Category Archives: Benedictines

The Universe in a Coffee Cup

If you are fond of a cup, say “I am fond of a cup!” For then when it is broken you will not be upset. Epictetus

My first foray into the world of podcasts a couple of weeks ago included an extended discussion of Stoicism. Every time I teach the Stoics, I am reminded of how full their philosophy is of “Well, duh!!” truths. That’s a compliment, not a criticism. As a philosophy professor, I rely on such truths when trying to hook students into a discipline that can often be—Grand Inquisitoras Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor accused Jesus of being—“vague, exceptional, and enigmatic.” Every time the students’ eyes glaze over after a little too much exposure to metaphysical fog, it’s good to find something, somewhere, in the assigned text that actually relates to the lives that human beings live. This is not a case, as my father used to say, of “putting the cookies on the lowest shelf where everyone can reach them.” Rather, it is a recognition that since all human beings live on the same shelf most of the time, a “take away” relevant to life on that shelf helps to keep bad attitudes about philosophy at a minimum.

One the most basic “Well, duh!” Stoicisms has to do with not getting too attached to material things. EncheiridionIn his Encheiridion, Epictetus reminds us regularly that putting all of our happiness eggs in the material things basket is risky business, a business he strongly advises against. My students all know that they are not supposed to love material things—Jesus said so, Socrates said so, Gandhi said so, and so did their grandmother—but we live in a world in which this “truism” is extraordinarily difficult to actually live out. Although one of the typical concerns about material things is that they tend to corrupt one’s soul or turn one’s attention away from eternal things, in true Stoic fashion Epictetus’ warning is more practical. It doesn’t make sense to get too attached to anything that is not within one’s control, and despite our best efforts, material things are not within our control. Just ask the millionaire whose carefully selected and accumulated possessions have just been wiped out by a tornado or a wildfire. We need material things to survive but should not try to construct happiness on such a foundation. Well, duh!

I have never had much difficulty with this particular truth—case in point is that the eleven year old Hyundai Jeanne and I are currently driving is the nicest car we have owned in the twenty-five plus years that we have been together (although we just dropped a bunch of money to keep it in good running order). Even though we have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, stuff just isn’t that big of a deal for me for the most part. Except for books. And my favorite coffee cupS. We must have a couple of dozen coffee cups at home, two of which are my favorites, one because its handle accommodates two fingers on my large right hand rather than one, the other because it has an image of the Book Cow from the CowParade phenomenon of several years ago. coffee cupThen there is my “I’m a Big Fucking Deal” coffee cup–a much appreciated Father’s Day gift from my youngest son–that sits proudly on a top shelf in myoffice. That cup is so important that I have never drunk anything out of it.

But in terms of importance and meaning these all pale in comparison to a coffee cup that experienced a tragic disaster a couple of years ago. One of the fascinating features of the Collegeville, MN collection of university, Benedictine Abbey, ecumenical institute and other interesting centers of spirituality and education where I spent a life-changing sabbatical over seven years ago is the St. John’s Pottery, described on its main web page as follows:

St Johns potteryFor 35 years, The Saint John’s Pottery has embodied the Benedictine values of community, hospitality and self-sufficiency as well as the University’s commitment to the integration of art and life; the preservation of the environment; the linkage between work and worship; and the celebration of diverse cultures.

During my months at Collegeville I never visited the Pottery, which is located in enough of an out-of-the-way location on campus that I chose not to take the dozens of extra steps in ass-freezing weather to get there. But I often admired the plates, cups and other assorted pottery things in the university bookstore. I imagined that the Pottery was something like elvesSanta’s Workshop at the North Pole, with Benedictine monks taking the place of Santa’s elves, making and then packaging their wares to be shipped around the world. I never could pull the trigger on purchasing a $35 coffee cup, though, and returned home from sabbatical without one. It was only a couple of years later when back on campus with Jeanne for Easter that we visited the Pottery and she talked me into purchasing a coffee cup (not that it took a lot of convincing). It turns out that a master potter and his assistants make the stuff rather than monks. With the trademark St. John’s cross imprinted in the center, attractive blue/gray and cream swirled colors (or so they seem to partially colorblind me), and the necessary handle large enough to accommodate my fat fingers, I had a monk-made coffee cup (I chose to believe the myth) to remind me of my spiritual home away from home. Nice.004

Until I dropped it and it broke into about eighteen pieces not that long ago. It happened on a typically frantic morning as I juggled various demands; it slipped out of my hand on my way to the Keurig machine. A hush fell over those in the break room, as they knew this was my favorite drinking implement. As I stoically said “Oh well, there are more where that came from” I was internally screaming “FUUUUUUCCCCKKKK!” Stoicism is about creating a space of inner tranquility that will lead to outer effectiveness, but in this case my attempts at inner tranquility had not averted outer catastrophe. The largest portion of the shattered cup preserved the imprinted cross intact; this shard has perched on my desk ever since as a reminder of a dark day in my history. It will also be a cool remnant of twenty-first century culture 005when it is excavated at an archaeological dig many millennia in the future.

Some time later I returned to Collegeville for a four-day retreat; before even showing up at the retreat venue I drove onto campus in order to visit the bookstore and purchase a new monk-crafted coffee cup (I still choose to believe the myth). From a row of a half-dozen candidates, I chose a cup with the same shape, color scheme and imprinted cross, plunked down my $35 (inflation has not hit Minnesota pottery yet) and I was in business. I drank tea and coffee from it mindfully and with proper attentiveness at the retreat and it is now my favorite coffee cup in my office. But in comparing it with the fragmented shard from the broken original, I noticed that while the exteriors of the new and old cups are quite similar, the inside of the new one is significantly more attractive than the inside of its predecessor. 006The swirling contrasts of the colors are more interesting, a couple of random cream-colored spots celebrate its uniqueness, and I especially like that the inside of the bottom says NO KIDDING–YOU REALLY ARE A BIG FUCKING DEAL! when I have emptied the liquid (not really).

