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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Talcott Parsons

Probably nobody today knows the name of Talcott Parsons.

But in 1960 he was one of the best-known figures in sociology. He was at Harvard, head of a combination of academic programs that he called the “Department of Social Relations.” The department included Sociology, Cultural Anthropology, Clinical Psychology, Social Psychology, and Political Science. He would have liked to include Experimental Psychology, but B.F. Skinner was in charge of that and would not go along with his project. Neither would the Physical Anthropologists, the people who went around the world measuring skulls.

I knew none of this. When my Franciscan superiors told me to study sociology, they told me to have Fr. Gabriel Brinkman advise me where to go. Gabriel said “Go to Harvard.” He had just finished his own doctorate in sociology at Catholic University.

Being the docile religious, I packed up my stuff and arrived in Boston in June of 1964. I was advised to stay with the friars of New York Province in their house in Brookline, a Boston suburb. I asked one of the friars there how to get to the Harvard campus. He said, “Take the trolley downtown to Pock Square and transfer to the subway going to Cambridge.” I said, “How do you spell “Pock Square”? He replied “P-A-R-K.” My first introduction to the Boston Irish accent.

I had enrolled in the Harvard summer school by mail. During the summer, through contacts at the “Catholic Student Center” (Harvard’s version of a Newman Club), I met a Dutch friar named Theodore (“Theo”) Steeman. He advised me to sign up in the fall as a “resident graduate” at the Harvard Divinity School. I could take half my courses in theology there and the other half in sociology in the “Yard,” the Arts and Sciences division. For my Yard courses, he advised, “Take Parsons. He is an easy grader.”

So I took my first course with Talcott Parsons. He had a reputation as a horrible writer. One of his books outlining his theory was labeled by his students “the pink peril,” because it had a pink cover. Everybody kept asking, why can’t this man write intelligibly? But in class he was clear. Probably my background in neo-scholastic philosophy helped me. Because Parsons was not so different from Thomas Aquinas in his approach to understanding social reality. In class he developed his thought slowly, with pauses that allowed me to catch up with his thought. His classes were small--twenty or thirty students at most.

Here was his basic idea: all knowledge is related, so the sciences studying human behavior are basically one science. They just approach their study by focusing on one aspect of that behavior. So why not unite the academic departments focusing on those aspects into one department? And why not create one academic theory covering all social behavior? That’s what he did. He called it the “theory of social action.” Social action is human behavior that is guided by goals or motivation.

Theo advised me, “Take Tiryakian. He likes Franciscans.”

Edward Tiryakian taught courses linking sociology to phenomenology and existentialism. But he had been a teaching assistant to Pitirim Sorokin, and always tried to get people to take Sorokin more seriously.

Pitirim Sorokin had been born in Russia and got his degree there before the Russian revolution of 1917. He had been part of the first 1917 revolution that drove the Czar from power, but as often happens, a more radical group, the Bolsheviks, took over and Sorokin ended up being exiled. He was at the University of Minnesota in 1931 when Harvard decided that it was time to create a Department of Sociology and got him to come to Harvard to start it. At that time Parsons was an instructor in economics.

Sorokin  was widely known--his works were translated into multiple languages. He saw human history as a series of cycles. At one time, society focuses on ideas and spiritual things, and then it swings to more materialistic things in a period of decadence, which he saw happening in the twentieth century. Eventually the pendulum will swing back away from materialism.

I recall visiting Sorokin’s home, no doubt through Tiryakian’s invitation. He had a huge painting of a Moscow scene above his fireplace. He was convinced that eventually Russia and the U.S. would reach a convergence of cultures.

During the 1930s Parsons rose in influence and succeeded eventually in driving Sorokin out of his position and replacing sociology with social relations.

What I did not realize when I was taking courses from Parsons was that his star was setting. A revolution was taking place in sociology against Parsons’ theory, which was usually labeled “structural-functionalism.” The over-arching theory Parsons was developing was based on the metaphor of a physical organism (Parsons had majored in biology as an undergrad). Every structure in an organism has a function. In social life, the structures are norms. Each norm has a function. Society is an organic structure designed to carry out a universal set of functions such as reproduction, governance, material sustenance, etc.

All of this is not too different from medieval scholasticism and the concept of natural law. God has designed the world with structures that we can use to deduce moral norms. The human body has a design that requires that we behave certain ways if we wish to live. Contraception is against natural law, because conception is a physical process that should not be messed with.

