All posts by jbolton364

Plutarch: Ancient Philosopher reflects on even more Ancient Heroes and their Virtues

It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life.

Plutarch, Greek historian and biographer, 46 to 120 AD


When I began Augustine’s Alley three years ago after my brother died, my initial  posts were released in a torrent as from a broken dam.  For years I have been thinking about Faith, Reason and Science and how they dance and intertwine with each other in our pursuit of truth and meaning.  Writing the blog was a heartfelt relief from the pressure of keeping those thoughts bottled up and it was an effective therapy from the stress of my brother’s long decline from ALS.  The blog also coincided with the discovery of the Savoie family history confirming our Savoie family legends and discovery our connections to some of Catholicism’s influential and inspiring saints.

I choose Saint Augustine as the blog’s namesake because of his tireless pursuit of truth and ultimately his courage in going to where ever that pursuit of truth would lead him to, even if it cost him personally.  Greek philosopher Aristotle’s maxim “The Unexamined Life isn’t Worth Living” provided Augustine’s Alley with it’s motto.  Aristotle believed that self-reflection, inquiry and contemplation of truth were essential to human nature.  Lurking in the background is medieval philosopher and theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas (Also the Savoie family’s 20th great Uncle).  Great Uncle Saint Thomas, standing on the shoulders of Aristotle and Augustine, put the Catholic faith on a firm foundation of reason.

If this all sounds like a goodbye to Augustine’s Alley it isn’t.  However, it is an admission that that blog writing is hard to sustain in the long run. If you have been a follower of blogs you can count many them that have faded away in neglect.  Nevertheless, Augustine’s Alley is here to stay.

OK, If Augustine’s Alley is staying then what’s the point? It’s fashionable among elites to today to deride the ancients as irrelevant as best, ethnocentric at worse and that there is no value in the study of the lives and thoughts of ancient “dead guys.” After all, the thinking goes, we are modern,  we are hip and enlightened far above anyone born before 1900.

Ironically,  ancient philosophers and historians asked similar questions of those who came hundreds of years before them.  Plutarch began his “Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans”  as a project for others and not himself.  Like many of us today, he saw himself as a sufficiently educated and had no need of the wisdom of the past.  A couple of lives in, while writing the beginning of a biographical sketch of Greek general Timoleon, Plutarch had a revelation. As he put it: It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life.”

Aristotle noted that the beginning of wisdom is to first acknowledge how little we really know and understand.  True learning takes humility, and without it learning becomes route memorization or even worse just indoctrination without contemplation of truth.  Plutarch himself was humbled studying the lives of the noble Greeks and Romans who came before him. It was only then in that spirit of openness  that Plutarch was able to draw out lessons of virtues and flaws and reflect them to himself and grow in wisdom.

So why the classics? Why study ancient philosophers?  Because true education draws us to truth, makes us grow in virtue as individuals and as a society.  The pursuit of philosophy, in a true spirit of open inquiry and humility, make us truly human. As Plutarch notes:

Education and study, and the favor of the muses, confer no greater benefit on those that seek them, than these humanizing and civilizing lessons, which teach our natural qualities to submit to the limitations prescribed by reason, and to avoid the wildness of extremes.

But virtue, by the bare statement of its actions, can so affect men’s minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and the desire to imitate the doers of them.

So that it becomes a man’s duty to pursue and make after the best and choicest of everything, that he may not only employ his contemplation, but may also be improved by it.


Post Script Notes:

Augustine’s Alley story on my family history can  be found here..

for my brother Davy’s story…

Anyone who works in a dynamic and stress full office environment can understand the pitfalls of office politics. I found this gem from from Plutarch that I printed and promptly posted on the wall next to my desk:

So true it is that the minds of men are easily shaken and carried off from their own sentiments through the casual commendation or reproof of others, unless the judgments that we make, and the purposes we conceive, be confirmed by reason and philosophy, and thus obtain strength and steadiness.

I certainly have had occasion to glance at it while at work.


So what are you reading now? It’s fashionable to fuss and obsess over what we put in our mouths but ignore the effects of what we are putting in our minds.  As Plutarch noted of the ill effects of junk reading:

With like reason may we blame those who misuse that love of inquiry and observation which nature has implanted in our souls, by expanding it on objects unworthy of the attention either their eyes or their ears, while they disregard such as are excellent in themselves, and would do them some good.

Maybe its time to go on that mental diet for our philosophical health? For some ideas please look at my post of Britannica’s Great Books.

Post Script notes #2:  Plutarch has been posted for a few hours now and after reflecting on what I wrote, I feel I may have shortchanged this man and his work. The Roman and Greeks presented to us by Plutarch are real human beings and not just in a historical sense.  Plutarch conjures up intricate and tangible portraits of real people, all with a mix of virtues and vices, and strengths and weaknesses  navigating a tough and sometimes terrifying world.  It’s good stuff and in my opinion exceeds even Game of Thrones in drama. Why? Because it’s real…

Silence and the Last Temptation of Father Rodrigues

Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat.  

Luke 22:31 Jesus’ warning to Simon Peter

Warning Spoilers!

