowing through ash,
a dead man in the battalion of the brave. (Prayer 67b)

The prayers are designed to calm and focus the distracted and distraught mind of the person at prayer. Because of the variety and quantity of images, they constantly delight, so we do not lose the strand of the prayer—even in moments of distraction, which are only human. For in the next phrase a similar idea is presented from a new perspective that refocuses the mind and reconnects it with the central impulse of the message. St. Gregory designed them to be rhetorically highly textured, liturgical prayers, meant to assist in that most difficult task of translating the sighs of the heart into an offering acceptable to God.

Only you can turn the discouragement of blame
into joyous praise,
shame into resilience,
humility into honor,
banishment into the hope of goodness,
separation into the expectation of reunion,
threats into consolation,
final condemnation into a second chance at deliverance. (Prayer 73a)

They also have a liturgical flavor and purpose. For example,

For yours is salvation,
and from you is redemption,
and by your right hand is restoration,
and your finger is fortification.
Your command is justification.
Your mercy is liberation.
Your countenance is illumination.
Your face is exultation.
Your spirit is benefaction.
Your anointing oil is consolation.
A dew drop of your grace is exhilaration.
You give comfort.
You make us forget despair.
You lift away the gloom of grief.
You change the sighs of our heart into laughter. (Prayer 9d)

Some also have the flavor of proverbial wisdom, good counsel for a good life:

As the Good Book foretold
alien, evil forces stole the wise treasure of my heart.
Wisdom waned in me, as the Proverb-teller says,
and evil impulses grew.
I did not fix the eye of my soul on the head of my life, Christ,
who would have led me down the straight path.
For in trying to run too quickly, I dug myself in deeper.
In trying to reach the unreachable, I failed to reach my own level.
In pretending to greatness, I slipped from where I was.
From the heavenly path, I sank to the abyss.
Trying to avoid harm, I was permanently debilitated.
Trying to be completely pure, I was corrupted completely.
I dodged to the left, and left myself open from the right.
Chasing the second, I lost the first.
Seeking the insignificant, I forfeited the important.
Keeping the small vow, I broke the covenant.
Trying to break a habit, I picked up a vice.
Avoiding the petty, I fell prey to the weighty.
What I did, I did to myself,
which is the worst testimony against me.
Only you are able to deliver me, a captive slave, from these things,
restoring to life a soul devoted to death.
For you alone, Lord Christ, revered as Doer of Good,
with the boundless glory of the Father and the Holy Spirit are
blessed forever and ever.
Amen. (Prayer 55f)

And they are replete with doctrinal explanations, as one might expect of a scholar of St. Gregory's erudition and a holy man of his depth:

Three persons, one mystery,
separate faces, unique and distinct,
made one by their congruence and
being of the same holy substance and nature,
unconfused and undivided,
one in will and one in action. (Prayer 13a)

We confess and profess, honor and worship
the shared glory and unity of the Holy Trinity,
Godhead beyond description, always good,
of the same substance, equal in honor,
beyond the flight of the wings of our thought,
higher than all examples, beyond all analogies,
surpassing the limits on high. (Prayer 34c)
Merely entering the vessel of the virgin womb purely,
and coming out joined with a body inseparable in essence,
without any flaw in his humanity and lacking nothing in divinity,
one and only Son of the only Father and
the first born of the Mother of God, Virgin Bearer of the Lord,
Creator becoming a true man as originally created,
not in the fallen state of mortals. (Prayer 34e)

As one would also expect, St. Gregory took the doctrinal explanation and turned it into an immediately comprehensible image, likening the relationship between human and divine in the incarnate Christ "to the wick in the candle."

You gave the oil, and in this oil you placed a wick,
which exemplifies your union, without imperfection, with our condition,
formed and woven with your love of mankind. (93b)

Longing for our Creator

Ultimately, the Book of Prayer is about the longing of mankind for our Creator and our need to communicate with God. It is a longing that gives rise to sighs from the heart, finding its consummation and resolution in death:

sun of justice,
ray of blessing,
cherished desire...
Let your light dawn,
your salvation be swift,
your help come in time
and the hour of your arrival be at hand. (Prayer 95a, c).

