Friday, February 8, 2008

On the wagon

The American writer, Jack London, on a water-wagon

'On the wagon' was coined in the USA around the turn of the 20th century. The phrase began as 'on the water-cart', migrated to 'on the water-wagon' and finally to 'on the wagon'.

The late 19th century saw the emergence of several temperance organizations, notably The Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893 and The Woman's Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874. These followed on from the work of The Abstinence Society which had encouraged millions of men to 'take the pledge'. The Pledge wasn't just a vague intention to avoid drink; it was a specific and absolute promise never to drink again and was taken very seriously:

"I promise to abstain from all intoxicating drinks except used medicinally and by order of a medical man, and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance.

Water wagons were a commonplace sight in US cities at the time. They didn't carry drinking water but were used to damp down dusty streets during dry weather. Those who had vowed to give up drink and were tempted to lapse said that they would drink from the water-cart rather than take strong drink.

I took the above text from The Phrase Finder. During this season of fasting and abstinence, I thought it would be a good thing to explore the idea of being "on" the wagon and falling "off" the wagon.

My grandma, Lena, was very suspicious of the temperance movement and prohibition laws, all this despite the fact that her husband's drinking had a catastrophic effect of her own life. She owned and ran a bar before and after Prohibition (the first bar must have been a very modest affair because when she and her husband moved from South Wilmington, Illinois to Bulpitt, Illinois so that her husband could continue his work as a coal miner, the bar was loaded onto a truck and transported down to their new hometown), and brewed her own beer for family consumption. Her sense was that Prohibition had caused the Great Depression because the government was unable to collect taxes on alcohol. In fact, an article on Wikipedia offers some support for her claim: "The cost of enforcing Prohibition was high, and the lack of tax revenues on alcohol (some $500 million annually nationwide) affected government coffers" (link).

The article cited above also makes this interesting assertion: "Catholics and German-Americans were prohibition's main detractors..." Why would Catholics, who have such a strong tradition of abstention as a form of prayer, be hostile to the idea of temperance? I suspect it has something to do with our strong attachment to freedom. Each person chooses for himself what he will give up for Lent. Fast and abstinence are never imposed -- neither by law, nor by social sanction. No one is ever asked to pledge to undertake any particular penance or prayer discipline. Though social pressures do exist in particular communities, they are not encouraged by the Church.

The Church could impose rules and regulations on people. She could counsel that certain practices, behaviors and sins should lead to public denunciations and ostracization. She could issue a license, to be presented before admission to Mass, to all those who have confessed and renounced their sins and can prove that they remain on the wagon. She could do much to ensure that all those who call themselves Catholics would be pillars of their communities and moral exemplars. It would be good for her image. But she doesn't do it. Instead, she does nothing to remove the habitual public sinners, unreformed drunks, and even pedophiles from her midst. She merely gives gentle, quiet reminders that one must confess these sins before receiving holy communion -- but even here, it is possible (and it happens all the time) for unrepentant sinners to receive Christ in the Eucharist -- particularly if these sinners slip into the anonymous mass of a large assembly. The only control that the Church imposes on us is our own freedom. This makes it possible for those with a distorted or stunted conscience to take advantage of her repeatedly.

Why does she allow it? Why doesn't she protect herself from the humiliation and public disgrace of being used by those who have no respect for her? Because she has the most adequate and complete understanding of our humanity. And why shouldn't she? She has been taught by Christ himself. Christ is the one who was willing to enter the homes of sinners and to share meals with them. He ate with people who committed every kind of public sin, including the unrecognized (and unrepented!) sin of Pharisaism. He did not come to tear down the laws of the Pharisees in order to create a new and better system of laws. He came to embody and thus communicate God's law, which is the hidden order of everything -- the truth of everything -- and to invite anyone and everyone to "come and see."

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."