Martin Scorsese’s epic Silence, based on the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō is a stunning but challenging work of cinematic achievement.  Like all truly beautiful art, Silence requires demands our full attention to even begin to process it subtlety and symbolism.

Silence starts as a Heart of Darkness search for a brilliant Jesuit priest Father Cristóvão Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson) who may have apotheosized his Catholic Faith during the Christian persecutions in 17th Century Japan. Horrified at the slander to their mentor and spiritual father, two younger Portuguese Jesuits, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) volunteer to search Japan for him.  At best they hope to clear his name, or if the worse be true, to save his soul for God.

Their guide to the hidden Christian communities in Japan is the drunken outcast Kichijiro who has apostatized his Catholic faith.  Of course apostatizing is very simple: all one needs to do is to step on a carved icon called a “fumie.”  Kichijiro has survivor’s guilt after watching his entire family martyred for their Christian faith.  He begs Father Rodrigues to hear his confession and laments that he is a weak man who should have been born in a more peaceful time.

Fr Rodrigues and Father Garupe find the faith still alive in small, isolated villages. The Japanese Catholics they find there have been without a priest and the Sacraments for years. Christ’s lambs are starving and eagerly embrace the priest who in turn feed them with the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Confession. For a short time the priests minister their flock but with the Inquisitor, Inoue Masashige, closing in Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe decide to split up.

Kichijiro, the weak man that he is, betrays Father Rodrigues to the Inquisitor and is placed with other captured Christians. Defiant, Father Rodrigues says that persecution only makes him stronger and says he wants a “real challenge” to his faith. That severe challenge arrives in the person of Father Ferreira, who has indeed apostatized.

Liam Neeson’s Ferreira is a broken, joyless man, who nervously glances back to his Japanese handlers under the shocked accusations from Rodrigues.  Not only is Ferreira a defeated man but he is also an evil man in the sense of St. Thomas Aquinas. He’s evil not because of what he does but by what he lacks. He is a man deprived of almost every good: his faith, his culture, his courage, his vocation as a priest, even his very identity.  Ferreira’s inward damnation is effectively symbolized by the Japanese name of an executed criminal that is now forced upon him as his own. Very little of Ferreira is left in the shell of a man that sits across from Rodrigues. As Ferreira himself states, “I am he is no longer the man that you once knew”.

That night, Father Rodrigues is forced to watch five Japanese Christian tortured by anazuri (a method that involves being hung upside down over a pit and slowly bled).  In the shadowy darkness of the Father Rodrigues’s prison cell, Ferreira’s eyes shine black. He taunts Rodrigues, saying that the tortured screams he is hearing is his own fault, if he would just but lightly touch the fumie with his foot it the prisoners would be released. With the fumie just a step away, Ferreira administers the coup de gras, telling Rodrigues if Christ was here right now He would step on the Fumie to save the tortured people and that it would be Rodrigues greatest act of love if he would just step.  At this moment, Christ apparently breaks His silence to Rodrigues: “Come ahead now. It’s all right. Step on Me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Step.”

As Rodrigues steps, a cock crows three times …

Was the voice of Christ real? Was it just the delusion of a sleep deprived, tortured brain? Or was the voice something else entirely? One hint seems to emerge as the voice continues after Rodrigues steps: “Your life is now with Me.”  Jesus said that the greatest love is for a man to lay down for the sake of others but only the Devil would ask a man to lay down his very soul to save himself from pain.

So what about us? Rodrigues fumie undid him because he fell victim to two lies: The belief that the innocent can be made responsible for the evil actions of others, in this case the torture of the Japanese Christians, and that doing evil to counter a greater evil will bring about a good. For Rodrigues the results were tragic, he lost everything and at best he may have only one a temporary reprieve for the Japanese Christians who will likely still face death at a later time.

We are faced with Fumies whenever we believe that doing a “small” evil in the hope of preventing an even greater evil add up to a good. It is only with faith, trust and above all else humility that can give us the strength not to step when we should not.


Faith and Doubt

Moderator introduction: I’m please to introduce guest blogger Thomas Savoie. Like his name sake and and 20th great uncle Thomas Aquinas, he reminds us that reason and a searching intellect go hand in hand with us on our journey of faith.


The Nature of Faith and Doubt

Intellectual pain is an underrated cost of following Christ.   If I didn’t care about following Christ, I wouldn’t care so much about being honest, seeking truth, facing reality.   I would be more tempted to simply go with the flow, take the easy way, and maybe anesthetize my intellectual pain instead of persevering through it toward the truth.”                                                                                                                                                                                                    —Brian Mc Laren


Among the more troubling aspects of my Catholic faith have been my misunderstandings and confusion concerning the nature of Faith and Doubt.  I believed that my doubts weakened my soul, displeased God, and hindered my quest for salvation.  Others around me didn’t seem to experience the number of doubts, disbelief and turmoil in their faith life that I did.  As a child I believed everything I thought Catholicism told me to believe.  How and why did my faith get so far off track?  I began to believe that my lack of faith put my soul in jeopardy.

