- A few bumper stickers on the car in front of me at a stop light. Now are you beginning to understand why I didn’t vote for Obama? Can’t think of any reasons without knowing you—maybe you always vote Republican? Maybe you are opposed to more people having health insurance, believe that global warming is a hoax, are opposed to same-sex marriage . . . I really don’t know. Scott Walker for President. Or maybe you’re just an idiot. Then I noticed a New York Yankees sticker. That explains everything.
- I don’t want to live in California, and if I was forced to I would avoid SoCal like the plague. Still, I was impressed when I heard on NPR that the Los Angeles Times no longer publishes op-eds that deny that global warming is real and that human beings are major contributors to it. Why? For the same reason they would not publish letters denying that the earth is spherical. As the commenter said, when of 1000 qualified scientists 998 agree that global warming is real and the two who disagree are on the payroll of Big Oil, “the other side” no longer exists.
- Someone needs to invent a holiday that will land roughly between July 4th and Halloween on the calendar. Labor Day doesn’t count—I mean the sort of useless and over-hyped holiday that consumers will spend shitloads of money on. That way I won’t have to see what I saw in the local supermarket on August 3—a full aisle stocked floor to top with Halloween candy. That’s three months before the date, folks.
- My favorite sort of discussion (very common on Facebook) is the one in which the person with whom I am disagreeing doesn’t know the difference between disagreement and lack of comprehension. You know, the sort of person who continually says “What is it about my perfectly clear and 100% correct position that you don’t understand?” since of course there is no possible chance that I might understand perfectly and just disagree. Or that the person in question might just be wrong. Or that there is more than one supportable position on the issue. Sigh.
- For the “Who Knew?” file: Apparently many people have better things to do during the summer than read my blog.
- I struggled mightily over the weeks leading up to the first Republican candidate for President clown-car debate concerning whether I should watch it or not. I want to be an informed voter, of course, but the chances of my gathering any new information from the debate that might affect my vote a year from November are about as high as the chances of a bear not shitting in the woods. So the question has been whether the entertainment value (such as what the Donald will do the first time he is told that his two minutes are up and he doesn’t want to stop pontificating) will match or outweigh the threat to my blood pressure presented by voluntarily listening to people say things that I not only do not agree with but also would like to punch them in the face for saying.
- Update: I decided to risk my health and watch the debate. My impressions from last week: The Wicked
- Any number of forty-five minute sessions on a stationary bike at the gym all added together are not worth one forty-five minute ride on a real bicycle on any of the many wonderful bike paths in Rhode Island. This is going to make staying in shape during this coming winter very difficult.
- The next time I read or hear someone saying that he or she finds Donald Trump’s routine “refreshing,” I think I’m going to puke. There is absolutely nothing refreshing about someone saying whatever the hell they want, then saying “fuck you” to anyone who calls them on it. Unless you find galactic rudeness and arrogance “refreshing,” that is.
- More on the topic of bicycling—I’ve learned a few things about protocol and procedure in just a bit more over a month. Who walks, skateboards, runs, or rides where is pretty simple and clearly marked. Whoever is going faster works around whoever is going slower. It’s okay either to smile and say “good morning” to people as you meet them or pass them, but it’s also permissible to simply nod, or even to stare straight ahead and do nothing. And a rule that I strongly approve of—do not talk on your cell phone while doing whatever you are doing on the bike path. This isn’t listed anywhere, but the word has apparently gotten around. In dozens of hours of riding over the past several weeks, I have only encountered someone talking on their cell phone twice on the trail—both times it was more jarring than someone talking out loud on their phone at a movie theater.
- I heard last week that certain factions in the Democratic party want Al Gore to run for President. Al’s response should be: “I ran for President sixteen years ago and won. Been there, done that.”
