My childhood was filled with unusual characters, all products of my father’s fertile imagination. A Freudian would probably say that each was a projection of a different aspect of my father’s personality—all I know is that their appearances were both unpredictable and entertaining. The “Flying Gynzbyrd,” for instance, was a heavy bird who liked to land with a thud on the breakfast table and stomp through either my brother’s or my toast, leaving imprints the size of the tips of my dad’s index and third finger.
A retreat at a Benedictine hermitage means the opportunity to plug into the daily cycle of psalms and prayers that has been going on for over fifteen hundred years. I learned four years ago as I experienced this daily cycle for the first time that something deep in me resonates with its rhythms. This morning, bright and early at 5:30 Vigils, Psalm 5 began as a cry for someone, anyone, to listen.
give heed to my groaning.
Attend to the sound of my cries,
my King and my God.
As so often with the psalms, the psalmist has a story to tell and insists that it be heard. And so it goes with all of us; the stories that define and shape us, that clothe the bare facts of our lives in fancy dress, are only the sound of one hand clapping unless there is someone to receive the story on the other end.
My early story was enriched by the presence of all four grandparents during my formative years. Visiting my paternal grandparents was always an event that took several days of careful and intense planning. We lived in northeastern Vermont; they lived on the outskirts of Erie, Pennsylvania, still in the house that my father grew up in. It was an almost six hundred mile trip, with the first two hundred on narrow two-lane roads before finally hitting the New York Thruway headed west, so some serious entertainment planning on my brother’s and my part and food packing on my mother’s part for the trip was always in order. My grandfather worked for General Electric, wrapping the coils in the back of old-time refrigerators by hand around a mold. He had forearms like Popeye—one of his favorite parlor tricks was to bet someone that he could make them close their hand just by squeezing their wrist in his vice-like grip. He never lost the bet.
Grandma was loving and had a great sense of humor, but also was noisy and abrupt, sort of like my Dad, and was a horrible cook. I don’t remember any item of food—meat, vegetable, fruit or starch—that my grandmother could not reduce to tasteless pulp after what seemed like endless hours sweating and complaining in the kitchen. But she sure could dish up ice cream. Her signature dessert, usually served in the early evening in front of some mindless thing on television, was to open a half-gallon carton of vanilla ice cream, cut it in quarters with a knife so large that my brother and I were warned upon pain of serious comeuppance (one of her favorite words) to stay away from it, then serve a quarter to each person in the room with so much chocolate sauce and so many peanuts slathered on top that one would forget that it was vanilla ice cream underneath. This, of course, was before healthy eating habits were invented. A dessert designed to make one forget the less-than-palatable meal that preceded it.
The Erie homestead was nothing special, just old with creepy and creaky bedrooms upstairs. My other grandparents’ home in the Finger Lakes region of southern New York State was far more interesting and “homey,” probably because that set of grandparents was more touchy-feely and grandparently than my Dad’s folks. But the fun of going to Erie was not the house—the fun wasn’t really even my grandparents. What made Erie a favored point of destination was that my grandfather, in addition to being a blue-collar factory laborer, was also a “city farmer.” Stretched behind their house on a busy road in what served as suburbia in the early 1960s was two acres of land upon which my grandfather ran a small farm, complete with a barn, horse, cow, chickens, tons of barn cats, an outhouse, a huge vegetable garden, a dozen long rows of grape vines, and a lower field where hay always seemed to be growing unnoticed. My other grandfather was the real farmer who made a living growing fields of potatoes, but my gentleman farmer grandfather in Erie is the man of the soil I remember most clearly. When I take delight in digging around in the flower beds, pruning bushes, watering things and watching them grow, I am channeling my Grandpa Morgan.
In addition to their farm animal menagerie, my grandparents had a dog named King. King died of old age before I was ten years old, but if he actually looked like my memory picture of him, he was probably a collie/shepherd mix of some sort. We had two dogs at home, a collie named Lassie and Rex our German Shepherd; if they had ever mated (which they didn’t), their offspring might have looked something like King. King could do two things that neither of my dogs could do. To begin with, King was the first dog I ever met who would chase a ball and bring it back to you over and over again until your arm got too tired to throw any more. At home, if you threw a ball for Lassie to chase she would look at you with a “You’re kidding, right?” sort of look as she laid down, and a ball thrown in Rex’s direction would most likely bounce off his head. I thought King must be a genius with his ball retrieval abilities and should be on the Ed Sullivan show; it wasn’t until much later that I learned that ball retrieval is a normal dog activity and that my dogs at home were just strange.