About two years ago I resolved to carefully examine my beliefs on faith and doubt through a structured reading plan.  I’ve read much of the Catholic Catechism; Catholic Doctrine; Catholic Dogma; and the writings of theologians, early Church Fathers, and contemporary authors.  I learned that many of my assumptions about Faith and Doubt were just flat wrong.  My troubled attitude towards my faith began to lift.

This blog article is a humble attempt to summarize what I’ve taken away from my reading program.  I offer no assurances that the Church would agree with all my findings.  Nor do I recommend you accept my conclusions without doing your own “due diligence”.  If this blog article causes you to prayerfully reflect on your own Catholic beliefs, then publishing this article in Joe’s blog will have been worth my effort.

This article uses a Question and Answer format.  I wanted the article to be an easy but thought-provoking read.  I hope I’ve succeeded.   Your questions and comments are always appreciated.

Q  What conclusions did you find most surprising in your study of faith and doubt?

  1. First, both experts and lay people offer widely differing views concerning the nature of faith and doubt. Some theologians, clergy and religious authors appear to draw opposite conclusions concerning the nature of Faith and Doubt.  Catholic laity seems to largely rely on grade school religious education to support their adult beliefs.
  2. Second, some Christians, particularly Christian Fundamentalists, consider doubt to be the work of the devil and a hallmark of a troubled or weak faith. Some preach that doubt is something to be cast out if one wants to attain salvation.  Through my studies I now believe every man or woman has experienced doubt as a part of their faith journey.  Popes, saints, even Jesus Christ, struggled with doubt.  St. Teresa of Calcutta suffered spiritual torment and feelings of abandonment by God for nearly 50 years.   During Christ’s anguished night before His death He prayed “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” Later, He cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Surely we must consider doubt as a benign part of our faith.
  3. Third, doubt can often be a doorway to spiritual growth, but not always. Author Brian McLaren reminds us that all Christians are committed to lifelong spiritual growth. That means five years from now, your set of beliefs will likely be different from today’s set of beliefs. Hopefully your beliefs will be more judiciously considered, more mature, and more balanced. What causes us to examine a belief and test it?  Perhaps it’s that something inside us isn’t at rest about a particular belief … something in you doubts that belief.
  4. Lastly, many Christians (myself included) who professed a strong faith in God, could not list what they consider the most important or essential beliefs of their faith. This begs a question in my mind. Have I carefully considered which specific beliefs of my faith I am totally committed to believe, and those I disbelieve or doubt?

Q  Is faith an emotion?  Is it the same as belief?

Feelings are of no account.  Faith is not a feeling, but an act of will.  God reveals the truth of his love to us and empowers us to believe and trust.  Though love and faith can sometimes spring from the emotions, they are nourished and sustained in the will.  As one author put it “I am not moved by what I see. I am not moved by what I feel. I am moved only by what I believe.”

Faith is a gift of enlightenment given to us by God.  It’s not the same as belief.   Once enlightened, we then choose to believe truths and make them a part of our faith.

Q  Is doubt the “work of the devil”?

Fundamentalists have little tolerance for any doubt and a strict literal interpretation of the Bible. Some Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christian authors warn “Christians with doubts are on a sure path to wickedness because doubt is a device of the Devil.  Satan wants to rob us of our faith in the Word of God because it leads us straight into sin. Satan is the source of all doubt.”  Fundamentalist preach a literal translation of the bible.  “Interpreting the Bible is the bane of Fundamentalism and a primary cause of wicked doubts.”

On the other hand, a Second Vatican Council document on Divine Revelation points to the importance of considering history, culture, literary forms and the intentions of the sacred writers when interpreting Scripture.

Most mainstream Christian denominations acknowledge that doubt and imperfect faith are part and parcel of every person’s faith journey, saints included.  And it’s more than just possible, even probable, to have a weak faith and to achieve salvation.

Author Madeline L’engle wroteThose who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of the mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God Himself.”

My conclusion is that doubts do not necessarily endanger your chance for salvation.  As St Augustine wrote, “Doubt is but another element of faith.”

When Thomas the Apostle required forensic proof of Jesus’s resurrection before he’d believe, Jesus showed immense patience and love toward his doubting Thomas.  I am greatly comforted by that, and firmly believe Jesus accepts our doubts with patient love.  I continue to pray that Jesus will gift me with a deeper faith that will reveal over time other beliefs critical to my faith life.

Q  Isn’t doubt a sign of a weak or flawed faith that could cause you the loss of heaven?

As I mentioned earlier, at one time I was plagued by this fear, and I brooded over my many doubts.  Interestingly, most of my serious doubts had little or nothing to do with Catholic dogma.  The majority of my doubts were focused on elements of Church doctrine, i.e. teachings, traditions, papal pronouncements, church rules, and seemingly endless explanations and embellishments of Jesus’ words and actions.

It may be useful at this point to review the differences between doctrine and dogma.   In general, doctrine is comprised of all Church teaching in matters of faith and morals. Dogma is more narrowly defined as that part of doctrine which has been divinely revealed and which the Church has formally defined and declared to be believed as revealed.  An example may illustrate the differences:  Some Catholics have lobbied Rome to elevate Mary’s status beyond Virgin Mother of Jesus.  Some wish Mary to be referred to as the Mother of Salvation, the Co-Redeemer, and the Mediatrix of all Graces.  These titles for Mary are considered by some in the Church to already be a part of Church doctrine.  But the changes haven’t been elevated to Church Dogma.  Supporters say they will not rest until they are successful in their efforts to raise Mary to Co-Redeemer with Jesus.