- For those wondering about my response to the welfare in my back yard that I wrote about two or three weeks ago, an update. Welfare in My Back Yard I have learned that even creatures with brains the size of BBs can modify their behaviors. On the advice of several commenters on the blog and on Facebook, I reduced the number of suet cakes per day from six to three. The first few mornings I did this the three cakes were gone in less than an hour, then dozens of birds hung around for the rest of the day with the same “I’m starving” look that my dachshund Frieda puts on her face when she hasn’t eaten anything interesting in the past fifteen minutes. But soon I noticed that the three cakes were lasting until the end of the day; some mornings I found that there were still a few molecules left over from the day before. Our sparrows, finches, wrens, woodpecker (just one) and chickadees have learned how to pace themselves, in other words. Or maybe a bunch of them have discovered a bird version of Olive Garden’s unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks somewhere else in the neighborhood. Or maybe some of them died of starvation. But we’re saving $90 a month.
I have been on sabbatical officially for a bit over a month—in many ways, it doesn’t feel any different from the middle of any summer for an academic. I’ve been reading and writing a lot, something that all academics do during the summer. I’ve been spending a lot of time working in the yard, something I always enjoy doing in the summer. The greatest evidence that this summer is unusual is that since July 1 I have been riding my new bicycle 15-25 miles every day. And this reminds me that this isn’t just the summer—it’s the beginning of sabbatical. I received sufficient funds to purchase a beautiful new bicycle from my very generous colleagues who teach in the academic program I directed for the past four years, money presented to me as a thank you gift (along with a very expensive and very lovely bottle of Laphroaig) at a surprise reception after the program’s annual end-of-the-academic-year workshop in May. I have only been to the gym twice since July 1 (my habit has been four times per week for the past twenty or more years) because I have ridden my bicycle every day but two since July 1. I highly recommend it.
August tends to be the month when professors remember that they actually will be teaching classes within a few weeks and put the final touches on each of their fall syllabi (or begin their syllabi if they are less anal about class preparation than I tend to be). And now I’m beginning to feel weird, because I have no syllabi to prepare. With a full academic year sabbatical, I will not be in the classroom again until the day after Labor Day 2016. I know that my colleagues who are getting ready for the students who will arrive on campus in a month are probably jealous of those colleagues who are on sabbatical—but I don’t feel guilty about that. I felt the same way each of the last six Augusts about my colleagues who were beginning sabbatical. Unfortunately sabbatical only shows up once every seven years—that means that six out of every seven Augusts a professor is going to be overwhelmed by envy.
Explaining sabbatical to non-academics is very difficult, and in my experience most academics do a lousy job at such explanations. Most non-academics do not know exactly what sabbatical is. But they do know that for a semester or year the person on sabbatical is not going to be in the classroom, which means (obviously) that sabbatical is vacation. When a teacher is not in the classroom, she is not working—right? No amount of explaining that sabbatical is the time when professors research, write and publish, all of which are requirements for promotion and tenure (another academic thing non-academics don’t get), or of describing the hoops that must be jumped through (proposals, committees, etc.) in order to be approved for tenure matters a whit. What makes you so special to warrant getting several months off every seventh year? Paid, no less? Do you think you work harder than normal people do? Do you live in a rarified atmosphere than normal mortals can only aspire to? This, of course, is likely to produce an ill-conceived and defensive response from the academic, who then comes off sounding as if she really does think she is special, that he does work harder than anyone else, that the academic does deserve a perk that virtually no one else has access to. But I think we can do better than this, fellow professors. Step one—stop apologizing for having access to something that, in a better world of work and employment, would be the norm rather than the exception.
The other day on one of the NPR shows I listen to when in the car (I forget which one—they all start melding together after a certain time), Netflix’s newly announced policy of a full year’s paid leave to new parent employees was the topic of discussion. “Wow, those wild and crazy companies like Netflix, Google and Microsoft! Unlimited vacation time, no required number of working hours per week, and now this! What will they think of next?” A bit of perspective was provided by a caller about twenty minutes in. The caller was from Scotland but married an American and lives in the U.S. He reported that when each of his children was born, his wife was allowed a mere six weeks of paid maternity leave, then she had to return to work. By comparison, when his sister gave birth recently in Scotland, by statute her employer was required to provide her with six months of paid maternity leave, to be followed by six more months at half salary if she chose to avail herself of it. “What’s driving me crazy about the conversation so far,” the caller said, “is that everyone is saying what a great and spectacular thing policies like Netflix’s family leave program are. But this is how things should be. Every employer beyond a specified size should have to provide a year’s paid leave. This isn’t a luxury—it’s how people should be treated.”
