Famous Converts

Beyond the Oxford Movement ‘If they (Roman Catholics) want to convert England, let them go barefoot through our industrial cities, let them preach to the people like Francis Xavier, let them allow themselves to be beaten and spat upon, and I will recognise that they can do what we cannot…Let them use the true weapons … Read more

Antifragile

antifragile1If you have time to read just one book over the next decade, read this one.  Assuming, that is, that you are an artist, artisan, entrepreneur, home-schooling mom – anyone who lives by their wits and has “skin in the game,” as author Nassim Nicholas Taleb is fond of saying. 

On the other hand, if you are a banker, broker, captain of a Fortune 500 company, or a media pundit of the sort who predicted a Romney landslide in the last election – practically anyone who wears a necktie or its current feminine equivalent — stay away.  This book is likely to make you so depressed that you’ll feel your only recourse is to beat a hasty exit from the gene pool (another favorite Taleb expression).

Antifragile represents the next stage in the evolving thought of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an academic/practitioner in the black art of financial risk management.  Taleb’s previous book,  The Black Swan, written in 2007 just as the financial crisis was beginning to rear its ugly head, focused on the fact that low-probability, high-impact (usually negative) events are frequently underestimated by classic statistical and risk management techniques. This leads to catastrophes much larger than they would have been had these Black Swan events been given more respect (and a wider berth).  Part of what makes Black Swan events so deceptively deadly is that it is nearly impossible to predict their occurrence, or even estimate their likelihood.  While Taleb was not the first to discover these concepts, he certainly played a role in raising general awareness, making the phrase “Black Swan” an idiom in the financial world.

Now, Taleb blazes a completely new trail, saying that if we cannot predict the likelihood of Black Swan events, we can however distinguish entities (whether organizations, financial instruments, or health regimes) that are more or less vulnerable to Black Swan events.  The former are called “fragile”, the later “antifragile”. 

The difference is in how an entity responds to the volatility in its environment – fragile entities are damaged by volatility, ultimately breaking down under its onslaught, while antifragile entities are designed (or have figured out how) to profit from volatility – improving themselves in the process.  “Volatility” here means any factor that leads to changing circumstances – environmental changes, laws and regulations, weather, or even just the ravages of time.

Let’s take a simple example from the book.  John and George are two identical twins living in London.  John is a clerk in the HR department of a large bank with 25 years of seniority.  George makes his living by driving a taxi.  On the surface, John has the better situation – a regular check, health care benefits, a reputable position in his community.  But on closer examination, by insulating himself from small doses of volatility, he has set himself up to be vulnerable to much larger doses (aka Black Swans) such as a corporate layoff he could not predict, and would have no control over.  John’s post-layoff predicament, as we have learned over the past few decades, is precarious indeed.

Now let’s turn to George.  Like any self-owned business, he is subject to small daily doses of volatility.  Some days business is booming, others it just dries up.  The cash flow is irregular, the prospects uncertain from day to day.  Yet by accepting this daily uncertainty, George protects himself from the type of catastrophic Black Swan even that could ruin John.  It is impossible for his income simply to go to zero, unless he just stops driving.  His small doses of volatility provide him with daily information, which causes him to constantly re-assess his environment, his “business model”, and the correspondence between the two – he must constantly ask himself questions like “Am I driving at the right times?  In the right neighborhoods?  Am I doing enough to cultivate a regular clientele?  Do I need to upgrade my skills?”  The small course corrections are adaptations that keep the gap between business model and reality small, effectively forestalling the catastrophic events that result from a gap that has gotten too wide because it has been ignored.

The Black Swan focused on the fact that low-probability, high-impact (usually negative) events are frequently underestimated by classic statistical and risk management techniques.

George has the “optionality”, or freedom to choose his response to changing circumstances.  He can keep working as long as he desires.  He can respond to unusual opportunities that lie well outside the bounds of salaried employment – as when a rich client asked him to drive her 2,000 miles to a wedding in the south of France when air traffic was shut down a few years ago due to volcanic activity in Iceland. By embracing volatility, George makes volatility his friend, and avoids (at least some) catastrophic outcomes.  By insulating himself from small doses of volatility, John practically insures that it will come in big doses.  In short, George is antifragile, while John is fragile.