  1. What are the sources of Catholic Dogma and Catholic Doctrine?

As a result of my study of Faith and Doubt, I’ve tried to narrow what I consider the essential beliefs of Catholicism.  Interestingly, in my opinion, nearly all the essential beliefs are sourced from Church Dogma, the revealed word of God, rather than from Church Doctrine.

The full body of beliefs that define our faith would fill hundreds, if not thousands of volumes.  There is a huge array of sources that have become important for the practicing Catholic to heed.  Sources include Church Dogma and Church Doctrine, with Doctrine being the far more detailed set of the two.  Doctrine includes Church Teachings, Catholic rules, traditions, Pastoral Letters, papal Encyclicals, Papal Bulls, etc.  Conversely, Dogma is the set of beliefs that have been Divinely revealed.  In my opinion, Catholic Dogma comprises most, if not all Catholicism’s most essential core beliefs.

If Catholics simply claim full faith in everything contained in Doctrine and Dogma, without really knowing which specific truths they claim to believe, do they not feel the need for a rational basis for what they claim to believe.   I wonder how many Catholics shrug their shoulders, say that they believe everything a Catholic should believe, and then walk away comforted that they have near perfect faith.   I have come to find it preferable to focus my faith on Catholicism’s most essential core beliefs rather than simply claim that I believe everything the Catholic Church says and teaches.

Q  What specifically does the Church consider the essential elements of Catholic Dogma

The essentials of Church Dogma are, for the most part, clearly laid out for us in clear, concise, terminology.  These are elements of Catholicism that we either fully accept as true and believe, or that we make an explicit act of will to believe.  Further, beyond believing, remember that we are called to live in full accordance with those beliefs.

I’ve made a partial list of dogmatic sources that include essential statements of belief of the Catholic faith.  There are other sources of Dogmatic truths I have not included.  This is just my current list and is enough to fill my plate for the time being.

Some Essential Sources of Dogma:

  1. The New Testament
  2. The Lord’s Prayer
  3. The Nicene Creed
  4. The Apostles Creed
  5. Statement of Faith from the Rite of Catholic Baptism

Celebrant:    Do you reject Satan?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    And all his works?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    And all his empty promises?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    Do you believe in God the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth?                                                                   

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:    Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?               

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:   Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?

Parents & Godparents:  I do.

Celebrant:   This is our faith.  This is the faith of the Church.  We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord.                                                      All:  Amen


The New Testament is at the top of my list of sources of Catholic Dogma.  I suggest you reread the four gospels.  They are a treasure trove of dogmatic faith essentials.   As you may know, some New Testament texts are printed with Jesus’ words in a red font.  When you read those words, you are reading our Catholic Dogma.  There are no more essential truths than Jesus’ own words.

I fully embrace the Divinely Revealed Truths of Catholic Dogma as the bedrock of my Catholic faith.  I humbly acknowledge there are parts of Church Doctrine I doubt and that remain as yet unresolved in my heart.  I fully trust that Jesus will have gentle patience with me if I prayerfully remain open to discern other important faith elements that may be gifted to me by Him.


Happy 4th of July

Saint Elizabeth of Portugal

Not only is tomorrow our country’s birthday but it is the feast day of our 20th great grandmother, “Mémère” St Elizabeth of Portugal.

Saint Elizabeth saw her role as queen of Portugal as a vocation from God to serve the poor.  Much beloved by the people of Portugal, she laid down her crown and joined the Poor Claires after her husband King Dennis (20th great grandfather) died.  Sadly, her life filled with intermittent fighting between her husband and her son Alphonso (19th great grandfather) over dynastic succession.

Her prayer card reads in part: “Surrounded by the conflict and strife caused by others, she always sought to be a channel of Your peace. By the integrity of her life, her ceaseless charity and her holy example, she became an instrument of reconciliation and forgiveness.”

Mémère St Elizabeth, however, is no distant, disconnected point of time in the past.  We, as her children, are connected to her, physically through family and through the tradition of parental love handed down to us from her in an unbroken chain through the 20 generations to today. Her story hasn’t ended yet because we are her story continued into the 21st century.

Recently, with a mix of awe and Savoie humor, I remarked to Uncle Tom about how cool it was to be discussing philosophy with the nephew of Thomas Aquinas.  The point is not to bask in the glory of past family achievements but rather to be humbly reminded that we are part of a larger narrative, that the Savoie story didn’t begin when we were born nor will it end when we die.  Take a moment this weekend and see your siblings, children and grandchildren with a new perspective.

Lastly, I would invite all of us to reflect tomorrow on how we like Mémère St Elizabeth can be peacemakers within our own family and to treat our neighbors with ceaseless charity and love.


Post Script:  From Uncle Tom

What a wonderful passage!  It brought tears to my eyes.   I was swept back to our beginnings–growing up  surrounded by parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters—some of whom have died and have now taken their place alongside a long line of largely faceless but (I believe) still-involved ancestors.