I choose to consider my replacement monk-crafted cup as a reflection of what has been going on with me over the past several years. I’m pretty much the same on the outside (except for a few less pounds and larger bags under the eyes); all of the change has been internal. And for the most part, the changes have been welcome. lao tzuBecause I like what I’m discovering inside, I’m becoming more effective externally. Inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. The retreat I attended reminded me of the importance of internal peace and tranquility as a proper receptacle for the divine within me. As Lao Tzu wrote, We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want007

A Gnawing Suspicion

A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity. Lawrence Kushner

ebolaA while ago Jeanne and I were in the car listening to the hourly news update on NPR. As usual, they were trying to stuff as much horrible news as possible into a three-minute segment. Ebola, ISIS, Zika, Palestinians, Israel, Istanbul, Russia, illegal immigrants, racial discrimination— one of us said “they’re never going to figure this out.” I forget which of the above items the comment was referring to, but it could have been any of them. I know few people who are more naturally optimistic than I am, fergusonbut what evidence is there that we human beings are up to the challenge of solving our problems long-term in a sustainable way? The history of our species provides ample evidence to the contrary.

So what impact should this depressing and dour news have on a person not inclined toward cynicism or despair? I must admit that I would find it very difficult to avoid cynicism in general, overcome only by dogged attempts to make my little corner of the world a bit better on a daily basis, were it not that I am convinced that the often sad and grubby human story that is trumpeted at us 24/7 through multiple media outlets is not the only story in town. There’s something bigger going on. In other words, I believe in God. So sue me.

borg convictionsFor many the conversation stops right there. How on earth can an educated, relatively intelligent person with working senses possibly believe in the existence of God in the face of the massive evidence to the contrary that threatens to overwhelm us daily? Please note, though, that I said that I believe in God, not that I believe in the existence of God. This is a gradual, seismic internal shift that has been going on for a while, one that I have frequently taken note of in various ways during the almost-four years of this blog’s existence (and for a lot longer than that). KabbalahTwo short books, Marcus Borg’s Convictions and Lawrence Kushner’s Kabbalah: A Love Story, have crystallized this shift in unexpected ways. Let me explain.

The “does God exist?” question never had much philosophical interest for me (I don’t think any of the arguments designed to answer the question positively actually work very well); does god existover time I have lost interest in it just about entirely. The God whose existence is almost always in question is a being separate and distinct from the universe, a supreme being who created the universe a long time ago. This description usually goes on to add personality traits such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence to God’s resume; God thus described is often imagined with authoritarian and parental attributes, with all of the positive and negative baggage accompanying. Marcus Borg calls belief in the existence of this being “Supernatural Theism.” For non-theists who deny the existence of God, it is almost always the God of Supernatural Theism whose existence is being denied; it is this God that is the target of the impassioned attacks of the “New Atheists.” supernatural theismBorg notes that when someone tells him that she or he does not believe in God, he “learned many years ago to respond, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’ It was always the God of supernaturalism.” Borg professes that he stopped believing in that God when he was in his twenties (he passed away in his seventies about a year ago). I don’t believe in that God either.

It isn’t that I now believe in the existence of a divine being with a different resume. It’s rather than I think “does God exist?” is the wrong question. Because the issue of God for me is not existential—it’s not about whether there is another being out there in addition to the universe. The issue of God is experiential. Scripture says “taste and see that the Lord is good,” and tasting and seeing are not arguments, rationalizations or proofs. Borg describes the shift I have in mind well:

borgThere is a cloud of witnesses, Christian and non-Christian, for whom God, the sacred, is real, an element of experience, not a hypothetical being who may or may not exist and whom we can only believe in.

Both Borg and Kushner call this orientation “mysticism,” and both refer to experiences that might be described as “mystical” that helped bring them to this experiential conclusion. I’m not crazy about calling myself a “mystic” for a number of reasons, but I do resonate with Kushner’s definition at the beginning of this post, just as I resonate with Borg’s adjustment of what the word “God” refers to:

A theology that takes mystical experience seriously leads to a very different understanding of the referent of the word “God.” The word no longer refers to a being separate from the universe, but to a reality, a “more,” a radiant and luminous presence that permeates everything that is.

KushnerKushner refers to the “gnawing suspicion” that there is a hidden unity underlying all of the mess that we find ourselves in. “Suspicion” is a well-chosen term, because a reorientation from Supernatural Theism to Mystical Theism (as Borg calls it; Kushner calls it “mystical monism”) is difficult to talk about and impossible to provide convincing arguments for. Words fail me, although I keep trying to find them. More often than not I fall back on the evidence of a “changed life” and “come and see,” finding strength in the fact that those who have also experienced the sacred and have not just thought about it resonate with me on a level deeper than words. They just “know” what I am trying to convey.

Working out the implications of where this takes me on all sorts of issues is a continuing effort in these pages. Returning briefly to where I began, what might mystical theism say about the fractured and disjointed world in which we live? problem of evilTrying to square such a world with the God of Supernatural Theism gives rise to the problem of evil, perhaps the most intractable philosophical/ theological problem of all. But as Kushner suggests, there is a different orientation available.

If you are a mystic, saying you believe in God means that you have an abiding suspicion that everything is a manifestation of God, and no matter how horrific it might be, it is still, somehow, filled with holiness.

The only evidence for that is experiential, and even such experience is iffy and enigmatic. I have not had the “road to Damascus” sorts of experiences that have changed the lives of many. My reorientation has been more gradual, which for me means it is likely to have the permanence that a “once for all” experience might lack. 100_0331As I sat for many weeks in daily prayer with Benedictine monks several years ago, the reorientation began as I noticed a slow opening of peaceful spaces inside and a new way of seeing what is around me. This does not conflict with my intellect, my mind or my philosophy—it holds them in place. And when I run out of convincing words, I plan to remember this that I just read from Lawrence Kushner:

Why is it that you cannot simply tell someone a great religious truth without a whole rigmarole of questions and hints, allusions and mysteries? It is because that is the way God made the world.dostoyevsky

Repairing the World

Every once in a while someone posts a comment on my blog that reminds me of why I dedicate so much time, thought, and energy to my writing. A week ago, a person new to following my blog posted just such a comment. He was actually commenting on a post that I wrote several months ago.

Donald Trump and Evangelicals

Here’s what he wrote:

It is very refreshing to hear a Christian of faith actually take a stand against the kind of bigotry and political vitriol that we have heard so much in this presidential campaign this year. I was a convert to Judaism almost 40 years ago mainly for some of the reasons you outlined above. As I’ve explained to some of my evangelical Christian friends who I went to high school with in Alabama, I chose Judaism because it allowed me the freedom to question the tenets of my faith without any repercussions from other Jews because there is such a broad spectrum of beliefs within Judaism from atheism to orthodoxy.Tikkun_Olam What unites Jews as a people of faith is not their theological beliefs or political persuasions but their worldview and values regarding the dignity of all people and their commitment as the Chosen People to honor Abraham’s covenant by serving as partners with God to do their part to make this world a better place for all humankind, what in Hebrew is called “tikkun olam” (תיקון עולם) or “repair of the world”.

