“The Great Gatsby,” the American Dream, and True Personal Freedom

The Great Gatsby offers a profound look at and critique of the American Dream. I found this paragraph from Chapter VI about Jay Gatsby to be particularly insightful:

His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

America is a place of freedom: its citizens are not constrained by class or caste. In America, a Dakota farm boy can indeed become a millionaire or a celebrity. We Americans value “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” more than anything else. We have enthroned freedom as an absolute good, and built monuments in its honor all over our land.

The great Jay Gatsby is a fictional icon of the person allured by the American Dream. He had been born James Gatz of North Dokota, but he did not allow the limitations of his childhood circumstances determine his destiny. He was not afraid to grasp for godlike control of his fate and actualize “his Platonic conception of himself.” With voracious ambition, he launched out on his self-conceived, pseudo-divine mission of achieving the success that is available in America to those willing to grab it.

Those who have read the novel know how it turns out for Gatsby and appreciate what it tells us about the American Dream.  He goes too far in forcing reality to conform to his will, and his self-made destiny takes a wrong turn into self-destruction.


I have been reading R.R. Reno’s recent book Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. In the introduction, he points out,

We Americans like to compliment ourselves for our independence and self-sufficiency. But there’s a dark side to our national character. A deep sadness comes when we realize, finally, that we’re on our own, which is where secular individualism brings us in the end.

American freedom, when left unbridled, leads to isolation from God. Absolute self-determination is simply incompatible with God’s Providence. As Reno puts it,

This world is God’s, not mine. It’s not for me to make myself into whatever I wish. God, not my sovereign will, is the Supreme Being. In him we live and move and have our being.

But our American society has so hyper-valorized personal freedom, that we are arriving at unnatural consequences.

Our dream of freedom promises that no man’s destiny is fixed at birth. Why, then, should nature dictate? Why should genitalia dictate? Why should our decaying bodies dictate? Why should DNA dictate? Why should anything other than freedom alone, operating in a void, govern our futures? Unless we’re ready to propose an end or purpose for freedom to seek and serve, we’ll end up saying that freedom is for the sake of freedom. The American dream thus turns into a totalitarian nightmare of political power marshaled to subdue everything— except freedom.


It is a beautiful thing that in America no man’s destiny is fixed at birth, but it can become a nightmarish thing if this freedom is not guided and channeled by truth. Fitzgerald intuited this reality and wonderfully captured it in his classic novel.

God has blessed us with freedom to develop ourselves up into flourishing human beings, and America, perhaps more than any other country, cherishes this freedom. However, when we overstep our bounds with Gatsby-like arrogance, we step into the dark side of the American dream – one that leads us away from God and into ruin.

The proposal that R.R. Reno offers in his book is the only way to prevent the American Dream from mutating into an “American Nightmare”: we must indeed cherish our freedom, but within the context of an ennobling and ultimately more liberating submission to divine truth.

Help Me Run the New York City Marathon and Clothe Needy New Yorkers

Dear friends,

I have been accepted onto the Catholic Charities team to run the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon on November 6th. I am really excited to be a part of this team, especially because we are running to raise money for the St. Nicholas Project, a program that provides winter coats, hats, gloves, scarves, sweaters, and blankets to needy New Yorkers during the Christmas Season.

Would you help me raise money for this great cause? By being a part of the Catholic Charities marathon team, I have committed to raising at least $3,000 by October 17th. Whatever you can do would be a big help, and I would be honored to have you be a part of my marathon.

Help me run the marathon and clothe the needy by clicking the link below:

 

Thank you so much for your help! I will be sure to keep you posted on how the campaign goes.  If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me via the “Contact Eric” link on this blog.

Yours truly,

Eric Wandrey

 

Summer Break

Dear readers,

I will be taking a break from the blog during August while I take some time to be on vacation  and then to settle back into the academic year in the last week of the month. I will also be doing a  spiritual retreat, during which I will be sure to pray for you and your intentions. (Feel free to send me your prayers intentions using the “Contact Eric” tab on this blog.)

I look forward to blogging with you again in September!

Sincerely,

Eric

The Post-Modern Rebellion Against Beauty: Part 2

In my last post, I spoke about the reasons for postmodernity’s rejection of beauty and its declaration that beauty is an illusion in the midst of the ugliness of reality. In this post, I speak about why beauty is in fact real, and how the ugliness that does exist in our world does not overcome true beauty.