Nothing happens by accident. It’s as if God knew we were ready, as elders of our family, to be reminded of our important role.   We are the keepers of the family wisdom, tradition, religious heritage and tribal stories.  God reminds us to embrace that role with each of our families—so that they, too, can truly know, appreciate and pass on ‘the enormity of that sense of belonging, all of us, each to the other.’  As the author stated so eloquently:  “we are the human story; we are us;  and each new member of the family becomes part of us, and part of God’s plan.”


Brother Donald and the Mystery of the Eucharist

When I was in college I asked my grandfather Roland Savoie, what was the strangest unexplained experience he ever had.  He thought for a moment and  shared a mysterious story from when he was about seven years old.  At that time he and his older brother Buster shared a bedroom with their two single beds arranged in parallel. One night he was awakened by Buster talking to someone. Young Roland looked up to see Jesus standing at the foot of their beds and he let out a cry of surprise.  Buster tried to comfort Roland by telling him “don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid”. Nevertheless, Roland was still overwhelmed and retreated under the blankets.  He was adamant it to me that the experience was no dream and that he was awake.

Thirty years later I had largely forgotten my grandfather’s mysterious recollection until my uncle dug up an old photo of my grandfather and his siblings as children .

Savoie Children L to R, Jeanette, Rita, Florence, Roland, George
The Savoie children. Buster is on the far right, Roland the small boy in the middle

Since then I have been reflecting on how could this usual story be an accurate recollection of a real event.  I have spent enough time with my grandfather to know he wasn’t lying to me.  He was a well-grounded, practical man who wasn’t given to hallucinations and grand delusions.  It also seemed unlikely this was a vivid dream that  that he would erroneously believe was a real experience. Yet, as my one of my aunts reminded me, Jesus just doesn’t appear to someone without them becoming a well-known saint.

Buster, who was later known as Brother Donald as a Brother of the Sacred Heart, taught mathematics at Sacred Heart Academy in Central Falls Rhode Island.

Brother Donald teaching Mathematics (January 1954)
Brother Donald teaching Mathematics (January 1954)

He was a quiet, thoughtful man with a brilliant mind and although he was devout, he was not known as a famous saint.

cropped George Savoie (AKA Brother Donald) (2)
My grandfather’s older brother George “Buster” Savoie as a Brother of the Sacred Heart

I was stumped.  I believed that my grandfather told me what he believed was the truth but it was so far out of the normal rational experience that it was hard to accept.

When I stepped into church this morning for Mass and glanced over to the Tabernacle it dawned on me why I was puzzled.  I was getting the wrong answer because I asking the wrong question.  Roland and Brother Donald’s experience only seemed unexplainable because I was too focused the “vision” and not on the underlying reality on the presence of Jesus himself.  The truth is, we all have experienced the full presence of Jesus, body and blood, soul and divinity every time we participate in the Mass or sit in church for Eucharistic Adoration.

In front of the Tabernacle, our experience of the physical presence of Jesus is just as real, just as miraculous and just as blessed as those of the Saints. To see Jesus with our eyes may only be for saints but personally experiencing the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is for all of us, saints and sinners all.

What I believe what my grandfather saw that night was a glimpse of a deep relationship of love between his brother and Jesus.  What Jesus personally told a young Brother Donald is a mystery and ultimately it wasn’t for us anyway.  What we do know is that not long after Buster left home to join the Brothers of the Sacred Heart.

Young Brother Donald (on the left) joins the Brothers of the Sacred Heart (Roland is on the right)
Young Brother Donald (on the left) joins the Brothers of the Sacred Heart (Roland is on the right)

My grandfather Roland also received  what he needed too:  A startling glimpse of the great love between his brother and Jesus and a mysterious recollection to bring him comfort as he got older.

As for me, I realized that for thirty years I have been a time capsule carrying this story with me, almost forgotten only to be unlocked by an old photo. Now that I am older and have had the time to reflect on it, I realize that this mystery was not some new revelation but  an invitation to come to a deeper understanding of what I have known along:  That Jesus, in His great love for us, has not left us orphans. Rather then leaving us,  He awaits for us in the Tabernacle of every church.

Post Script: There was a transcending connection between my brother Davy who died of ALS and Brother Donald.  Davy was the spitting image of Brother Donald.  They both suffered terribly from illness and they both died at the age of 48.

Brother Donald recovering from Typhiod Fever
Brother Donald recovering from a near fatal struggle with Typhoid Fever

My mother observed that when Davy was bedridden with ALS that after he had his breakfast and the aide cleaned him he would always ask our mother to close his door.  She would often ask him why.  His answer was always the same:  “I want to pray”.  She often wondered why he needed the door closed.

For more on my brother  Davy and ALS see:


Happy Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day!!!

Yes math geeks, it’s March 14th otherwise known as 3.14, the approximation of the number Pi. The number Pi or “π” is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. No matter how big or small  you make the circle that ratio will remain the same.  Pi has been known to the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians although it is through Greek mathematics that Pi has achieved cultural prominence.