Although I hadn’t thought about it for a while, I am very familiar with “tikkun olam” and find it to be one of the most fruitful concepts when thinking about God that I have ever encountered. I also believe that there is a similar concept in Christianity, if one knows where to look for it. I call it “incarnation.”

HeschelRabbi Abraham Heschel once said in an interview that “There is a partnership of God and men. God needs our help.”

That is not an exclusively Jewish sentiment; at the heart of Christianity lies the amazing idea that the way God chooses to be in the world is through human beings. I was taught that the Incarnation—God becoming human—was a one-time historical event, but the truth of the matter is that the divine strategy of God engaging with the world in human form continues. In us. Benedictine sister Joan Chittister expresses it well:

God did not finish creation; God started it. Its ongoing development God leaves to us. What we do in life makes us the hands of God in living flesh and blood.

chittisterElsewhere, she expands on the idea:

Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.

I have found that this proposed collaboration between divine and human exhilarates some and causes others to check their heresy meter.

Understanding incarnation as a continuing divine strategy rather than a one-time deal requires rethinking some characteristics that Christians have traditionally attributed to God—particularly omnipotence. Claims such as “God needs our help” and “God leaves it to us” require some explanation if God is all-powerful and can do whatever God chooses to do. But perhaps power is not the primary motivating factor for the divine. Simone Weil argues that the very act of divine creation was also an act of diminishment, even abandonment. Out of love, God chooses to withdraw from direct intervention in our world, choosing rather to be in the world through the free choices and actions of human beings. Annie Dillard summarizes Weil’s insight as follows:

Mostly, God is out of the physical loop. Or the loop is a spinning hole in his side. Simone Weil takes a notion from luriaRabbi Isaac Luria to acknowledge that God’s hands are tied. To create, God did not extend himself but withdrew himself; he humbled and obliterated himself, and left outside himself the domain of necessity, in which he does not intervene. Even in the domain of souls, he intervenes “only under certain conditions.”

Weil puts it even more strikingly: The absence of God is the most marvelous testimony of perfect love. I teach this aspect of Weil’s thought frequently to mostly Catholic juniors and seniors in an honors capstone seminar. The students invariably find the idea of a God who out of love chooses diminishment in power to be challenging, to say the least. Yet the evidence for such an interpretation is at the heart of the Christian narrative. God become human and lived a human life in humility and weakness; from within these parameters, parameters that define all of us, the world was changed forever.

The commenter on my blog has been following my essays for only a couple of weeks or so and has apparently been reading any number of posts. He closed by reacting to a different essay from a while ago.

Socratic Faith

As a Jew I have the kind of Socratic faith that you have and which you so eloquently explained in one of your blogs. It may not always feel like it to you, but I believe you are doing God’s work, whether there is a God or not. Your brand of Christianity makes me want to believe that there is.

Thanks, I needed that.

Learning How to Read

There is a mystery in reading, a mystery which, if we contemplate it, may well help us, not to explain, but to grab hold of other mysteries in human life. Simone Weil

CB and LinusMy early years were full of apocryphal stories of how I learned to read. According to my mother, I was reading by age three without anyone having taught me how to do it. I was never without a book,  and lined up my menagerie of stuffed animals on the couch to read to them. Knowing how stories tend to take on a life of their own, I cannot attest to the accuracy of these reports (although it was my father rather than my mother who was prone to telling tall tales). I do know that my love of books extends as far back as I can remember, and that I know how to read before I could tell time or tie my shoes—perhaps my parents should have provided me with instruction manuals to read. Because I could read on a fifth grade level before starting first grade, according to the school board member who tested me at home, I went through first and second grade in one year. moving from one side of the room to the other in our little school after Christmas break. cursiveI’ve paid a lifelong price for that honor—I joined second grade when they were all the way to the letter “W” in their cursive writing studies. My “w’s.” “x’s,” “y’s” and “z’s” are fabulous, but other than that my cursive has been illegible, even to me, ever since.

Several years ago during an eye exam, my new ophthalmologist asked “do you read very much?” I laughed as I said “I read for a living!” The written word is not only the foundation of my professional life, but has also been my spiritual lifeline for most of my life. For many years all that remained of my religious upbringing was the Bible. bigstock-Holy-Bible-828340-300x235Even though I no longer believed it to be the literally inerrant word of God as I was taught, large portions of it resided in my memory, ready to be accessed in class and conversation as well as popping up even when uninvited. I memorized large portions of the Bible growing up, as all good Baptist kids should, continually reminded that “Thy Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee.” We were taught that since the canon of Scripture was completed, we should not expect further communication from the divine in the form of miracles, signs and wonders, or direct communication. We already had God’s final word to us in completed form; now we just needed to obey it and hang on until the Second Coming.

I was accordingly jerked up short a few years ago when I read in a book by theologian Patrick Henry that “God died because people forgot how to read.” I don’t entirely remember the context of the claim nor Henry’s explication, but I was reminded of the phrase this past week as I read a manuscript on SimoneSimone Weil’s philosophy as an outside reader for a prestigious academic press. In her “Essay on the Concept of Reading,” she argues that we “read” everything in our environment. “The sky, the sea, the sun, the stars, human beings, everything that surrounds us is something that we read.” This is much broader understanding of “reading” than our traditional Western conception, which considers reading to be an exclusively cognitive, intellectual, and mental activity—precisely the sort of activity I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours on this planet doing. So how is it that such a crucial, human defining activity as reading could be forgotten, even to the point of emptying the divine of content? The problem is not with reading per se—it’s that we’ve forgotten that reading is not just an intellectual activity. lectioGod’s death is not due to a misuse of or over-reliance on the activity of reading. It’s due to forgetting what true reading even is.