Rather than getting defensive when conversing with non-academics about sabbaticals, professors should make a similar argument to the one offered by the guy from Scotland. The idea of Sabbath and sabbatical is ancient—most people who know anything about it know that several chapters in the Pentateuch from the Jewish scriptures describe in detail how a scheduled change in the daily, monthly, yearly routine is to be a fundamental part of the fabric of Israelite life. Not just for people, but also for the land, for non-human animals, and even for God itself if the divine seventh day rest in the first chapter of Genesis is to be taken seriously. Why are the Sabbath and sabbatical years commanded in the Jewish law? Not because the children of Israel worked harder than anyone else or because they deserve it more than other human beings, but because the rhythms of work and rest, of activity and contemplation, of expending energy and recharging batteries, are built into the very fabric of the world we find ourselves part of. Stepping back and taking a look at things from a different angle in the middle of a culture fully dedicated to manic production and 24-7 work sounds like a quaint luxury, but really it is a psychological necessity.
Benedictine leisure is a life lived with a continuing commitment to the development of a culture with a Sabbath mind . . . The purpose of Sabbath is to reflect on life, to determine whether what we’re doing and who we are is what we should be doing and who we want to be. Sabbath is meant to bring wisdom and action together. It provides the space we need to begin again.
The devil, of course, is in the details. Jeanne pointed out that employers could set up programs where employees wanting sabbaticals could have a seventh or a tenth of their salary set aside from each paycheck to accumulate until the seventh or tenth year came—and sabbatical money would be waiting for them. Good start, I say, but I’d go even further—savvy employers will fund these sabbaticals because it will empower their employees in a way that a raise or a couple of extra vacation days could never do. The immediate pushback, of course, is that such a proposal strikes directly at the heart of capitalist efficiency and productivity. To which I respond
I myself am a testimonial to the power of sabbatical. As Joan Chittister writes in the above passage, one of the purposes of sabbatical is to determine whether who we are is who we want to be. During my last sabbatical, before I even was consciously aware of it, I started asking that question—and I found that at least in some important parts of my life the answer was “no.” I was not the person I wanted to be. In reflecting, then acting, on that emerging awareness, internal changes occurred that would have never happened without the time and space provided by sabbatical. It offered me the opportunity to begin again and changed my life—I highly recommend it.
Every summer one of my projects is to tackle a novelist of notable reputation whose work I have never read. I think this summer’s novelist is going to be J. M. Coetzee, the multiple-award-winning South African novelist of whom I have heard much but read nothing. Apparently one of the teams in the program I run assigned Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year as an example of post-modern fiction; there were a few copies on one of the bookshelves in the main office, so I picked one up and started reading on the bicycle at the gym the other day. I like it. Señor C, an aging but famous writer who is the primary narrator of the novel, has been asked to contribute several short essays on contemporary and controversial topics to a volume entitled “Strong Opinions.” Señor C’s attention span has become too short to sustain longer writing projects, and anyways, what’s not to like about this call for opinionated essays? “An opportunity to grumble in public, an opportunity to take magic revenge on the world for declining to conform to my fantasies: how could I refuse?”
SeñorCM’s prospective grumbling in public immediately reminded me of an Op-Ed in the New York Times last Sunday entitled “What’s the Point of a Professor?” submitted by Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein.
The Facebook tag for this essay is “We used to be mentors and moral authorities. Now we just hand out A’s.” The general thrust of Bauerlein’s argument is to bemoan the loss of the good old days in academe when undergraduates thirsting for meaning and a moral compass sat enthralled at the feet of brilliant professors just waiting to mentor and disciple their young charges into moral and epistemological adulthood. “I revered many of my teachers,” one colleague wistfully remembered from his 60s college education, while Bauerlein compares stumbling over the legs of dozens of English majors sitting in the hall outside the doors of their professors for consultations while a student at UCLA in the 80s with the vastly reduced number of outstretched student legs in the same halls when he returned to his alma mater in February. Students and professors don’t talk outside of class anymore. The reverence is definitely decreasing. In the good old days, “students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding. Since then, though, finding meaning and making money have traded places.” Bauerlein has the survey numbers to back it up—and they add up to an identity crisis for professors. “When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes.” But to what?