Phidias thinks he can do ths

π  is an irrational number. Irrational numbers cannot be expressed as the ratio of two integers and their decimal expansions are infinite and non-repeating. In other words, the decimal expansion of π goes on forever. The first fifty digits of π are 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510.

Using computers, mathematicians have calculated the first 10 trillion digits for π ! Now before you get excited about that accomplishment please stand up, reach to the sky and jump straight up. For that brief moment you are immeasurably closer to nearest galaxy 1 million light years away then we are to finding all of the digits of π.  Pi is so huge that no matter how far you go in expanding Pi you are just getting started.

Pi: Transcendental and Irrational

Pi has the extra distinction of not only being Irrational but Transcendental. There are two kinds of Irrational Numbers: plain old Irrational numbers like the square root of 2 and Transcendental Numbers like “e” and “π”.  Transcendental Numbers are not algebraic—that is, it is not a root of a non-constant polynomial equation with rational coefficients. Here is an example of a simple polynomial equation: 0= x2 + 2x +5.  Because π is Transcendental, you could not calculate it exactly using addition, subtraction, division and multiplication using rational numbers in a finite number of steps. You could use any rational number(s) you want but you will never get there.

Though only a few classes of Transcendental numbers are known (in part because it can be extremely difficult to show that a given number is transcendental), Transcendental numbers are not rare. Indeed, almost all real and complex numbers are Transcendental, since the algebraic numbers are countable while the sets of real and complex numbers are both uncountable.

The most Beautiful Equation in Mathematics

Pi is mysteriously linked to other fundamental mathematical constants in Euler’s brilliant equation:

Euler's formula

Here linked together:

– The number 0, the additive identity.

– The number 1, the multiplicative identity.

– The number π

– The number e, the base of natural logarithms, which occurs widely in mathematical and scientific analysis (e = 2.718281828…).

– The number i, the imaginary unit of the complex numbers, a field of numbers that contains the roots of all polynomials (that are not constants), and whose study leads to deeper insights into many areas of algebra and calculus, such as integration in calculus.

 Is Pi normally distributed?

Another mystery of π.  Imagine a 10 sided die with the digits 0 through 9 on the sides and imagine using this die to determine the next digit of Pi.   Roll the die….. a “4”.  What was the odds of getting a 4? Why it’s 1/10 because there are 10 possible outcomes. What are the odds of getting two 4’s in a row? It’s 1/10 times 1/10 or 1/100. How about three in a row? 1/10 x 1/10 x 1/10 or 1/1000.  It’s possible but not very likely. Now imagine a hundred “0”s in row? Or a million? Or even a trillion… The odds of getting the same number on a trillion consecutive rolls of a die are extremely small.  However, If the digits of π are normally distributed like the would be if you rolled a ten sided die than any number sequence you can imagine would eventually show up in Pi if you calculated far enough.  Why? Because the occurrence of any event, not matter how small the odds as long as it isn’t zero, is 100% over infinity.  No one has proved that this is true for Pi or any irrational number but it does appear to be true.  The first 10 trillion digits of Pi look like they are normally distributed though.  Some examples  are the six “9”s at the Feynman Point (762nd digit) and  at the 193,034th place and there is a sequence of 12 zeroes starting at position 1755524129973.

Philosophical implications of Pi.

However, If it the digits of Pi are not normally distributed like we suspect then how are they generated?  Would that imply that there is a pattern?

On the other hand, saying that Pi is normal and the digits of Pi are like the random rolls of a ten sided die raises some problematic questions too.  Does it imply that the digits of Pi are determined  only as mathematicians and their computers calculate them just like the quantum states of sub-atomic particles are determined by our measuring them?  If that’s the case, could a highly advanced civilization  “force” the digits of Pi into patterns as they calculate them?  (Don’t laugh, it’s the premise of Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact”). If this is true it then the implications are stunning: There is a mysterious link between consciousness and the mathematical fabric of the universe.

Looking at it from the other side doesn’t let you off easy either.  If the entire infinite set of the digits of Pi are already predetermined then where are they stored? In what fashion does this information exist independent of human thought?

Hmm…Deep questions with even deeper implications for the meaning of human existence and the meaning of truth no matter what direction you go.  It’s probably a good thing that St Patrick’s Day is three days after Pi Day!

Post Script: For a fun way to look at the discovery of irrational numbers check out the Fable of Phidas and Tekton

The Duchy of Savoy and the inheritance of our faith

Some of our most treasured, earliest memories are of cuddling up on the couch with our parents, grandparents, great aunts and great uncles as they recounted stories from the “old” days. We loved to hear about their parents, their great-grandparents, and, if we were lucky, snippets of stories and legends that went back even farther.  Way father!  We especially wanted to know their names, what they did, and what were they like.   Being youngsters, we eagerly seek connections and an orientation of where we are in our family and how our family fits within the wider world.

My grandfather Roland Savoie and his sisters Rita and Florence took great interest in passing on what they knew of Savoie family history to every new addition to the family.

