Rectifying Names

a blog on publishing by Bruce Fingerhut

     1. Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”
     2. The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.”
     3. “So, indeed!” said Tsze-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”
     4. The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.
     5. “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
     6. “When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
     7. “Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

Analects of Confucius, XIII Tsze-lu, Chapter 3, James Legge, translator

The Work of Publishing: Editing - December 2, 2013


I suppose a good number of people look upon editing as the principal task of book publishing, and for some (e.g., the University of Chicago Press) it remains a central and important job that is definitive in framing the reputation of a given press. But the word has been out for decades that editing seems to be a dying art or, perhaps I should have said, a dying undertaking (and even chore) for too many publishers. This negative assertion about editing used to be limited to trade publishing, where one could well expect marketing and sales to crowd out such lonely assignments as editing. That is no longer the case. I hear complaints all the time, sometimes (though, thank heaven, rarely) directed at yours truly, condemning scholarly presses for failing to check up on facts, to clarify grammar, to aid in assuring a logical general flow of the book, and, frankly, to protect the author from himself.


These complaints are wholly justified, in my opinion. There are too many presses who have abandoned the important role of editor, as though the relatively small amount of money put into editing is too onerous for a business with such a small margin. Many of the famous houses in Europe place the entire burden of editing on the backs of their authors, which is a cheap relinquishment of what surely is a central duty in publishing. It shows.


In the world of scholarly publishing, I have known authors who are so meticulous and careful that it may seem almost profligate on the one hand and dishonoring on the other to allow an editor to look over the manuscript. Invariably, however, a good editorhelps, even for such an author, perhaps only to straighten out punctuation or care about such matters as the number of points in a given elision or know the difference between an N-dash and a hyphen in the use of numbers.


At St. Augustine’s Press, it is rare to heavily edit a work. That is because we typically contract for a manuscript that is already complete, and we know in advance whether much needs to be done. In that rare case, I warn the author before sending a contract. But it is nonetheless true that many outstanding authors are not among the meticulous, and may need the care of a good editor to clear up many small matters, from grammar to organization, in a work. I have never known such an author to feel put-upon by such an editor; indeed, all of them have been grateful for that work.


St. Augustine’s Press is a small press, and we edit both in house and with “contract labor” editors. It has been a long time now since I was able to edit every book, though that is how I started in publishing and never want to give up what little editing I continue to do. Since we specialize in certain areas of the humanities (principally philosophy, theology, and cultural history), we hire editors who have a background (or can, in effect, create a background) in those fields. I know them enough, I trust, to assign the right person to a given manuscript, and over the years, I have had almost no complaints from authors that their work is being ruined, taken over, or otherwise harmed in any way by these men and women who serve behind the curtains in a very important job.


It is true that we live in the age of self-publishing, of instant publishing, of tremendous over-publishing, of the non-book book, of a plethora of formats. This age will likely not spell the end of the great book or important book, but it may well overpower them with trivia and trash.


If editing is becoming a lost art in publishing, even in scholarly publishing, it is probably because the timely has begun to subsume the timeless. When that happens, we are well on our way toward forsaking what I have called the chief job of book publishing, namely, its duty to serve a gatekeeper for quality and, preeminently, for truth.

Comments (0)
The Work of Publishing: Formats - November 25, 2013

I have written before that when publishers get together, they talk about formats. I meant this as a criticism that too often publishers show less interest in what is published than in how it is published. For publishers, the beautiful child these days is, of course, the e-book. There is a sometimes unspoken idea in publishing that buyers of e-books constitute a completely separate market that does not cross over into the book buyer area at all, and therefore presents no threat to the publication of books, though they may do nothing to advance them either.

It is true that the technology used to read e-books are far more popular, for example, among people under, say, 35 years old than those over 65.  Moreover, this may not be something that will change as these young people grow older. After all, when the age of the paperback began in the 1950s, it was advanced as a way to aid students and others who were readers but not necessarily with enough funds to buy as many as the might like to have. The paperback revolution showed us that there were people who might well buy books who care little or nothing to see in a book a thing of beauty or a signature of prestige.

