Category Archives: music

What Silence Sounds Like

Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again. “The Sound of Silence”

One Sunday a couple of months ago as I was listening to our local NPR station in the car during an errand run, I heard a brief piece on “Disturbed,” a heavy metal band that had just received its second Grammy nomination. Their first was in 2009; now, eight years later, they had another one. My knowledge of contemporary heavy metal is non-existent, as is my interest in that musical genre—this would have usually been reason for me to switch to the Boston NPR station to see what they were up to. But Disturbed’s Grammy nomination was for their acoustic cover of a song that was a central tune in the sound track of my youth: Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” I had to listen.

For those familiar with Simon and Garfunkel’s original (link below), a remake or cover of their iconic masterpiece is close to sacrilegious. But the intensity and power of Disturbed’s version is not to be missed—I agree with one commenter on Youtube who called it “chilling and magnificent.” The NPR piece included a brief interview with David Draiman, Disturbed’s lead vocalist. Noting that the choice not to go “heavy metal” with “The Sound of Silence” was the drummer’s idea, Draiman said that the acoustic demands of the song took him to vocal spaces he had not visited in many years.

I was trained to be a cantor, which is someone that leads the Jewish congregation in prayer. So I learned classical vocal technique from a very young age . . . I hadn’t attempted to go to that spot of my vocal ability for very many years. I was so overwhelmed with emotion listening to the way my vocals sounded in that beautiful bed of music. And not having heard my voice in that way for so long, it was really just very, very overwhelming.

I’ve been reminded of this story a number of times over the past two months during the first half of the current semester. I find that questions that ask how human beings are to think about what is greater than us—is there anything greater than us? And if so, what are the implications?—make frequent appearances in my various classes, some planned and some not. This semester has been no exception. Many (a significant majority) of my students come from religious backgrounds (mostly Catholic), but have never analyzed critically or sufficiently exactly what going on when we mere mortals attempt to establish a line of communication with what is greater than us. The formalized version of these attempts is usually called prayer; various worship activities in each of the great monotheistic religion include prayer on a regular basis. As a cantor, David Draiman led such collective attempts to make contact with God, and in response we often get exactly what Paul Simon’s lyrics describe—the sound of silence. Crickets chirping. It’s enough to drive a person of faith nuts. As C. S. Lewis once wrote to his brother Warnie in a letter,

The trouble about God is that he is like a person who never acknowledges one’s letters and so, in time, one comes to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got the address wrong.

I grew up in a prayer-obsessed world; Wednesday nights at church were marked as the time to obsess collectively. As a creative youngster, I usually was able to find something in every foray to church to pique my interest, however briefly. I liked some of the hymns we sang on Sunday morning and evening, for instance, and enjoyed the stories in Sunday school. But we didn’t sing on Wednesday nights—people gave testimonies, and then we prayed. For a very, very, VERY long time. I remember prayers that were more like speeches than anything else, insistent, complaining sorts of speeches whose intent was apparently to wear God down. Not that the things being asked for were unimportant—“please bring X to a saving knowledge of you,” “please heal Y of diabetes,” “please help Z find a job”—but the tone was often strange, petulantly childish, demanding, insinuating that this time, for once, God had damn well better get off His ass and do something. Of course anyone actually saying that at Wednesday prayer service would have been in danger of hellfire, but that’s the atmosphere I remember.

How to pray was a mystery to me—I recall my mother saying frequently that I should just talk to God the same way I talked to her. That never struck me as one of my mother’s better pieces of advice, since I clearly couldn’t talk to an invisible, far away, scary “something” in the same way I could talk to her. But I did learn, as all good Baptist kids learned, how to make up a convincing sounding prayer at the drop of a hat. It’s just that it never seemed to go past the ceiling. Many years later, in a text we are using in one of my courses this semester, Annie Dillard expressed the frustration as clearly as I’ve ever seen.

Are we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe? The silence is often so emphatic. And we have prayed so much already. . . Who is like you, O Lord, among the silent, remaining silent through the suffering of His children?