There were many great legends and stories.  Three of the most tantalizing, mysterious and persistent stories were:

  • We have a Spanish Princess as an ancestor
  • One of our Savoie ancestors was a Catholic Priest
  • The very first Savoie who came to Canada did so because he was forced to leave

Old family stories that get handed down from generation to generation are nothing new.  Sally Hemming’s descendants claimed that Thomas Jefferson fathered her children.  Alex Haley based his “Roots” saga on a story of his distant ancestor Kunta Kinta making a drum for his younger brother on the day he was kidnapped by salve traders.  Both stories persisted over centuries, handed down by word of mouth from parent to child.  Although the stories had their detractors, they both turned out to be true.

As the years went by I pushed the Savoie family stories to the side as I commenced with the business of adult life.  Besides, I had no idea what to do with these ancient Savoie tales or how to begin validating them.

The last time I saw Aunt Rita alive was while she was in hospice, in the final stages of cancer.  While I was there we talked about her childhood as I tried to catalog every memory I could before she left us. However, what she really wanted to talk about were the three family stories:  the Spanish Princess, the Catholic Priest, and the Savoie runaway.  I made the mistake of expressing some skepticism that one of our Savoie ancestors was a Catholic priest.  Aunt Rita was indignant, “it’s true!” she insisted.  The poignancy of the moment was not lost on either of us.  She was soon to meet her maker, and she was the last living person of her generation.  Her insistence and the circumstances caused me to listen very carefully so that I could remember the stories and later pass them on to others in the family.

Ten years later, on a whim I signed up for a genealogy research website.  Progress was slow at first as I worked my way backwards from my great-great Grandfather Joseph Savoie.  I eventually discovered that his father was Narcisse Savoie and his father and grandfather were both in turn named Pierre Savoie.  So far, all of them were born in Quebec.  Continuing to slog my way backward in time, I discovered Pierre’s father, Jean Baptiste Savoie, who was born in Nova Scotia. I was surprised but that was only the beginning: three generations from there I was introduced to Prince Francis Savoie, the first Savoie to emigrate to North America in 1642

After he arrived in Nova Scotia, Prince Francis Savoie married Catherine F. LeJeune of the Mi’kmaq Nation.  Catherine’s great-grandfather was Henri Membertou.

Henri Membertou on Canadian stamp
Henri Membertou on Canadian stamp

Yet another surprise.  Henri Membertou, was the grand chief of the Mi’kmaq tribe in Arcadia in Nova Scotia!  Interestingly, Henri and his entire family were baptized by the Jesuit Father Jesse Fleche.  From that point forward Henri became an enthusiastic Catholic.  He asked the missionaries to learn the Algonquian Mi’kmaq language so that his family and tribe could be educated in the Catholic faith.

My ancestors were beginning to emerge from the fog of time, not just as names and dates but as real people with personalities and histories.

I followed Prince Francis Savoie back across the sea, to his home in Turin, Italy and we found ourselves at the door of the House of Savoy in the Duchy of Savoy. I carefully pushed the door open and discovered yet more remarkable members of our family:  these were of men and women of adventure, leadership, and deep Catholic piety.  The first person I meet is Prince Francis’s father, Thomas Francis of Savoy, or as he would have been known in Italian, Tommaso Francesco di Savoia.

Thomasco Fransisco Savoie
Thomasco Fransisco Savoie

Thomas Francis’s parents were Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy and Princess Catherine Michelle of Spain, the daughter of King Philip II of Spain. At last I found Aunt Rita’s Spanish Princess!

Princess Catherine
Princess Catherine

As more ancestors come out from the shadows, the Savoys manifested themselves as a deeply woven thread in the tapestry of European royalty.

Duke Charles Emmanuel’s Savoy ancestors bore colorful names like Humbert I The White Handed Count of Savoy, Amadeus VI, The Green Count of Savoy, Humbert II The Fat, Count of Savoy.  Still earlier, I meet Amadeus The Crusader Savoy, who died in the Crusades and his son Blessed Humbert III, who was beatified by the Catholic Church.

Other Savoy saints step forward: The Blessed Amadeus IX The Happy, was the Duke of Savoy from 1465 to 1472.  Blessed Amadeus IX was known for his charity and concern for the poor and was beatified in 1677.  His daughter The Blessed Louise of Savoy (Our great ++ aunt), gave up a life of privilege and comfort to become a Poor Clare nun. She used her vast wealth to meet the needs of the poor and entered the monastery of the Poor Clare nuns in Orbe, now part of modern Switzerland. She was beatified by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839.

Joining the religious life or the clergy after the death of a spouse was common for Savoys.  It’s at this moment that I am introduced to  Amadeus VIII, the Duke of Savoy, who became a Catholic priest after the death of his wife, Mary, Princess of Burgundy.  So now we have confirmed another of Aunt Rita’s stories: the Catholic priest who was our direct ancestor. Amadeus VIII of Savoy was no ordinary priest though: in February of 1451 he was elected by the schismatic council of Basle as (anti) Pope Felix V (Savoy). Anti-Pope Felix was no rebel and for the good of the Church he resigned and quietly spent the rest of his life a cardinal.