The thinking that was developing in sociology was that human social behavior is better understood not as an organism but as a game. As people interact, they develop rules, but the rules can change, and people cheat. Things can appear pretty chaotic--when I watch basketball or soccer, all I see is chaos, but the players are following play books. There are rules and patterns. The game metaphor does not imply chaos, which is what natural law theorists would argue. When people interact, they usually develop rules that lead to peace. When the rules do not do that, they change the rules.

The game metaphor seems to describe human behavior better than the natural law organic metaphor. We are learning that nature plays tricks with what we thought were universal patterns. The experiences of gay men and women are being taken into account. Now we have expanded to transgender people. I would prefer to let such people speak for themselves. A political strategy of respecting people’s own definition of their sexuality seems to be more conducive to living together in peace than a strategy of judging them morally failing and worthy of punishment. We are changing the rules, but the game is not being destroyed.

Structural-functionalism was criticized as being too static, and indeed it was. It was the kind of thinking that guided Robert McNamara as he dealt with the conflict in Vietnam.

I come at this theorizing from a Franciscan approach shaped by Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Ockham’s name is linked to the term “voluntarism,” which I interpret as meaning that he stressed free will and the openness of rational beings, including God, to surprise and innovation. This does not throw everything up for grabs. Ockham said we deduce ideas from experience. There are no universal ideas out there like Plato thought. We are free human beings, flawed, unfinished, hopefully open to grace and repentance. None of us, including the Pope, has an inside track on understanding what is good or bad in human behavior.

Parsons is no longer remembered. Why should Aquinas, or Scotus, or Ockham, be any different?

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Winning teams

Loyola of Chicago, a Jesuit school, just lost in the Final Four to Michigan. Then Villanova, an Augustinian school, beat Michigan. Two of the Final Four were Catholic schools, including the final winner.

Disclaimer: two weeks ago I did not even know those teams were playing. But throughout my life I have been tuned to events where Catholics have come out on top. Catholics are winners.

But the more I am steeped in the thought world of the New Testament, the more I realize that the followers of Jesus Christ did just fine without being winners. The didn't even come close to being winners until Constantine took their side in the 300s, and his action started us on a very unfortunate path, to where Christians thought they had to control everything: politics, religion, and everything in between.

So why do we think we need to be winners today?

I am thinking of the hand-wringing about the "loss" of so many Catholics to other religions or to no religion. Why do we have to hang onto the allegiance of every person who happened to be baptized Catholic? Answer: if we don't, we're losing.

But we don't need to win. Each one of us just has to be open to the Spirit in the time and place where God has situated us. So some of us go elsewhere. We are conditioned to see their decisions as indications of a failure on our part. We must be doing something wrong. We probably are, because we are unfinished in so many ways.

We can mourn the departure of friends to other religious places without the assumption that we have failed to control their decisions. God loves them as much as God loves us. God can be working in their decisions as much as God works in ours. We are not called to control or manipulate their decisions. We are called to be faithful to what God calls us to do, right here and now. Maybe our behavior will motivate others to join us, and maybe it won't. If we are doing our best to be open to God, hopefully we will find our way of approaching God good for us, and we will want others to share our way. But wanting is not controlling.

We do not need to be winners. just players.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Religion is fun

Is religion disappearing? I don’t think so. The reason I don’t think so is because religion is fun. It is no more likely to disappear than music will disappear. Music is fun too.

I say that religion is fun from my own experience. I enjoy doing religion. I always have, as long back as I can remember. I was a pious kid.

People here in Quincy keep going to church. They don’t have to. Nobody will punish them if they don’t. But 50 or so people are at the 6:30 am Mass at St. Francis every weekday, and hundreds are at the parish church Masses on Sunday. Some of them may be going out of sheer habit, and some may be going because it will advance their own political or economic ends. But most of them keep going because they enjoy doing it. They are not much different from people who go to the opera because they enjoy it.

I owe the music analogy to the sociologist Max Weber, who wrote about “religious virtuosos.” The word “virtuoso” is a musical term, not entirely positive. It describes a person who is technically proficient at music without necessarily being artistically creative. People can be technically religious without necessarily being holy, or close to God. Sometimes I wonder if I am one of those people. I am definitely a religious virtuoso.