King’s other trick was vocal in nature. My grandfather or my Dad would say “Tell me a big story, King, tell me a big story!” in a certain tone of voice and King would immediately raise his snout heavenward and start howling up a storm. The story King told was sad and full of pathos, dramatic and primal, with the mournful tones of his wolf ancestors. But King was selective about who he would tell stories to. Only my grandfather or Dad would do. In response to such requests from my grandmother, my mother, my brother, me, or any of my aunts and uncles who lived in the area, King would stare in mute silence. King’s stories were meant only for the chosen few, those who knew how to ask properly.
Our best and most important stories should be, and usually are, saved for the ears of those who deserve it. Because woven into every story worth the telling is the intended listener. A story is far more than a linear reporting of facts; by fashioning facts into a narrative the storyteller reveals a great deal about who he or she is as well as about what he or she considers to be of ultimate importance. In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, in response to a demand for nothing but the facts about what has happened, Pi responds that “a story always has an element of invention in it. . . . Isn’t telling about something—using words, English or Japanese—already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon the world already something of an invention? The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?” Yes it does. And by sending his cries and groans heavenward, the psalmist is weaving a fascinating character into his story—a God who listens. This is the hope of the believer, that there is not only something greater than me, but something that knows me better than I know myself, that listens, and promises a response. Sound like a fictional character, someone from mythology? I hope so, because as Kathleen Norris writes, a myth is a story that you know is true the first time you hear it. By including God in my story, I create a space in which God can show up.
A few weeks ago Kelly Jones, a former student of mine working toward her PhD in philosophy at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, sent out a call through Facebook for anyone interested in talking on the radio show she produces about certainty as a moral problem. I volunteered, she interviewed me by phone for an hour, and the edited version of my comments was part of this week’s program on her show, “Pioneer Radio,” heard biweekly on CFRU, 93.3 FM in Guelph. The theme of the show was “Whatever Help You Sleep At Night.” If you would like to hear the broadcast, the link is at the end of this post. Here’s what I said (with apologies that I although I write in complete sentences, I do not always speak that way!):
I think that what might be wrong with being certain is that it is almost always putting a period or an end to something. Whatever it is that you feel you are certain about, once you come to that point, it kind of gives you a “get out of thinking free” card for the foreseeable future on that topic. The reason that might be a problem is that I think the world very seldom comes to us in ways that are divided up neatly and cleanly with sharply defined finish points or boundaries. The world tends to be far more open-ended or blurry or fuzzy.
We expect that the sun will come up tomorrow, when we expect that gravity will continue to work, when we expect that the people in our life will continue to behave the way that they regularly have—you cannot live a human life without that kind of regularity. But for me certainty is something different than that. The regularity that we need in our lives going forward, whether it is relationships or just being able to get through the day might be something more like extremely high probability or trustworthiness, rather than something like certainty. “Certainty” for me is not a synonym for “it is very likely to be the case that.” Certainty—and maybe this is the philosopher in me—takes me in the direction of someone who says “This is something that cannot be doubted.”
In a relationship, somebody might be very, very confident in his or her relationship with somebody else, but would probably not be willing to go so far as to say that “there is no possibility that this relationship could change, or there is no possibility that I might be wrong about it.” They are just saying that “my experience is that this is something very reliable.” My wife and I wrote our wedding vows, and I recall that she was not so sure that it makes sense to say “until death do us part” about anything. As I recall we still did keep that in, understanding that for a human being with incomplete knowledge of themselves and of the future, as well as of what the future will bring, to say about anything “I will hold this to be true and I will stand on this belief until I die” sounds like—and it is—a real commitment, and I believe people mean it when they say something like that. But at the same time, I think if people talk about it, normally speaking they understand that there certainly are imaginable circumstances going forward that would undermine that promise.
In moral behavior, believing that you have moral certainty is particularly problematic because the moral life is very complicated just like the world we live in. As soon as you believe that you have certainty in the moral realm, not only are you likely to consider your work done there, but in the moral life we tend to impose our principles, our guidelines, on others as well. Believing that you have moral certainty makes it very difficult to have meaningful discussions about morals, about ethics, with those who have different principles. As soon as I think that what I believe is absolute, then I am going to defend it at all costs and am very likely to dismiss those who disagree with me.