The Book of Prayer is packed with so many insights that an introduction cannot do more than entice readers to explore and find the treasure they seek. So as we move from the introduction to the work itself, may the benedictions of St. Gregory be upon us (Prayer 26d), both those who have copied this book through the centuries that we might partake of it and those who recite it out of their love of God, praying that God may "finish the meanderings of our wretched, errant voices with His own mighty words (Prayer 95a)" and that we may

receive a portion of the forgiveness of sin
and be restored to our former spotless purity,
sealed with God's unchanging image.
Amen. (Prayer 90f)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Meaning and Definition

Here are some interesting quotes I've collected over the past year or two in regards to meaning and definition. The word meaning originates in the German Language, from the word meinen which is still used today. It is translated as thinking or intention. It almost seems synonymous with 'intentional thinking'. The word 'definition' has its roots in Latin.  Both names refer to ideas and have to do with a human's relation to his own thought, or what is happening in via his brain.

From Thought and Language (1986) by Lev Vygotskii

"The meaning of a word represents such a close amalgam of thought and language that it is hard to tell whether it is a phenomenon of speech or a phenomenon of thought. A word without meaning is an empty sound; meaning, therefore is a criterion of “word,” its indispensable component. . ." [note: in other sections he equated "word" with concept. All words first and foremost reference concepts and then, secondarily refer to an object or a concept).

"The adolescent will form and use a concept quite correctly in a concrete situation but will find it strangely difficult to express that concept in words, and the verbal definition will, in most cases, be much narrower than might have been expected from the way he used the concept. The same discrepancy occurs also in adult thinking, even at very advanced levels."

From The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism (1923) by Ogden and Richards

"Firstly, do we define things or words? To decide this point we have only to notice that if we speak about defining words we refer to something very different from what is referred to, meant, by 'defining things.' When we define words we take another set of words which may be used with the same referent as the first, i.e., we substitute a symbol which will be better understood in a given situation. With things, on the other hand, no such substitution is involved. A so-called definition of a horse as opposed to the definition of the word 'horse,' is a statement about it enumerating properties by means of which it may be compared with and distinguished from other things."
. . .
"They [definitions] are relevant to some purpose or situation, and consequently are applicable only over a restricted field or 'universe of discourse.' For some definitions, those of physics, for instance, this universe is very wide."
. . .
"And here we pause at the very pertinent question: "What then from the psychological point of view is this MEANING?" The answer is given without hesitation and in italics-" From the psychological point of view, MEANING is context." To explain: In every perception, or group of sensations and images, "the associated images form as it were a context or 'fringe' which binds together the whole and gives it a definite MEANING," and it is this "fringe of MEANING that makes the sensations not 'mere' sensations but symbols of a physical object."

From Ontology of Language: What is a Concept? by Fattie
"Furthermore, these objects of our environment are also used in associations which explicitly define and provide some intended meaning, like a type of motion. In the above example[the ball fell to the floor.], the word “fell” is a dynamic concept which describes and gives meaning to the relation between 2 objects, specifically, the motion between the ball and the floor. It is impossible to define the word “fell” without associating at least 2 objects. For example, you CANNOT define “fell” by simply referencing the ball by itself without any other relation. You cannot even imagine a lone ball falling in a Universe that is comprised of a single lonely ball. Even the dynamic concepts of energy, mass, time, field or force cannot even be imagined or conceptualized on a lonely object. Not even God Almighty can conceptualize them! Now you should be able to understand exactly why ENERGY, MASS, TIME, FIELD and FORCE do not exist, they never have....and they never will."

"Meaning is what WE explicitly define in the relation within each concept. Concepts don’t magically self-acquire meaning nor are they devoid of meaning, despite what some people will have you believe."

From Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong (1998) by Jerry Fodor

"Chapter 3 remarked that it’s pretty clear that if we can’t define “doorknob”, that can’t be because of some accidental limitation of the available metalinguistic apparatus; such a deficit could always be remedied by switching metalanguages. The claim, in short, was not that we can’t define “doorknob” in English, but that we can’t define it at all. The implied moral is interesting: if “doorknob” can’t be defined, the reason that it can’t is plausibly not methodological but ontological; it has something to do with what kind of property being a doorknob is. [FORM, form, form!!!] If you’re inclined to doubt this, so be it; but I think that you should have your intuitions looked at.
. . .
It’s sometimes said that doorknobs (and the like) have functional essences: what makes a thing a doorknob is what it is (or is intended to be) used for. So maybe the science of doorknobs is psychology? Or sociology? Or anthropology? Once again, believe it if you can. In fact, the intentional aetiology of doorknobs is utterly transparent: they’re intended to be used as doorknobs. I don’t at all doubt that’s what makes them what they are, but that it is gets us nowhere. For, if DOORKNOB plausibly lacks a conceptual analysis, INTENDED TO BE USED AS A DOORKNOB does too, and for the same reasons. And surely, surely that can’t, in either case, be because there’s something secret about doorknobhood that depth psychology is needed to reveal? No doubt, there is a lot that we don’t know about intentions towards doorknobs qua intentions; but I can’t believe there’s much that’s obscure about them qua intentions towards doorknobs.