We found out soon into the 1960s that these young paperback buyers began to see the paperback as synonymous with the book itself, that paperbacks were what books were all about, and that these buyers preferred the paperback to the hardcover book, even if the price differential were much smaller or, indeed, even if there were no differential at all. I remember talking with more than one buyer who called to ask when we would put Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic in paper. I said, “never” (this turned out to be wrong, because we once had such a big push on the book that I was forced to print some in paper until we could get the reprint of the cloth available). I told them that the book is in cloth because it holds together better that way, and this was especially for a work that is opened and closed all the time. I also reminded him that the book was already lower in price all than its major competitors, all of them in paper (we have a much lower overhead than others, and we pass along that savings to our student-buyers). The response I received from one of these young men was that they would just as soon buy the paper at the same price as the cloth. Now that’s a paperback buyer. There was no care about books as things of beauty or prestige. They were used to paper, paper was a friend of theirs.

That may become the thought processes of e-book buyers. It is true that right now, e-books are much more likely to be used in fiction than nonfiction, for example, and that the kinds of works St. Augustine’s Press publishes may have less call for the format of e-books than it does for many other publishers. However, I have chosen the paperback over the clothbound for innumerable books whose principal market, in my mind, would be students. They are not likely to keep these books for years on end or display on book shelves. It would aid them more for the book to be $18 instead of $28, and so we publish those works in paper.

But I cannot ignore the possibility that what I criticized in the first paragraph of this blog may have been too hasty, that perhaps publishers are right in being more interested in how a book is published than in what it has to say, since we can see it in the paperback-or-nothing buyers from the 1960s on and from the present-day e-books-or-nothing that how may be a more important integer for these people in deciding to purchase. In the end, I am afraid publishers may sometimes feel put-upon to admit what I tell my son, that we are after buyers, not readers.

Paper, or pre-paper (e.g., papyrus and parchment) have been around for millennia, and I have a feeling its time to depart the scene has not yet come. No doubt new technologies will come (and go) in the future. Let us hope the cause of these “advancements” is one of the four E’s (see The Four E’s, September 23, 2013) of Entertainment, Enlightenment, Edification, and Education . . . in other words, for reasons of what, far beyond the manipulation of how.

Comments (0)
The Death of a Great Man - November 18, 2013

This coming Friday, November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of one of the twentieth century’s most outstanding men, one who inspired, fortified, and encouraged literally millions of men and women of every age, race, or circumstance with both his words and his actions. He accomplished all of this with gentle kindness and humility. Without doubt he was the greatest Christian apologist of the century, and his books and talks will be heard and appreciated for centuries to come. Of the four people I most honor for my own conversion, C.S. Lewis was the only one I never met, but, without doubt, he was indispensable to me as he has been indispensable to countless others in the past and will be to countless more in the future.

Yes, Clive Staples Lewis died on the same day that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. It was several years later when I “met” him in his books, and no other author, even Dostoevsky, has ever meant so much to me and to so many others. No other author I know, even the great Chesterton, is as able to inspire with the same words an uneducated searcher and a Ph.D. in systematic theology. In both his fiction and nonfiction he opened doors to ideas for countless readers, gave them something to think about, to dream about, to understand.

Lewis, like his brother Warney, was a confirmed bachelor, that is, until late in life, when he met the American writer Joy Davidman, who was less a convert from Judaism than one from Communism. Their love affair was, in its way, the stuff of cinema. Joy was the center of his life just as “joy” was the center of his thought. It is no wonder that his memoir was entitled Surprised by Joy. When she died of cancer too soon after the marriage, Lewis was devastated, his life and belief shaken. “No one ever told me,” he wrote, “that grief felt so like fear.” But the result was just as Joy would have had it, a wonderful, inspiring book, A Grief Observed. If there is indeed a book one must read, A Grief Observed is that book.

One day in the late 1960s . . . I don’t know the day or even the year, but I awoke to the notion that life did not make sense out without Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis was one of four people who led me to that thought. One can never repay the great models of one’s life.

A Short Compendium of C.S. Lewis Quotes

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.

We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.

Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.

Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.

Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith but they are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the passion of Christ.

Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.

(And the one beloved by every publisher:) You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me. 