Morality, being able to live with others in community, and rules of behavior–all these sorts of things are necessary in order for human beings to be with each other and to be in relationship with each other. But human beings as imperfect and flawed creatures are going to find themselves failing to understand each other, and very frustrated with each other and with themselves, if they are holding themselves and each other to a standard that actually can’t be satisfied. Holding yourself, or myself, or each other to a standard of certainty, saying that a promise only counts as a promise if you can guarantee me that the thing you are promising me will always hold, or that you will never change your mind, or that circumstances will not change such that the promise no longer makes any sense–these are all sources of frustration. We are not the sorts of creatures who have that capacity, to see into the future, to understand ourselves going forward in such a way that we can legitimately make those sorts of claims.
So even on the things that I believe I am most sure about, that I’m most convinced of, I always find it helpful to at least say to myself “This is what I believe, this is what I consider to be (I might even say) absolutely true,” but always tack on “But, I might be wrong,” “But, I have a lot to learn,” or “But, I’m not omniscient.” Otherwise, being convinced that we have certainty—just to put a religious term on it—as if we are omniscient, simply indicates that on this particular issue I believe that I have the mind of God. I don’t believe I could possibly be wrong. I just don’t believe that a human being is ever entitled to take that sort of a stance.
As soon as you start eroding the edges of absolutes, immediately somebody is going to say that “where you are moving, if you are not there already, is relativism, where everything is equally good.” That absolutely is not the position I am taking. I think that there are some moral principles that are far more supportable and justifiable than others, that have better evidence to support them, that are likely to be treated as more highly probable than others, but that all comes out in discussion, not in terms of certainty. We have to close things off and treat them “as if” they are certain on a regular basis just in order to survive, in order to be productive human beings. But I think the problem is that we forget the “as ifs.”
If you would like to hear the audio, here is the link. The whole show is worth listening to–my segment begins about three-quarters of the way through the hour.
“Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord,” asked Psalm 24 at Vigils this morning. Psalm 24 is a “Psalm of Ascent,” one of a group of songs scattered throughout the Psalms that scholars tell us were sung by pilgrims as they ascended the hill to Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. “Who shall stand in God’s holy place?” “Those with clean hands and pure heart,” continues the Psalmist, answering his own questions as usual. “Those who desire not worthless things.” Clean hands, pure heart, and not desiring worthless things are pretty demanding qualifications for ascending the mountain of the Lord, I thought, except that I’m already on the mountain of the Lord. I ascended an eighteen-hundred foot steep incline from US 1 to the New Camoldoli Hermitage in my rented Toyota Yaris thirty-six hours ago, cautiously climbing the two-mile long, one lane switchback drive, hoping that no one was descending the mountain of the Lord at the same time. So I’m up here already, with relatively clean hands, probably not a completely pure heart and wishing occasionally for something worthless like wireless service so I could check my blog or cell phone coverage so I could call Jeanne.
A few hours later at ten o’clock, having just finished a new essay and feeling very centered, focused, productive, and smug, I was poking around the hermitage bookstore thinking that I should get some exercise if the fog lifts, since I am missing a week of regular torture at the gym. Good idea. At the front of the bookstore, chatting with the register-tending monk, was a woman named Aelish (a retreat going name, if I ever heard one). “I think I’ll walk to the bottom and back later,” said Aelish. “That’s an excellent suggestion,” thought I. “I think I’ll do that this afternoon as well. Who shall descend the mountain of the Lord? Me!” Bad idea.
“Well duhhh!” I hear you saying. “Didn’t you just say that the road to the top of the mountain is two miles of switchback road climbing eighteen-hundred feet up a very steep incline? Don’t you know that what goes up must come down?” Yes, despite my college degrees I do know that, but I’m in reasonably good aerobic shape for a fifty-seven year old, am just about at target weight, thanks to losing a few pounds due to an eating regimen my wife put me on, and if Aelish, who is undoubtedly older than I am, can do it so can I. (Note to self: stop assuming that people with white hair are older than you are. You have white hair and undoubtedly have more wrinkles on your face than Aelish).