The best advice I ever received concerning prayer, not surprisingly, came from the person who knows me best. A number of years ago, in response to one of my frequent complaints about divine silence and inscrutability as a “response” to ineffective prayer, Jeanne said “Vance, for you thinking is praying.” It has taken me many years to recognize just how right she was. Although her comment was for me, the larger point is for everyone. Prayer understood on the transactional model, as an attempt at bargaining or pleading with a silent partner who might not even exist, is a guaranteed recipe for frustration and failure. But what if prayer is not something the person of faith is supposed to do? What if, instead, prayer is something that we are called to be? Being a prayer is a matter of learning to recognize and trust the places where the divine is most likely to be found—in myself and in others, in those thin places where the barrier between human and divine dissolves. And people of the book should know this—it’s right in there, both in the Jewish scriptures and the New Testament. Where is the divine to be found?

It is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven . . . nor is it beyond the sea . . . But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.

If prayer is a call for the divine to enter the world, we need to be attentive to where that might be happening—in us and around us. It probably will not be where we expect. As Paul Simon wrote in the last verse of “The Sound of Silence,” the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.

Sixty-One Years On

I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on   Elton John

Tomorrow is my birthday! Sixty-one is nothing special, except that it’s a prime number–so there’s that. I’m reminded of what I wrote for my milestone sixtieth last year; it all still seems appropriate! 

Several years ago Jeanne surprised me with the ultimate in birthday presents—a ticket to an Elton John concert. I have been a devoted Eltonophile for years, even before everyone found out about him with the release of his blockbuster yellow brick road“Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” album in 1973, the album that made him famous. I graduated from high school in 1973, so I’ve been a fan for more than forty years. According to Wikipedia, Sir Elton currently is in fifth place all-time in record sales, just behind Madonna and just ahead of Led Zeppelin (The Beatles, Elvis, and Michael Jackson earned the first three spots). Elton had celebrated his 60th birthday the day before and started the concert with “Sixty Years On” from his second album “Elton John” released in 1970.

The new sexagenarian went without a break for more than two hours, the first hour filled with tunes from his pre-Yellow Brick Road years, tunes that the youngsters in the crowd had probably never heard. But the real Elton fans in attendance loved it—we knew Elton’s stuff before he became Elton John.

The lyrics of “Sixty Years On” are generally incomprehensible, as Bernie Taupin’s lyrics often are, but there is one line that is particularly haunting: I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on. The album including “Sixty Years On” was released when Elton was 23 years old, so he can be forgiven for not wanting to live for an ungodly six decades (We are both of the generation that used to say no one over thirty should be trusted). sixty happensBut I turn sixty in two days, so indulge me as I reflect a bit on why sixty years on ain’t so bad after all.

My age has never been a negative issue for me—I passed 50 without a hitch a decade ago and don’t see 60 as any more problematic. I’m very healthy (my doctor says I’m his most boring patient), was in the best shape of my life before I broke my leg in October (and intend to get back there in short order once spring arrives and I’m back on my bike), and have always thought of myself as at least a decade younger than the calendar says. Still . . . 60 is a lot of years. In many periods of history, and in many parts of the world now, I would have been dead for a long time by this age. Even in my most optimistic moments I have to admit that I have probably already lived more than two-thirds of my allotted years on earth. Although I have regularly said that I will never retire and will die in the classroom at age 100 or so, I have heard myself say more and more frequently over the past few months in various contexts that I’ll be teaching for at least another ten years (what will I do after 70—RETIRE??). I’m already older than my mother was when she died. The older I get, the more the ancient Stoics’ advice to never forget one’s mortality makes sense, since it is much easier to pretend that one is immortal when one is twenty or thirty than when one is facing sixty. senecaThe Stoics had a great deal of good advice concerning how to be with the comparatively short human shelf life.