Comments (0)
The Work of Publishing: Contracts - November 4, 2013

Publishing contracts can be written for authors, editors, translators, and other publishers. The main aim is to establish procedures for licensing or owning the rights to publish. Although most publishers (including St. Augustine’s Press) copyright in the name of the author, some put the copyright in the name of the publisher. These should be specified in the contract itself. For a publisher, the right to publish the work is part of the contract, and is not deriving from the copyright itself. That is one of the reasons that contracts (or “agreements,” as they are often referred to) are so detailed, so that there is no misunderstanding at any time in the life of the contract.

Contracts, usually in the so-called “Grant of Rights” section early in the document, should outline the basis and extent of rights, including what kind of production is allowed, how long the contract is in effect, and where the works can be sold. The extent of rights may well include the term “throughout the world,” indicating that translation rights and other subsidiary or secondary rights reside with the publisher.

The contract includes important concerns to the author, such as advances and royalties (both for the work itself as well as the subsidiary rights), and usually include protections for authors to see the books of the publisher and to gain back the rights (“reversion”) if the book goes out of print

Other important parts of the contract include the author’s representations and warranties, which usually include indemnify of the publisher. Most publishers (though not St. Augustine’s Press) have a first-right-of-refusal clause, obliging the author to offer the next (or even more than the next) work to the publisher before offering it to others.

On the other hand, the publisher also ties the publishing company to warranty such matters as the reversion of rights, keeping open books, protecting the author in the event of bankruptcy and other matters.

Contracts between authors and publishers can lead to bad feelings if they are too one-sided. I stopped asking for the author’s first-born child a long time ago, when I realized I had enough children. The best practice, of course, is to enter into the contract with an idea of equality and friendship, even though a contract is often very detailed and may be offensive to a new author who reads the contract with fear and/or suspicion. My view is that no contract will be successful unless both sides get what they need to get from the contract and can fulfill their part of the contract with some grace and, if possible, happiness. Acrimony is certainly the worst possible result.

Comments (0)
The Work of Publishing: What Is Being Published? - October 14, 2013

“In my beginning is my end” (the opening line of “East Coker,” from T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets).

I imagine it is better to begin at the beginning when speaking of the work of publishing, and, though there are various ways of beginning, perhaps the best way is to address what is to be published. Most of what the future blogs on “The Work of Publishing” addresses will concern the when, where, who, why, and (especially) how of publishing. But here we begin with the what.

Not everyone in publishing will agree that this is central or, for some, even all that important, since a lot of what is done (i.e., the when, where, who, and how . . . I am leaving out the why) would be the same whether one is publishing the works of Thomas Aquinas or Saul Alinsky. But I have my doubts whether the most important aspects of publishing are the same with St. Thomas as with Alinsky. I ran a trade publishing house in the past, and my priorities, I know, were much different from the ones for St. Augustine’s Press. Perhaps I was wrong in the past; perhaps I am wrong in the present; but the main thing is that they are different.

It seems that the main lessons I learned from running a trade house were negative lessons . . . the most important kind. I learned two important lessons: one that may be personal with me (and certain others, of course) and one that I suspect is universal. The personal one is that I would be a better publisher if I published works that I was personally interested in. I suspect this is not so with many others, men and women who could make a success despite not caring much for the content of their work. But it did not work for me. The universal lesson is that the market in America is immense, awesome, and incredibly complicated, and one should honor that and be careful in making general statements.

Years later, when I thought I had learned these lessons, I started St. Augustine’s Press with the clear understanding that I did not know the market and would not pretend otherwise, that I would publish works that I wanted to read and hope that there were others out there who were like me. It has proven to be the best idea I ever had in business.

St. Augustine’s Press is small because its market is small, and it will remain small, but, I believe, that, in general, it has done what it should do for that market, for those people, for those authors, for those ideas, and in that regard, it is successful.

A small publishing house (and, let us face it, most are small) must be vigilant both in serving its market and recognizing its place. When I first got into publishing, someone told me that one will never become rich in publishing, but never go out of business either. The first statement, at least, has proven to be true. The second, I am sorry to say, has not. During the several recessions we have gone through since St. Augustine’s Press was founded in December 1996, several fine publishing houses have closed down, mostly, I believe, because it is so difficult to fight the temptation to think that a small scholarly press can become a trade house by having one bestseller (see the blog “The Timely and the Timeless” [April 8, 2013]).