I had heard and read about “lectio divina,” sacred reading before I went on sabbatical to a AbbeyBenedictine college campus with a large abbey on site, but it had not struck me as a particularly interesting concept. Just another skill to learn, technique to master, perhaps—but really, if there’s one thing I know how to do pretty well, its reading. But after several weeks of daily prayer with the abbey monks, it dawned on me that lectio divina isn’t about words and meaning and retention at all. I often found that I did not remember, even for the amount of time it took to walk from the choir stalls to the front of the abbey and exit, which Psalms we had read nor any of the content. Yet I had a sense that what we were doing was far more important than reading a book, marking it with highlighter and pen in my usual method, and perhaps memorizing a phrase or two for future reference in class or conversation.choir stalls

What was happening in the choir stalls was not a mind event, but a full body experience bypassing my overdeveloped mind and seeping into all the other parts of me that had been starved for years. My bodily rhythms, my intuitions, my emotions, my spirit. The Psalms speak of God’s word all the time, but almost never of thinking about God’s word. jeremiahIt’s more like what Jeremiah reports: “The words were found and I did eat them, and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of my heart.” Simone Weil was channeling her internal Jeremiah when she wrote that “I only read what I am hungry for at the moment when I have an appetite for it, and then I do not read, I eat.” And like a mother bird regurgitating food for the babies, an important word or phrase would come into my consciousness later in the day, one that I didn’t remember reading but which had dripped into my soul.

In our “real world” of immediacy, getting it done, making money and a living, is there a place for what I began to absorb in a monastery abbey in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota? Over the subsequent years I’ve seen small but important evidence of change in how I converse with people, how I approach the day, and a heightened and more immediate sense of when a layer is threatening to grow back over my divine reading space. silence-is-the-language-of-godLearning how to read differently is not just another technique; because it is a new way of being, it is transferable to everything. I went on sabbatical expecting to write about trying to sustain a life of faith when God at best is a silent partner who never writes, calls, emails, texts or tweets. Now the divine is everywhere and seems to have a lot to say. Reading the divine begins with believing that everything is sacramental, infused with the breath of God, with taking “the Word became flesh” very seriously. All of creation is a sacred text. I didn’t know it, because I didn’t know how to read.

An Introspective Day

IGetImage[1]n 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.” EmperorConcertoCrop[1]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 draft_lens18511478module153253276photo_1315951738read_by_the_fire[1]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 universityIMG_2762[1] 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 one morning last June, more than twenty years later, as I arose at 4:30 to get a shower before Vigils at 5:30. The day before, 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 was my first time at Big Sur073 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 had driven 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 was 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.084 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 at 5:00 AM, 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. 014“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, this day was 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 Laramie.StMatthewsEpis.1925Skinner.Dunnewald01[1]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 three years, and with whom I had met a week earlier.

ANDR-S7F036[1]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 PatelimagesCAXVBJ2Z 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.

7348428534_80057f1ee1_z[1]Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad,

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.

Back in the Saddle Again

We in southern New England have been spared a tough winter. Shit can still happen, but this winter has been a breeze compared to last year’s two-month cycle of weekly snow storms. A few mid-fifties temperature teases thrown in here and there in February have been a harbinger of an early spring—furthermore, the groundhog didn’t see his shadow.groundhogThen two days ago, we broke a temperature record and hit 70 degrees. This is all good news for everyone, but especially for me. Because the arrival of early spring coincides with a signature event in my life—I’m back in the saddle again.

I wrote frequently in summer and early fall last year about how one of the central features of my early sabbatical weeks was the rediscovery, after many years, of the joys of bicycling. I loaded tons of pictures, wrote blog posts, got in the best shape of my life, then disaster struck. I tipped over unceremoniously in a completely non-spectacular bike mishap and broke my ankle in early October—less than a week before riding the seventy-mile round trip Woonsocket to Bristol trip that I had been building up to for three months (for those unfamiliar with Rhode Island geography, that’s pretty much the top of the state to half way down and back).RI It could have been worse—I didn’t need surgery or even a cast, only requiring a boot for ten weeks or so. But no more bike riding for at least three months, and by that time we would be in the dead of winter, so probably no more bike riding for six months.my boot

This was more of a problem than just being laid up without exercise for a while. As wrote in a September blog post,

Life at Ten Miles per Hour

“Riding my bicycle early in this sabbatical is doing the same sort of thing for me that reciting the psalms and saying prayers with a 100_0770bunch of Benedictine monks on a daily basis did for me during my last sabbatical seven years ago. Cobwebs and impediments are being removed by simply finding ways to get centered and discover what’s going on beneath the complicated and pressured surface of things on which all of us skate in our manic day-to-day existence.” As I watched my writing productivity become less natural and fluid when I no longer could spend 3-4 hours per day on my bike, I began to wonder about the mind/body connection, a favorite philosophical puzzle of mine ever since graduate school. Is it really the case that paying specific attention to the body is good for the mind and soul?

Not long ago I heard Maria Popova, a social media/blogging phenomenon, talk about the mind/body connection in an interview with Krista Tippett. brain pickingsWhere, Tippett asked Popova, do you get your most creative and fertile thoughts? I resonated fully with Popova’s response:

Those ideas, the best of them came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. It’s a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.

In the early weeks of my sabbatical when I was still feeling a bit guilty about riding for hours per day when I was supposed to be writing, a colleague (who is also an avid biker) said “You have it all wrong. Sabbaticals are all about thinking (while riding bikes), then maybe when you get home, you write something down.” She was exactly right—the first drafts of two of the first chapters in my big sabbatical writing project were formed in my head while floating down a bike path.

I took my first real bike ride since October two days ago, a beautiful day when even the turtles were seeking to get an early tan.WIN_20160309_12_17_22_Pro My ankle is ready for it. My mind is ready for it—I need some inspiration for my next big project that doesn’t seem to be coming just sitting in my library recliner. My body is not entirely ready for it—I rode twenty miles and can tell that I’ll need a while to get my stamina back up to where it was in October. My greatest concern, though, is how to make the mind/body wonders of bicycle riding transferable to my “real” life once sabbatical ends and I am back in the classroom in a few months. I’ve found that the inner healing and silent centeredness that were features of my last sabbatical have been transferable to real life, as long as I take the time to work at it. But I will not have three to four hours available per day for bike riding once sabbatical is over—what might serve the same purpose?