For instance, Seneca writes that Life is long if you know how to use it and that We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. We all know that the passage of time is subjective—a fifty-minute class can feel like fifteen or one hundred fifty minutes depending on any number of factors. Seneca’s point is that even though the objective length of my life is not within my control, how my life passes is within my control. Within the parameters of my existence, my life will be as long or as short, as meaningful or as meaningless, as I choose it to be. Stoic-EpiticusAnother great Stoic, Epictetus, describes it this way:

Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind as the playwright chooses: short, if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, play even this part well; and so also for the parts of a disabled person, an administrator, or a private individual. For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

On the cusp of sixty, I’ve learned a few things about how to play the part I’ve been given and about what makes my life meaningful. None of these are profound or groundbreaking, but it has taken me six decades to realize that sometimes the most obvious things are the best.

  • Enjoy the little things. I’ve always been a quirky person, no different in that regard than anyone else. But I spent a lot of my life hiding my quirks or at least pretending that they aren’t as important to me as they always have been and still are. I don’t hide them anymore. Reading with my dachshund stuffed into the chair next to me. go friarsFriars basketball. Friars hockey. Messing around with the plants in our postage-stamp-sized yard once spring comes. The newest local micro-brew porter or stout on tap at my favorite watering hole. A beer (or two or three) with the regulars on Friday afternoons. Binge-watching British police and detective television shows with Jeanne. The change of seasons in New England. Believing before every new season that the Red Sox can win the world championship—and actually have them do it once in a while.
  • Don’t sweat the stupid stuff. This is a tough one, but I’m trying to get better at not letting things outside of my control consume my day. Things like the latest idiocy from the presidential campaign trail, the most recent offensive email from a department colleague, an ignorant person on Twitter talking trash about my Friars basketball team—as the Stoics say, life is too short to insist on trying to control what other people say and do. Except for that jerk on Twitter.
  • Be grateful. I have a Facebook acquaintance who starts her day out by listing on Facebook five things that she is grateful for. t and fThat’s a wonderful habit to cultivate. I don’t do it on Facebook, but I have gotten better at remembering and occasionally writing about the things I am grateful for. Jeanne. Faith that is alive and kicking. My oldest son’s finding the life partner and profession that fit him perfectly. My youngest son finally landing the job that is worthy of his years of hard work and stubborn persistence; it is a joy to see him truly starting the life he has been seeking. My teaching vocation—as I tell my students frequently, I am inordinately blessed to be able to make a living doing what I was born to do. Living Stones—a collection of fellow spiritual travelers who never fail to surprise and delight me with their insights and stories.
  • Set appropriate goals. I have reached the point in my career where the most obvious professional goals—tenure and promotion to full professor—have been behind me for a decade and a half. What goals are appropriate going forward? I ended the chapter on “Courage” in my recently completed draft of a book that is currently under contract at a publisher–out in three months or so–with the following: I would love to write a bestseller. I would love to have my likeness be the first one carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. I would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. penguinsBut I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.

As it turns out, I am perfectly happy to be living sixty years on and will be content to keep on going as long as my body and soul stay healthy and appropriately connected to each other. I have a very clear “do not resuscitate” agreement with Jeanne—as soon as I show the first signs of noticeable deterioration, pull the plug. If there is no plug, hit me over the head with a hammer. But only Jeanne knows what “signs of noticeable deterioration” means in my case, so don’t get any crazy ideas. Happy birthday to me!never underestimate

Lent is for Lovers

Each of the past three or four years on this blog, I have posted the same essay on Ash Wednesday: “Why Lent is a Bad Idea.”

Beauty for Ashes, or why Lent is a bad idea

This has occasionally subjected me to a certain amount of push back from my Catholic friends, but I’ve stood firm by my attitudes and arguments. But over the past couple of weeks, my lovely  Jeanne and I have had an ongoing conversation about Lent that has caused me to start rethinking my anti-Lenten attitudes.

