Category Archives: Angels

Entertaining Angels

Some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2)

angel and jacobI’ve never known what to make of angels. I was bombarded with stories involving them as a youngster, from the angel chasing Adam and Eve out of Eden, to the one who wrestles with Jacob, to the one who brings bizarre news to Mary and the one who sits having a morning coffee on top of the stone that’s been rolled away from the empty tomb on Easter morning. But surprisingly, my favorite portrayals of angels are from the movies. Consider, for instance, the 1946 Christmas movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This is a standard at my house (which probably makes my house the same in this regard as about a billion other households). G and C at nicksThere are many memorable characters and scenes; my favorite is when George Bailey and his guardian angel Clarence Oddbody have a drink at Nick’s, the watering hole in the alternative universe into which George Bailey was never born. George and Clarence get thrown out of the joint shortly after Clarence orders a “mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves.” Nick is not interested in customers who want to do anything other than drink hard and fast, and he certainly doesn’t want an old guy dressed in a 19th century nightshirt and claiming to be an angel taking up barstool space and adding “atmosphere” to the bar. As George comments, “you look like the sort of guardian angel I’d get.”dudley and julia

Then there’s Dudley from the 1947 classic “The Bishop’s Wife,” the suave angel who comes as an answer to the prayers of Bishop Henry Brougham, who is struggling to raise money for the building of a new cathedral. Dudley’s mission turns out to be spiritual guidance rather than money-raising, a mission complicated by his increasing attraction to the Bishop’s lovely but neglected wife Julia. In both movies one learns that if angels exist, they almost certainly are not at all like what traditional art and sacred texts suggest. No wings flapping around here (although Clarence apparently gets his at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” upon the successful completion of his first solo mission).

angel unawaresI don’t know if I believe in angels as supernatural beings or not, but I’ve always liked the “entertained angels unawares” idea, thinking of angels not as non-human messengers from heaven but rather as unexpected vehicles and facilitators of goodness. The saying reminds me, first, that I never know which seemingly random person who drops into my life might be an unexpected game-changer. Second, I never know when I might unwittingly be a game-changer in someone else’s life. I’ve had many angels in my life—I’ve been with a certain red-headed one for more than twenty-five years; David Riceone of the most important was a close-to-three-hundred pound angel with a patrician New England accent.

My first teaching job after graduate school was at a small Catholic university in Memphis that focused primarily on engineering and business. They needed a philosopher (I was one of two philosophers in the six person Religion and Philosophy department) to teach a lot of Business Ethics (I taught four or five sections per semester). It was a good “starter job” and was tenure-track, but Jeanne and I hated Memphis and I couldn’t see myself teaching Business Ethics for the rest of my career. I started applying for positions in places like the northern Midwest and the Northeast immediately, but the job market was tight (as it still is) and we were worried. Then a close-to-three-hundred pound angel dropped into our lives.

The aging President of the university, Brother T., was such an incompetent holy terror that the university’s board created the position of Provost specifically in order to take the day-to-day operations away from Brother T. and nudge him into a retirement sunset. After a national search, David was hired as the new Provost. CBUThe university was small enough that even a junior faculty member just starting his second year at the place met the new Provost within a few days of his arrival; David’s office was just one floor down from mine. He was a breath of fresh air for Jeanne and me. David was a native, patrician Bostonian, spoke with an accent that we understood, was cultured and refined in ways that we appreciated, and had the wonderful Northeastern forthrightness and honesty that we embraced as opposed to the Southern hospitality and “charm” with which we did not resonate well. David was a wine connoisseur, had read just about everything, had wide-ranging interests, and had a heart as expansive as his waistline. boston-red-sox-alternate-logo-pair-socks-blue-59063And he was a Red Sox fanatic. Jeanne and I welcomed him like a long-lost older brother.

I don’t recall how I mustered the nerve to ask David for help escaping from the very institution where he had just been hired as Provost and day-to-day operations manager. I was only in my second year of teaching, my position was tenure-track (something many newly-minted professors nationwide would have killed for), and comparatively speaking I had nothing to complain about. fear and tremblingI came to his office on the morning of our scheduled appointment with “fear and trembling” of Kierkegaardian proportions, expecting him to do what a good Provost should, deflect my concerns positively (“It isn’t really that bad here,” “We need people like you here to raise the bar”) or shoot them down (“Shut up and do your job. No one likes a whiner”). Instead after a few minutes of intent listening (something few administrators do as well as David did), he smiled and said “I’m not surprised. You are too good for this place.” For a relatively new and still insecure teacher such as I, this was like the manna from heaven that God will dump down on the complaining Israelites in next Sunday’s Old Testament reading. “Tell you what,” he continued. “Let me take a look at your dossier; we’ll meet again next week and I’ll make some suggestions.” And so my boss took on the task of helping me make my dossier more attractive to a prospective boss at a better place. Only when angels get involved does this sort of thing happen.

David was as good as his word and more. Over several meetings that fall, he helped me revise my curriculum vitae, learn how to sell myself in ways a severe introvert would never think of, and begin to grow into the confidence as an academic that he saw in me long before I saw it myself. And it worked—not that academic year, but the next one. dustI landed my dream job at Providence College, where I am now in my twenty-first year, we shook the Memphis dust off our sandals and never looked back.

David unfortunately was not in Memphis to celebrate with us; he also was too good to be there for long. In the spring semester of his first and only year in his new position, Brother T. attempted to force David into making executive decisions that David’s strong moral convictions and big heart of generosity could not live with. Rather than compromise, he chose to resign—to the great dismay of the faculty and students who had come to respect and love him in the few short months he had been on campus. I can still see the huge banner the students draped off the side of an overpass outside the front gate of the college on the morning the word broke that David was leaving: DR. R—–, PLEASE DON’T LEAVE US!

yaleJeanne and I stayed in touch with David over the subsequent years as we went to Providence and as he became a higher education administrative gypsy, taking positions at colleges in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and probably others I have forgotten. We learned over time that he was a frustrated professor; despite a PhD in classics from Yale, life’s contingencies eventually plopped him in administration rather than in the classroom where he belonged. David visited us occasionally, we had the opportunity to return his generosity and write him letters of reference for a new position he was seeking, and he even took a thousand-mile nonstop road trip with us back to Memphis to celebrate the retirement of the athletic director at the college we had been so anxious to leave.

Despite many attempts, David never did lose the weight and sadly succumbed to a fatal heart attack five or six years ago. I miss him, not only as a friend and mentor, but also because I could use another good classicist in the interdisciplinary program I direct. The students and my faculty colleagues would have loved him. I’m not sure David ever fully understood how important he had been in my life, probably because I’m only fully understanding it myself now, twenty or more years later. David didn’t have wings and neither do I, but I pray that if a chance to be an angel for someone else arises unexpectedly in my life, I won’t miss the opportunity. I’m eternally grateful that David didn’t miss his opportunity with me. whtthe big guyIf there is a heaven, David is undoubtedly drinking fine wine with other portly angels such as Thomas Aquinas and William Howard Taft, while cheering on the Red Sox with Babe Ruth.babe

Venn Mysticism

To what extent can clear thinking and logical analysis help untangle the complexities of trying to live a life of faith? Let’s try a test case. In his later years, as he continued to discard the grave-clothes from his religious past, my father17251_297220732720_3663220_n[1] was fond of saying that “Not every mystic is a Christian, but every good Christian is a mystic.” The philosopher in me immediately wants to analyze this truth claim logically. Actually, there are two truth claims in this sentence. The first claim, “Not all mystics are Christians,” relates the category “mystic” and the category “Christian.” If we imagine circle A containing all mystics, and circle B containing all Christians, how should these circles be drawn in relation to each other? For those of you who took Logic 101 in college or maybe in a really good high school, you might remember that these are called “Venn diagrams.” So let’s have logic class for a few minutes.