It should not be impossible to create more “unburdened spaces” in one’s life, but it goes without saying that our twenty-first century world does not readily accommodate the finding or constructing of such spaces. The only other space in my life where I occasionally have moments of “uninterrupted intimacy” between my mind and body are when Madame DefargeI’m working in the yard—something about digging in the dirt liberates my mind from its usual fifty-things-at-once energies. One thing to remember is that although the mind/body connection goes both ways, this particular facet of it goes from body to mind, not the other way around. My body has never become healthier by my simply thinking a lot (although improved attitudes certainly can help), but bike riding and working in the yard are two examples of how physical activity can liberate my mind and consciousness. Maybe this is why my mother used to knit all the time, so often that one of my father’s nicknames for her was “Madame Defarge.” Maybe this is why apparently mindless and rote activities find their way into the routines of so many people. I need to cultivate such activities; something tells me watching a lot of television, even the good stuff, doesn’t count. Suggestions welcomed!

Making the Truth Laugh

Umberto Eco, one of my favorite novelists and fine philosopher, passed away yesterday. The novel that made him famous–The Name of the Rose–is a tour de force of medieval philosophy and history, an insightful study of human nature, and a profound meditation on the power of logic and humor. I wrote about Eco and his masterpiece a couple of years ago . . .

One of the many enjoyable occurrences at the end of each semester is occasionally receiving thank-you notes from students. Often they come from quiet students who said little in class but eloquently mention a moment or a text from the semester that made a difference or that will stick with them. The bookshelves in my philosophy department office are lined with such cards and notes, welcome reminders that once in a while something works better than expected.

A year ago I received such a note from a student in the Honors interdisciplinary class that I teach with two colleagues. The student wrote that our class was “the best college course I’ve ever taken,” a judgment tempered slightly by the fact that she was a freshman and at the time had only taken six college courses so. Later in her note, however, she thanked the three of us for our senses of humor, writing that “I have never laughed so hard or as often in any class I have ever taken.”simone weil[1] That one I’ll cherish for a long time, because my teaching philosophy for years has been shaped by Simone Weil’s observation that “The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.” For this student, at least, mission accomplished.

chickenthoreau[1]When it comes to learning, laughter is serious business. Although they often do not occupy front row seats in the pantheon of philosophical greats, many of my favorite philosophers—Epictetus, Montaigne, Hume, Nietzsche and others—depend on various forms of humor to shape their thought. Irreverence is a particularly effective philosophical tool. A logical argument demonstrating that human capacities do not match human pretensions is not as effective as Montaigne’s126763672545178[1] “even on the loftiest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our own ass.” Nietzsche, perhaps the greatest master of irreverence who ever lived, undermines commitment to logical precision with ““It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them!” and scoffs at piety with “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.” As I told a junior faculty member after observing a skilled but humorless performance in his logic class, “philosophy is serious, but it isn’t deadly serious.”

nameoftherose[1]In Umberto Eco’s masterful The Name of the Rose, laughter plays an unexpectedly central role. Set in a fourteenth-century Benedictine monastery, Eco weaves murder, heresy, liturgy, medieval medicine, sexual deviance, the Inquisition, opulence in the face of abject poverty, and political intrigues between the Emperor and two competing popes into a memorable fictional tapestry. A central thread in that tapestry is a question that sparks frequent and passionate debate: Did Christ ever laugh?protectedimage[1] This seemingly random question becomes the center of an intense debate that ultimately involves far more than academic curiosity. Jorge, the venerable and blind former librarian insists that Christ never laughed. Not only is there no record of such a thing happening, but there are also solid theological reasons for denying laughter to Jesus. “Laughter foments doubt,” Jorge argues, and doubt undermines those things about which we must be certain. Those in doubt must turn to the relevant authority—a priest, abbot, text—to remove uncertainty. 4349348690_947b4e3701[1]Laughter makes light of what is most serious and most indubitable.

William of Baskerville, the visiting Franciscan monk who becomes the medieval Sherlock Holmes seeking to solve the mystery of several murders at the abbey, counters that there is nothing in the sacred texts indicating that Jesus did not laugh, and also points out that laughter is part of human nature (and Jesus was human, after all). Furthermore, William claims, “sometimes it is right to doubt,” given that doubt and uncertainty are part of the natural human rational thought process. “Our reason was created by God, and whatever pleases our reason must also please divine reason.” William is not given to hilarity, but has a keen eye for the ironic and incongruous throughout the novel, frequently showing that the true pursuit of truth often takes one down paths of uncertainty and irreverence. The adventure and openness of the process is far more instructive than any certainty that hypothetically lies at the end of the path.

As the novel progresses to its dramatic conclusion and the body count of dead monks increases, the depth of Jorge’s commitment to certainty and rejection of the twin demons of laughter and doubt is revealed. For decades, Jorge has been the self-appointed concealer of the only existing copy of Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy, in which Aristotle show that the value of comedy is to cause us to laugh at power, at pretension to greatness, and at human aspirations. Laughter allows us, at least temporarily, to abandon fear. In Jorge’s estimation, laughter is the enemy of authority, both temporal and spiritual, and must be snuffed out at all costs. Accordingly, he has murdered those in the abbey whom heJorge_&_William[1] suspected of knowing about and lusting after this dangerous text.

In the climactic confrontation  between Jorge and William at the novel’s denouement, as the depths of Jorge’s insane commitment to protecting certainty and truth  becomes apparent, William exposes the true nature of Jorge’s obsession. “You are the Devil. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.” Jorge has shaped his life and actions according to his conviction that truth is to be protected, that it must be defended against all threats—there is a strong element of fear in his conviction that he owns the truth. He is absolutely right about one thing, though—laughter and doubt are direct threats to everything he considers holy. Laughter can bring pretensions to certainty and truth to their knees far more effectively than argumentation.imagesCAEB25EV Rather than face such a world, Jorge destroys the book, himself, and ultimately the library and entire monastery.

In the final pages of The Name of the Rose, in the midst of smoking ruins and ashes, William reflects with his young apprentice Adso on what they have seen and experienced. William refers to the dead Jorge as the “Antichrist,” an appellation that Adso does not understand.images[5]  “The Antichrist,” William explains, “can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear those who are willing to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them.” What is to be learned from the tragic and apocalyptic events at the abbey? William’s speculation is one that all seekers of truth and lovers of human beings should take to heart. “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

Anne LamottAnne Lamott, whose work causes me to laugh more than any author I can think of, defines laughter as “carbonated holiness.” Laughter is not only uniquely human, it is one of the many signs of divine love that each of us carries into the world daily. Did Jesus laugh? That depends on whether he was a human being or not. Since incarnation, humanity infused by divinity, is at the heart of the Christian faith, laughter is a fundamental expression of God in us. “Lighten up!” is a call to holiness.