My wife Laila is a wonderful teacher and a wise and discerning mother. With hints, both subtle and transparent, she has made great suggestions to our children over the year, usually with brilliant results. One that comes to mind was her purchasing copies of a book for each of our children called Do What You Love, and the Money Will Follow. I have my doubts whether any of our children read much of this book, but this may well be one of those books that one can learn a lot from the title alone. In large part, they have followed the advice of that title. All of them have chosen vocations or avocations that they love. And though none of them are wealthy, all of them are doing what they are supposed to do. That is the essence of finding those other people out there who are like you.

The blog on The Work of Publishing will resume on Monday, November 4, with a discussion of contracts.

Comments (0)
The Work of Publishing - October 7, 2013

Since the subtitle of this blog’s name is “a blog on publishing,” it is high time for me to write a series on the various aspects of book publishing, the work we do, the purpose we serve, the place we occupy in the culture of our country.

So, over the next few months (with, perhaps, with an occasional break or two), I will address what could be called the work of publishing. It will cover all the areas of publishing from organization to contracts, from editing to production, from building a niche to selling and marketing, from distribution and fulfillment to the ball-bearing business of cash management and accounting. The order may appear out-of-order to you, and the emphases may not be the way you would do it. You may find some of this a bit boring (so do I), some exciting, some strange. I expect that doing this will be a great learning experience for me, and I hope some of it will be interesting to you. I welcome your comments and questions.

Comments (0)
Shame and Glory - September 30, 2013

I have often written correspondents that there is both shame and glory in having too few people to do too many functions and, now that I think about it, I suppose that is true for life in general, but it is only now that I realize it is because there is shame that there is glory and because there is glory that shame raises its ugly head. For example, what makes us bite off more than would be seemly for one person to chew may be seen as glorious even as it leads to shame. It may also be the result of shame in choosing to do so much when the chance of failure is so high, but if the result is not failure, we are very likely to claim glory for it.

This leads me to think that the shame-and-glory conundrum is not simply endemic to publishing or overwork or any of the myriad other possible connections; it is endemic in human life itself. Part of what makes us human is that we seek to be superhuman; part of what makes us animals is that we prove over and over again that we are not superhuman.

It is not simply that shame and glory seem to happen to us all; it is that what is glory in the life of man is also shame, that both are needed to be complete. Perhaps that is the case because we need a base to judge ourselves, and often that base is truly base. Among the greatest people who ever lived, St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Francis, were people with tremendous life-denying faults. What brought them to the heights was, in part, their beginnings in the depths. Cardinal Hume said it best, that the life of St. Augustine proves that all saints have pasts and all sinners futures.

Plato’s wonderful Myth of the Cave in his Republic succinctly tied this phenomenon of change, of growth, when he asks what would happen if one of the prisoners, who was bound to face the wall in the cave to see unreal shadows of unreal images, was forced to turn around and see the origin of the images, to see the falsehood of what he had taken to be true, to realize reality bright and clear. The key word here is “forced,” to turn around (periagoge), what we would call conversion, and come into the light. This beautifully speaks of the transition from shame to glory. It is not necessarily pretty, not necessarily uplifting at the time, not necessarily seen as triumphant. Coming into the light, facing a harsh reality instead of a benign falsehood, may not be a jolly moment. But it is what man is faced with in life.

This height and depth in our lives may be correlated in our lengths and widths, if you will. For just as nothing that we do is likely to be everlasting, so too nothing that we do is completely temporary.

Let me give you some very mundane examples. Recently, my wife and I have been involved in various renovations in our house, most recently redoing entirely our family room and the adjacent library, which serves as my office. We took the old bookshelves down and had them cleaned and restored. Putting the shelves together was far more work than we remembered it would take, but the result was one of those moments when all seemed to be in the right place at the right time. The books were up (though, frankly, we have a few skids of other books down the basement that we likely will never see again), and this resulted in a certain feeling best said by Robert Browning, “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.”

It made me think of my “duty” as scholarly publisher to print books with acid-free paper, which is guaranteed to outlast the lives of the author, the publisher, the printer, and perhaps the press. We do this, just as we might when planting trees, for people and for a society as yet unborn, with hope and perhaps a little love, but mostly with awe. In doing these kinds of act, we fully admit our own expendability, even as we do it in the name of immortality . . . not our own immortality, but perhaps the immortality of ideas, of the good, of truth.