By saying that religion is fun, I am not rejecting the experiences of people who take religion much more seriously than play. Religion can be a matter of life and death. We react to extreme situations with religious rituals. Think of birth, and death, and extreme danger.

But people take music very seriously also. For some people, artistic expression is a matter of life and death. For that matter, so is athletic performance, and making money, and falling in love.

Religion is not likely to disappear, any more than music or athletics are likely to disappear. What is disappearing are forms of religious activity, activity done with other people. Weber would suggest that there is a certain proportion of any population that is just not into religion. In our society, those people have probably already abandoned religious observance. There is another proportion that do religion because it is enjoyable, and when it stops being enjoyable, they quit doing it. Finally there are people who just can’t stop doing it, any more than some musicians can abandon music.

God is behind any activity that people just can’t stop doing. Music and athletics and even economic performance can open one up to the divine.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


A devil is a story that sneaks into our consciousness and tempts us to follow its story line. It is like the script in a play.

For example, I accidentally see a pornographic image somewhere. A story pops into my head. In the story I am using the picture to produce sexual arousal in myself, a story line that could take several minutes. The story is a devil.

In the biblical book of Samuel, a spirit “rushes upon” Saul and causes him to prophesy. A story snuck into his consciousness and tempted him to follow its story line, the script of an ecstatic prophet.

There are two kinds of devils: personal and institutional. A personal devil is a story that sneaks into me as an individual. Institutional devils are what St. Paul calls “principalities and powers.” These are story lines that guide entire institutions, businesses, governments, armies. I have no control over such principalities and powers. Paul says that Jesus Christ does have control over them. At least, Jesus is with us as we suffer their effects, and brings life to us even though the principalities and powers continue to shape our shared history. In that sense, the principalities and powers cannot win out.

There is a link between a personal devil and an institutional principality or power. There are moments when I might be able to influence the institutional devil, for example, when I vote. My personal devil is a story that tells me to ignore the voting process.

The Boston politician Tip O’Neill gave us the saying “all politics is local.” This is true in the sense that we have some control over the people in our immediate physical vicinity, and it is there that the politics of the larger society take shape. If the people in my local community take seriously the task of selecting their leadership, Republican or Democratic, that will lead to the parties taking seriously the selection of state and federal representatives. When our personal devils hand us the story line that we do not have to worry about politics at any level, the institutional devils take over and we have principalities and powers that operate to do very bad things, such as allow violence to take over whole parts of our cities. The U.S. ends up with an infant mortality rate that keeps getting worse, to where it is worse than many of the poorer nations of the world. We are not taking care of our own. The principalities and powers are at work.

Terrible things are happening to people who had been living comfortable middle class lives in Syria and Afghanistan. The principalities and powers have descended upon them and destroyed their homes and driven them from their countries. If they had had a vital local political environment, perhaps such terrible things would not have happened. Was it their fault that they did not have such an environment?

Let us ask ourselves. Is it God’s graciousness that has allowed us to live in a political environment where violence is controlled and people can live with relative freedom? Or is it the vigilance of many people who reject the personal devils of non-involvement? If enough of us follow the personal devil of non-involvement, we could end up living the same story that so many other people around the world are living. Our political ancestors were very conscious of the stories of Greece and Rome, and of how those societies allowed themselves to be conquered by principalities and powers. Our founding fathers and mothers tried to set up a political system that would make it harder for the principalities and powers to take over. They continually fought against our tendency to forget the stories of what happens when we are careless. When we forget those stories, we are set up to follow the stories that lead to disaster.

We are indeed surrounded by devils. Stories float around us that tempt us to do things that destroy life rather than help us live more fully. There are principalities and powers so powerful around us that they can take over an economy and allow a tiny proportion of its people to control almost all of its resources. They come into countries like Brazil and cause people to destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of rain forest so that cattle can be raised to feed the desire of wealthier nations to enjoy hamburgers. Profit trumps God. In the name of Profit, all other values must yield. We practice idolatry no less than the people of Babylon.

But we are followers of Jesus Christ. He walked among us in a society that was ruled by the great principality and power called Rome. The book of Revelation tells the story of how the followers of Jesus deal with that Power. Jesus gave them a story more powerful than the story of the Great Satan, and the story of Jesus eventually brought down the Great Satan--for a time. The human race still lives with its devils, both personal and institutional. Every age has its Great Satan, and every age has its martyrs who are sacrificed to the Great Satan, the hundred and forty-four thousand described in Revelation.