Bauerlein closes his Op-Ed with a call for the professoriate to change its ways, pointing out that “You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it.” If we fail to do that, “We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration. We become accreditors.” I posted the link to this essay on a Facebook page for the faculty where I teach, simply asking “Worthy of discussion?” One colleague in theology immediately asked tongue-in-cheek “Can someone summarize this for me? I’m pretty busy grading . . .” And so was everyone else—the Op-Ed came in the middle of finals, after all. But now my final grades are in and I have a few preliminary points to offer.
- Although Bauerlein scatters some numbers from uncited surveys and a smattering of data from uncited studies into his essay, most of his argument is rooted in anecdote. I have no problem with this in principle—as a good friend and colleague once said, “As academics get older we tend to slip farther and farther into our anecdotage.” Where I do have a problem is when anecdote turns into sermonizing. No one likes that, especially from someone who has no particular claim to authority other than having been doing what he does for a long time. In Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, Señor C’s typist and transcriber Anya exhibits this sort of annoyance after reading a little too much pontificating from the old guy. There is a tone—I don’t know the best word to describe it—a tone that really turns people off. A know-it-all tone. Everything is cut and dried: I am the one with all the answers, here is how it is, don’t argue, it won’t get you anywhere. . . . I wish you would cut it out. Amen.
- A number of years ago the chair of the philosophy department frequently would say in department meetings that, in her estimation, one of the primary goals of the philosophy department was to shape and mold our students into moral human beings. I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t. Making moral people is well above my skill level and pay grade. I also do not believe that I am anyone’s moral authority or light, a mentor seeking disciples, or a possible object of someone’s reverence. As I posted a few months ago on this blog, I’m not even looking to be my students’ friend. I Am Not Your Friend I’m a teacher. More on that later.
- Bauerlein writes that “In 1960, only 15 percent of grades were in the ‘A’ range, but now the rate is 43 percent, making ‘A’ the most common grade by far.” I’ll ignore his assumption that people who get A’s can’t possibly have also developed a moral compass or found meaning, and simply mention that apparently the memo about grade inflation hasn’t gotten to my corner of the academic world yet. I was fully responsible for all of the grading for sixty-two students in my three classes this semester. Final grades are in, and five of those students earned an ‘A’ or ‘A-minus’. That’s 8 percent, in case you are keeping track, and it is typical. Last fall in the large program I direct, a program in which sixty faculty and just short of 1800 students were involved last semester, 13.5 percent of the grades earned were ‘A’ or ‘A-minus’. I don’t know what’s going on at Emory or UCLA—I have heard that there is serious grade inflation at some of the elite institutions of higher learning in this country—but in my anecdotage I am pleased to report that students are still receiving the grades that they earn in my corner of things.
- I don’t know why students weren’t sitting in the hall at UCLA waiting to converse with their professors on the day that Bauerlein visited his alma mater last February, but on the frequent days when my colleagues’ and my offices are filled with students seeking advice and input I think we wish something similar might infect our students just to give us a break. And by the way, email communication can be a very effective and efficient form of interaction between student and professor (Bauerlein doesn’t think it can be). Students keep strange hours—I frequently spend my first early hours of the day (6:00-8:00 AM) reading and responding to a dozen or more good questions, comments, and observations about course work and life in general that I have received from my night-owl students in the early hours of the morning. They never seem to sleep (except, on occasion, in class).
As a professor, I am a facilitator of lifetime learning, a person who points students in fruitful directions, helping them identify and become skillful in the use of tools that will help them construct their own moral frameworks intelligently. The liberally educated lifetime learner is equipped both to seek and create meaning throughout her life. I take pride in playing a part in this process. I have thought a lot over the past twenty-five years about the day-to-day dynamic between professor and student; I continually return to the difference between an idol and an icon.