A better way of saying this was made by Isak Dinesen at the end of Babette’s Feast, when General Loewenhielm discovers in the wonderful communion feast that the life he gave up long ago in courting one of the sisters who is his host at the dinner may not have resulted in a complete loss. Here is his toast:

“Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together,” said the General. “Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.” . . .

            “Man, my friends,” said General Loewenhielm, “is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble . . .” Never till now had the General stated that he trembled; he was genuinely surprised and even shocked at hearing his own voice proclaim the fact. “We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”

Can it be that in our expendability lies our immortality?

Comments (0)
The Four E’s - September 23, 2013

In last week’s blog, I suggested that the principal purpose of publishing can be listed with reference to what I call the Four E’s: Entertainment, Enlightenment, Edification, and Education. I went so far as to say that every book owned or read centers around one or more of these four, and I made the assertion that that is the case irrespective of whether the publisher thought about this or not.

Publishing is not the only field or, if you prefer, business, that seeks to entertain, educate, edify, or enlighten, of course. But without these categories, publishing lacks the purpose of what it is doing, since purpose, by its nature, deals with content, not formats. This may not be easy to discern if you read magazines or books on publishing or, worse, attend seminars on publishing. There you might well get the idea that publishing is marketing or production or distribution.

I am certainly not of the opinion that marketing, production, or distribution is an unneeded or unimportant activity . . . only that it is not the essential activity. The people who keep publishing going, that is, the buyers, are often unaware of, or indifferent to, such activities as these, but each and every buyer pays some small obeisance to one or another of the Four E’s. Without these, without, in short, purpose, there would be no publishing because there would be no need for publishing, and publishing, like all areas of work, exist only because there is a need for it to exist.

Now, as to the actual Four E’s, it should be said that, if this is the purpose, as I have stated here, it is a rather odd purpose, because many, perhaps most, people who get into publishing do so without at least an initial, conscious regard for this purpose. That is, they are more likely to get into publishing because they are interested in ideas, in communication, or in being a part of what they see as culture more so than in specifically edifying or enlightening some group of people in the country.

Nevertheless, whether or not that is the motivator of their decision, in the end, the works they produce are the core around which they categorize purpose in their work. And the works they produce seem to have one of these four purposes: to entertain, enlighten, edify, or educate, and their work, in the end, will center around these four “purposes.”

Reading Jacqueline Susann likely comes under the heading of entertainment, whereas reading Dostoevsky or, for that matter, Camus, Solzhenitsyn, or Dante, may well come under all Four E’s (perhaps not at the same time). I do not now wish to disparage one area over another. I myself have been in scholarly publishing and trade publishing, and after a long time in both, I realize I can do better work in the former than the latter. That does not mean that, on its own, it is superior to the latter. Both have purposes because both have markets, and it is rare that even the most centered buyer will always find interest in one area only and never look elsewhere.

I bring all this up because it points directly at what I have been saying, sometimes with the fear of regret, that publishers must be gatekeepers, and gatekeepers must be concerned with content, not form. Publishing is not printing; it is not warehousing; it is not marketing. All of those are important and needed activities in the world of publishing, but they are not the central component. Indeed, in this day and age, it is altogether typical that publishers do not print or run warehouses and may even not perform most of their own marketing. They hire others to do this. If that is the case, then, whether they admit it or not, publishers must know in their heart of hearts that none of these activities is what makes publishing what it is.

What makes publishing what it is, is the purpose it serves for the buyer, the gatekeeper they must be for the culture, and those revolve around the Four E’s.

Comments (0)
Beyond Format - September 16, 2013

I have mentioned before that when publishers get together these days, the main topic, once they get away from speculation about what amazon wants to do in publishing (a topic of such transparency that even today’s politicians could figure it out) concerns format. Is the era of the hardback gone? (These days one reads that the era of the paperback is coming to an end. Lord, if only these guys were wealthy enough to afford to lay down their bets, I could retire . . . assuming I would want to retire, of course.) Is the e-book becoming passé, to be replaced by instant brain immersion or some other forward-looking video game that will save us all from the trials of having to read or, even worse, think? Could we not all follow the actions of the heroes of Fahrenheit 451 and just memorize a book each?