This is not to say that George occupies the optimal position in terms of winning his daily bread.  When it comes to personal economics, or investing, or just about any human endeavor, Taleb is an ardent advocate of what he calls the “barbell” approach – the bulk of your resources are allocated to a stable, risk-free (or as risk-free as you can manage) alternative, while the rest are allocated to risky alternatives with “asymmetric payoffs”, i.e. potential benefits that far outstrip their riskiness.  Therefore, , George might seek a day job as a bell hop or security guard, and limit his taxi driving to night life areas, where the clients are more lubricated and the tips (hopefully) larger.

Taleb’s book is the work of the kind of big picture thinker who is compelled to push his paradigm to the ends of the earth.  Here’s a synopsis of some of his points:

  • Through evolution, nature has become one of the most antifragile entities around.
  • We need to respect this – the burden of proof for any intervention against nature must fall on the intervention, not on nature.  Where this burden is not borne, we should emulate nature, not the artificial intervention.
  • The omnivorous character of the human diet is a perfect example.   It is antifragile – we can survive on either plant or animal material, though preferably both.  We are built to survive, and even benefit from, volatility in our food sources.
  • What benefits from volatility benefits most when there is variation, or even randomness.  Looking at nature, we should not expect to eat meat at every meal.  In fact, we should not even expect to eat a meal at every meal.  Periodic abstinence from meat and fasting from all food are likely to be beneficial, regardless of the currently reigning theory, because this is how animals live in nature.
  • Therefore, Taleb, who is a practicing member of the Greek Orthodox Church, adheres to their rigorous schedule of fasting, which can go as high as 200 days out of the year. 

The preceding line of reasoning is typical of Taleb in another respect.  Without identifying himself as a believer or a traditionalist, many of his arguments wind up in support of the “heuristics” (rules of thumb) advocated by tradition and religion, from periodic fasting to debt avoidance.  Like nature itself, religion and tradition have had centuries and even millennia to hone in on the human practices that combat fragility.

Read Antifragile, all the way to the end, where you will find Taleb’s test to see if you are still alive – do you have a sense of adventure?  Does the optionality of the unknown still thrill you? If so, you are well on your way to becoming antifragile.  If not, you now know what you need to do to get there.

antifragile2Like nature itself, religion and tradition have had centuries and even millennia to hone in on the human practices that combat fragility. 

 by Albert Regensberger

(Photo Credit: Stuart Chessman, St. Gregory’s Society)

The Prodigal Daughters

prodical1Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church,  By Donna Steichen (1999) Published by Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA

He said: How many hired servants in my father’s house abound with bread, and I here perish with hunger? I will arise, and will go to my father, and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee: I am not worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.  And rising up he came to his father. And when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and running to him fell upon his neck, and kissed him.” (Luke 15:17-20)

Baby Boomers are a much-covered phenomenon, famous for their rebellion and independence. In the aftermath of the Boomers’ tumultuous coming-of-age in the 1960’s and 70’s, millions of young Catholics embarked on spiritual paths that took them light-years from the Church.

In Prodigal Daughters, Editor Donna Steichen brings together the stories of seventeen women who found their way home again. Fellow Baby Boomer Robert Beaurivage talks about his reaction to the stories of his spiritual sisters, in this review.

What gives our lives meaning?  Prodigal Daughters presents us with the beguiling stories of seventeen women writers of my generation who grappled with this existential challenge successfully. We Baby Boomers can relate to them, because their struggles are our struggles.

A good story needs a compelling setting, and there is no more compelling period in recent Catholic and American history than the great social upheaval of the 1960’s and their aftermath.  Indeed, we all deal with the consequences of those times every day.

Christ Himself told such stories to illustrate and reinforce the great Truths He was teaching. Today, even people who do not know the Bible know about the “Prodigal Son.” Prodigal Daughters invokes this most compelling theme: finding one’s way back home against great odds.

Today, even people who do not know the Bible know about the “Prodigal Son.” Prodigal Daughters invokes this most compelling theme: finding one’s way back home against great odds.

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In each of these stories, we meet these engaging women so like our sisters and friends — with backgrounds ranging from the ultra-feminist to the new age aficionado, to the recovering alcoholic.  The roads they navigated differ broadly, but they all led back to the bosom of the Father: salvation through His Son, a sacramental life and the grace abounding in the Catholic Church.