By early afternoon the fog had lifted, but it was still cloudy and cool—perfect weather for descending the mountain. What to wear? It had been so cool in the morning that I had put my one sweater over the one other long-sleeved garment that made it into my suitcase. This was my long-sleeved t-shirt, a Christmas present from my son. On the front and back it says “Sons of Belicheck” and “Foxboro,” these texts framing a picture of the Grim Reaper on the back with his sickle dripping blood held in one skeletal hand and a football in the other. Down the left sleeve it says “Men of Mayhem.” Really. You have to be both a New England Patriots fan and a follower of “Sons of Anarchy” on FX to get it. These items, along with black denim pants and my “Woof” baseball cap, and I was set. I stuffed my digital camera into my pocket and off I went.
The trip down was beautiful, the mountain rising steeply on one side with strange trees and flowering plants hanging on for dear life and the vast Pacific on the other, with spectacular rocky coast stretching in both directions. I stopped every fifty steps or so to take a picture; during one of these stops Aelish went rolling on by, throwing a nod in my direction. As I walked I wrote the last paragraph in my head of the deep and profound essay I had started last evening after Vespers, hummed the catchy tune of the “Te Deum” that concluded this morning’s Vigils, and was generally thankful for and pleased with my place in the universe. The muscles in the back of my calves tightened up a bit as I neared the bottom of the decline and Route 1; “I’ve heard that going downhill is harder on the legs than going up,” I thought, “so if that’s all the pain I feel, I’m in good shape.” About one hundred yards from the end of the road, I met Aelish beginning her walk back up, breathing slightly harder than when she passed me earlier. “I’ll bet I pass her on the way back up,” I thought as we nodded once again.
After a brief breather at the bottom of the hill, I turned to ascend the mountain of the Lord, first taking a picture of the hermitage greeting sign on US 1 and the cross behind it (I’ve seen larger crosses on the front lawns of some of the Baptists I grew up with), as well as the sign twenty feet up the drive pleasantly announcing “Chapel . . . Gifts . . . 2 Scenic Miles,” with an arrow pointing straight up between “Chapel” and “Gifts.” In retrospect, it would have been more accurate to copy the saying over the gates to Hell in Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
Have you ever noticed that the return half of a round trip to an unfamiliar destination and back always seems shorter than the first half? Not this time. Five minutes into the ascent, the bratty little kid who lives in my brain was asking “Are we there yet?” After the first switchback curve, I tried to convince myself that there were only two more of them, although I knew for sure there were four. My shins started wondering what the hell is going on, while several thousand black flies and gnats in the area got the word that copious human sweat was available and decided to check it out. The ocean vista on one side might as well have been a landfill, as my awareness of scenery narrowed to the apparently endless incline in front of me.
The sun, which had been taking the day off, decided that now was a good time to make its triumphant return. “Jesus Christ,” I muttered with anything but reverent intent, as I tied my sweater around my waist and rolled my “Men of Mayhem” sleeve up along with its mate on my right arm. Is that a blister forming on the end of my fourth toe on my right foot? Shit! “I can’t even call anyone if I have a heart attack,” I thought, “since I didn’t bring my phone along.” Oh wait—it wouldn’t matter, since there’s no freaking cell phone service around here. Four very large birds starting circling high overhead—probably vultures waiting for the inevitable. “I don’t even have my wallet with me. I can see it now. They’ll find me dead in the middle of the road without identification. Someone will say ‘I think I saw him at noonday mass,’ and they’ll wonder if I left a contact number with the hermitage office for my father Belicheck, since he will probably want to know that his son croaked ascending the mountain of the Lord.”
As I rounded the last switchback and the hermitage was finally in sight, I heard a car poking up behind me, the first vehicle ascending the mountain since I began my return trip. “Want a lift?” the habit-less jeans-wearing monk driving the car asked. “No thanks—I can use the exercise,” I said pleasantly with a holy retreatant smile. “Go to hell,” I thought. “Where were you forty minutes ago?” Within one hundred yards of the finish line, I passed a roadside bench on which the guy who was in back of me at noon mass was sitting. “Turned out to be a beautiful day, didn’t it?” he asked. “Sure did!” I responded cheerily. “Go fuck yourself,” I thought. “You wouldn’t be so pleasant if you had just ascended the mountain of the Lord.”
As I passed the chapel on the way to my room, Aelish emerged and smiled at me. I’m sure she had received spiritual direction, said special intentions for someone, written five letters, an essay, and done fifty pushups in the time between her return and mine. I smiled back, and thought “Go . . .” Well, you know what I was thinking. I understand now why so many of the Psalms are crabby and negative—it’s tough work ascending the mountain of the Lord. But at least I got an essay out of it.
