Antonin Scalia didn’t get into Princeton University. That’s one of the many things I didn’t necessarily expect to learn reading On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer, a new collection of reflections and speeches by and about the late Supreme Court justice.
He brought it up during a 1998 talk to a group of students at his alma mater, Georgetown University. He used it as an example of trusting the hand of Providence and not being stubborn about your own will. He trusted he was a “better” man than he might have been had his own will — going to Princeton — been done. For every disappointment in life, not just college admissions, it’s something worth keeping in mind. It’s important if you’re a person “who believes in the transcendental.”
And if you say you do, and can’t quite keep that perspective, it’s probably long past time you get yourself on a retreat. “If you don’t have a weekend to spare once a year to think exclusively about the things that really matter — well, then you haven’t planned your life correctly,” Scalia insisted, perhaps knowing what most of us would be thinking right about now.
That was Scalia’s pitch back on campus. And thanks to this new volume, which is full of discourses on the law, courage, vocation, and moments of grave moral concerns (such as the Holocaust), it’s his pitch to us, too.
“Maybe now more than ever” may be an overused phrase, but it applies here, for a time-out is needed in many of our lives. How many of us can even get through a traditional newspaper column without being tempted, or simply unable to resist, the urge to go check our phone for something — anything — potentially new? Everyone knows about “fake news”; how about the needless, repetitious information that we voluntarily submit ourselves to daily and that we even form what sound to be strong, emotional opinions about? Some of it is no better than gossip. Most of it not only has no positive effect on our lives, it also takes us away from the people and needs around us that should demand our attention. It’s a never-ending reality-television show that keeps trumping itself (and no, it’s not only the president!) for new plot lines.
Retreat may sound like an escape, but it’s actually more like a reboot. The culture could use one right about now. So the least we could each do is consider giving it a try.
I had to laugh at a number of points while reading the Scalia talk, remembering his fearless wit. The last time I saw him, he was taking on Thomas Aquinas in a room full of Thomists. Before getting into his Georgetown talk, he nudges the organizers a wee bit: He has been asked to talk about his values, but he actually detests the term, “which suggests to me a greater degree of interchangeability than ought to exist — as though the principles that guide a man’s life are something like monetary exchange rates, subject to change with the times. (As in: ‘The value of the yen has fallen.’)”
His point about values is a point about the crisis of our times: identity. What are the reasons for our lives? What are the hills we’d be willing to die on? As Scalia put it, “because the world believes in the pragmatic rather than the transcendental, and you will lose your soul (that is to say, forget what and who you are) if you do not get away from the noise now and then to think about the First Things.”
Joe Biden isn’t the first person you might think of in the context of Justice Scalia, but the recent flak he’s gotten for his personal-space issues is not unrelated. As the Democrats who want to be president keep tripping over themselves to be the most radical on issues that hit on the most fundamental things — such as human life itself — Biden is someone who, at critical moments, has been a little voice of conscience. I think of a news story about him pushing back in an Obama-administration White House meeting where the mandate that would ultimately force the Little Sisters of the Poor to the Supreme Court came up. He was shot down and subsequently became a chief spokesman for the conscience squeeze by the administration. But I can’t help but think that if we had more people with the long view in politics — who knew who they were and kept that in focus — a lot of his decisions along the way could have made for a different kind of politics. He’s a man who has suffered, and there may be a wisdom there that our current politics just can’t handle tapping into.
It’s all certainly worth a prayer, and a little listening time for guidance, a reassessing. If we were all doing this, we’d be better, making life better for others. Scalia said he fell off retreats after his Catholic-school days but then rediscovered their power in the Eighties and kept with it thereafter. It’s a beautiful legacy — his very practical and in-no-way-partisan posthumous gift for a harried people.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.