In his desecration of beauty, postmodern man declares that it is nothing more than an illusion, that the truth of reality is instead fundamentally ugly. If artistic beauty has any value, it is only in the fact that we can use it to cushion ourselves from the absurd and ugly world which we inhabit. As the precursor of postmodernity, Nietzsche, put it, “we have art in order not to die from truth.”

We need not look far to see the influence of this view on contemporary art and literature. In fact, it is one of the underlying messages of Donna Tartt’s recent bestseller The Goldfinch. The protagonist, Theodore Decker, having tragically lost his beloved mother and, later on, his father, struggles to make sense of his troubled existence and the absurd hand that life has dealt him. He turns to drugs to escape from the cruel reality of his life, and, interestingly enough, he also turns to beautiful art, symbolized by the painting from which the novel takes its name. For him, “beauty alters the grain of reality”; it makes the world more bearable and life more livable.  Truth is an illusion and reality is undesirable, but, “where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, and where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists…”

For Theodore Decker, beauty is a happy dream while reality is a living nightmare. The best that one can do in such an absurdly cruel world is “wade straight through it, right through the cesspool.” Through her character, Tartt articulates well how beauty fits into the postmodern worldview: it is nothing more than an anomalous parenthesis in the fundamentally meaningless and ugly reality of our existence.

While Tartt’s realist fiction does mirror Dostoevsky’s, there is nevertheless a big difference: where Tartt sees only meaningless suffering and illusion, Dostoevsky sees meaningful suffering and salvific beauty. Although his literature is painfully unrelenting in its realistic depiction of human depravity and anguish, glimmers of hope nevertheless shine through. The Idiot is perhaps one of the clearest examples. Prince Myshkin is the center of a high society circle in 19th-century St. Petersburg whose members are complicated characters with complex, selfish, and often downright evil motives. The Prince, by contrast, is characterized by incredible goodness and innocence. His only motive is the well-being of others, and he pursues this to his own detriment. While his love and goodness are attractive (although perplexing) to some, others take advantage of him and cause him great emotional and physical suffering.

Prince Myshkin is clearly a literary icon of Christ, the suffering servant, and we find insight into his character in Hans Holbein’s Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, which is mentioned twice in the novel. Holbein’s painting shows an emaciated cadaver in the early stages of putrefaction. His eyes are slightly open and his skeletal hand is reaching out, giving the body a disturbing semblance of life that makes it seem as if Christ’s suffering continues. The body is shown without the onlookers who are usually present in such artistic renditions of Christ’s Passion, thus intensifying the isolation of death.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein
“The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” by Hans Holbein

Holbein’s painting, like Dostoevsky’s Idiot, are works of art that do not shy away from showing human suffering in all of its ugliness. Nevertheless, their art simultaneously points to a beauty that goes beyond appearance; it points to the beauty of love.

In the suffering of Jesus Christ, the undeniable ugliness of evil has been subsumed into a greater beauty – “the beauty of love that goes until ‘the very end,’” as Pope Benedict described it.  This is the beauty that will ultimately be our salvation; this is the beauty to which Dostoevsky refers in the same novel when he says that beauty will save the world. When the world asserts that reality is actually ugly, we can point to the Face of him who was “crushed for our sins” to show that there is a deeper beauty behind the ugliness of evil, an unvanquished beauty that offers us hope and meaning in a world full of despair.

The Post-Modern Rebellion Against Beauty: Part 1

 Our insatiable longing for ever greater beauty and for union with it is itself evidence that we were made for something more, for something greater; it is an indicator that we are destined for a final end.  C.S. Lewis puts it excellently:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Our unsatisfied desire for beauty here on Earth is proof that we are made for Beauty that can only be found in another world. Beauty and our irresistible insatiable attraction to it are evidence of an objective final end, of Something that attracts us in a way that is beyond our control. To admit this transcendent end is to admit that it determines what we ought to do, because to accept a certain end automatically implies limiting oneself to the actions that lead towards it and denying oneself all those that lead away from it.

But this is unacceptable for the postmodern man who believes himself to be an ontologically autonomous “creator” of his own reality in which he is the sole determiner of the good and, ultimately, of the beautiful. The postmodern glorification of the self-determining individual allows room for nothing that challenges his absolute freedom, not even beauty. To admit that something is objectively beautiful regardless of his self-determining perception is to admit that there is an objective order that in some way conditions how he ought to think and act. Admission of beauty thus requires humility and deference. As Roger Scruton in his excellent book on the subject, “beauty makes a claim on us: it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world.”