There are four possible ways in which circles A and B can be drawn in relation to each other:

1. Circle A is entirely contained within circle B (“All A’s are B’s, not all B’s are A’s”)003

2. Circle B is entirely contained within circle A (“All B’s are A’s, not all A’s are B’s”)002

3. Circles A and B have no relation to each other. (“No A’s are B’s, no B’s are A’s”)001

4. Circles A and B intersect. (“Some A’s are B’s, some B’s are A’s”)004

Remember my father’s first claim: “Not every mystic (A) is a Christian (B).” Looking at the diagrams above, we can immediately rule out possibility 1, since it claims that all A’s are B’s, while Dad’s claim says they aren’t. Unfortunately, options 2-4 are all compatible with Dad’s claim that “Not every mystic is a Christian”—do not continue until you can see for yourself why this is the case! So which of the remaining three possible relationships of circles A and B is the right one?

images[8]Fortunately, my father helps us out with his second claim, “All good Christians are mystics.” But wait a minute. What’s the deal with this “good” thing? Where did that come from? I thought we were only talking about mystics and Christians! What we have here is a classic case of a “suppressed premise”—not surprising, since we all suppress premises all the time, especially premises we want to slip unnoticed under the radar screen. A suppressed premise in a discussion is something important to your argument that you consider to be true, but aren’t bothering to tell the listener or reader about, for any number of reasons. In this case, Dad’s suppressed premise is that “Some Christians are good and some aren’t.” He’s slipped in a qualifier (“good”) into his second claim via a suppressed premise.

Once we realize this, we can choose between options 2-4 above. Option 2 doesn’t work, because that places the entire Christian circle (B) within the mystic circle (A), and doesn’t provide any guidance for making the further distinction between good and non-good Christians. Same problem with option 3—if circles A and B have no relation to each other, then we once again have no way to distinguish between good and non-good Christians. That leaves us with option 4, and indeed it provides the help we need. Look again at the intersecting circles in diagram 4. If we shade in the area where A and B intersect, we have a diagram representing the truth of both of Dad’s claims. “Not every mystic is a Christian” is right in front of us, because there is an area of circle A that does not intersect with B—in this non-intersecting area are those mystics who are not Christians.QED_BW_logo[1]All good Christians are mystics” is also in front of us, if we write “good Christians” in the shaded area where A and B intersect. That shaded area contains the Christians who are also mystics (“good” Christians), while the area of circle B not intersecting with A contains all other Christians, who are non-mystics (and apparently non-good).

Wasn’t that fun? Haven’t you learned a lot? At this point, intelligent students should be asking: “But what have we learned about mystics and Christians from this logical analysis”? And the answer is: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. What we have discovered in this exercise is the logical structure of my father’s claim, but nothing about the content. banana doxie[1]The logical structure of “Not all dachshunds are bananas, but all good bananas are dachshunds” is the same as the structure of my Dad’s claim. More often than not, logical analyses of truth claims turn out to be what Muriel Barbery calls “a conceptual fuss in the service of nothing.” So what if we know what the logical structure of Dad’s claim about mystics and Christians is—what we really want to know is whether it is true.

That all depends on what one means by “Christian” and “mystic.” Just how elastic is the category and concept “Christian”? How far can I stretch its meaning before it stops meaning anything at all? As for “mystic,” I have at least a dozen definitions of “mysticism” and related terms in my hard drive, taken over the past few years from authors that I respect and love. None of the definitions is the same; some are radically different from others. ee24810ae7a068542122d110.L._V260843872_SX200_[1]My current favorite definition of “mystic” comes from a talk by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner that I read recently. He prefaces his definition by saying “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not what you’d call a big-time mystic.” Well, neither am I. Kushner goes on to define “mystic” as “someone who has the gnawing suspicion that just beneath the apparent contradictions, brokenness, and discord of this everyday world lies a hidden unity.” If so, I’m a mystic after all (although not a “big-time” one).

Twenty-five years ago, I regularly sang in an Episcopal church choir. Since the church was the cathedral of the diocese, the music was slightly better than garden-variety church stuff, but the choir was still pretty much a mixed bag. choir.fe[1]There were five or six sopranos and an equal number of altos, including one close-to-professional quality ringer in each section. We had only two tenors, one a fellow over seventy years old who probably once had a good voice when he was younger and a much younger fellow who sang with gusto but was tone-deaf. The baritones (my section) were more numerous, usually at least four or five. I don’t have a good solo voice, but I am a good choir singer because I read music well and have good pitch. I was the guy all of the other baritones crowded around with a new piece in order to get things right.

One Easter season, our primary Easter Sunday piece was going to be Randall Thomson’s Alleluia. The words are easy—all you sing is “Alleluia” all the way through with one “Amen” on the end. The notes are moderately challenging, but this was by no means the most technically difficult piece the choir had ever sung. The piece is sung a capella; for it to work, the singers need the same sort of “oneness” that Gregorian chant requires—they have to become one voice, rather than fifteen or so individual ones. Furthermore, they have to stay in tune for five minutes without accompaniment. 200606The_Vision_of_Isaiah57x72in_canvas[1]And it wasn’t happening. After several mediocre attempts in rehearsal Charles, our organist and choirmaster, yelled “STOP!” After regaining his composure, he said “the Bible says that around the throne of God, the cherubim and seraphim continually sing ‘Alleluia’ in never-ending praise. For the next five minutes let’s plug into that eternal song, joining ‘with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven,’ just as the Sanctus from mass every Sunday says. Begin.” And for the next five  minutes, that’s where we were. We left our individual, fragmented and discordant existences and joined “all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name.” I get chills as I remember and write about it, more than twenty-five years later. As we ended Alleluia with a hushed “Amen,” our tone-deaf tenor said it all: “Whoa! Where did that come from?”

To my ears, there was nothing mystical or magical about our Easter morning performance a few days later. We were in tune, we didn’t embarrass ourselves, but we were not inspired. Afterwards, though, I overheard an old parishioner say to two of my fellow choristers that “you sang like angels today.” Maybe so, I thought. I know that we did at least once—maybe on Easter morning, she was the one who had “ears to hear.” As Rabbi Kushner, I have the gnawing suspicion that this transcendence is there all the time. I’m grateful when, every once in a while, I can say “surely God was in this place” and mean it.Alleluia-5[1]

The Greater Jihad

0690=690[1]Lead on King Eternal, the day of march has come

Henceforth in fields of conquest Thy tents shall be our home

Through days of preparation, Thy grace hath made us strong

And now O King Eternal we lift our battle song. 

Almost five centuries ago, as he observed his fellow French Catholic and Protestant citizens regularly kill each other in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, michel-de-montaigne-006[1]Michel de Montaigne wrote that “there is no hostility so extreme as that of the Christian.” A strange statement—hostility and bloodshed seem entirely incompatible with the Sermon on the Mount. But I learned at a very early age to ignore or set aside this contradiction. Many of the hymns of my childhood shared a common theme—we Christian believers are at war and must be prepared to do battle at any moment. From “Lead On, O King Eternal” and “Onward Christian Soldiers”onward_christian_soldiers-detail-new[1] through “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” to “Who is On the Lord’s Side?” I learned a spiritual vocabulary of aggression, violence and warfare. I was never clear about exactly who we were supposed to be fighting or how to recognize the enemy, but I knew I had been drafted into an army, whether I liked it or not. And in the more than five decades of my life, world events have regularly made it clear that religion and aggression, faith and violence, often go hand in hand.

sons%20of%20thunder[1]In the Gospel of Luke, James and John, known as “the sons of thunder,” have this sort of thing in mind when they ask Jesus for permission to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritan town that refuses to put Jesus up on his way to Jerusalem. It is no surprise that Samaritans would turn Jesus away, because the center of Samaritan religious worship was in Samaria, not in Jerusalem where Jesus was going, as it was for Jews. Samaritans and Jews then were as different as Catholics and Unitarians today, as different as Sunnis and Shi’ites.imagesCAON6NA5  James and John want to kick ass and take names, all in the interest of spreading the word that the Messiah has come and if you don’t like it or believe it, watch out! But Jesus won’t let them do it; he even “rebukes them” for thinking of such a thing. And the disciples, even those in his inner circle, are confused yet again. If you have the power to establish the truth and eliminate those who won’t follow it, why not use that power?