In Prodigal Daughters, each woman recounts her way home, a story both delightful and moving for us in the retelling. The baby-boomer generation’s formative years were the time of Vatican II, Vietnam, race and war riots, “free love” and the “New Feminism.”  It was also the age in which Pope Paul VI said “the smoke of Satan” had entered the Church.  Dietrich von Hildebrand, an intellectual giant whose genius was recognized by various Popes, authored a book about this time period entitled “The Devastated Vineyard.”

And a devastated vineyard it was. Boomers across the U.S. studied the ordered certainties of the Baltimore Catechism one year, and the next were presented with “catechisms” entirely denuded of the supernatural. One year Boomers had First Friday Devotions, the Rosary and the study of the “Four Last Things.” Then suddenly, like a clap of thunder, these were summarily replaced by guitar Masses in the school basement and revolutionary “missionaries” giving lectures to Catholic school kids.

As anyone who lived through those times can recount, there was no place to hide. In my own experience, I can look back and realize that if anyone attending my school kept the Catholic Faith through that time, theirs would be a miracle of grace.

The Baby Boomer generation’s formative years were the time of Vatican II, Vietnam, race and war riots, “free love” and the “New Feminism.”  It was also the age in which Pope Paul VI averred that “the smoke of Satan” had entered the Church. 

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There was no place to hide. In my own experience, I can look back and realize that if anyone attending my grammar school kept the Catholic Faith through that time, theirs would be a miracle of grace. 

These unsettling years of the devastated vineyard were the formative times of these writers. As Leila Habra Miller so succinctly put it:

“We were robbed…The overwhelming majority of young Catholics don’t have even a rudimentary understanding of their faith.  As a direct result of their tragic ignorance, a steady stream of young Catholics has poured out of the Church.”

I would hazard that Prodigal Daughters is a great book for a skeptic, as well. (After all, what a great opportunity to gain an inside look at how these intelligent women could inexplicably return to the source of so much ignorance, patriarchal repression and superstition!) One of the writers, Constance Buck, relates her musings concerning a devout Catholic, a daily communicant she worked with on Capitol Hill.   Mrs. Buck was bewildered by her colleague’s cheerfulness.

“… I regarded cheerfulness as a quality suited to morons.  Knowing about male violence, the loss of our precious environment, the trampling on human rights around the globe, not to mention the incalculable tally of sexual and racial discrimination in our own capitalist country, what intelligent person could be cheerful?”

Mrs. Buck could not understand it: she had never met anyone as cheerful as her Catholic coworker who though possessed of her own ideas, always based these on a bedrock “God-given principle.”  (Perhaps the irony of the situation escaped Constance at the time: while she had followed a path towards an illusory promise of fulfillment, it was she who grew to regard cheerfulness as the province of the unthinking.)

It is so easy for us to bring our own basic assumptions to bear on others.  Since these women have been on both sides of the fence, we can learn a great deal from their experience.  Juli Loesch Wiley is a notable example.  A former member of Pax Christi, she rubbed elbows with many feminist media figures such as Sr. Joan Chittister and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton.

“My habitual effort to look happy – or as happy as was consistent with the knowledge that the world in general is not going well – was replaced by actual hope and soaring joy. I realized how much despair I had been carrying around as a skeptic.”

As a wise priest once said, ‘be kind to the person sitting next to you, as he/she could be the next saint.’  Juli was such a person – a liberal feminist, but truly well intentioned, with a desire to protect innocent human life which eventually brought her into sharp conflict with her fellow travelers of the religious sisters at Pax Christi.

Had we met Juli in her early days, we might have judged her harshly. As we learn from her story, she was on the path back home, though we might

have missed that point entirely.  Even many of her companions had very fine qualities, and deserve our sympathy, if not our support. Juli relates the kindness and devotion of the Sisters: “the Pax Sisters are so good: brave, warm-hearted, justice-loving, prayerful, loyal. That’s what makes conflict with them so difficult.”