This claim of beauty challenges postmodern man’s absolute freedom and provokes him to reassert his autonomy by defying it. We find ourselves in a world that rebels against beauty and is rife with artistic ugliness. To quote Scruton again: “There is a desire to spoil beauty, in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, the desire to pre-empt its appeal can intervene, ensuring that its still small voice will not be heard behind the scenes of desecration.”

In his desecration of beauty, postmodern man declares that it is nothing more than an illusion, that the truth of reality is instead fundamentally ugly. If artistic beauty has any value, it is only in the fact that we can use it to cushion ourselves from the absurd and ugly world which we inhabit. As the great precursor of postmodernity, Nietzsche, put it, “we have art in order not to die from truth.”

In next week’s post, I will discuss how to respond to the postmodern claim that beauty is nothing more than an illusion.

Beauty that Draws Us to the Creator

The beauty of this world is evidence of a Great Intellect who orders all things to himself. An example taken from art can help us see this. We look at beautiful artwork in one of two ways: either in itself (horizontally), or in relation to its artist (vertically). To look horizontally at Nicolas Poussin’s Israelites Gathering Manna is to appreciate the balance of its composition, the harmony of its colors, the depth of its meaning, and the perfection of its mathematical proportions. However, we look at it vertically when we seek to understand what the work tells us about Poussin. Looking at the painting alone and knowing nothing else about the artist, we can nevertheless deduce that the creative intellect behind it was incredibly rational, methodical, and precise, which was indeed the case with that Baroque genius.

"Israelites Gathering Manna" - Nicolas Poussin
“Israelites Gathering Manna” – Nicolas Poussin

The same goes for the beauty of Earth, which is a complex and amazingly fine-tuned reality. As Eric Metaxas points out in his recent book Miracles, the very fact that our planet can support life is itself a sort of miracle given the incredible amount of necessary conditions and the infinitesimal margin of error allowed for each. If Earth were just slightly larger and had just slightly more gravity, toxic gases such as methane and ammonia would remain too close to the surface for life to be possible. If Earth were just slightly smaller, water vapor would dissipate leaving a virtually waterless planet. If it rotated just slightly slower, our nights would be too cold and our days would be too hot. If it rotated just a little more quickly, winds would reach insupportable velocities. Metaxas mentions many more requirements and only just scratches the surface.

The Earth and all that it contains overflows with so much perfection, harmony, and splendor that a vast number of sciences are dedicated to studying it. Through geology, meteorology, ecology, zoology, and so many other disciplines, we grow in our knowledge of the Earth’s beauty and come to appreciate it horizontally. However, marveling at the amazingly precise calibration of this beautiful planet, it is almost impossible not to ask why and how it is so perfect; it is almost impossible not to consider it vertically. If Earth is so fine-tuned, there has to be a Fine-Tuner. Just as the perfection of Israelites Gathering Manna points to the creative genius of Poussin, so the super-abundant perfection of Earth points to the super-abundant creative genius of its Maker. To say that Earth came together randomly would be like saying that Poussin’s masterpiece came about from a random spilling of paint. The beauty of Earth points to the Great Artist who is behind it.

And through the beauty of his creation, this Great Artist draws us towards himself, who is Perfect Beauty. The natural beauty of this Earth and the artistic beauty of its human inhabitants, although truly wonderful, never seem to be enough. We all know that unsatisfied feeling when the curtain goes down and the lights go on; when the sun sets and it’s time to go home; when the movie finishes and the credits roll – we can never get enough of beauty, and the precious times when we have it leave us aching for more. C.S. Lewis describes well this universal yearning: “We do not merely want to see beauty…We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty that we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…”

The Explosive Power of Beauty

One of the most spectacular works of 17th-century Italy is Bernini’s Chair of Peter. This masterpiece employs a variety of media in a typically Baroque fashion: the cathedra and the Fathers of the Church are bronze, the Holy Spirit is alabaster, and the angels surrounding the Holy Spirit are gilded stucco. In an equally Baroque manner, it portrays dramatic motion that breaks through the barrier between art and reality and comes into our space. The Holy Spirit appears to be exploding with amazing power into St. Peter’s Basilica: the angelic figures surrounding it are blown back from the dove, even as some try to go towards it.