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Reboot and Retool

There are many modern conveniences that Jeanne and I could at least try to do without for a while. For instance, while she was in Vancouver for work this past weekend, our almost-twenty-year-old dishwasher finally decided to give up the ghost. It has been residing in our kitchen since we moved into the house in May 1996.dishwasher We have been expecting it to croak for a while (a few features stopped working months ago), but it was still a bit of a shock to push the “start” button and have nothing happen. So I bought a cheap dish drainer at Walmart and we’ll see how long we can go old school without a dishwasher. My guess is that we’ll be fine until the next time we have people over for a party.

But there are some things we absolutely cannot do without. Our Verizon FIOS cable/wireless service is one of them. We watch a lot of television (only the good stuff, of course) and often are not able to watch our favorite shows at their normal air time. Hence the importance of a working and reliable On Demand service. on demandThis service is particularly important to help us navigate Sunday evenings when at least two and sometimes three of our favorite shows are on either at the same or at overlapping times. Recently, this indispensable part of our daily lives has not been behaving properly. Every time we watch something “On Demand,” about twenty minutes into the show we get a blank screen. After fifteen seconds that feel like an hour, the show either picks up where it left off or kicks us back to a previous screen where we have to click “Resume program” to start watching again. Repeat this process every twenty minutes—very annoying and inconvenient. Imagine having to waste fifteen seconds of our valuable television viewing time doing nothing.

The problem escalated when Jeanne was away last weekend; as I tried to watch an On Demand movie, the blank screen appeared once again. After the allotted fifteen seconds this time, though, a message from the FIOS authorities came up on the screen. The message said something along the lines of “we are trying to get you back to your program, but are unable to do so at the present time. rebootPlease try again later. Should this problem persist, we suggest that you reboot your router and/or your cable box.” This made a certain amount of sense to me, since I have known for a long time that computer problems can be solved ninety percent of the time by shutting one’s computer down, letting it rest while one gets a drink, then starting it up again. Furthermore, whenever I have called Verizon for help with wireless issues, the person in India who I get after a half hour of muzak always starts addressing my issue by asking “have you rebooted the router?” I rebooted the router (which did not solve the problem), then the box a couple of days later (which seems to have solved the problem—fingers crossed).

How many things that you “cannot do without” could you actually do without? This has all the earmarks of a “first-world” question, but it’s one that the ancient Stoics regularly urged anyone who would listen to consider carefully. Stoics claimed that our natural human tendency is to rely on external things, things outside our control, to dictate the quality of our lives to us, even though the only true source of control over and value in our lives is to be found internally. In various letters to a friend’s son, SenecaRoman senator and Stoic philosopher Seneca suggested a regular practice that might help to establish what is necessary and what is a luxury.

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself all the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.

Seneca, of course, is referring to a lot more than living without a dishwasher or television on demand—he’s suggesting that each of us regularly practice denying ourselves of what we believe to be essential in order to discover what is truly essential. But each of us has to begin somewhere. The passage from Seneca actually sounds a lot like Lent—setting aside a number of days to shake things up and reorder one’s priorities.

In truth, rebooting also sounds a lot like Lent. I don’t know why rebooting one’s computer or router works more often than not—such technical details are way above my pay grade. As a non-technical person, IMG_9677I imagine that over time the device in question has been overworked, various small things have gone awry, and the down time involved with a reboot allows such askew items to realign and refocus. Talk about anthropomorphism—this is worse than projecting my thoughts and feelings into my dachshund’s tiny brain. But I do know from experience that the human equivalent to rebooting is a necessary component in my life—and I suspect I am not alone in this. We tend to treat ourselves like appliances, indispensable items whose energies we take for granted. Just like our dishwasher and cable service, eventually neglect, overuse, and the simple passage of time will reap unwanted rewards. What it means to reboot and retool will be as individual as people are different from each other. But create a space in each day, or at least in each week, in which you deliberately step outside yourself and take a look. Do a virtual reboot and shut yourself down for a few minutes. Ask yourself: How did this day, this week, fit with what I know to be my best self? What loose ends need to be gathered together? What frayed ends need to be trimmed off? As the Benedictine prayer recommends, experience the fertility of silence. You are worth the time—because you are indispensable.

Stranger in a Strange Land

I am not Catholic. I have been firmly ensconced in Catholic higher education for close to thirty years. This occasionally leads to some cognitive dissonance, as I observed a bit over a year ago . . .

DDAs I stood in line at the campus Dunkin’ Donuts, I was truly thanking God that it was 9:15 on Friday morning. Not because of the usual TGIF thing, although Fridays are generally fine. In my life, 9:15 on Friday morning is a great time because it means that I am finished with my weekly 8:00 appointment at the Concannon Fitness Center, where my personal trainer, Kevin the Red-Haired Nazi, puts my now-fifty-eight-year-old body through experiences I could not have survived fifteen years ago. “The usual coffee (medium decaf black with a shot of caramel—a shot, mind you, not a swirl) and a turkey sausage sandwich on an English muffin,” I say to the young lady behind the counter. “No meat today! It’s Friday!” some disembodied voice shouts from the little office on the side. “Shit!” I thought. turkeys and chickensThat shouldn’t include turkeys—as a friend of mine once said, chickens and turkeys are just plants with weak root systems. “Then I’ll have a veggie egg white flat” (although I really don’t want one). “It really sucks to be a non-Catholic on a Catholic campus,” I commented to the young lady as she swiped my card. “Tell me about it,” she replied as she returned it.

I guess it must not suck that badly, since I’ve been doing it, first as a PhD student then as a professor, for more than twenty-five years. No one could have guessed, given my background–especially me–that I would spend my professional life with Catholics. I grew up in northeastern Vermont—we called it “the Northeast Kingdom.” Although my town was only forty miles or so south of Quebec, and there was undoubtedly a French Canadian (hence Catholic) presence all around me, I did not meet a Catholic, or at least anyone presenting themselves publicly as such, until my early adult years. My world was hard-core Baptist, fundamentalist-the-Bible-is-the-inerrant-Word-of-God-evangelical-everyone-who-isn’t-like-us-is-going-to-hell Protestant to the core.

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Lyndonville, VT

I was a preacher’s kid—my Dad was the founder and President of a Bible school, for God’s sake—literally. I knew there were Catholics around—they had a stone church across town that was much more impressive than the community center my church met in. I had no more idea of what went on in that stone church on a weekly basis than the ancient Romans knew about the secret meetings of the early Christians. But I knew that whatever it was, it wasn’t anything like what was going on in my church, so they were all going to hell. Actually, it seemed that just about everyone other than my nuclear family, my extended family in upstate New York and in western Pennsylvania, and the fifty or so people who came to my church was going to hell. The God I believed in was pretty picky.