A book I recently finished reading for the second time, Stephanie Saldana’s The Bread of Angels published in 2010, places the reader in the middle of such questions. breadofangels[1]Saldana’s book is a memoir of the year that she spent from September 2004 to September 2005 on a Fulbright scholarship in Damascus, Syria studying Arabic. It would be another five or six years before the current civil war in Syria that has claimed over 100,000 lives to date would erupt, but Syria in the early years of the twenty-first century, as it had been for decades, was a place of both religious and political tension. These tensions were heightened by the fact that Stephanie’s home country, the United States, had invaded Syria’s neighbor to the east, Iraq, just a few short months prior to her arrival in Damascus.

Stephanie lives in the Christian section of the Old City of Damascus, Syriac_Catholic_Church_logo[1]surrounded by Arabs who follow the liturgical rites of the oldest known form of Christianity, but her daily walks across the city place her in contact with the predominantly Muslim working urban class. She particularly befriends Mohammed, who keeps a carpet shop and looks like Groucho Marx. Although his carpets are extraordinarily beautiful, often the product of his own painstaking restoration, business is slow and his shop is almost always empty. In response to Stephanie’s sympathetic concerns, Mohammed tells her a story.

“When the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, was returning from battle, he stopped on the top of a hill before entering the city. He turned to his companions and he said ‘Now we return from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ Do you know what that means, Stephanie? The lesser jihad, the jihad of holy war, is simply to fight in a military battle. But the greater jihad is to work all day repairing carpets without any new business. It is to feed your family. The greater jihad, Stephanie, is just to live.”

In Arabic the word “jihad,” so frightening to many non-Muslim Westerners, simply means “struggle.” The point of Mohammed’s story—told from within the context of a religion that shares a history of violence and warfare with Christianity—is that the greatest struggle of the life of faith is not winning converts or defending one’s beliefs against those with whom one disagrees. The greater struggle of faith is worked out in the daily grind—the struggle of weaving divine threads into the often mundane tapestry of a particular human life. As a novice monk tells Stephanie toward the end of her book, “Resurrection is not an event in the past, but a concrete reality, something we look for every day.” So where is this concrete reality to be found? How are we to participate in the greater jihad of faith?

fruit-of-the-spirit[1]A familiar passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians provides a direction. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” At first read, these characteristics are not particularly remarkable, certainly not as attention-getting as the gifts of the Spirit—tongues, interpretation, prophecy, healing, and the like—that Paul lists elsewhere. Jeanne pointed out to me the other day that while the gifts of the Spirit direct attention to the person with the gift, the fruits of the spirit are directed outward away from the person exemplifying the fruit. Love, generosity, kindness—these are expressed toward others, channeling divine energy away from oneself into the world. And note that these are the fruits of the Spirit. A tree does not expend extraordinary effort or grit its leafy teeth or work overtime to produce fruit. A tree’s fruit is the natural result of health, growth, maturity, and time. These fruits cannot be rushed—often waiting and silence are the best incubators. jeremiah1[1]As Jeremiah, in a rare good mood, writes in Lamentations, “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” What more likely place for that to occur than in the daily routines of our lives? The greater jihad cannot be won as one might win a battle or war; 220px-Molana[1]it must be lived. As the great thirteenth-century Muslim poet and mystic Rumi wrote, “If you want to witness the resurrection, then be it.”

Yet clearly it is possible, even typical, for even those human beings most in touch with their divine nature to fail to live out these fruit. Just consider Jesus today in the gospel reading after he saves the Samaritan town from being burnt to a crisp. Is it loving, gentle, or kind to tell someone whose father just died to “let the dead bury their dead”? Is Jesus being patient or generous when he casts aspersions on the commitment of a person who just wants to be a faithful son and say goodbye to his family? Where’s the joy? Where’s the peace? One of the most attractive things about Jesus in the Gospels is also one of the most confusing—he is so recognizably human.

In Yann Martel’s award winning novel, Life of PiYann Martel holding Life of Pi[1], which was recently made into an Academy Award winning movie, Pi Patel wonders about this Jesus guy. Pi loves God and everything about God, so much so that he is trying to be a Hindu, Christian and Muslim all at the same time. But one of the main things he doesn’t get about Christianity is Jesus, who Pi critiques by comparing him to a Hindu God who temporarily became human.

vishnu_40[1]There is the story of Vishnu incarnated as Vamana the dwarf. He asks demon king Bali for only as much land as he can cover in three strides. Bali laughs at this runt and his puny request, and he consents. Immediately Vishnu takes on his full cosmic size. With one stride he covers the earth, with the second the heavens, and with the third he boots Bali into the netherworld. . . . That is God as God should be. With shine and power and might. Such as can rescue and save and put down evil.

      This Son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him—what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. . . .This Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god—and in a hot place at that—with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; depositphotos_5367133-Jesus-Riding-a-Donkey[1]and when he splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a God who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son?

Pi has a point. And yet he admits a few pages later that “I couldn’t get him out of my head. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.”

“God on too human a scale.” For anyone imagining what God in the flesh might look and act like, Jesus is a surprise, sometimes even a disappointment. And so are we—some days will be better than others in the greater jihad. But God in human form is the whole point of the Incarnation. Energized by the fruits of the spirit, the life of faith introduces the kingdom of God into the world.

Lead on, O King Eternal, till sin’s fierce war shall cease

And holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace

For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drum

But deeds of love and mercy thy heavenly kingdom comes.

How to be Good

A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. Fr.Maximilian_Kolbe_1939What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity. And these were the figures that we studied in my colloquium—“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era’”–during the second half of the semester just ended.

During the first half of the colloquium, my colleague with whom I co-taught the colloquium and I delved with our students deeply into the dark side of the Nazis. Perhaps even more disturbing than the horrors they perpetuated were the various techniques people, with partial or even full knowledge of the atrocities, used to collaborate with, to deliberately turn away from, or to ignore evil. As we considered in the second half of the course examples of persons who did otherwise, who responded directly through words and actions to what was happening all around them, we found that the motivations for and manners of response were as varied as those responding.  BonhoefferSome had religious motivations, while the response of others was political in nature. Some lost their lives, while the activities of others were protected by distance and obscurity.

During the last seminar of the semester, I gave my eighteen students the following task: Suppose, based on what we have learned this semester, that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? If so, what are they? The students worked on this in small groups for twenty minutes or so, then reported back to the larger group with their results. Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

Know who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned this semester that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. Good SamaritanI cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. Moral character does not require moral heroism. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, a story frequently referenced by various people we studied. The Good Samaritan was just a guy on a trip who stumbled across an injustice that he could do something about. His response to the man dying in the ditch was not motivated by philosophy, religion, politics, or personal gain—it was simply a human response to human need. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the world entire.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. Le ChambonBut one of the continuing themes of this semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. The villagers of Le Chambon believed that human need must be addressed. Period. They also believed that all human life is precious, from Jewish refugees to Nazi officers. Period. The students of the White Rose believed that their country had been stolen from them and they had to help take it back. Period. Maximilian Kolbe lived his life believing that God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother love everyone. Period. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word this semester was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied this semester, this was not an academic exercise. During the first half of the semester we often saw people choosing not to act or turning the other way because they were afraid for their own lives. More often than not, my students were willing to give such people at least a partial pass, arguing that self-preservation is the strongest instinct that human beings possess. Then we encountered a series of people who proved that not to be true. Just as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. indexAs Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Spirituality: Any number of the persons we studied placed their understanding of themselves and the world around them within a framework that included something greater than ourselves. My students chose to call this “spirituality” rather than “faith,” because many of the persons we studied were not religious in any traditional sense. But all were convinced that we human beings are answerable to something greater than ourselves, ranging from the divine to a responsibility to create a better future. Which points toward another technique for the perpetuation of goodness . . .