In our three years in Milwaukee, our first years together as a married couple trying to cobble a functional stepfamily together, Jeanne and I set our radio alarm to NPR, which would awaken us every morning at six o’clock. The early show was classical music, hosted by a local public radio fixture with the comforting and dulcet tones of an educated uncle. As we emerged into the day from sleep, the host would provide a brief weather report before queuing up the first musical offering of the hour. On some mornings, he would announce that “ladies and gentlemen, it is an introspective day—let’s begin with something appropriate from Beethoven.” The first movement from the Moonlight Sonata, or the second movement from the Fifth Piano Concerto, or the third movement from the Seventh Symphony—one of these products of Beethoven’s inner complexities would then serenade our rolling out of bed.
“An introspective day” meant that it was foggy, rainy, snowy, or at least cloudy—a day designed for redirecting one’s energies inward, the sort of day that everyone should be allowed to sit by a fire, drink their hot beverage of choice, and read. Nothing electronic blaring, no external demands, no pressures, just a chance to be quiet, breathe a bit slower, and feel a bit more deeply. Nice virtual image for a couple of minutes, but then real life showed up with two kids to arouse, feed and get to school, receiving a phone call telling Jeanne where in the large Milwaukee Public School system she was to report for the day, my twenty-minute bus ride downtown to the university where another day of PhD preparation activities awaited me. The introspective day stayed in the bedroom, a nice idea for the five minutes that it lasted.
I remembered this phrase this morning, more than twenty years later, as I arose at 4:30 to get a shower before Vigils at 5:30. Yesterday, my first full day on retreat at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur, was more touristy than retreatish, as I drove south on Route 1 along the Pacific Ocean from the hermitage, ostensibly to find someplace with cell phone service (no cell or wireless service at the hermitage or within thirty miles in either direction), but really because this is my first time at Big Sur and I was not ready to settle down into a few days of silent retreat until I saw more of the most beautiful scenery imaginable that I drove through coming from the north the previous afternoon. Every switchback turn revealed another breathtaking vista; by the time the landscape flattened out a bit I had taken almost one hundred pictures. I finally found flickering phone service on my Droid at a large parking area right on the beach—a beach that just happened to be Elephant Seal Vista Point, where several dozen elephant seals, twenty or thirty yards up on the sand looking like small beached whales, were piled next to and on top of each other like so many random logs. It is molting season; apparently elephant seal molting is facilitated by rolling in sand and throwing it around with one’s flippers, all the time talking trash to your neighbor who is doing the same. Wishing that Jeanne, who is a great lover of all seal-related things, were with me, I took pictures until my camera’s battery screamed for mercy. After exchanging texts with the significant other, I headed back for the hermitage, having missed Sunday mass (mea culpa).
Stepping out onto the patio of my retreat house room this morning at 5:00, expecting to see, as I had the previous morning, brilliant stars above and the cavernous expanse of the ocean before me awaiting sunrise to come into view, I walked instead into a fog so thick I could not see the end of the patio ten feet in front of me. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s an introspective day,” I heard the NPR guy say from more than two decades ago, and it indeed it was. For the first time I understood Moses’ experience when he went into “the thick darkness where God was.” The day was so introspective that I would not have dared to drive the two-mile long switchback road from the hermitage down to US 1 even if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to.
On the California Benedictine calendar, today is the anniversary of the dedication of the Monterey cathedral, a place I’ve never seen and probably never will. But as we read appropriate psalms for the dedication of a building, rejoicing in the loveliness of God’s dwelling place, I returned in my imagination to St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming, where I first experienced God as more than an idea or intellectual construct. As the lector read Peter’s call to “come to him a living stone . . . and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” I said a silent thank you for the Living Stones group at Trinity Episcopal in Providence who have taught me so much over the past two years, and with whom I met a week ago.