Once I met and married Jeanne, a Catholic from the cradle who grown away from the Catholic Church in her early adult years, I learned a great deal more about Catholicism than I really wanted to know. stsebssmallerDown the street from our apartment in Milwaukee, the first place our “blended family” lived together, was Saint Sebastian’s Catholic Church, where we made friends first with the organist, then the priests. Before long Jeanne was cantor once in a while on Sunday morning, sang the occasional funeral, I subbed a few times on the organ, and I began thinking that this Catholic stuff was kind of cool. I had fallen in love with liturgical worship through being exposed to, then joining, the Episcopal church several years earlier and didn’t really see that much that was different here. The Dean of the cathedral where I was confirmed Episcopalian had said several years earlier that he became a priest because he liked to play “dress up” and called the Episcopal Church “Catholic Lite.” Saint Sebastian’s, along with the intelligence and earthiness of my Jesuit professors at Marquette University where I was earning my PhD, led me to believe that Catholics were pretty normal after all. cathedral_headerI knew that technically speaking it was against the rules for a non-Catholic barbarian to receive communion in a Catholic service, but I am used to the Episcopalian attitude that everyone with a pulse is invited to communion, and the priests at Saint Sebastian’s made a point of letting me know that I was welcome at communion, even though they knew I am not Catholic.

Christian-Brothers-University-Logo(1)I had no idea how “out of the box” this actually was. My first teaching position after graduation was at a small Catholic university in Memphis, where I innocently and ignorantly went with my no longer Catholic wife to communion on occasion. In truth, my internal resonance with liturgy probably made me more in tune with things Catholic than Jeanne’s years of working past her Catholic upbringing made her, but as the scriptures say, God looks on the heart and we look on outward appearance. The outward appearance of a known non-Catholic barbarian receiving Catholic communion was too much for one of my colleagues to take. Soon I received an anonymous note in my campus mailbox consisting of a Xeroxed page from a local Catholic parish Sunday bulletin which, in pious and sympathetic words, essentially said that “if you are non-Catholic, we don’t want to share our communion with you.” “Fuck you, Bob,” I thought in my best non-Catholic language (I knew exactly who had dropped the “anonymous” note in my mailbox). “I don’t want to go to communion if you are there anyways.”PC

But I learned my lesson. When a couple of years later I was hired at my current Catholic college in New England and we managed to escape from Memphis, I asked the chair of the department that had just hired me, a Dominican sister, about what would happen if I as a non-Catholic went for communion at the chapel on campus. She replied with what I have come to recognize as a typical response on this matter: “I would have no trouble with it, but there are some on campus who probably would.” Given that those “some” probably included a few of the geezer Dominican priests in my new philosophy department, I decided that discretion was the greater part of valor and chose not to try it out. I never have received communion on campus in nineteen years.

And that’s been fine. I’ve even made a point of attending mass once in a while and being one of the handful of people among hundreds not to go to communion. Given that many students show up unaware that “non-Catholic Christian” is not an oxymoron, it’s a good “show-and-tell” moment. But the issue arose unexpectedly seven years ago when, while on sabbatical for four months, I found myself at daily prayers several times a day with a bunch of Benedictine monks. During those months I was experiencing a great deal of internal spring cleaning and scouring; my spirit was reviving and I was discovering inner resources I had been unaware of my whole life. As I gradually awakened to a new perspective, AbbeyI realized that not sharing communion—something that had been hit or miss with me for years—with these new Benedictine friends was becoming a problem.

One Saturday at dinner I asked one of the older monks, a physicist who had taught at the university attached to the Abbey for decades before his retirement a few years earlier in his middle seventies, what I should do. “Wilfred, I would like to receive communion at the Abbey,” I said, “but I’m not Catholic and I know that it’s against the rules for me to receive. What do you think?” “I’ll tell you what Kilian (an even older monk at the next table) always says,” Wilfred replied. “Our policy is ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” “But I just told you.” “And I forgot what you said.” Abbot JohnThe next day I queued up to receive communion after several weeks of sitting in the pew while others went to the front. “The body of Christ,” the Abbot said to me with a huge smile as he held the host in front of me. “Welcome.” Over the past seven years I have returned to the Abbey on many occasions, usually unannounced. Each time after the first morning, noon, or evening prayer I attend, Kilian seeks me out and gives me a big hug. “Welcome home.” That’s exactly how it feels.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, as his French countrymen and women were swept up into the violent storm of the Wars of Religion that followed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, Michel de Montaigne had a simple observation to make about our ludicrous human pretensions to know the mind of God. MontaigneAs Protestants and Catholics regularly killed each other in the name of orthodoxy and right worship, Montaigne wrote that

Nothing is so firmly believed as whatever we know least about . . . For a Christian it suffices to believe that all things come from God, to accept them with an acknowledgement of His holy unsearchable wisdom and so to take them in good part, under whatever guise they are sent. . . . It is hard to bring matters divine down to human scale without their being trivialized.

Good to remember, every time we get worked up about who may or may not be part of our group, or get worked up about those who get worked up about such things. I’m reminded of a song I heard many years ago in church, a song with an annoying tune but an important text: “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy.” And oh, no meat on Fridays in Lent on campus isn’t that bad after all—it means that the soup of the day in the cafeteria will be New England Clam Chowder. Awesome.clam chowder

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That Mary Thing

I have a colleague and friend with whom I share a lot in common. Eric and I are both “Johnnies,” graduates of the St. John’s College Great Books curriculum (he graduated a few years before I did in the seventies). SJCWe are both Simone Weil scholars and aficionados (he founded the American Weil Society more than thirty years ago). He was an outside reader on one of my books, as I was on one of his a few years later. And we are both hardcore Protestants. I write about my Baptist roots frequently in this blog; Eric is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has been a theology professor, a college chaplain, and for the past several years has been a hired-gun interim pastor for several large Presbyterian congregations on the Eastern seaboard.