Yet, Juli Wiley did not let her attachment to the Sisters get in the way of her devotion to the unborn. She recognized the incongruity of the nuns observing Tisha b’Av (the Jewish day of mourning the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem) to commemorate the “injustices” done to the pro-abortion nun Sr. Mansour:

“What desecrates the Temple of the child’s body, if not abortion?  What destroys the Temple of the Church, if not organized defiance of the Church’s too-infrequent attempts to guard her moral integrity?  (I realized) that these Benedictines are true daughters of those who destroyed the Temples – not those who mourn them.”

For the believer, this book provides hope in large helpings.  As the story of the Prodigal Son illustrates, there is always a road back.  Light overcomes darkness, Truth ultimately wins over error, and the infinitely merciful Heart of Christ is greater than any sin that He has already vanquished.

If the great truths of our existence, if true knowledge is to be found in Divine Revelation – even in our modern age – then the stories of these intelligent, brave women are surely a cause for us to take note and rejoice.  They were so far away, yet made the improbable journey home.

The stories of these intelligent, brave women are surely a cause for us to take note and rejoice.  They were so far away, yet made the improbable journey home. 

Catholicism presupposes an objective truth, as a religion based on the historical Person of Jesus Christ, and a commitment to Him. He calls Himself in Scripture, “The Truth.” (John 14:6)

In the intellectual environment of the day, finding Him can be so very difficult, because the concept of “truth” seems foreign to so many, as it did to writer Maureen Quakenbush:

“Truth”, for me, had been a very limited notion, insofar as I had had a notion of it at all. Long before that time, I had accepted the principle that there is no truth, that all is relative in this world of mirrors. People who divide the world into the true and the false, I thought, fail to see all the gray areas – which are chiefly in the moral realm. I think this is the natural conclusion of a mind that hasn’t learned to reason clearly, whenever the resolution of two conflicting views would mean that one reputable person’s deeply held conviction must be wrong. Or, worse, that someone would have to change what he is doing.

Yet, the mere realization that there actually is a truth changed everything for her: “My habitual effort to look happy – or as happy as was consistent with the knowledge that the world in general is not going well – was replaced by actual hope and soaring joy. I realized how much despair I had been carrying around as a skeptic.”

Having imparted a small sampling of the many surprises in “Prodigal Daughters”, I will leave you with one more: an insight in the form of a prayer from Constance Buck who, after receiving this awesome gift of truth, realized at the same time her responsibility to proclaim the truth always with love:

“O God, first make me a good person, a virtuous person, a loving person. Then give me the truth.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Beaurivage,  himself a “prodigal son” obtained a law degree as a second career, and has a special interest in traditional Catholic liturgy and theology. He currently lives in Southern Maine.

Radical Women

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Colleen Carroll Campbell – the author, journalist, television host and former presidential speechwriter –  speaks candidly about her work , and her observations on Catholic life in this exclusive REGINA interview.

It seems that your discovery of the saints was critical to helping you find your way forward. Is this true? How so?

Yes, getting to know these six women saints was a crucial part of my spiritual journey, which is why I interwove their stories with my own in My Sisters the Saints. Although I did not initially expect to connect in such a profound way with these women – some of whom had lived centuries, even millennia, before me – I found that their lives and writings spoke to me in surprisingly relevant ways. They echoed my own deepest longings, helped me navigate my toughest trials and led me to rethink nearly everything I thought I knew about what it means to be a liberated woman. So there was really no way to separate their stories from my own, because their stories had so powerfully shaped my own.

The six saints whose stories I interweave with my own in My Sisters the Saints are Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Faustina of Poland, Edith Stein of Germany, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Mary of Nazareth.

A quick summary: Teresa of Avila and her tale of a struggle to overcome worldliness and status-seeking spoke to me during my frenetic college years and jump-started my spiritual quest. Thérèse of Lisieux helped me grapple with my father’s journey through Alzheimer’s disease, a trial she knew from her own father’s descent into dementia. Faustina of Poland guided me as I struggled to choose between continuing my work as a presidential speechwriter in the White House and marrying a man who was smack in the middle of medical school 800 miles away. Edith Stein offered me insight and consolation in the midst of my battle with infertility. Mother Teresa did the same at a time in my life when I was feeling some of the same abandonment by God that she had described so eloquently in her recently revealed private writings. And Mary, the Mother of God, was with me all along, but in a special way in my quest for motherhood.