As I move to speak to Pope Felix I am joined by  Anne, Princess of Cyprus di Lusignan, who was the daughter of King Janus of Cyprus and Charlotte of Bourbon; and a member of the celebrated Lusignan crusader dynasty.  With her marriage to Louis, Duke of Savoy, Ann became the Duchess of Savoy.  In 1452, Anne bought the Shroud of Turin from Jeanne de Charny in exchange for the castle of Varambon.  It remains in the Savoy family today although in the custody of the Church.

Anne of Cyprus
Anne of Cyprus

Farther back, I discovered my 20th great-grandmother: Saint Elizabeth of Portugal.

Saint Elizabeth of Portugal 

As I contemplate my ancestors, Kings, Queens, Dukes and Princesses, Popes, saints and sinners all, I have to ask what’s different now? There are no titles to inherit, no cold coins, art or castles. I feel there is a message here, they are trying to tell me… us, something… I sit patiently and listen.

Then one ancestor speaks up for all of them.  Fittingly, it’s Henri Membertou, whose efforts to have the Mass said in the Mi’kmaq language helped to preserve it to this day.   He died in 1611 and in his final words to his children he charged them to remain devout Christians.  Henri didn’t see his new faith to be just personal but transformational and transcending.  His Catholic faith was a treasure, an inheritance that must be passed on to his children and to their children.  Aunt Rita passed on the stories of Savoie family history that were told from generation to generation.  In like manner, Henri in turn passed on the most important treasure he had, his Catholic faith.  His daughter Marie passed that faith to her daughter who then passed it on to her daughter, Catherine Lejune, the wife of the very first Savoie in North America, Prince Francis.  From Francis and Catherine, they in turned passed on the faith to their son Germain Savoie, who along with his wife Genevieve Babineau, passed it on to their son Francois Xavier Savoie.

And so it went on, all the way to Phileas Savoie, my great grandfather, and then to Aunt Rita and Roland Savoie and on to his children and then down to us. The story is told, the treasure of faith is passed on.

Saint Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that we have a great cloud of witnesses watching and cheering us on. . We have a very special cheering cloud of witnesses that includes our Savoie ancestors. They are us and we are them, all one family. The question is, does the story of faith that they passed on to us go on?  Let’s hope and pray so.

Meme Saint Elizabeth of Portugal,  Uncle Saint Thomas Aquinas,  Blessed Humbert Savoy and Blessed Amadeus Savoy, pray for your us your descendants 


PostScript and writer’s notes:

a.  All direct ancestors are in boldface. Poor Claire sister Blessed Louise of Savoy, is italicized because she is a great +++ aunt and not a direct ancestor

b. There’s another direct ancestor saint: Saint Louis the king of France.

Saint Louis King of France
Saint Louis King of France

He is a direct Savoie ancestor through  Elisabeth of Valois, the wife of Philip II and the mother of Princess Catherine Michelle.  Princess Catherine can be considered the grandmother of the North American Savoie line.

Elizabeth, the Mother of Princess Catherine and wife of King Philip II
Elizabeth, the Mother of Princess Catherine and wife of King Philip II

c.  Speaking of  Elisabeth of Valois: while her father’s line included the French Royal family her mother was Catherine de’ Medici of the famous Italian Medici family.

d.  King Philip II has an interesting family history as well.  His great grandparents were King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Yes, the same ones that commissioned Columbus on his journey to the new world.

King Philip II of Spain
King Philip II of Spain

e.  So that brings up yet another interesting question: What nationality are the Savoies?  Up until Prince Francis Savoie left Europe the Savoies were mostly Italian with a few French and German Princesses as maternal ancestors.  Once in Canada, Prince Francis Savoie and his descendants married into the Norman French settlers (along with a bit of Mi’kmaq Indian ).  Making it even more complicated is that if you go back far enough, the direct male Savoie line goes back to Geneva Switzerland before they moved to Italy.  You also should consider that through King Philip II of Spain the Savoies are Hapsburg (originally from Austria) along with some Spanish and Portuguese. In truth, the ethnicity of the Savoies is  typical for many of Europe’s royal houses.  The simplistic way to look at it is to say that the Savoies were culturally Italian until they went to Canada where they became culturally French.

f.  Speaking of European royal houses the Savoies also have ties to Hungarian Royalty as well as East Roman (Byzantine) emperors such as Michael VIII who was born in what is now Turkey in the 13th century.  So some of our ancestors were of the Greek Orthodox Faith.

g.  Alert readers will note that I confirmed two out of three of Aunt Rita Savoie’s family stories of the Spanish Princess and that the Catholic Priest. What about the first Savoie coming to North America under duress? There is some speculation that Prince Francis Savoie was disinherited after a dynastic dispute between his father and his uncle.  From researching other French Canadian family lines I found that almost all French Canadians originally came from the shores of Normandy France. That would make sense considering that if you are the French Government and you need bodies to load on ships to colonize New France you are not going to bother gathering them up from the interior of the country.  Prince Francis is unique in that he made the Herculean effort to traverse the Alps and the whole country of France to get on a ship to spend the rest of his life in the wilderness of Nova Scotia. We don’t know why he left but it is safe to assume he was highly motivated in doing so.

h. My thanks to Uncle Tom for his support and helpful suggestions and input!