But no matter how we slice all this pickled tongue, one thing is sure: the delicacy has been taken out of the delicatessen. When you start talking about formats, you have given up on contents. I never could stand that pickled tongue, even as a boy, even though I was supposed to like it, supposed to follow the form. Their contents were always just too darned icky.

I am not saying that form is unimportant. Of course it is important. But in publishing it should come after the contents, it should be formed (sorry for the pun) by the contents, it should be the helpmate of the contents. If you start with form and stuff the contents into it, you will lose not only the most important thing many publishers find in publishing, namely, a way of understanding your market, but you will lose something more tangible than that, the very purpose of the publishing role in society.

What we are here for is not to invent new (and soon obsolete) forms for transmitting information. What we are here for is the information itself.

Without putting the contents before the form, the well-known and well-understood separation of various types of publishing will be lost, and with that lose will go the hopes of authors and readers everywhere. One look at the various types of publishing (childrens, scholarly, trade, and on and on) should be enough for us to see that you first have to know what you are publishing, then decipher who is there to buy it, and only then how to create the work for those people.

Once the publisher is able to categorize the purpose of his brand of publishing, once he is able to get a grasp on the market for his brand, then he is well on the way to understanding formats and other minor concerns.

In the spirit of finding an easy way toward that categorization, let me suggest that the principal purpose of publishing can be listed as one of the Four E’s: Entertainment, Enlightenment, Edification, and Education. Every book you own, every book you have ever read, and even every book you will ever read, centers on one or more of these Four, even if the publisher had not the slightest thought about the Four E’s.

I will continue this thought about the Four E’s with my next blog, since it deserves a page or two of its own.

Comments (0)
The First and Last Blameless Men - September 9, 2013

“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

Well, just from those words, I suppose you can guess that this is not going to be about book publishing, which shares with all other work in being less than perfect and not at all certain that perfection in this life is even possible.

After all, is being perfect asking too much? We are not even perfect enough to know what perfect means, I suppose. How are we to live in perfection? The answer, I gather, is not to live in perfection, but to live for perfection.

Listen to what the first blameless man said along these lines:

[26] “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
[27] Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
[28] For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?
[29] Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him,
[30] saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’
[31] Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?
[32] And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace.
[33] So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:26–33

What Jesus is asking for here is not merely perfection; He is asking the impossible, He is asking for nothing less than everything.

But hating even one’s own life is, I think, showing us that hatred in this context is really something akin to despising imperfection, for who has not looked in the mirror at times and found disgust in himself? Or, what seems to be an opposite intention, to see the person who would put others . . . father or mother or wife or husband or child . . . before oneself, to sacrifice oneself for them, and then gloried in his intention to act. But is not such a seeming sacrifice itself a form of acknowledgment of that self-same imperfection, that self-same hatred of a world or person or self far away from perfection, of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s new commandment to love the farthest?

Think now of the deeds of Christ, not just His words. For here was the first blameless man taking on the blame of the whole world. It is the very epitome of non-hatred, of love. In contemplating this deed, how can we not see in all others, and especially in ourselves, a failure to love, the temptation, even what could pass as the need, to hate? We cannot be expected to take on the blame of one small child, let alone the whole world. Knowing that, can we fail to hate ourselves and the world that will not adore for wanting to be perfect even as we fail to be perfect?

Our present world contains another kind of blameless man, the second blameless man, one who does not enter into that self-sacrificing love, but instead finds blame everywhere but in himself, in all men and women, all circumstances, all actions. No actor can be blameless, for to act is to take the chance of failure, of imperfection, of blame. The second blameless man, therefore, may speak but may not act. By speaking in the place of acting, he passes over not only the horror of sacrifice, but that true pathway fraught with danger, the one away from hatred into love.

In the short book of Philemon in the New Testament, St. Paul writes to Philemon, his friend, about a slave that escaped Philemon’s house and later was arrested and put in prison. There he met St. Paul and, inspired by the man, became a friend and help-mate. Now Paul sends him back to Philemon . . . not as slave but as friend:

[10] I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment.
[11] (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)
[12] I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.
[13] I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel;
[14] but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.
[15] Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever,
[16] no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Philemon 1:10–16

“Sending my very heart.”

Comments (0)