"The Chair of Peter," by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
“The Chair of Peter,” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Besides being an icon of the power of the Holy Spirit, Bernini’s sculpture is an icon of the power of beauty. In a no less spectacular fashion, beauty explodes into our lives. We see it in sunsets and snow-covered mountains, and we marvel at it in the astounding creative accomplishments of our fellow humans. Whenever we experience reality that overflows with perfection we experience “beauty”, and, confronted with it, none of us can remain indifferent. But its power can be disconcerting because beauty demands, and it exerts undeniable influence over us: it fascinates, entrances, moves, and challenges.

Beauty confounds us. Why does it draw us so powerfully? In a world full of ugliness and suffering, how do we make sense of it? Dostoevsky was aware of this conundrum: interestingly, in both The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov he refers to beauty as a “riddle.”  Beauty is indeed mysterious, and its mystery affects each person differently, depending on his openness to truth.

For the hedonistic Dmitri Karamazov, the riddle of authentic beauty is unbearable. In a conversation with his brother, Alyosha, he grapples with its mystery: “Beauty is a fearful and terrible thing! Fearful because it is undefinable, and it cannot be defined, because here God gave us only riddles.”

The human mind finds security in definitions, because if something can be defined, it can be controlled. In man’s understanding and knowledge of things, he finds intellectual self-assurance. However, mystery makes him nervous because before it he must admit that there is something beyond him, and this admission in turn leads to the possibility that this “something beyond”, this source of mystery, has power over him and limits him.

For sensualists like Dmitri, this possibility is unbearable. In the same dialogue, he contrasts the “ideal of the Madonna” (beauty with truth) with the “ideal of Sodom” (beauty without truth), and he asserts that Sodom “for the vast majority of people…is just where beauty lies.” Dmitri is a type of all those who prefer the dazzling beauty of the world, the beauty of Sodom and Babylon, the beauty of billboards and magazines, the beauty that, according to Pope Benedict, “does not bring people out of themselves into the ecstasy of starting off towards the heights but instead immures them completely within themselves.” It’s the beauty of the fruit that seduced Eve: beauty that offers power, possession, and pleasure.

But try as they might to close themselves in the “beauty of Sodom”, authentic beauty maintains its fascination and continues to bear witness to the truth, because the beauty of this world is evidence of a Great Intellect who orders all things to himself.

Finding Peace in “the City of Man”

Here is an excerpt from a tour I gave of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on June 23, 2016:


Two of the most striking buildings in New York City face each other on opposite sides of 5th Avenue: St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center. The contrast between the two is iconic of the difference between “the City of God” (all that is ordered towards God) and “the city of man” (all that is ordered to man without reference to God).  

Rockefeller Center is a massive monument to the achievements of man. It contrasts starkly with the Cathedral because it is imbued with secular humanism and its art is tinged with the theme of pride and defiance. The overriding emphasis is on man and what he can achieve on his own.

Two of Rockefeller Center’s most prominent works of art – Atlas and Prometheus – are both Greek mythological figures who represent defiance of and freedom from divine power. They were Titans who rebelled against the Olympian gods. Atlas led a war against the Olympians and was punished by being forced to hold up the heavens from the earth for all of time. Prometheus gave man access to the divine secret of fire, contrary to the will of the Olympians, and was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten for all time by massive eagles.

Statue of Atlas before Saint Patrick's Cathedral. New York City, New York, USA.
Statue of Atlas before Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. New York City, New York, USA.

Rockefeller Center is certainly an impressive place, but its art celebrates something problematic. While it rightfully memorializes laudable achievements of man, it does so with a tone of defiance and hubris. What happens when man is celebrated without reference to God? The Tower of Babel happens: confusion and dissipation. When the proper of hierarchy of being is overturned, peace and order can never be fully achieved.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral offers the antidote for the disorder that is  embodied by the art of Rockefeller Center, and by much of New York City for that matter. Throughout the city, we find proud testaments to the achievements of man, and the enticement of promises of what we ourselves can achieve. We are bombarded by noise, confusion, and distractions, but inside this Cathedral, this place of God, we experience harmony and peace – we experience silence in the city. Outside we experience the dysfunctional city of man; in here we experience the ordered and harmonious City of God.

Outside these doors, the city of man celebrates the emancipation of the ego and idolizes personal freedom. However, inside these doors, the City of God, all things are celebrated in their relationship to God. Contrary to contemporary thought, the ego can only find true fulfillment when it looses itself in God. By allowing itself to be dependent on God, for Whom he was made, the person finds true freedom as  all of his energies and capacities are directed toward their natural end.

