Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Revelation of Sean Penn

[Welcome, Catholic Carnival-goers!]

With the announcement by the Senate Homeland Security committee that it will investigate the federal government's response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the exhibition games are over and we begin the regular season Washington's Blame Game. The prime motivators are, of course, the general blanching at the sight of thousands of refugees stranded for days in what can rightly be described as inhumane conditions at the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center and at the widespread looting and hooliganism. One thing we ought not lose sight of, however, is the hope and confidence that New Orleans cannot only be rebuilt, but can be redeemed. And we have Sean Penn to thank for pointing it out to us.

One thing that was striking about the two groups that caught our attention late last week was their contrast in attitudes. One played out the part of victims, unable to flee the city, going where they are told to go and then raging at the the very real, horrific degradation of their situation and the apparent lack of response and attention to their plight. The second was the pleasure-seekers, the "I gotta get me a plasma TV" hedonists, who also preyed upon the first group. One a group who took the situation seriously, one who did not. One who saw and lived (and died) a tragedy, one who saw and lived a farce, i.e., from an absurd premise. But the thing that both groups have in common is that they operate from the egotist's philosophy of pleasure.

The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen identified three laws of the pursuit of pleasure: 1.) It is conditioned of contrast; must be some sort of treat (relief, in this case), 2.) It never becomes permanent until it has passed through a moment of pain, and 3.) It is always a quest for the infinite (there will always be un-fulfilled desires). We can see all three at work in each group. Even in conflict, there is common ground.

Enter Mr. Penn and his ill-fated rescue attempt (Warga NEWS photo). Regardless of whether Mr. Penn's motives are sincere (and I know there are many who doubt them) consider, first, that, despite helping a few trapped people, the idea is amusing that he and a boat full of his entourage are going to be something less than a nuisance to professionals in the rescue and clean-up business, including those New Orleans first responders who have the pluck not to flee their posts, and second, that the scenes of Sean's ship of succor first having motor trouble and then taking on water to the point of having to abort the mission are downright funny.

Again, archbishop Sheen noted that a proper attitude of life is to cultivate a divine sense of humor, which entails being able to "see the point." If you cannot see the point of a joke, or a pun, then you do not have a sense of humor. So what is the divine point here? Taking things seriously as an end to themselves is to overrate them, and while everyone would agree that Mr. Penn takes himself seriously (again, regardless of the purity of his intentions), that he is not where our collective gaze is directed . The point, as always, is that all things are revelations of God. What is illuminating about both groups, neither of which Mr. Penn succeeded in rescuing, is that they operate from a common philosophy of pleasure.

The fact of acting from a philosophy is half the battle, for redemption can eventually come to those who have a philosophy, a framework, to climb through the world made transparent by revelation, but similarly cannot come to those, like Benedict's dictators of relativism, who deny they need any philosophy at all and, consequently, cannot even value themselves. If this is true of those most scandalized by this disaster and even of those who seem least worthy of the gift of civilization, there is a great opportunity ahead for the City of New Orleans.

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