Look, there is presumably something about doorknobs that makes them doorknobs, and either it’s something complex or it’s something simple. If it’s something complex, then ‘doorknob’ much have a definition, and its definition must be either “real” or “nominal” (or both). If ‘doorknob’ has a nominal definition, then it ought to be possible for a competent linguist or analytical philosopher to figure out what its nominal definition is. If ‘doorknob’ has a real definition, then it ought to be possible for a science of doorknobs to uncover it. But linguists and philosophers have had no luck defining ‘doorknob’ (or, as we’ve seen, anything much else). And there is nothing for a science of doorknobs to find out. The direction this is leading in is that if ‘doorknob’ is undefinable, that must be because being a doorknob is a primitive property. But of course, that’s crazy. If a thing has doorknobhood, it does so entirely in virtue of others of the properties it has. If doorknobs don’t have hidden essences or real definitions, that can’t possibly be because being a doorknob is one of those properties that things have simply because they have them."

[the single primary property he is looking for is form or shape. It is impossible to define an object, all one can do is point to it. The 'word' object references that which has form. Form is in inherent property humans have conceived so as to classify any and all objects as opposed to concepts. Meaning, definition, etc. arises from relations between objects, even if a human is relating an object to his or her self, or form or another form or idea as in the act of naming or symbolizing]

From What is a Scientific Definition? by Fattie

"A definition is simply a description of the conceptual relations between the objects invoked within the specified context of a term. Definitions place limitations on the extent or usage on the terms in question for the purposes of avoiding ambiguities, circularities and contradictions. Only then can the terms have consistent meaning in one’s dissertation. All concepts describe the relations between the objects they invoke; and this is their intrinsic meaning. As such, all concepts are necessarily defined, whether we like it or not."

Philosophers on Communication

"All life comes back to the question of our speech-the medium through which we communicate"

--- William James

"Error is never so difficult to be destroyed as when it has its root in Language"

--- Jeremy Bentham

"We have to make use of language, which is made up necessarily
of preconceived ideas. Such ideas unconsciously held are the most
dangerous of all"

--- Henri Poincaire

"By the grammatical structure of a group of languages everything
runs smoothly for one kind of philosophical system, whereas
the way is as it were barred for certain other possibilities"

Friedrich Nietzsche
"An Englishman, a Frenchman, a German, and an Italian
cannot by any means bring themselves to think quite alike, at least
on subjects that involve any depth of sentiment, they have not the
verbal means"

---Prof. J.S.  Mackenzie

"In Primitive Thought the name and object named are associated
in such wise that the one is regarded as a part of the other. The
imperfect separation of words from things characterizes Greek
speculation in general" [in naming we seem to establish some sort of affinity or ownership with the objects and concepts named]

---Herbert Spencer

"The tendency has always been strong to believe that whatever
receives a name must be an entity or being, having an independent
existence of its own and if no real entity answering to the name
could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none
existed, but imagined that it was something peculiarly abstruse and
mysterious, too high lo be an object of sense" [note we name objects or concepts.  The latter case is what Mill speaks about.  Names that refer to concepts tend to take on a aura of mystery unless they are defined by the user and sender]

--- J.S. Mill

"Nothing is more usual than for philosophers to encroach, on
the province of grammarians, and to engage in disputes of words,
while they imagine they are handling controversies of the deepest
importance and concern"

---David Hume

"Men content themselves with the same words as other people
use, as if the very sound necessarily carried the same meaning"

--- John Locke

"A verbal discussion may be important or unimportant, but it
is at least desirable to know that it is verbal"

---Sir G.  Cornewall Lewis

"Scientific controversies constantly resolve themselves into differences about the meaning of words" [why?  Because scientists tend not to define their key strategic words]