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is that ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love asYoung Simone “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and from the villagers of Le Chambon through Maximilian Kolbe to the students of the White Rose, my students and I regularly observed persons who had incorporated this ability into their daily life. One of the greatest hindrances to goodness is what Simone Weil called “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” There is no greater technique for escaping these tentacles than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

Don’t be afraid: In The Plague, Albert Camus suggests that most human evil is the result of ignorance. CamusAlthough my students resonated with this notion, they concluded on the basis of their studies that in situations of moral emergency and stress, fear is a greater problem than ignorance. There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skilful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

The Easter Mouse

palinAt the end of last year, just in time for the holiday season, a new book by Sarah Palin was published. Entitled Good Tidings and Great Joy, with the subtitle A Happy Holiday IS a Merry Christmas, the book was promoted, among other things, as “a fun, festive, thought-provoking book, which will encourage all to see what is possible when we unite in defense of our faith and ignore the politically correct Scrooges who would rather take Christ out of Christmas.” war-on-christmasEvery fall in recent years various conservative voices have called for like-minded persons to “take Christmas back” from various elements and constituencies seeking to secularize and remove Christ from it. This strikes me as a relatively recent phenomenon. My upbringing was as conservative Christian as it comes, yet my family had no problem mixing the baby Jesus in a manger with other not-so-Jesus-like features of the holidays, such as the year I got both a BB gun and a G.I. Joe doll (but don’t call it a doll) under the tree. The violent presents must not have had much of an effect. I do not own a gun nor have I shot one in at least thirty years. I’m glad the Christmas police never came to my house—we would have been in trouble.

But that’s nothing compared to the trouble we would have been in had the Easter police ever showed up at the wrong time. Easter is a confusing holiday for a kid, much more confusing than Christmas. Christmas is dependable—it comes on the same day in December every year. But Easter is confusedly flexible—it can show up on any given Sunday between the middle of March and late April.6a00d8341bf7f753ef00e55034926a8833-800wi I learned as an adult that there is actually a method to when Easter occurs. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring either on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. Although this formula sounds very new-agey and smacks of Druids and such, it apparently was established at the Council of Nicea in 325. No telling what a bunch of theologians and bishops will do with too much time on their hands. All I knew as a kid was that Easter didn’t seem to know when to show up, except that it was always on a Sunday—with either snow banks or flowers outside, depending on the year.

I also knew what Easter was supposed to be about. Jesus was dead and now he isn’t any more. But my real interest was in various not-so-Jesus-like accoutrements that went with Easter—bunnies, Easter baskets, chocolate eggs (crème-filled or hollow) and, my ultimate obsession and downfall, jelly beans. My mother, very much like a Cadbury egg, was hard (or at least Swedish and stoic) on the outside and soft on the inside. 400px_JesusBunny_xlargeShe talked a good game about Easter being about Jesus and not about bunnies, eggs, and candy—but my brother and I knew that every Easter morning before we headed off to church would be an early spring version of Christmas morning. Each of us would find an Easter basket filled with our favorite sweets, as well as a toy or two. Mine was usually a small stuffed animal, facilitating my inexplicable and very strong stuffed animal obsession. One Easter, my mother said that in addition to the Easter basket, she had hidden two solid chocolate rabbits, one for each of us, somewhere in the house—it was up to each of us to find ours.

My brother found his within five minutes or so slid out of sight but within reach behind the piano. But I could not find mine. I’m usually pretty good at this—Jeanne will attest that I am almost always the “finder of lost or misplaced things” in our house. chocolate bunnyBut I could not find my freaking chocolate rabbit. It came time to head off for church and my mother would have caved and revealed where she had hidden it, except that—typically—she could not remember. I knew better than to suggest that I stay home and find my chocolate rabbit while the rest of the family went to church, but I was not thinking “He is Risen!” thoughts while at the service. I was wondering “where the fuck is my chocolate bunny??” (or something like that—the “f” word had not made it into even my inner vocabulary yet).

The chocolate rabbit was never found. To his great consternation, my mother made my brother share his rabbit with me. Several weeks later, though, we found out what had happened to my bunny. As I helped my mother move the massive console record player in the corner of the living room so she could clean underneath, we discovered the box that had contained my chocolate rabbit, empty with a large hole chewed in the bottom left corner. imagesCALFEA3OMy bunny had been confiscated and eaten by one of the several mice who lived in our old barn of a house. We could hear them running behind the walls on occasion. My father set mousetraps in various closets and the furnace room on a regular basis; one of my older brother’s jobs was to check the traps occasionally and discard any unlucky mouse with a broken back that he discovered. I hoped at the time that the freaking mouse who stole my bunny was one of the ones caught by a trap, or at least that the mouse died of a sugar and chocolate overdose. But the Easter Mouse has become iconic in my personal mythology over the years, representing the continuing pull of sacred and secular that has evolved from a confusing tension as a child into an endless source of fascination, ideas, and challenges for growth (as well as blog posts!) as an adult. news_closeup_santamangr_lgSanta Claus or the baby Jesus? Santa’s elves or the angel Gabriel? Rabbits or an empty tomb? Jelly beans or unleavened bread?

As I sat toward the back of a full Trinity Episcopal Church for Easter Sunday service yesterday morning (Jeanne was up at the altar again), I was reminded of something provocative that a good friend of mine once said: “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No?” In a slightly more formal way, New Testament scholar NTWright 250wN. T. Wright has the following to say about the stories:

The practical, theological, spiritual, ethical, pastoral, political, missionary, and hermeneutical implications of the mission and message of Jesus differ radically depending upon what one believes happened at Easter.N. T. Wright

Indeed they do—but beyond confirming that I believe the Easter story is true in the sense that “these stories are true—and some of them actually happened,” I not very interested in debates concerning the historical veracity of the foundational stories of Christianity. Personally, I’ll take the Incarnation over the Resurrection as the seminal truth of my Christian faith. But here’s what I do know to be true about Easter:

  • I know that resurrection is real because I’ve experienced it.
  • Easter is a reminder that death does not have the last word, that life always springs from what has been left for dead.
  • New life is often unexpected, inexplicable and unpredictable. I don’t know what the dozens of little green things that have sprouted up throughout my back yard and flower beds are (I’ve never seen them in previous springs), but they are alive. downy woodpeckerI don’t know what the little downy woodpecker hammering away on the vinyl siding of our neighbor’s house this morning was thinking, but it was life in action.

As the newly sighted man said when interrogated about the person who healed his blindness, “I don’t know about Jesus but one thing I do know—I was blind and now I see.” My life narrative will always include the language of incarnation and resurrection—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But this I know for certain: New life is for real.