We are a people who live in a world intended by God to be a place of justice and peace and life. But there are devils around. Jesus has shown us how to deal with devils. We deal with them by love, by respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement with the people around us, including the people who help to create the institutional principalities and powers that threaten us.

The human race now has the power to destroy itself, quickly through nuclear war, or slowly trough environmental degradation. There are devils and principalities and powers who can lead us down the path of destruction. My hope is that God will keep those devils from destroying all of us as they destroyed Jesus.

I don’t think God wants us to burn up in our own foolishness. Let us pray for deliverance from the demons that threaten us.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Thomas Aquinas

My fellow friar, Fr. Jim Wheeler, has put a sign in our yard promoting “Catholic Radio.”

When I listen to the local Catholic radio station occasionally, I notice that it is sponsored by EWTN, Mother Angelica’s organization. Some of the speakers I have heard have an attitude that I would describe as “triumphalist apologetics.” They speak as people who know the answers, and are proud that they do not have to take a back seat to anybody intellectually. They have Thomas Aquinas.

This is unfortunate. Their attitude is not conducive to a real dialogue with people who might not agree with them.

Their attitude can be improved, but their use of Thomas Aquinas bothers me.

Part of the reason that Thomas bothers me is that he was a member of the Dominican Order, and I am a member of the Franciscan Order, and the two Orders have traditionally been rivals intellectually. Sixty years ago, when I was studying philosophy in our Cleveland seminary, my instructors based three years of course work on the Franciscans John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. In our last semester we took one course in Thomistic thought. True, Pope Leo XIII said, back in 1897, that Thomas should be the basis of all Catholic thought. My Franciscan forebears, operating out of centuries of Scotus, couldn’t do that. Pope Leo’s infallibility did not extend that far.

But Thomas bothers me also because he and Scotus and Ockham are all thinkers from the middle ages, and there are centuries of philosophical development between them and us. After I was ordained I was told to get a degree in sociology, which I did, and I taught that subject for 35 years. But I was a close friend of a friar-philosopher here in Quincy, Fr. John Joe Lakers, who wrote a lot of material about the drawbacks of medieval models in our time.

“JJ” studied at Oxford, and got a background in the philosophy of language. In later years he got interested in “postmodernism.”

I have seen the term “postmodern” used in Catholic publications as a stick to beat other thinkers over the head with. It’s as though you just have to use the word “postmodern” and you think “stupid,” if not downright evil.

The postmodernists are accused of saying things like “there is no such thing as truth.” Some of them probably did say that, because people who call themselves postmodern sometimes liked to startle their readers into original thinking. But what the postmodernists were really saying was “any time someone claims to be speaking the truth, look out, because they are hiding a desire to control someone else.” That is not the same thing as saying there is no truth.

Postmodern thought has connections with sociological theory. One of the oldest principles in sociology is the statement by W.I. Thomas, which he wrote around 1918, “If people define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.” If you think someone is coming at you with a knife to kill you, you are likely to defend yourself, even if the person is not in fact coming at you to kill you. This means also that two people can look at the same thing and define it differently.

Courts of law operate on this principle all the time. The prosecutor and the defendant tell different stories about an event. They may each really think their story expresses what happened. The purpose of the court is to apply the rules of evidence to the two stories and try to determine which story is closer to what really happened--to the truth.

In 1966 Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann published a book titled The Social Construction of Reality. The title tells it all. “Reality” is a story shared by a group of people.

The medieval scholastic thinkers, and Plato and Aristotle before them, thought that they could formulate a story about any event that everyone everywhere would have to accept as true. They claimed to speak from a godlike perspective, one that would see and describe reality in terms that would be true for all time and in all places. They wrote in Latin, so their stories were shaped by the Latin language. Today we know that every language causes its speakers to see events in slightly different ways.  

Aquinas and Scotus, following Plato, thought that behind the “reality” that we observe is a real reality, the world of ideas. The things we humans experience are shadows of those real realities. Those realities never change. Because they never change, we can deduce not only our understanding of the physical world and the world of plants and animals, but also the world of human moral behavior, “natural law.” Everybody knows that some behaviors are just wrong, in that world of ideas.

Ockham challenged that theory. He said that there is no world of ideas out there. What we call universal ideas are stories that we create from our experiences. We observe first, and then we generalize.