It all started early one recent Saturday morning. It’s 5:30 in the morning (on Saturday, mind you), my eyelids are resisting the inevitable and Jeanne asks me, “What is Your Relationship with Lent?!”  She’s been up taking care of the dogs, getting her coffee and obviously thinking about her relationship with Lent. Oh, the joys of being married to an extrovert. Jeanne manages to get a few mumbles out of me concerning my bad Lenten attitudes; later in the morning, she writes at the computer for fifteen minutes or so, then sends me via email attachment her composition entitled “Thank God it’s Lent,” clearly intended for my blog consideration, in which she explains her own evolving relationship with Lent. With minimal changes and occasional commentary from me, here’s what she wrote:

“Jeanne was a cradle Roman Catholic.  She surpassed many of her fellow young Catholics by being a daily communicant as a child, pursuing nunship,

I find the idea of my extroverted wife as a nun very amusing, and can imagine the inhabitants of the convent singing, as in The Sound of Music, “How do you solve a problem like Jeanne?”

working as a Minister of Music, falling in love with two seminarians at different growth phases (and winding up with a philosopher) and finally leaving the Roman tradition for a simple relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or as she likes to call the Holy Spirit, Big Bird).

I know both of these seminarians, and am thankful they both had the good sense to choose the church over the love of my life—it would have been awkward when I met her thirty years ago if she had been married to one of them.

She’s spent her entire life it seems wrestling with the Godhead.  In fact, she has often described her relationship with God using the image of a boxing ring.  She and Jesus in the center, Jesus’ hand on her head, Jeanne’s fists flailing at the air. Jesus waiting for Jeanne to tire out, Jeanne never taking the mat.”

Jeanne calls this “Brooklyn spirituality,” which is about as far from my own type of spirituality as one can get. Still, one of the reasons our three-decade union of opposites has worked is that we respect the importance and value of each other’s very different attempts to figure out what the divine is up to.

“Jeanne came to believe that ‘If God is love, then Lent isn’t about giving things up or deprivation. It is about loving.’  She continued, ‘If I give something up because it is a sin I’m not moving toward God and myself, because the action is a negation.  But if I accept that what I’m giving up is something that isn’t good for me in the first place, then giving it up is truly loving myself. I’m showing gratitude to God and love for myself as His temple, His creation.’”

With allowance for my obvious bias in favor of anything Jeanne says, this is a profound insight. My problem with Lent has always been that it provides an opportunity for “spirituality on the cheap.” Anyone can give something up for forty days, especially if it produces a false sense of spiritual satisfaction. Jeanne’s insight is that I have this all wrong (a point she makes frequently to me). Lent provides an opportunity to deliberately do something that all of us regularly neglect: Taking care of and loving ourselves as if we mattered. Because we do. To wrap up, Jeanne—as is her custom—got direct and honest.

“To flesh this out, Jeanne has battled with food since birth, or at least that’s how it seems.  Her latest struggle is with diet drinks, coffee—which is her favored delivery system for sugar substitute and cream—and alcohol!  She loves her vodka.

About as much as I love single malt scotch and dark beer. 

“She’s thinking of giving these up for Lent because

  1. They are not good for her body,
  2. They are not good for her mind, and
  3. They are not good for her soul.

Yet, she drinks them.  To honor her new way of thinking about Lent, she has decided to embrace Love by doing what is good for her body, mind and soul.  Now if she could only grasp that going to the gym is also about loving herself!”

These are good decisions–plus, this means that for the next forty days Jeanne won’t be drinking any of my dark beer.

On this Ash Wednesday, the Lenten question for each of us is not “What should I give up for Lent in order to feel deprived, and therefore more spiritual or holy?” The question rather is “Do I dare treat myself as if I matter?” or “Am I willing to risk seeing myself as valued and loved in the manner that God sees me?” If the answer to this is “yes,” then what are the ways in which I habitually treat myself as if I did not matter? Am I willing to deliberately suspend those activities, even for a limited time? Am I willing, with Big Bird’s help, to take on a new Lenten experiment—loving myself?