The point of a professor is to be Virgil to the student’s Dante, guiding the educational journey, relying on knowledge and experience to point out the pitfalls and attractions of a passage that each person must encounter individually. The professor helps the student learn to identify what is important and what is not in the perpetual sifting process of education. The professor is not the main attraction at any point in this process. The professor is an icon—something to look through or past, in other words—rather than an idol—something to look at. There is a reason, Professor Bauerlein, that the Second Commandment is a prohibition against idolatry. Human beings are inveterate idolaters, more than happy to pattern themselves after someone or something else rather than to take on responsibility for themselves. For those who are interested in creatively addressing the undoubtedly real shift in higher education toward preparation for a good job and financial success that has been going on for a while now, I highly recommend iconography. As for your call for a return to idolatry: I wish you would cut it out.
Not long ago a friend and colleague told me, as we were having a beer or two (or three) at our favorite local watering hole, that my blog reminds him of Anne Lamott’s work. That was maybe the nicest thing anyone ever has said to me about my writing. In Bird by Bird, her excellent book about the writing process, Anne Lamott writes that aspiring writers should write what they would love to find. I remember a number of years ago when I picked up her collection of essays Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith from a table of new paperbacks in Borders. I’m always drawn to any book outside the Religion or Theology or New Age section of a bookstore with the F-word in it, so I took a look. It turned out to be exactly what she described in Bird by Bird—what I love to find. Irreverence, sarcasm, God-obsession, brutal honesty, social activism, a heart of gold . . . what’s not to like? As I frequently do when I discover an author, I immediately purchased everything she had ever published and over the subsequent years have waited anxiously for her next publication. I can take or leave her fiction, but her non-fiction comes closer to what I’d like to be able to write myself of anything I’ve ever read. Knowing that a post or two in my blog reminded someone of Anne Lamott made my day—perhaps my year.
I recently finished reading Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Nadia is what Anne Lamott would have been had she become an ordained Lutheran minister and started her own church. Bolz-Weber came to my attention when, as we were our way to the early show at church a few weeks ago, Jeanne and I caught a few minutes of Krista Tippett’s NPR show “On Being.” Nadia Bolz-Weber was the guest on this particular Sunday; she’s the tattoo-and-piercings covered, former addict and stand-up comedian Lutheran pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints church in Denver. She has a sleeve tattoo of the entire liturgical year on her right arm. Things work a bit differently in Pastor Bolz-Weber’s church, including a blessing of the bicycles liturgy, a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font on Easter, and an occasional event called “Beer and Hymns.” The five or so minutes worth of the show we heard on the way to church prompted Jeanne and me to listen to the whole broadcast on line once we returned home.
The book is part memoir, part popular theology, and filled with truth that alternates between hilarious, penetrating, and heart-breaking—often on the same page. How can you not love a book by a minister whose first sentence is “‘Shit,’ I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be late to New Testament class’”? Put that together with an f-bomb or two in each chapter (Nadia’s vocabulary is a bit earthier than Anne Lamott’s, at last in print), and the book is a roller-coaster from beginning to end. And there are portions of it that are surprising, jerked me up short, and caused me to think carefully about our natural human self-righteousness and smugness—something that I find myself afflicted by on a regular basis.
Bolz-Weber relates an amusing but telling story about how her open-armed and welcoming attitudes toward all comers to her church was seriously challenged once the word got out that Sunday at the House of All Saints and Sinners was something worth checking out. This church’s raison d’etre is to be a sanctuary and safe haven for persons who have been damaged and rejected by all sorts of churches of every imaginable denomination and description. Outsiders of every stripe—race, sexual orientation, gender, disability, drug addiction, alcoholism, you name it—these are the people who are the founding members of HFASS (as they call it). Creative liturgies, each parishioner having the opportunity to do whatever they feel led to do on a given Sunday (including delivering the sermon), create a dynamic atmosphere of inclusion that cannot help but attract attention. Bolz-Weber has become something of a rock star and a speaker in great demand.
Consequently, different sorts of people started showing up for Sunday services—people in suits, soccer moms with well-scrubbed kids in tow, Denver’s equivalent of Wall Street executives—the sorts of folks that one might find in any church on any Sunday morning. And Bolz-Weber was pissed. “I don’t want these people here,” she thought. “My outsider congregation, the people for whom I started this ministry, are going to feel uncomfortable. The newcomers aren’t going to fit in with our free-wheeling, out-of-the-box liturgies.” As she considered more fully, Nadia realized that she was struggling with a question at least as old as the church itself; as she writes, “Disagreements about ‘inclusion’—about who is in and who is out–began approximately twenty minutes after Christianity started.” Why? Because no matter how open-minded and loving we think we are, no one is comfortable with everyone being included in anything. As Nadia says, “I will always encounter people whom I don’t want in the tent with me.”