Ockham’s challenge seems to throw everything up for grabs. It makes our most cherished beliefs the result of groups of people telling the same stories about things. What happens if those people tell different stories?

Things are not totally up for grabs. We have two institutions that keep our story-telling under control--never under complete control, but control enough for us to get through life without killing each others. The two institutions are the courts, which I mentioned above, and science. Science attempts to evaluate any story we tell by using observation.

I keep using the term “story.” That term is central to the way we humans deal with reality. For example, every scientific theory is a story, a fiction. It is a story evaluated by observation. No scientific theory can be proved true for all time. One incongruous observation can demolish a theory. That doesn’t mean that science is useless or evil. We have gotten a lot of mileage out of the scientific advances of the last two or three centuries.

Scientific work has expanded from the physical universe to the human world, including the psychological and sociological realities among which we live. By trying to use Thomas Aquinas as the basis for our thinking, we shut ourselves off from the intellectual world around us. We open ourselves to isolation and ridicule. Thomas Aquinas himself was accused of heresy by the University of Paris because he was using a pagan thinker, Aristotle, to describe the world in new ways.

The Church got along for a thousand years before Thomas Aquinas. For that matter, it got along for 250 years before the Council of Nicea formulated the Nicene Creed. The early Christians took people’s experiences of Jesus and struggled to let those experiences shape their lives. Those Christians told all kinds of stories about Jesus: he was just a man, he was just God pretending to be human. Nobody had a claim on any story. Things were messy.

They are still messy. The last couple of hundred years have caused us to tell the stories of Jesus in ways that were ever told before. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus read most of Scripture as historical truth, and they built some remarkable thought systems on that basis. Scripture is literature, stories and other literary forms told by human beings with their cultural backgrounds and biases. I still believe that God’s Spirit moves among all the messiness. Conversation requires humility and openness to changing one’s mind. If we are going to converse with the physicists and psychologists of our day, we cannot begin with the claim that we know the important truths about human life and nobody else does.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


At morning prayer yesterday morning, the breviary offered this petition: “May we seek those things which are beneficial to our brothers and sisters without counting the costs, to help them on the way to salvation.”

The word “salvation” hit me. How long has it been since I considered it important to help someone on the way to salvation? What is salvation?

Last fall I met once a week with a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor to help him spruce up his Latin. He was preparing for an exam for a doctorate. After we finished he gave me a Christmas gift: a book by a Catholic scholar named Daniel Olivier writing about Martin Luther, first published in French in 1978.

Olivier’s thesis is that Luther’s challenge to the Roman Church made an essential correction to the world that scholastic theology (think Thomas Aquinas) solidified, a world where salvation was achievable if only you got with the program. Read “Law.” I recall once describing the spirituality of my childhood: being saved in the Catholic Church was mechanical, just like fixing the furnace. The Church at Luther’s time added a productive coda: you could save your friends and relatives by purchasing indulgences for them to get them out of purgatory. (Nobody could get with the program perfectly, so everybody was bound to be in purgatory.)

Luther rejected that kind of world. Luther’s world was centered on the person of Jesus Christ. His insight was that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ made all the rest of the program superfluous, if not downright counter-productive. That’s what he meant by “faith,” as opposed to “works.” Granted that his insight got captured by all kinds of religious and secular politics and was tragically run off the rails, but the Protestant movement he inspired has greatly enriched Christianity. It has taken the Roman Church centuries to realize that, a realization finally acknowledged in the Second Vatican Council.

I add some reflections from John Joe Lakers. Scholastic theology, along with much Church thinking before and after Aquinas and continuing today, is based on a Greek philosophical paradigm, that of a structured world that can be described perfectly once and for all in some sort of synthesis, for example, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. Lakers contrasts this paradigm with a Hebrew paradigm based on narrative, on stories, where an incomprehensible God interacts with humans in unpredictable ways. The stories never end. They are continually in progress, right up to the present.

“Salvation” is a static concept. You have it or you don’t have it. You get it by sticking with the program. You get baptized, and then you obey the rules. Grace comes from a vending machine.

A narrative is unending, always unfinished, unpredictable.

One more Lakers’ contribution: love is involvement, involvement with four characteristics: it is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful. That is the way God is involved with us. That is the shape of the story that God would like each human person to live.