After bringing post-Vigils coffee to my room, I decided to read some more of War and Peace, where Tolstoy’s mastery placed me next to Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino. I observed as it slowly dawned on the Emperor that on this day, after years of unqualified victories, he was defeated by something that could not have been factored into his battle plans and calculations—the spirit of those willing to either defend their homeland or die trying. After then spending a few minutes with Pi Patel floating with a four hundred fifty pound Bengal tiger on a life raft in the middle of the very ocean that lay unseen at the bottom of the steep mountain sloping down from my patio, I took stock. Without travelling more than thirty yards, I had turned back the clock more than twenty years for a visit to Milwaukee. I had visited a Pacific beach littered with elephant seals, my home town on the opposite coast, and a cathedral in a town between those coasts more than a mile above sea level. Without leaving the rocking chair in my retreat room, I had travelled back two centuries in time to the carnage of a battlefield fifty miles outside of Moscow, as well as to uncharted waters in the southwestern Pacific.
Someone once said that the whole universe is contained in a drop of water. And at 10:15 AM as I finish this essay on this introspective day, I am reminded that within this drop of water, at the center of my inner world, is the source of it all. I need go no further than that inner world to resonate with the cosmic, concluding doxology of Psalm 96, this morning’s final psalm.
let the sea and all within it thunder praise,
let the land and all it bears rejoice,
all the trees of the wood shout for joy
at the presence of the Lord who comes,
who comes to rule the earth,
comes with justice to rule the world,
and to judge the peoples with truth.
There are times when I just cannot believe what I get myself into. Latest example: I joined a reading group and committed to reading War and Peace over the summer at a pace of 150 pages or so per week. As if I don’t have enough to read with teaching two brand new courses during the next academic year, as well as the 24-7 demands of running a big academic program that never stop, blah, blah, blah. Actually, I’m having a lot of fun rediscovering Tolstoy through this 1350 page novel that I have not read since my undergraduate days. The philosopher in me prefers Dostoevsky’s depth, darkness, and weirdness, but the reader and novel lover in me resonates with Tolstoy. It’s just that I’m not getting anything else done. I’m reading Tolstoy on the elliptical machine at the gym, Tolstoy on campus when I should be writing important emails and attending important meetings, Tolstoy at home when I should be staying current with “The Voice” and “Mad Men.” On my silent retreat this coming week, during which I’m planning to write at least eighty-three new essays for my blog, I’m sure I’ll be reading Tolstoy instead.
When I read a great work of literature, and they don’t come any greater than War and Peace, I always find myself resonating with a particular character, more or the less the character I would be if I were to jump into the novel. About five hundred pages into War and Peace (a chapter or so past the Introduction, in other words), that character is Prince Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky. I find Natasha, the main female character, annoying and Pierre, the main male character, needs a good kick in the ass, but I get Andrei. This morning on the stationary bicycle at the gym, Andrei went through an experience so familiar to me that it was scary. As a young twenty-something Andrei joined the Russian army as an officer and fought against the forces of Napoleon at Austerlitz. Wounded in battle and presumed dead, Andrei finds his way home to his family just in time for his wife to die in giving birth to their first child. Now, two years later, Andrei is depressed, cynical, and finding it difficult to find joy or meaning in anything. Travelling in early spring to one of his estates, Pyotr his footman comments on the beauty of the April morning, the flowers, and the new leaves on the birch trees. Andrei’s attention is drawn instead to a stand of stagnant fir trees, then to an apparently dead oak tree. “With its huge ungainly limbs sprawling unsymmetrically, and its gnarled hands and fingers, it stood an aged, stern, and scornful monster among the smiling birch-trees.”
“Spring, love, happiness!” this oak seems to say. “Are you not weary of that stupid, meaningless, constantly repeated fraud? Always the same, and always a fraud! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness! Look at those cramped dead firs, ever the same, and at me too, sticking out my broken and barked fingers just where they have grown, whether from my back or my sides: as they have grown so I stand, and I do not believe in your hopes and your lies.”
And Andrei’s mood and recent experiences are confirmed. “Let others—the young—yield afresh to that fraud, but we know life, our life is finished!”
Andrei’s oak reminds me of another oak, the massive one a hundred feet or so outside the front door of my Collegeville Institute apartment door where I spent four sabbatical months a few years ago. I arrived in the middle of a Minnesota winter; although I am not prone to depression as Andrei was, I realize in retrospect that I carried deep within me a spiritual malaise and ennui that had been festering for years. My Collegeville oak looked as I felt inwardly that January—bare, cold, snow-covered, with few signs of life. Over the succeeding weeks, this oak became an inescapable presence in my life (it was the first thing I saw as I stepped out of my front door) and a metaphor for what was happening to me.