A Crooked Faith

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made. Immanuel Kant

I love many kinds of music, but classical music is my first love. I was classically trained on the piano from age four through high school; my first piano teacher, a Julliard graduate who somehow ended up in northern Vermont teaching piano, was also the organist for the North Country Chorus, a volunteer choral group that was, in the estimation of Vermonters at the time, our version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Every year the North Country Chorus performed Handel’s Messiah, which became—and still is—my favorite classical composition. Its music is inspired, of course, but in addition its settings of texts from the King James translation of both the Old and New Testaments were an artistic gift to a kid who was forced to study and memorize significant portions of the Bible from an early age. Even today, decades later, I hear Handel’s glorious music every time I encounter a passage from Scripture that is included in the libretto of Messiah.

After an instrumental introduction, Messiah begins with a tenor recitative and aria set to prophetic texts from the first verses of Isaiah 40:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

This is followed by the first chorus:

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

Handel’s music is so beautiful that it is possible to miss the power and promise of the text: When God arrives on the scene, messes get cleaned up, crooked things get straightened out, imperfections are made perfect, and problems get solved. A wonderful promise—but not one that squares with my experience.

I was reminded of these texts and this music as I read and responded to the Facebook comments on a recent blog post that a friend shared on a progressive Christian Facebook page that she administers. The back-and-forth started innocently enough:

  • Him: From the last couple of posts you have made it seems as if you are questioning your faith that’s my thought.
  • Me: I’m ALWAYS questioning my faith! In my understanding, that’s perhaps the key factor that keeps faith alive and prevents it from becoming rigid and inflexible. A favorite writer of mine says that the opposite of faith is certainty–doubt is an indispensable part of a vibrant faith.

In a quick succession of posts, the commenter then sought to set my crooked ideas straight:

  • Him: The word of God stands firm it is not flexible in no way form or fashion And to quote anything from a man’s corruptible heart against it is sin there’s no two ways about it . . . If you always question your faith you are lost and I feel for you you can’t ride the fence or change his word to suit your will . It is what it is period.

Well, now. Before I had the opportunity to say something snarky and self-righteous in response to this clearly misguided, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist person, another commenter posted that she appreciates my posts because they help her “grow and learn,” suggesting to the first commenter that he should “find something more conservative.”

  • Him: I’m a progressive liberal in politics thank you but first and foremost I’m a true Christian to the best of my ability.
  • Me: I also am a progressive liberal in my politics and seek to be a true Christian to the best of my ability. The difference perhaps lies in our understanding of what “true Christian” means. I completely reject the idea that it requires inflexibility, rigidity, or being in service to a specific interpretation of texts that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
  • Him (after some further pushback from others in the conversation thread): I’m not a conservative in no way but yes I am seeing this page for what it truly is I will see myself out. I will pray for you and those like you who can’t accept the truth of the Bible for what it is and maybe one day you will see your personal opinion on what you want the Bible to mean is in fact wrong. Good day.

I’ve been involved in this sort of conversation many times over the years, and they just about always end this way, with the conservative Christian promising to pray for the liberal “Christian” to see the truth and thereby escape hellfire and damnation, as the liberal immediately rehearses how he will judgmentally and condescendingly share this story with his fellow progressive friends at the first opportunity. But a half hour or so later, the commenter posted one more time, offering some well-intentioned and much appreciated scriptural advice.

  • Him: I leave you with one verse and I promise I will not persist here any further. Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
  • Me: Thanks–this is a favorite of mine as well. Except that I prefer the more accurate translation of the final clause: “And he will direct your paths.” Faith is not a straight line–it’s an adventure that takes a person in many unexpected directions.

When Immanuel Kant wrote that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” he was observing, at the beginning of a discussion of his moral theory, just how great the challenge of getting human beings to morally straighten themselves out actually is. Perhaps it is reflective of my natural perversity when I say that I sort of like the crooked timber of humanity. The best moral theories take human beings as we are rather than as the theorist idealistically wants us to be. The same can be said for faith. My own faith is rooted in my embrace of the central, incarnational idea of Christianity: God became human—and still does. The Christian story is not about God straightening human beings out, but rather is about God using our natural human bends, twists, and turns.