The Big Guy and Me

There’s nothing more stressful than lunch with all of the members of a twenty-plus member department when it is a central part of an on-campus interview. Two decades ago, that’s where I found myself. Everyone was friendly and no one was trying to be intimidating, Q and Abut I knew that the supposedly “informal” conversation going on, entirely composed of “Q and A” with the Q being them and the A being me, might possibly be what caused any number of these philosophers to vote “yes” or “no” on my candidacy in a few weeks. One woman asked “who do you consider to be the five greatest philosophers in the Western tradition?” I quickly provided the answer that my graduate student colleagues and I had agreed upon a few years earlier over several beers: “Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Kant.” “Would you be willing to replace Hume with Aquinas?” an older gentleman in white sitting to my right asked.fat aquinas “No,” I replied while thinking to myself “I wouldn’t even put Aquinas in my top ten.”

I am amazed that I got the job. Because at Providence College, Aquinas is treated by some as a virtual fourth member of the Trinity (perhaps a fifth member, since Mary occasionally  sneaks in as number four). This is the only college in the country that is run by the Dominican Friars (there are several run by Dominican sisters), Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican Friar and was designated as the official philosopher of the Catholic Church by Pope Somebody-or-other at some point in time, there are dorms, classroom buildings, chapels, seminar rooms and probably even bathrooms named after him on campus. Our beautiful new center for the humanities is graced with a prominent statue of a seated Thomas in a small grotto to the left of the front entrance. He is holding a book, left hand raised invitingly toward the observer, and looking pleasantly corpulent. really fat aquinasI call him “the big guy,” because Thomas Aquinas was a big guy. His classmates at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century called him “The Dumb Ox,” not because he was stupid (presumably), but because he didn’t say much and was much larger in stature and girth than anyone else. Sort of like having an offensive lineman in class, if we had a football team here.

In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, there is an aging monk whose solitary claim to fame is that he was the one who figured out how to get Aquinas’ body out of his cell in one of the monastery towers when he died. EcoAs the story went, Tom had gotten so fat that he could not be carried down the winding stairs out of the tower (apparently he’d been having his meals delivered for a while); the enterprising monk in question figured out how to lower the very large corpse safely out of the window several stories to the ground using ropes and the labor of several fellow monastics.

As a philosopher, I’ve never been a particular fan of Aquinas’ work, largely because I’ve never been a fan of things medieval. Too obsessed with God (sort of like someone else I know), too stylized, too formal, too buried under layers of ossified tradition and dogma. Catherine of SienaBut on my campus, one cannot walk very far without bumping into one of Thomas’ groupies. Aquinasians and Tom-o-philes abound—they call themselves “Thomists.” Saint Catherine of Siena Hall houses the theology department on the second floor and the philosophy department on the first; I would guess that at least half of the fifty plus scholars housed in this building would describe themselves as Thomists of some sort. One of them just down the hall from my office calls himself a “Thomist with a twist.” The President of the college is a Thomist philosopher. I suspect the people who work at the new Dunkin’ Donuts on campus are Thomists. fat-squirrelThe hundreds of squirrels on campus are Thomists. They are everywhere.

Over twenty years of unavoidably breathing Thomistic air, I’ve come to realize that my general problem with the big guy is not the big guy himself—it’s what people have done with him over the past seven hundred and fifty years or so. Thomas wrote a ton of stuff—he must have done little other than write and eat—and something in his vast body of work can always be applied to whatever question is being raised or topic is being discussed. From same sex marriage, abortion, and disputes about politics to Red Sox vs. Yankees or boxers vs. briefs debates, the big guy’s opinion invariably shows up. St-Thomas-Aquinas1When “Aquinas says that . . .” is introduced into the discussion in appropriately hushed and reverent tones, it is intended to be a conversation stopper. The authority on everything has spoken.

I suspect that if Tom were transported seven hundred and fifty years from his time to ours, he would be alternately shocked and bemused that he has become such an established and unquestioned authority in some circles. Because in his day he was a radical, an out-of-the-box thinker who was in trouble with various authorities for most of his adult life. His thought is infused with the energy of Aristotle, whose work in the thirteenth-century was just beginning to be introduced into philosophy and theology after centuries of being virtually unknown to European scholars. Christian ideas and frameworks of thought energized by Aristotle were beginning to challenge long-standing doctrinal positions rooted in very different Platonic notions. Aristotelians such as Aquinas were perceived as troublemakers in a world in which such troublemakers often ended up burning at the stake. That such a creative rabble rouser turned into the fourth member of the Trinity is remarkable—and, in my estimation, unfortunate since putting “Saint” in front of anyone’s name tends to turn that person into something other than the flesh-and-blood human being he or she actually was.

mascotStudents on campus learn early on that dropping Aquinas’ name randomly into class discussions is a reliable way to please the professor, particularly if the professor is wearing a white dress. This is why I have made a point of letting students know about my own love-hate relationship with the big guy. If he even shows up in my class, that is. My ethics classes are probably some of the few ethics classes ever taught on my campus in which the big guy does not show up. I even point this out to my students on the first day, suggesting that since they are required in their core curriculum to take two philosophy courses and two theology courses, as well as a four semester required Development of Western Civilization that spends close to a full semester in the medieval world, they probably will bump into the big guy at some point (more likely at several dozen points) in their career at the college.

There is one way, however, in which I use Aquinas regularly in class—as an example of how to organize one’s thoughts about any open question whatsoever. summa-theologicaAquinas wrote thousands of pages on just about every important philosophical or theological topic imaginable, and he organized his thinking and writing by adopting the same systematic approach to every topic. Aquinas’ writing is organized into Articles; each Article is an important question to be discussed, then answered. No matter what the question is—Whether the existence of God is self-evident? Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists? Whether the New York Yankees are truly the evil empire? Whether it is permissible to serve meat at the Providence College Dunkin’ Donuts on Fridays during Lent?—Aquinas approaches it in the same way.

Objections—He begins with the best arguments he can find, supported by noted and respected sources, in favor of the position that he will ultimately disagree with. In other words, Aquinas gives the opposition the first shot, often with arguments better than the opposition itself has ever presented.

On the contrary . . . Here Aquinas presents the first statement of the position he will support (contrary to the position supported in the Objections). The “On the contrary” statement is always in the words of some source other than Aquinas, often a Church father, often Scripture itself, sometimes “The Philosopher” (Aristotle), but never Aquinas himself.

353px-Meeting_of_doctors_at_the_university_of_ParisI answer that . . . This is the main body of the article, in which the big guy makes his own argument in support of the position stated in “On the contrary . . .”

Replies to objections—To finish the Article, Aquinas returns to the original Objections and responds to them individually, essentially with the attitude “That’s a good idea, but here’s why mine is better.”

Aquinas’s method and strategy is a reflection of the stylized and formal disputatio method of education in medieval universities, but it is directly applicable to now. The other day when assigning the main paper of the semester in a class, I took a few minutes with the students to outline Aquinas’ method, then suggested that they write their papers method“in the style of Aquinas.” No matter what position you are taking, no matter how strongly you hold that position, give the other side a fair hearing first. Your paper will not be stronger or more convincing by ignoring the other side or by reducing it to an easily dismissed straw man. Only by showing that the other side has strong arguments, then demonstrating why yours are better, will you have taken true ownership of the position you are taking. Imagine how different political discourse would be, how more intelligent conversations in person and on line would be if everyone were required to follow the model of Aquinas. Not bad for an Italian monk with an eating disorder from the thirteenth century who didn’t even make it to age fifty. His official nickname is “The Angelic Doctor.” Those must be seriously big wings.

Buster and Donna

imagesCAZ6J1WDJeanne and I are the living embodiments of the old adage that “opposites attract.” Quickly. We knew within a week or so of meeting each other that something serious was up. We are so different in so many ways, beginning with her extreme extroversion and my extreme introversion, that it caused a few people to pause when the two of us first set up shop together. My minister father, who had known Jeanne for ten years before I met her, violated everything he had ever been taught in his own Baptist upbringing and advised me that the two of us should live together for a while before we commit to anything permanent. Which we did. I pulled up stakes and moved with Jeanne to Santa Fe220px-Adobe_in_Santa_Fe_at_the_Plaza_-_Hotel_Inn_and_Spa_at_Loretto[1] while she completed the last semester of her master’s degree and while I prepared for heading God knew where for my PhD program.