As the snow piled up, then slowly melted over the first couple of months, I found an accompanying inner thaw occurring, facilitated by the warmth of daily forays into the liturgy of the hours with the monks at St. John’s Abbey a half mile or so up the road. One March morning as I stumbled back from the common area at the Institute with my morning Keurig coffee in tow, I walked up on a dozen or so deer hanging out under the oak. They apparently had also been there right under my nose ten minutes earlier as I emerged from my apartment half-asleep and oblivious to the world on my way to the common area. As they noticed me noticing them, they gave me their unique white-assed salute as they sauntered away. Signs of spring under the oak, which was still naked.
As April came and other trees budded into their springtime growth, my oak remained apparently lifeless. Then one morning as I walked past it taking my usual shortcut to the road up to the Abbey for 7:00 morning prayer, I noticed that on the ends of its lowest and smallest twigs signs of new growth were first emerging. “So you’re alive after all, huh?” I muttered as I continued on, the same observation I had been making more and more frequently about myself as deeper and deeper spaces cracked open after a lifetime of neglect. I regularly took pictures from my front doorstep to track the oak’s emergence into life and wrote essays to track my parallel inner emergence.
As the oak grew into full-blown spring splendor over the succeeding weeks, it more and more became my daily touchstone. “Hey there,” I would say as I walked by three or four times a day coming or going, and I imagined that if I were able to live in tree time rather than human time, I would have heard a deep, rumbling, ponderous, Tolkien Ent-like “Hey yourself” in return. The oak’s stability and lack of hurry became my own goal as I practiced slowing down and plugging into the rhythms of the newly discovered energies within me.
Four years later, when I think of Collegeville the first image that invariably comes to mind is my oak. Growth, stability, silence, fortitude, rootedness—it represents all of the things that I hope to have carried at least a bit from my months in Minnesota. On the half-dozen or so return visits I have made, a visit to the oak with more pictures has always been a “must-do.” I have never been at Collegeville during the autumn, so I do not know what Minnesota foliage is like nor what colors the oak wears in late September and early October. I was raised in northern Vermont, the fall foliage capital of the universe, and in my imagination I see the oak garbed in brilliant orange, my favorite fall foliage color. Yellow or red would be okay, but I’ll bet it’s orange.
After Andrei encounters his oak tree in War and Peace, he spends several days inspecting his large land holdings, and then heads back toward his home outside of Moscow. Looking for the oak where he remembered first seeing it, he is at first confused.
Without recognizing it he looked with admiration at the very oak he sought. The old oak, quite transfigured, spreading out a canopy of sappy dark-green foliage, stood rapt and slightly trembling in the rays of the evening sun. Neither gnarled fingers nor old scars nor old doubts and sorrows were in evidence now. Through the hard century-old bark, even where there were no twigs, leaves had sprouted such as one could hardly believe the old veteran could have produced.
“’Yes, it is the same oak,’ thought Prince Andrei, and all at once he was seized by an unreasoning spring-time feeling of joy and renewal.” Over the next eight hundred and fifty pages, I’m sure that Andrei will grapple more than once with depression and sorrow. But an encounter with what Isaiah would have called an “oak of righteousness” has changed him for good. I know exactly how you feel, Andrei.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
The Palm Sunday celebration in a liturgical Christian church is both confusing and jarring. Everyone with a religious molecule in their bodies knows that Palm Sunday is about Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey (or colt), but this gets only about fifteen minutes of air time in the Palm Sunday liturgy. The priest reads the Palm Sunday gospel, the ushers distribute palms while everyone sings “All Glory, Laud and Honor” or something similar, the Old Testament reading, Psalm, and New Testament readings for the day are delivered, and then the liturgical transmission shifts from fifth to second without a clutch. Various assigned participants read the Passion story from the gospel du jour—this year it was Luke—and the joy of Jesus’s triumphant entry transitions into the drama and tragedy of the Passion, ending with Joseph of Arimathea providing a tomb for Jesus’s body.
This year’s Palm Sunday liturgy was particularly busy for Jeanne and me as she was schedule as chalice bearer and reader, while I was subbing as lector for the originally scheduled person who was in San Francisco. I was disappointed to be assigned “Criminal Two” for the Passion reading (I was hoping for Pilate or Jesus); Jeanne got the centurion, a role played by John Wayne in “The Greatest Story Ever told” and by Ernest Borgnine in “Jesus of Nazareth.” I’m not sure if anyone notable has ever played Criminal Two. But at least my role had more words than hers.