Reading the gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did using this lens reveals the crooked timber that we all know to be definitive of being human. Christians love to focus on the loving, generous, eloquent, patient, courageous Son of God that we find on every page and tend to overlook other things we discover about Jesus. He got tired, could be curt and dismissive (even to his mother), and was occasionally sarcastic, impatient, and judgmental. He was a real human being, in other words, with all the lack-of-straightness that involves. And that’s good news, since it means that I don’t have to “straighten up” or “sit up straight,” as various authorities used to demand from me, in order to be a bearer of the divine in the world. God is often just around the next corner of our crooked paths.

I Was a Stranger

A bit over a year ago, in the midst of the Presidential campaign that no one will ever forget, I found myself part of a Facebook discussion thread that I should have avoided participating in. On that thread, a person developed an extended analogy in which she likened the presence of undocumented immigrants in our country to an infestation of raccoons in one’s basement. To solve the problem one should hire the most effective exterminator one can find–the exterminator’s moral fiber, methods, or personal qualities are irrelevant. The person she was likening to the exterminator in her analogy is now the President; last Friday he issued an executive order temporarily suspending immigration to this country, prohibiting immigration indefinitely from certain countries, and setting off a flurry of lawsuits, protests, and other sorts of push back. In the midst of it, I was reminded of a story from ancient Greek mythology thousands of years ago that raises the very challenging issues and questions that we find ourselves grappling with.

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Acis and GalateaTwo points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea-nymph and Acis, the son of a sea-nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well-known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy,  one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, playing musicand settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.

The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—polyphemussurprisingacisandgalatealots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. throwing a rockAcis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.

The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen not long ago. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, the students offered various suggestions, ranging from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” the otherUndoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.

Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. A portion of Matthew’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, the people whom we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. 6a00e54ecc070b88330177444f3010970d-320wiAnd our spiritual survival depends on it.

In Matthew 25 can be found the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” obamaThe greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.

Our former President once closed a prime time speech on immigration with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in such passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. small victoriesThe outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.sheep and goats

Gentle Drizzle

IOresteian the interdisciplinary program I teach in and used to direct, the first semester faculty have to make many tough choices. Iliad or Odyssey? What texts from the Hebrew Scriptures? The New Testament? What to use from Plato and Aristotle–or, God forbid, Plato or Aristotle? And no less challenging—which of the triumvirate of great Greek tragedians? Usually it is a toss-up between the profundity of Sophocles and the brilliance of Euripides, but last fall my teammate and I opted for the first of the trio, Aeschylus. We spent a week with sixty-five freshmen in The Oresteia, a trilogy with enough violence and dysfunctional family intrigue to hopefully satisfy the most scandal-hungry eighteen year old. Perhaps some of the playwright’s profound insights into the human condition seeped in as well.

RFKClose to fifty years ago, early lines from Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ trilogy, were quoted by Robert F. Kennedy in Indianapolis toward the end of a brief, impromptu eulogy of Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been assassinated in Memphis earlier in the day. Kennedy, who would himself be killed by an assassin’s bullet just two short months later, included these lines from the Chorus’ first speech in the play as a sobering piece of one of the great speeches in American history:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I was reminded of both Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy , as well as these lines from Aeschylus as I was listening to “The Moth Radio Hour” on NPR the other day.

Sala Udin on “The Moth”

Sala UdinOne of the story-tellers at the Moth event was Sala Udin who told of how as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi fifty years ago he came within an inch of losing his life after being stopped and then viciously beaten by the Mississippi State Police. In his jail cell, as he looked at his battered and disfigured face in the mirror, he thought “I don’t know why they didn’t kill me, but they should have. Now I’m committed. I’m clear. I will never stop fighting racism and injustice.Kasisi-Sala-Udin-copy I’m going to be a Freedom Rider for the rest of my life.” Udin and thousands like him were some of those drops upon the heart that Aeschylus wrote of over two millennia ago. Because of persons like Udin, change in the direction of wisdom incrementally but inexorably comes “against our will,” a change that although real is nowhere near complete.