‘Faustina of Poland guided me as I struggled to choose between continuing my work as a presidential speechwriter in the White House and marrying a man who was smack in the middle of medical school 800 miles away.’

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing women of your generation today? What dangers are they facing? Many observers point to the impact of feminism and materialism on America women and therefore on the family.  How would you characterize that impact on your generation? 

I certainly wouldn’t presume to speak for an entire generation, and I think the answers to these questions largely depend on how and by whom one was raised. But I do think it’s true that young Americans today – regardless of what sort of families they come from – are growing up in a culture that does its best to distract them from asking life’s most important questions or finding satisfying answers to those questions. Even young Catholics raised by committed Catholic parents, as I was, face a barrage of messages from the wider culture that undermine the messages the Church is sending.

For young women, the cultural messages are particularly pernicious: Life is all about how you look and who’s looking at you; the only success that matters is the kind that can be quantified and flaunted; heeding your inner longings for committed love or the chance to give of yourself generously in family life is a path to oppression.

colleen2Such distortions often leave women ill-prepared to seek or find lasting happiness. Women in my generation enjoy more opportunities to participate in public life than ever before, and that’s something for which we should be grateful. But too often, our interior lives are not nurtured as they should be, and even women of faith find ourselves caught in the same traps of status-seeking, people-pleasing and me-first pleasure-chasing as everyone else.

The women saints and their stories offer a powerful antidote to this. The saints achieved their fulfillment by giving their lives away. They found themselves by seeking more than self. The way I see it, the women saints – not today’s pop culture heroines or secular feminist activists – are the real radicals. They are the role models we ought to be imitating.

‘Even women of faith find themselves caught in the same traps of status-seeking, people-pleasing and me-first pleasure-chasing as everyone else.’

Your generation has also seen a rather startling rise in vocations to religious orders that are loyal to the Magisterium and traditional in their approach. Can you comment on what you think is driving this trend in the face of such overwhelming counter-trends?

Colleen3For my first book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola 2002), I spent a year traveling across America interviewing hundreds of young adults. The reasons for their conversions – or, in many cases, their “reversions” to the Catholic faith of their childhood – are manifold and detailed in that book. But if I had to sum those up in a sentence, I might simply quote St. Paul: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” (Romans 5:20)

The chaos and confusion of the past four decades – both in our increasingly secularized culture and even in corners of the Church that were overly influenced by that culture– led many young adults to search for something more satisfying and substantial than the theological vapidity or secular materialism of their youth. Their natural human yearning for God, combined with their natural youthful idealism, led them on a genuine search for truth. And that search led them to embrace a robust, demanding and orthodox Christian faith that is, in its orthodoxy, decidedly countercultural.

It seems that most people no longer have any personal relationship to the saints, as they weren’t taught about them in the post Vatican II vacuum. Do you see any signs that others like you have discovered the saints? 

Yes, I see many signs of a revival of interest in the saints even among non-Catholics, and I think it makes a lot of sense. Christianity is an incarnational religion. We believe that God became man in a specific town, on a specific day, in the womb of a specific woman. So the personal and specific matters in Christianity, and the personal stories of Christ’s followers matter, too. Each life testifies to some unique aspect of God’s love; each human person bears God’s image in a unique way. Getting to know the saints allows us to get to know Jesus in a new way, to see his qualities magnified through a new lens or situated in a new historical context. When we’re striving for holiness and intimacy with God, it helps to look to the saints – to see men and women who ran the race and finished well.

“The culture tells us that life is all about how you look and who’s looking at you; the only success that matters is the kind that can be quantified and flaunted – and heeding your inner longings for committed love or the chance to give of yourself generously in family life is a path to oppression.”

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Colleen Carroll Campbell  writes on religion, politics, culture and women’s issues for such national outlets as The New York Times, Washington Post, National Review Online and First Things, comments about them on such networks as FOX News, CNN, PBS and NPR, and discusses them as host of “Faith & Culture,” a weekly television and radio show that airs internationally on EWTN, the world’s largest religious network. A former speechwriter to President George W. Bush and the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Campbell speaks to audiences across America. Her newest book, My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, was published by the Image imprint of Random House in October 2012. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com.