As we got to know each other, Jeanne told me stories of her best friends in Brooklyn, people who sounded far more interesting and out-of-the-box than the relatively boring people in my background. I particularly enjoyed hearing about Buster, a long-time friend whose connection with Jeanne went back to when Jeanne was just out of high school. Buster’s mother, Rose, who had recently died had been an iconic figure in Jeanne’s life. Rosie’s favorite word was “fuck,” and her outrageously unique personality helped Jeanne break out of the restrictive Irish/Italian Catholic world she grew up in. In her life prior to meeting me Jeanne had been a singer, culminating in one-woman cabaret acts that Buster had managed and directed. An accomplished singer and actor0[1], Buster sounded like exactly the sort of larger-than-life character that one never encountered in the northern Vermont of my upbringing.

One day shortly after I moved into Jeanne’s postage stamp size apartment, Buster called. After several minutes of conversation, Jeanne asked Buster if he wanted to say hi to me. Apparently he did, because she immediately handed the phone to me—an introvert’s worst nightmare. In a loud voice that perfectly matches the extraordinary tenor voice I would come to know and love, Buster asked “Do you know what the hell you have gotten yourself into?? The Bean [Buster’s nickname for Jeanne] is a pistol! You’d better be sure about what you’re doing!!” Nice to meet you too, Buster! I, of course, did not know what I was getting myself into—nor did Jeanne—but something about my first conversation with Buster strangely gave me confidence.

Buster came from Brooklyn to Santa Fe for Jeanne’s graduation a few months later. Since Jeanne’s parents also made the trip and she was tied up with entertaining them, it fell to me to pick Buster up at the l[1]Albuquerque airport sixty miles south of Santa Fe. I was not sure how I would recognize him, but Jeanne assured me that there would be no mistaking Buster—he tends to stand out in a crowd, she said. This was twenty-five years ago, so I don’t clearly remember what Buster was wearing as he stood by the curb waiting for some unknown person to pick him up, but he was clearly the only displaced New Yorker amongst the surrounding south-westerners. Buster was an introvert’s dream on the ride back, as I didn’t need to say more than a dozen words during the hour trip. As I pulled into our driveway, Jeanne ran out of the apartment yelling “BUSTERRRRRRRR!!!!!” as Buster leaped out of the car screaming “BEEEAAAANN!!!!!,” followed by a rib-cracking embrace, the same way they have greeted each other every time they have met in my presence over the past twenty-five years.

02874170[1]It was not until several months later that I met Donna for the first time. Buster and Donna have been a couple for over thirty years and are more living proof that opposites attract. While Buster’s career has been a matter of cobbling singing extravaganzas together with acting in travelling musical theatre companies that often take him away from home for months at a time, Donna has been the person with a sensible and successful career in the travel agency business. Buster is larger than life and a force of nature, while Donna is quieter, compassionate, patient, generous and welcoming. Buster doesn’t have an athletic bone in his body, while Donna loves volleyball, tennis and golf. Donna also is musically gifted—just a couple of months after 9/11, Donna and Jeanne did a cabaret show together (directed and produced by Buster, of course). Buster and Donna’s home in Brooklyn looks like Buster exploded in it, with stacks of sheet music and books, DVDs and CDs,  piled high on every square foot of available floor space; Donna incrementally and steadily gets things organized and in shape while Buster is on the road, in preparation for the next explosion when Buster’s gig is over.

I’ve often described Buster and Donna as “the most married couple I’ve ever met,” a wonderful embodiment of the strangeness, inexplicability and power of love. I have a hard time thinking of the one without thinking of the other. Unlike most of Jeanne’s New York friends and family, Buster and Donna visit us in Providence frequently, usually on the way back from spending a few days with friends on Cape Cod. Their visit is always an all-too-brief and welcome hurricane, as they blow through the house disordering our dogs’ routines and minds, teaching us to play card games that Buster and Donna both take very seriously, and leaving a Buster-and-Donna glow in their wake that takes several days to dissipate.

522277_10100354953417606_320992379_n[1]When word got out last year that, after more than three decades together, Buster and Donna were getting married it was fabulous news. For in a moment of clarity and wisdom that is all too infrequent in politics, the New York State Assembly passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in the state of New York. Anthony (Buster) and Bob (Donna) would be able to establish their relationship—which had been established in the eyes of God and every else for over thirty years—legally for the first time. As Jeanne and I speculated, with my sons and my daughter-in-law, about what the wedding would be like, our imaginations ran wild. A ball room filled with a tableau of the most diverse and outrageous fashions this side of Provincetown, with the broad and beautiful panoply of human beings, from Catholic priests to drag queens, gathered to honor and express their love to Anthony and Bob. And the event did not disappoint.547048_4874810428616_1194368657_n[1] The food was great, the music was even better, and the people watching was spectacular.

The officiant at the ceremony was a gay minister who is a former Roman Catholic priest. Anthony and Bob exchanged rings that had belonged to their fathers. Although I expected this event  to be outrageously different than any other wedding I had attended—and it was155365_10151118382548479_799282796_n[1]—what struck me most powerfully both during and since the ceremony was how fundamentally normal it was. Two people who clearly are deeply in love, who are making a life together, invited several hundred of their best friends to celebrate that love with them, just as couples planning to be married always do. Bob and Anthony just had to wait for more than thirty years for their marriage to be recognized as legally valid. It’s about time.409003_4874793588195_966913713_n[1]

Holy Family Values

Lake-Wobegon[1]Each week, Garrison Keillor tells “Prairie Home Companion” listeners the news from Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” I’ll bet the Holy Family was like that.

Lots of people think their children are well “above average”—hence, the bumper stickers in which parents boast that they are the “Proud Parents of an Honor Student at _________.”115711-20[1] Everyone thinks their child is precocious and the smartest/best looking/most creative human being ever. Every parent expects their infant to earn either a full academic or full athletic scholarship (probably both) to the college of their choice when the time comes. I doubt there is a place for a bumper sticker on a donkey, but if there is, what would Mary and Joseph’s donkey sticker have said?b24ede2f59b807e062898eb6a63bb5de[2] “Proud Parents of the Savior of the World”? “Our Kid is God in the Flesh”? Because there’s precocity, and then there’s precocity.

In “The Nativity Story,” a significant amount of time is spent on Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. The filmmaker creatively lets us spend some time with these two young people, almost strangers to each other, who have been named as players in a divine plan that they have been told very little about. At one point, Mary asks Joseph what the angel had said to him.

Joseph: He said to not be afraid. (pause) Are you afraid?

Mary: Yes. Are you?imagesCAOLDHLP

Joseph: Yes.

Mary: Do you ever wonder when we’ll know? That he is not just a child? Something he says, a look in his eyes?

Joseph: Sometimes I wonder will I be able to even teach him anything.

No kidding. When it is predicted by the angels that the soon-to-be-born baby will “save his people from their sins,” one’s possible parental and step-parental contributions certainly seem to pale in comparison.

The Sunday following Christmas is The Feast of the Holy Family. Although you wouldn’t know it from the mass quantities of commentary and artwork that have been produced over the last two thousand years, the canonical Gospels tell us remarkably little about holy family life. The non-canonical gospels, however, contain some stories that entirely corroborate Mary and Joseph’s pre-birth concerns. 4069-6820Jesus makes clay birds, which then come to life and fly away. Jesus strikes an annoying playmate dead. Jesus brings a less annoying playmate back to life after a fatal accident. School is a disaster, since every time a teacher tries to teach Jesus something, Jesus starts doing the teaching instead. Joseph and Mary’s worst fears come true.