Yet we are admonished over and over again in the gospels to pay special attention to the outsider, the disenfranchised, those who fall through the cracks in whatever social or religious scheme is operative. Why? Is the outsider, the person radically different from those in my tent, better than me? With the help of Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, I’m beginning to suspect that something different is going on.
Williams suggests that Jesus’s apparent obsession with the outsider is a reminder of our human limitations and inability to create a world in which everyone is included, despite our best efforts and intentions. These limitations show us where the divine resides. “God appears in and through the fact that our ways of arranging the world always leave someone’s interest, welfare or reality out of account. We cannot organize our world so as to leave everyone a possible place. We are unavoidably bound to exclusion as we try to give form to our social and moral life.” Every time I organize my world in a way that makes sense, vast categories of human beings fall by the wayside. If I am willing to include those persons in my world only if they are willing to conform to my agenda for them, I am saying, or implying at least, that my peculiar and particular vision of what is right is the only possible vision. As Williams writes, the greater and holier challenge is to forego any presumption that I know what is best and to realize instead that “the outsider’s very presence poses a question that reminds me that my account of things, my way of making the world all right and manageable, is an incomplete enterprise that is keeping out God because it lets in the subtle temptation to treat my perspective as if it were God’s.”
Strangely enough, the best intended efforts to institutionalize or organize God’s will on earth are always doomed to failure precisely because the divine cannot be institutionalized. Our efforts to bring the gospel into the world must begin with recognizing our own human limitations. “God is in the connections we cannot make . . . The person who is ‘left over’ . . . reminds me of my own limits; and as I acknowledge the incomplete character of my world of reference and my understanding, I may at least see the seriousness of the question about the fate of those not catered for.”
There are times when I just cannot believe what I get myself into. Latest example: I joined a reading group and committed to reading War and Peace over the summer at a pace of 150 pages or so per week. As if I don’t have enough to read with teaching two brand new courses during the next academic year, as well as the 24-7 demands of running a big academic program that never stop, blah, blah, blah. Actually, I’m having a lot of fun rediscovering Tolstoy through this 1350 page novel that I have not read since my undergraduate days. The philosopher in me prefers Dostoevsky’s depth, darkness, and weirdness, but the reader and novel lover in me resonates with Tolstoy. It’s just that I’m not getting anything else done. I’m reading Tolstoy on the elliptical machine at the gym, Tolstoy on campus when I should be writing important emails and attending important meetings, Tolstoy at home when I should be staying current with “The Voice” and “Mad Men.” On my silent retreat this coming week, during which I’m planning to write at least eighty-three new essays for my blog, I’m sure I’ll be reading Tolstoy instead.
When I read a great work of literature, and they don’t come any greater than War and Peace, I always find myself resonating with a particular character, more or the less the character I would be if I were to jump into the novel. About five hundred pages into War and Peace (a chapter or so past the Introduction, in other words), that character is Prince Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky. I find Natasha, the main female character, annoying and Pierre, the main male character, needs a good kick in the ass, but I get Andrei. This morning on the stationary bicycle at the gym, Andrei went through an experience so familiar to me that it was scary. As a young twenty-something Andrei joined the Russian army as an officer and fought against the forces of Napoleon at Austerlitz. Wounded in battle and presumed dead, Andrei finds his way home to his family just in time for his wife to die in giving birth to their first child. Now, two years later, Andrei is depressed, cynical, and finding it difficult to find joy or meaning in anything. Travelling in early spring to one of his estates, Pyotr his footman comments on the beauty of the April morning, the flowers, and the new leaves on the birch trees. Andrei’s attention is drawn instead to a stand of stagnant fir trees, then to an apparently dead oak tree. “With its huge ungainly limbs sprawling unsymmetrically, and its gnarled hands and fingers, it stood an aged, stern, and scornful monster among the smiling birch-trees.”