My duties began, though, with my lector assignment—at my church, the lector reads the Old Testament reading for the day and leads the prayers of the people. Standing behind the lectern, I looked at the passage from Isaiah for the first time (usually I’m much more prepared), and read “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher . . . Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” Yes he has, and yes he does, if I’m listening. The more I do what I do, the more interested I am in where it comes from. I almost never ask the question “Why am I a teacher?” since I’m convinced that there is nothing else I would be happy doing. But the spring from which teaching bubbles up is of endless fascination to me, since on my best days in the classroom, the energy that connects all participants together in a web of discovery is clearly something I can neither manufacture nor completely control.
A few years ago I raised some eyebrows on campus by giving a talk entitled “Erotic Pedagogy.” Although the talk was primarily focused on how my study of Simone Weil over the past many years has shaped my teaching, the title was inspired by Richard Rorty, who wrote about “the erotic relationships between teacher and student . . . reminding us that “love is notoriously untheorizable. Such erotic relationships are occasions of growth, and their occurrence and their development are as unpredictable as growth itself. Yet nothing happens in non-vocational higher education without them.” I understand why the Dominican priest who directed the on-campus center where I gave my talk received some questioning emails and phone calls about its advertised title, because out of context the idea of erotic relationships between professors and students on the campus of a Catholic college (or anywhere else) is indeed a bit disturbing. But Rorty is right—what I do, and what I think all teachers should be doing, in the classroom is almost always more about love than it is about content, vocational preparation, “teaching to the test” or any other such thing. I want students to fall in love with texts, in love with the whole dynamic of learning, with the idea of never stopping the process of learning until they die.
In my experience, the sparks of lifetime learning are best kindled by example. I almost never place a text on a syllabus unless I can remember some point at which it grabbed me, shook me up, and insisted that I pay attention. Continuing in his essay, Rorty writes that in order “to have inspirational value, a work must be allowed to recontextualize much of what you previously thought you knew;” inspired teaching “is the result of an encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, line or archaic torso which has made a difference to the [teacher’s] conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself: an encounter which has rearranged her priorities and purposes.” The characters, ideas and lines from such texts, which continue to rearrange my priorities and purposes as they regularly fill my classroom as well as spilling out of the confines of this blog two or three times each week, give shape and direction to an activity that is unlike any other—learning together. What I most appreciated about the lines from Isaiah that I read from the lectern on Palm Sunday several weeks ago is being reminded of something that I too often forget. The whole process of teaching and learning, when liberated from my frequent well-meaning but misguided attempts to shape and control it, has divine energy behind it.
This all sounds idealistic and impractical in a world where the value of higher education is often exclusively identified as and judged according to the standard of focused (and very expensive) job preparation. Maybe so—practicality has never been my strong suit. But identifying the tools of lifetime learning and honing skilled use of these tools through engagement with the greatest texts that human beings have produced is an activity whose importance transcends the size of one’s future paycheck. Last week in an online New York Times commentary entitled “Why Do I Teach?” Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, went so far as to argue that far from directed preparation for the job market, the real goal of a college education is not even the passing of knowledge from teacher to student. Gutting writes that “We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates. Knowledge, when it comes, is a later arrival, flaring up, when the time is right, from the sparks good teachers have implanted in their students’ souls.” Richard Rorty would have endorsed that sentiment, and so do I.
The most important part of Isaiah’s brief comment about teaching is the one that is easiest to forget or ignore—the Lord may have given me the tongue of a teacher, but often effective pedagogy depends on my not using it. “Morning by morning he wakens,” Isaiah tells us, “wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” Jeanne pointed out to me recently that the word “listen” is made of the same letters as the word “silent.” Listening is perhaps the most important lifetime learning tool to become skilled with; it is definitely the most difficult. When I am sure that I know everything I need to know about a text or an idea walking into the classroom, I am laying the groundwork for a mediocre learning encounter. Similarly, when I slog through a day never taking the time to be still and listen to anything—a bird outside the window, another person, the too-often-ignored little voice deep inside—I have frittered away a little more of the dwindling time I am given to never learning and growing. As I head west for a five-day silent retreat at a location with no cell phone service and no internet access, I am more than ready to quiet down, be silent, and listen. Let the learning begin!