The canonical gospels essentially leave us in the dark about Jesus between birth and thirty years old. We get the circumcision, the three kings, the trip to Egypt, Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and a central text from Luke 2, twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. The various artist’s renditions I’ve seen of this story are pretty much the same—The-Jesus-2[1]Jesus, looking particularly Aryan in the center of a holy glow, pontificates and astounds while his learned elders in the shadows lean away in disbelief and awe and some scribe takes notes. It’s kind of how I remember myself as a fifth or sixth grader, astounding (annoying?) my teacher and fellow students with yet another piece of fascinating (to me), but useless (to anyone else) information. Lovely scene, except that it has a lot more to do with what we think Jesus at twelve would have been like than anything from the story in Luke.

The actual story gives us a glimpse into a real family, holy or not. After going to the feast in Jerusalem with friends and family, as is their annual custom, Mary and Joseph are returning north to Nazareth. Although they’re not sure where Jesus is, they assume that he’s running around with his friends somewhere in the traveling group, so they don’t worry about it. Good for them—he’s almost a teenager, and they’ve loosened the parental leash a little bit. Let the boy have some freedom. But when he doesn’t show up at the end of the day, they’re worried. After failing to find him in the caravan, they return in panic to Jerusalem, where after three days they find him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the teachers.” In response to his mother’s exasperated and relieved “What the hell is your problem?? We’ve been looking all over for you!!! We thought you’d 262jesus12[1]been kidnapped!!!!”, Jesus gives a predictable, smart-alecky twelve-year-old response: “Why is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Oh really?? “Guess what? You’re grounded! Once we get back to Nazareth you can ‘be about your Father’s business’ in your room!!” Luke chooses not to tell us if Jesus then received a well-deserved slap upside the head and lived under house arrest for the next year.

This is a real family, struggling with the challenges of love, faith, boundaries, and growing up. Despite the usual interpretations of this story, I think that Jesus had not gone to the Temple to school the experts—something he presumably could have done, given his pedigree and all. He was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.”Jerus-n4i[1]

I don’t know whether twelve-year-old Jesus thought he was the Son of God—my bet is that he didn’t. But he did know where he wanted to be—he wanted to be where he could learn. Certainly the mystery and splendor of the Temple would have been an att
raction for any young Jewish boy. But the real attraction was that this is where learning happened. This is where the most intelligent and educated people of Jesus’ society gathered to debate, to investigate, to discuss, and to discover. And that’s where Jesus wanted to be—listening and asking questions. Even the Son of God had a lot to learn and knew how to get started. Put yourself in the right place and open yourself up.

Reflecting on this will be a wonderful preparation for the upcoming semester. The life of learning is so much more about quietness, attentive listening, and perceptive questions than conveying facts and information.ListenLearn-lg[1] This is where the divine in each of our human vessels gets awakened and fanned into flame. It’s a privilege to participate. When, as always happens, I find myself buried under and frustrated by piles of grading and endless department and committee meetings in a few weeks, I’ll try to remember twelve-year-old Jesus, who knew where he belonged. He was about his Father’s business. Go and do likewise.

The Strong, Silent Type

imagesCAXNTWCGIn my religious tradition, we didn’t do saints. We did do Christmas pageants—big time. I remember in various pageants being an angel, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles. My most triumphant pageant appearance, though, was the year I got to be Joseph. Wearing a white dish towel on my head secured with a bathrobe belt, I gazed with a holy aspect at the plastic headed Jesus in the make-shift manger while the narrator read the Christmas story. Actually, I was gazing at Mary, played by Bonnie, whom I was planning to marry in 15-20 years. It was my usual pattern when I was in single digits of age. If I thought a girl was cute, I’d think “you’re cute—I wonder what our children will look like.” Of course I always thought these things—I never said them.

My affinity for Joseph has stayed with me, so I am pleased that in Year A, the lectionary year that just started a few weeks ago with the beginning of Advent, the gospel readings are from Matthew. Scholars tell us that the primary focus of Matthew’s gospel is to look back to events more than a half century past and sell to a Jewish audience that this Jewish man, crucified as a common criminal, was actually the promised Messiah. matthew117[1]The author’s intentions are clear from the start when the gospel begins with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ ancestry all the way back from his father, Joseph, through King David to Abraham. The author even points out some interesting details in this genealogy that the well-versed Jewish reader or listener would not miss.

There are some questionable females in Joseph’s family tree. Salmon, David’s great-grandfather, for instance, marries Rahab whose story is told in the book of Joshua.Rahab-saves-spies-1[1] The invading children of Israel send spies into the Promised Land to scout out the area; they end up in Jericho, a walled fortress that is the most important and powerful city in Canaan. They end up in the house of a prostitute named Rahab (what were they doing there?), who hides them from the King of Jericho and helps them escape from the city by dropping a rope from her window so they can climb down the wall to safety in the middle of the night. For her efforts, this non-Israelite prostitute and her family are the only inhabitants of Jericho spared when Joshua and his army, using information from the spies Rahab saved, conquers and destroys Jericho a few chapters later.

Salmon and Rahab’s son is Boaz. Perhaps it is because he is a half-breed that he is willing to marry the foreign widow Ruth. The story of Ruth and Boaz is beautifully told in the Book of Ruth, a hidden and seldom-read gem in the Hebrew Scriptures. During a famine, Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave Judah with their two sons in search of sustenance, which they find in the neighboring land of Moab. The sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, something which the Mosaic Law prohibited (just as it prohibited Salmon from marrying a foreigner, let alone a prostitute). But all of the men in the story die. Devastated by loss and with no means of support, Naomi sets out to return to Bethlehem after saying goodbye to her former daughters-in-law. Orpah sadly heads back to her family home, but Ruth will not leave Naomi, touchingly saying “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” boaz_and_ruth[1]It’s the beginning of an unexpected love story—foreign woman meets wealthy Jewish guy (Boaz). Ruth and Boaz’s grandson, Jesse (who is no more than half Jewish), has eight sons. The eighth son and runt of the litter, consigned to writing poems and killing lions while tending sheep, is David who Samuel anoints as the second king of Israel. The line continues through Solomon, who is the product of David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba.DSC_0130[1] Even the Messiah’s line has its questionable elements and characters—which should tell us something about the divine plan and priorities.

So it is no surprise that the birth of Jesus is set up by Matthew not with the women of the story, Elizabeth and Mary, in central roles but rather with Joseph, the descendant of David. He is the central character both in next Sunday’s gospel reading as well as the text in two weeks when he runs to Egypt in the middle of the night with his young family to escape King Herod’s murderous plans. What do we learn from Matthew and from Luke, the only other gospel in which Joseph appears, about Joseph?

First, Joseph is the strong, silent type. While other major players in the stories of Jesus’ birth and formative years get major speaking parts, we have no record of Joseph ever saying anything. Mary gets the Magnificat, angels are singing and messaging at the drop of a hat, John the Baptist gets to yell “Repent,” Zachariah has the “Song of Zachariah,” the wise men have a brief speaking role, and even the minor character Simeon gets to contribute a song before he dies. But Joseph is silent. In reality, I suspect, he was capable of speech when necessary—84836-No Room Inn Logo“What the hell do you mean there’s no room at the inn? I made these reservations last month! I’ve got a pregnant wife sitting out there on a donkey in the parking lot! Sleep in a stable?? What the fuck?? I want to see your manager!”—but he gets no gospel speaking role.