Eric and I see each other once a year at most at the annual Weil colloquies. A few years ago as we chatted at dinner I found myself describing my professional life as a non-Catholic who has been teaching philosophy in Catholic institutions of higher learning for more than two decades. “I could never be a Catholic,” Eric observed. “I just don’t get that Mary thing.” Neither do I. But every fourth Sunday of Advent, including this coming Sunday, is “Mary Sunday,” testament-of-mary-book-jacketso every year I get to think about the Mary phenomenon once again.

A couple of years ago I read Colm Toibin’s novella The Testament of Mary. Toibin places the reader in the mind of Mary many years after her son was crucified. She is full of guilt and bitterness, has little use for Matthew and John who visit on occasion to fact check their accounts of Jesus’ life, and is convinced that her son’s death was not worth it. The book is not for the Christian faint of heart—the gentle, submissive, ethereal, and holy Mary of tradition and art masterpieces is nowhere to be found. But as always, I found it exhilarating to consider a religious icon as the flesh-and-blood human being that she was.

I believe that over the centuries Christians have made two mistakes concerning Mary. We have treated her either as a museum piece or as a holy relic. In the tradition I grew up in, we treated Mary as a museum piece. The only time I ever heard about Mary was around Christmas or if the text for the day was the marriage at Cana when Jesus is unaccountably rude to her. At Christmas, Mary showed up in the pageant.imagesCAXNTWCG I remember in various Christmas pageants being the innkeeper, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles; once I even got to be Joseph.  So there was a Mary wing in the Baptist Christian museum of my youth, but it was small and uninteresting.

In other Christian traditions, such as the one in which Jeanne grew up, Mary plays a slightly more central role. In these churches Mary often gets more face time in artistic representations than Jesus himself. Attention to Mary has evolved into complicated ritualistic forms which in some cases border on the cultish. San+Gennaro+Festival+Returns+New+York+Little+1r1OJyXXSo3l[1]You may remember a scene from the movie Godfather II  in which a much larger than life statue of Mary is carried reverently through the streets of Manhattan as onlookers attach dollar bills to her. Jeanne tells me that such Mary-as-a-holy-relic events are by no means uncommon—if it’s Tuesday, it must be time for another Mary parade!

Because we have either placed her virtually behind glass or smothered her in ritual, Mary has been effectively hidden from us. But if Mary is neither a museum piece nor a holy relic, who or what is she?

From the few details provided in the gospels, joined together with what we know about the culture in which she lived, we can sketchily picture Mary. Mary is young, most likely in her early teens.2006_the_nativity_story_007[1] She is engaged to Joseph, a man much older than Mary, an engagement arranged between Joseph and Mary’s father. Mary is almost certainly poor. Her skin is darker than suggested in traditional artwork. She has dirt under her fingernails. We do not know whether she has siblings, nor do we know from the gospels anything about her parents. She’s nothing special, just an insignificant young girl living in a nothing town in the eastern backwater of the Roman Empire. And she is visited by an angel.

In scripture, angels are always the heralds of new beginnings, inviting us to adventure. They introduce mystery—they do not clarify. Angels announce new departures and the beginning of something whose end is not in view. This particular angel’s announcement to Mary is an explosion of beauty from the first sentence: annunciation1[1]“Greetings, favored one—the Lord is with you.” And in the narrative of incarnation that Advent prepares us for, the Lord is with all of us. “Greetings, favored ones—the Lord is with us.” We are all too aware of our humanity, of our shortcomings and failings, that we bear the burden, as John Henry Newman wrote, of “some aboriginal calamity.” But we are also the bearers of the divine. The promise of incarnation is that God chooses, inexplicably, miraculously, to inhabit flawed and imperfect matter, to become human. The promise to Mary is the promise to us—the Lord is with us. We, as Mary, are the wombs from which the divine enters the world each day. We are the incubators of God.  Mary’s response to Gabriel is the only one possible—“How can this be?” It is a mystery. It is also a great story.

When Mary gathers herself sufficiently to comment on the angel’s announcement after he leaves, she begins in the right place. “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is saying that “I’m nothing special. I’m just a garden variety human being. But the divine has shown remarkable and glorious favor toward me and has bestowed abundant blessing on me by choosing to inhabit me.” There is only one possible reason for this favor, because Mary knows that she has done nothing to earn it. This reason is love. Love is holy because it is a lot like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. The astounding mystery and wonder of God’s love for us permeates throughout the beautiful story of the Annunciation. This favor and blessing continues. hands_and_feet_2[1]The incarnation narrative—the story of God becoming flesh—is a direct response to our inherent flaws, imperfections, limitations, and evil. Divine favor and blessing is offered to all of us. And the status of humanity is raised when God inhabits it. I remember singing a Sunday School song that included the lines “we are his hands, we are his feet.” That is the mystery, the scandal, and the beauty of the incarnation story: God entrusts flawed human beings to be the divine in the world.

At St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville Minnesota, Benedictine priestdiekmann[1] Godfrey Diekmann was a rock star. He and his mentor, Fr. Virgil Michael, were perhaps more responsible for liturgical reform and renewal in the Catholic Church than any others. When I was a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute at St. John’s in the Spring 2009 semester, I heard many Godfrey Diekmann stories—his wit as well as his temper were legendary. My favorite of these stories might be apocryphal, but I heard it so often that I suspect it is true. One evening while eating with colleagues and students in the student dining room, Diekmann got involved in a spirited conversation about the heart of Christian theology and life. He startled those at his table as well as those within earshot by slamming his hand on the table and shouting “It’s not the Resurrection, god-dammit! It’s the Incarnation!” As students, stunned into silence, slipped away he added “But we don’t believe it. We don’t believe that we are invited to become the very life of God.” The Christmas we anticipate—that is incubating in each of us—is the moment of salvation as God enters time, history, and each of us.matthew_fox_original_blessing[1]

We are His hands. We are his feet. It almost makes me agree with former Dominican Matthew Fox, who has argued for years that the doctrine of original sin should be replaced with the doctrine of original blessing.

NativityAdvent’s strongest image is pregnancy. Elizabeth’s . . . Mary’s . . . so unexpected, so miraculous. Advent reminds us that in our lives there is always a child ready to enter the world—the divine child that is in each of us and the child of God that each of us is. So here we all are, favored of God, loved by God, regardless of whether we feel it or deserve it. A great gift has been placed in us, a gift that carries with it unlimited responsibility. How will we nurture this child? How will we bring it to birth? What is incubating in each of us is as individual and unique as each of us is—and it is divine. How will we welcome this child? Mary’s response must be ours: “Here we are, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your Word.”024