Salvation is to live a story of love, with God and with other people. We love the Lord with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, or, as Lakers often observed, as Jesus loved us.

We have moved away from a spirituality where the physical act of baptism would save a person. The Church recognizes that God surely is not condemning the four-fifths of the human race who are not baptized. Our calling is not to rush around the world baptizing people, as many religious did when they accompanied the colonizers of Africa and Asia and Latin America. Our calling is to live a story of respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement with the people around us and with God, and humbly acknowledge that God may be helping people outside the “Faith” to live lives of love without hierarchical control. We are not called to rule the world, or even to fix the world. We are called to live a story shaped by the story of Jesus, a story of love, in the midst of all the ways that we unfinished human beings live our stories.

Monday, January 8, 2018

What is beauty?

What is beauty?

A medieval "definition" of beauty that I recall from my days in philosophy is "pluchra sunt quae visa placent." "Things are beautiful when seeing them gives pleasure."

This has never satisfied me. First of all, it is not a definition. It does not say what beauty IS. It describes what happens when one sees a beautiful thing. And second, it limits itself to the sense of sight. Things we hear can be beautiful, as well as things we touch or smell or even taste (though we don't usually describe tasted things as beautiful).

So what IS beauty?

Beauty is something that is in an object outside oneself. We say "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Well, not exactly. We perceive beauty as something coming from outside ourselves. Beauty is not produced by oneself, it is given.

So the first piece of a definition of beauty is that beauty is a gift.

I like this. Beauty is a gift. When I see a beautiful sunset, or a beautiful sculpture, I am receiving a gift. A gift implies a giver. Who gives sunsets? God. The existence of beauty may be the most satisfactory "proof" for the existence of God in our day.

Beauty is a gift experienced through human senses. When I say human, I not only say that there is a giver, but that there is a receiver. If there were no humans, would there be beauty?

But lots of things are experienced through human senses, and not all of them are beautiful. What makes a beautiful experience beautiful?

Hormones. Something happens to my hormones when I experience something beautiful. The medieval definition uses the word placent. It give pleasure. Pleasure is a hormonal thing. I don't know enough about hormones to say which hormones are operating--I let that up to the biologists. I just know that there are hormones involved, and that the hormones give delight.

So, my definition: beauty is a delight-producing gift to human senses.

We spend money on beauty.

I drive along Interstate 88 approaching Chicago. I pass remarkable buildings, obviously designed by professional architects, and the buildings are surrounded by professionally designed landscapes. Corporations spend millions to make their headquarters look beautiful, Why? They want people to perceive the corporation as a giver of beauty. If the corporation gives beauty, people will assume it will also give other good things.

Look at what people spend on the architecture of their homes. I drive through wealthy neighborhoods and marvel at how important the people living there must think beauty is. Then I wonder how often the people living in those homes are able to enjoy the beauty. They might be working 16 hours a day and never come home in the daylight. They might be undergoing a divorce, and cannot see the beauty because of the pain they are suffering internally.

I drive through poor neighborhoods and am sad because beauty is so often absent. Things are ugly, the opposite of beautiful.

Though not always. Some years ago two photographers went around Quincy, where I live, and took pictures of tiny pieces of beauty, especially in architecture: a cornice on a building, the brickwork on a chimney. One that sticks in my mind is a picture of a garbage can placed in a carefully sculpted niche in a building. Someone made the garbage can's location into a gift that could cause delight.

When I was interviewing people in Chicago for my dissertation, I sometimes went into one of the "projects," the terrible high-rises designed by misguided city planners back in the 1950s and 60s. In spite of the disastrous public spaces (urine-smelling elevators that quit working, leaving people to climb 16 flights of stairs to their apartments), the people living in those places often succeeded in making their private spaces beautiful. They were not in control of the public spaces, but where they could make beauty, they made it.

I once toured Hannibal with a restorationist, a man whose profession was to restore beauty to old buildings. He kept pointing out houses and saying, "Look at what a gift that house is to the street!" A gift.

Every hospital I have visited in recent years has been a  marvel of architectural development. The hospital started out years ago with a modest building, and each addition became more elaborate and beautiful. Corridors and private rooms are hung with art work. Perhaps it helps us to deal with the tragedies of illness when we are surrounded with beauty.

Beauty is God's gift to us as humans. By helping to make the world more beautiful, we come closer to God.