Second, Joseph is in touch with his inner self in a way that would make modern therapists proud. He pays attention to his dreams and acts on them. Mary briefly argues with the angel at the annunciation in Luke, but Joseph hears an angel in a dream, wakes up, and acts on what he’s heard, both in this week’s gospel and two weeks from now. No questions asked. In fact, he’s perhaps the greatest dreamer in the Bible other than his namesake and distant ancestor Joseph from Genesis. scan0019[1]The difference between them is that Joseph in Genesis is not the strong, silent type, can’t stop blabbing about his dreams to everyone, and ends up in a well. Jesus’ stepdad knows that some things are meant to be acted on and not talked about.

Third, Joseph clearly is flexible and able to roll with the punches. One would think that the angel Gabriel might have made the annunciation to Mary and Joseph together, but no. Only Mary gets the message. We aren’t told if Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant because she tells him her story or because he happens to notice that she’s putting on weight, but because he is a “just man” he chooses to break their betrothal privately rather than making a public display of it as the law would have allowed. Finally an angel, either Gabriel or a part-timer, gets around to telling Joseph in a dream and the betrothal is back on—but no sex until Jesus is born. Bummer. But the New Testament and tradition indicate that Mary and Joseph did have several children in the years after Jesus was born, so at least that worked out.

220px-Loretto_Chapel_Ext[1] (2)In Santa Fe, there is a little church called the Loretto Chapel, which contains a “miraculous staircase,” built by a stranger with a donkey and a toolbox who showed up in answer to the prayers of the Sisters of Loretto. The newly built chapel needed a staircase to the choir loft; those who knew about such things said it would have to be a ladder, since a regular stairway would be too invasive of the chapel space. The stranger built an architectural marvel, a spiral staircaseimagesCAPEEH5G containing two 360 degree turns with no visible means of support and held together with wooden pegs rather than nails. The stranger disappeared without being paid after completing the staircase; not surprisingly, legend has it that the donkey-riding stranger was none other than St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.

I tend to consider such stories to be apocryphal legend; we don’t even find out that Joseph is a carpenter until much later in Matthew when the people of Nazareth reject Jesus because this “carpenter’s son” claims to have fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Messiah. But this does sound like something that Joseph would do. There’s something spectacularly ordinary and efficient about Joseph. Something needs to be done, and he does it. After dealing with a pregnant fiancée he’s never had sex with, sleep-talking angels, a murderous king, lost reservations at the inn and delivering a baby in a barn, building a staircase that defies gravity for a bunch of nuns is nothing. Bring it on.images[10]

Clouds of Glory

kant1[1]The great but incredibly difficult German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in a rare moment of clarity, wrote that all important human questions can be boiled down to these three: WHAT CAN I KNOW? WHAT OUGHT I TO DO?  and WHAT MAY I HOPE FOR? Advent is the season of “What may I hope for?” The second Sunday of Advent always involves John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative who once sent his disciples to ask his cousin a “What may I hope for?” question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is one of the many imagesCAS1UEG4poignant and excruciatingly human scenes in the gospels—John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and his head will be on a plate soon. He is by no means the only prophet in the land—they came a dime a dozen in those days. Nor is Jesus the only Messiah candidate around—Israel is full of them. So John’s question is not an academic one. What he really wants to know is “has my whole life been a waste?”

Jesus’ answer to John’s question relies on John’s knowledge of the prophet Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Hopefully the message got back to John before he was executed by Herod. The man whom you baptized is the real deal–the Messiah has truly come. That’s what John foretold and waited for.

And that’s what we wait for every Advent season. As Christians we anticipate and will celebrate what we believe to be the single most important event in human history—the Incarnation. But there’s a secret, perhaps perverse part of me that asks, “so what?” What exactly will we be celebrating at Christmas? imagesCAK1O2WOWhat difference do the circumstances of Jesus’ birth make, a story told differently by Matthew and Luke and considered to be so insignificant by Mark and John that they don’t even include it? As the 13th century Dominican monk Meister Eckhart provocatively asked, “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem?”

Collegeville lecture 3During the first five months of 2009, I spent a sabbatical semester as a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute on the campus of St. John’s University, run by the Benedictine order, in Collegeville, Minnesota. My academic plans were set; a well-defined book project was ready to be written. But upon arrival, it gradually became clear to me that something else was going on. For most of my fifty plus years, I had struggled with the conservative, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity in which I was raised. What became clear to me in Minnesota was that what I thought was a long-term, low-grade spiritual dissatisfaction had become, without my being aware of it, a full-blown spiritual crisis. Beneath my introverted, overly cerebral surface my soul was asking John’s question—“Are you the one, or is it time to look for another?”

100_0331The answer developed quietly, subtlely, unheralded, over the weeks and months. As I tested the waters of daily prayer with the monks at St. John’s Abbey, I noticed a space of silence and peace slowly opening inside of me that I had never known. No voices, no visions, no miracles—but I was writing differently. The low-grade anger that had accompanied me for most of my life began to dissipate. I felt more and more like a whole person instead of a cardboard cutout of one. The world looked different. I felt different. Eventually a few of my colleagues said “you’re not the same person you were when you first got here.” And they were right–I wasn’t. I began spending more time with the monks at prayer, often three times daily. Essays began to flow from a place I didn’t recognize, but really liked. Little had changed outwardly, but everything was changing.

As the day of returning home drew near, I was worried. Would these changes be transferable to my real life? Would this space of centeredness and peace be available in the middle of a typical 80-90 hour work week in the middle of a semester? Or would these changes soon be a fond memory, to be filed in an already overfull internal regret file? 443px-Santa_Caterina_Fieschi_Adorno-dipinto_Giovanni_Agostino_Ratti[1]Two days before leaving, one of the Benedictines preached at daily mass (which I did not normally attend). In the middle of an otherwise forgettable homily, he quoted the obscure St. Catherine of Genoa, who said “My deepest me is God.” This was the answer. The space of quietness, silence and peace inside of me, the one I’d never known—is God. I was stunned. Tears filled my eyes. I tingled all over. I’m tingling all over right now. Because what I had been looking for is here. And it is transferable. Trust me.

I used to think that the evidence Jesus sent to John in prison—the blind see, the lame walk, and all of that—was all well and good, but I’ve never seen a blind person healed, I’ve never seen a cripple stand and walk. Faith 05[1]But I was looking in the wrong place. Because although I don’t see perfectly, I’m a little less blind than I was. My frequent tone-deafness to the needs of others is getting a little better. My inner cripple is now walking with a limp. Some days I even think I know what Lazarus must have felt like as his sisters started to unwrap his grave-clothes. A few minutes ago I quoted Meister Eckhart—but only half of the quote. The full quote is “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem, if he is not born today in our own time? The answer to that pressing question? He is born today. In us.

Let’s make this Advent season a coming home, a preparation for embracing the true, continuingwilliam_wordsworth[1] mystery of the Incarnation. Yes, God became flesh. And God continues to be incarnated in you, in me. This is our heritage and the promise to us. Our deepest me is God. A few weeks ago I came across a beautiful poetic expression of this truth from William Wordsworth. “But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.

I’m hoping that in the darkness of his dungeon cell, John remembered his father Zechariah’s words spoken at John’s naming ceremony, words that I’m sure were part of the family stories in John’s childhood. Zechariah and Elizabeth[1]The Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus,”  is the canticle that closes every morning prayer service in the Benedictine daily liturgy of the hours. You may remember that Zechariah had not spoken for months, struck dumb because he found it difficult to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years, would bear a son. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is circumcised at eight days old, a family squabble breaks out over what the baby’s name will be. Most of the group votes for “Zechariah Junior.” But Zechariah motions for a tablet and writes “His name is John,” as the angel directed. His power of speech returns—the Benedictus follows. After a beautiful meditation on his new son’s role in the divine economy, Zechariah closes with a stunning promise.

In the tender compassion of our GodC-002-r%20Advent%202[1]

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

That’s something worth waiting for.