The effect of this Neo-Gothic cathedral is to de-center the ego of the person by causing him to reflect upon a cosmos that is greater than himself. Everywhere we look, we see celebrations of the beauty of creation: everything from plants, to humans, to angels. This cathedral thus encourages what Bishop Barron calls a “cosmic consciousness” – an awareness of the whole of creation and our relatively small place in it.

This de-centering of the ego may be disconcerting at first, but it ultimately leads us to peace and tranquility. We slowly begin to realize, contrary to the message that is blared at us outside, that if we trust in God and depend on Him, we will find true happiness. We do not need to grasp and shove and run the daily rat race. All we need to do is center ourselves on God, order ourselves around Him, and everything else will find it place. As Our Lord tells us: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-burdened and I will give you rest.”

We cannot escape the fact that we live in a city of man full of noise and disorder, but we should take heart in knowing that within this great of city of man, the City of God is present and growing. It is present here in this Cathedral and in every church where the Eucharist is present.

I would like to close with this passage from Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”

The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” 

When the city of man becomes too much for you, make your way here and allow yourself to find silence and peace in God. In this beautiful building, we experience an architectural foreshadowing of the City of God, the New Jerusalem, that awaits us in Heaven.

Come here, remember that you are a citizen of the City of God, and then bravely go back out into the city of man, knowing that wherever you go, you bring the City of God with you.

“The Hound of Heaven”: God’s Pursuit of You

We often hear about our deep need for God, but I don’t think that we hear enough about His intense desire for us. Our relationship with God is a two-way street: we yearn for Him, but He yearns for us even more.

The relationship between God and a soul is revealed to us in Scripture as being like that of a lover and the beloved. The Song of Songs, a biblical love poem charged with the intensity of romantic feeling, gives us a reflection of the intensity of God’s love through the symbolic search of a man for the woman he loves. As the man pursues the woman, so much more does God seek us. As beautiful as human love may be, every marriage and romantic relationship is just an image of the love God for each of his children.

Francis Thompson’s autobiographical poem, The Hound of Heaven, provides another powerful image of God’s desire for each of us. Using the image of a hound pursuing a hare, Thompson describes how God sought him through the years despite his own resistance and fear:

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him

He describes how he continuously fled from God, who never stopped calmly and lovingly pursuing. No matter where he went, Thompson could hear

…those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’

He runs and runs, seeking happiness in other things, until desperate and exhausted, he gives up, and surrenders to the persistent pursuit of God, who says to him,

‘And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!

Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me? 
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’

We should never forget that God’s love for us is as intense as that of the lover in the Song of Songs, and as persistent as the the hound in The Hound of Heaven.

St. Augustine once wrote, “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in Thee.” We should remember that God Himself is restless for us as well.

Christ said, “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49)

These are the words of a God who loves you intensely,  and who will not rest until your heart is kindled with the fire of His love.

 

My Summer Internship in Brewster, NY

After finishing my year of pastoral work at St. Benedict’s in the Bronx, I have been assigned by Cardinal Dolan to do a 10-week internship the parish of St. Lawrence O’Toole in Brewster, NY.
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Brewster is a small village of about 2,300 inhabitants located in the woody hills of southeastern Putnam County. Known as “The Hub of the Harlem Valley,” Brewster is located within 1/2 square mile and is the second-to-last train stop on the Harlem Line.

The Brewster Train Station -
The Brewster train station

Over half of the population is Latino, and many of them are day laborers. In the 2010 census, Brewster came out to have the highest concentration of Guatemalans in the entire country: they make up almost 40% of the village population.

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Many of the stores on Main St are Latino-run.
The competition! The Pentecostals recently took over the old Presbyterian church.
Our local competition: Pentecostals recently took over the old Presbyterian church.

I am looking forward to spending several weeks in this quiet part of the Archdiocese’s “upper counties”. After so much time in the city, it’s nice to be somewhere where you can hear the birds chirping.

The Church of St. Lawrence O'Toole
The Church of St. Lawrence O’Toole

I am also looking forward to getting hands-on experience at St. Lawrence O’Toole, which is known throughout the Archdiocese as a vibrant parish that attracts people from all over, thanks to innovative work of the pastor Fr. Richard Gill. I was able to introduce myself at each of the seven masses on Sunday, and was welcomed warmly by the parishioners.

A of Prospect St, on which the church and rectory are located.
A view of of Prospect St, on which the church and rectory are located.

The parish has lots of activities, and there is plenty of work for me to do. It beginning to look like it will be a busy and interesting summer. Stay tuned!

My journey to the priesthood and experiences along the way.

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