“Spring, love, happiness!” this oak seems to say. “Are you not weary of that stupid, meaningless, constantly repeated fraud? Always the same, and always a fraud! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness! Look at those cramped dead firs, ever the same, and at me too, sticking out my broken and barked fingers just where they have grown, whether from my back or my sides: as they have grown so I stand, and I do not believe in your hopes and your lies.”
And Andrei’s mood and recent experiences are confirmed. “Let others—the young—yield afresh to that fraud, but we know life, our life is finished!”
Andrei’s oak reminds me of another oak, the massive one a hundred feet or so outside the front door of my Collegeville Institute apartment door where I spent four sabbatical months a few years ago. I arrived in the middle of a Minnesota winter; although I am not prone to depression as Andrei was, I realize in retrospect that I carried deep within me a spiritual malaise and ennui that had been festering for years. My Collegeville oak looked as I felt inwardly that January—bare, cold, snow-covered, with few signs of life. Over the succeeding weeks, this oak became an inescapable presence in my life (it was the first thing I saw as I stepped out of my front door) and a metaphor for what was happening to me.
As the snow piled up, then slowly melted over the first couple of months, I found an accompanying inner thaw occurring, facilitated by the warmth of daily forays into the liturgy of the hours with the monks at St. John’s Abbey a half mile or so up the road. One March morning as I stumbled back from the common area at the Institute with my morning Keurig coffee in tow, I walked up on a dozen or so deer hanging out under the oak. They apparently had also been there right under my nose ten minutes earlier as I emerged from my apartment half-asleep and oblivious to the world on my way to the common area. As they noticed me noticing them, they gave me their unique white-assed salute as they sauntered away. Signs of spring under the oak, which was still naked.
As April came and other trees budded into their springtime growth, my oak remained apparently lifeless. Then one morning as I walked past it taking my usual shortcut to the road up to the Abbey for 7:00 morning prayer, I noticed that on the ends of its lowest and smallest twigs signs of new growth were first emerging. “So you’re alive after all, huh?” I muttered as I continued on, the same observation I had been making more and more frequently about myself as deeper and deeper spaces cracked open after a lifetime of neglect. I regularly took pictures from my front doorstep to track the oak’s emergence into life and wrote essays to track my parallel inner emergence.
As the oak grew into full-blown spring splendor over the succeeding weeks, it more and more became my daily touchstone. “Hey there,” I would say as I walked by three or four times a day coming or going, and I imagined that if I were able to live in tree time rather than human time, I would have heard a deep, rumbling, ponderous, Tolkien Ent-like “Hey yourself” in return. The oak’s stability and lack of hurry became my own goal as I practiced slowing down and plugging into the rhythms of the newly discovered energies within me.
Four years later, when I think of Collegeville the first image that invariably comes to mind is my oak. Growth, stability, silence, fortitude, rootedness—it represents all of the things that I hope to have carried at least a bit from my months in Minnesota. On the half-dozen or so return visits I have made, a visit to the oak with more pictures has always been a “must-do.” I have never been at Collegeville during the autumn, so I do not know what Minnesota foliage is like nor what colors the oak wears in late September and early October. I was raised in northern Vermont, the fall foliage capital of the universe, and in my imagination I see the oak garbed in brilliant orange, my favorite fall foliage color. Yellow or red would be okay, but I’ll bet it’s orange.
After Andrei encounters his oak tree in War and Peace, he spends several days inspecting his large land holdings, and then heads back toward his home outside of Moscow. Looking for the oak where he remembered first seeing it, he is at first confused.
Without recognizing it he looked with admiration at the very oak he sought. The old oak, quite transfigured, spreading out a canopy of sappy dark-green foliage, stood rapt and slightly trembling in the rays of the evening sun. Neither gnarled fingers nor old scars nor old doubts and sorrows were in evidence now. Through the hard century-old bark, even where there were no twigs, leaves had sprouted such as one could hardly believe the old veteran could have produced.
“’Yes, it is the same oak,’ thought Prince Andrei, and all at once he was seized by an unreasoning spring-time feeling of joy and renewal.” Over the next eight hundred and fifty pages, I’m sure that Andrei will grapple more than once with depression and sorrow. But an encounter with what Isaiah would have called an “oak of righteousness” has changed him for good. I know exactly how you feel, Andrei.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.