I was born in 1956 and was too young to be directly involved in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, but have often wondered whether I would have wanted to be a Freedom Rider if I had been old enough and had been given the opportunity. I have no reason to believe that I would have, but take a small amount of comfort in the belief that once the habit is developed, courage tends to be available in the amounts needed by present circumstances. I have never been faced directly with the question of what I would be willing to stake my life on and possibly die for, amazing gracebut can at least hope that faced with the decision to act on what things are worth risking or even losing my life for, I would not immediately run away.

Jeanne and I recently watched one of our favorite movies—”Amazing Grace”—with a good friend who had not seen it before. The 2007 movie includes fine acting performances from various rising young actors who now are the hottest performers going—Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell, Romola Garai—the wonderful Ciaran Hinds (who knew that Julius Caesar was in the House of Commons?), and two of my favorite older actors, Michael Gambon and Albert Finney. images3FS0ITV3“Amazing Grace” is the story of William Wilberforce’s twenty year campaign to end the slave trade in England, finally accomplished in 1807 (the movie is a celebration of the bicentennial of that legislation). I have no idea how historically accurate the movie is, but as my good friend and colleague Rodney used to say, if it isn’t true it should be. It’s a great story.

Although there are certainly “good guys” and “bad guys” in the movie, no one is close to saintly or perfect. Wilberforce’s (played by Gruffudd) dogged attempts to end slavery meet with resistance for reasons that sound unfortunately familiar. Ending the slave trade will be devastating economically, there is “evidence” that the slaves in the colonies live better than the poor in Engwilberforce and newtonland, non-whites in the colonies are “the white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling will write decades later, and so on. As he encounters multiple defeats and disappointments, Wilberforce is on the brink of despair when he has a conversation with his childhood minister, John Newton (played by Finney). Before becoming a member of the clergy years earlier, Newton had been a successful captain of a slave ship; through various powerful and transformative experiences, he recognized the evil underlying his profession, and famously wrote a poem that he set to a familiar and popular tune. The result was “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most beloved song in the hymnal, in which the now-blind Newton wrote “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

In the middle of their conversation, Newton mentions he has heard that Wilberforce is returning to the faith of his youth; Wilberforce confirms the rumor, but says that while he badly needs divine inspiration and help, there have been no inspirational lightning bolts thus far. newton“Ah,” replies Newton, “but God sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms.” It is many more years before Wilberforce and his supporting cohorts from all walks of life land on a strategy that finally works, confirming Newton’s insight. The frontal attacks of previous years, energized by righteous anger, eloquent statesmanship, and the best of moral intentions have failed again and again. It is not until an obscure lawyer in Wilberforce’s entourage of like-minded persons suggests a new strategy—essentially “we cheat”—that success is finally won. Through behind the scenes manipulation and the use of a long neglected, virtually unknown set of maritime regulations, Wilberforce does a brilliant end run on his political opponents and slavery in Great Britain soon crumbles under its own weight. It will take more than another half century and a brutal Civil War for the same to happen in the United States.

gentle drizzleGod sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms. Ain’t it the truth? That certainly has been my experience, both in my own life and as I have observed the world around me for more than six decades. In its Latin roots, to “convert” means to “turn around,” but this turning is more often like a sunflowersunflower following the sun in its slow course across the sky than a dynamic and once-for-all event. I am an optimist at heart, something that is often difficult to sustain when I think about how much there is to be accomplished in my own life and in the world around me. But a steady rain, even a gentle drizzle, is better for my plants and grass than an inch-in-a-half-hour downpour. Beneath the layers of violence, hatred, ignorance and despair, something holy is lurking. Let the gentle drizzle and drops upon the heart release it.

Who Comes This Night?

Aleppo, Russians tampering with our election, a sharply polarized country, general mistrust in all sort of institutions, a truck driving into holiday celebrators in Berlin—the clashing of our world with the Christmas season has never been more dissonant. In his lovely holiday song “Who Comes This Night?’, James Taylor asks some very pressing questions:

Who sends this song upon the air
To ease the soul that’s aching?
To still the cry of deep despair
And heal the heart that’s breaking?

If there was ever a time when accumulated layers of consumerism and tradition needed to be peeled back from the Christmas narrative to reveal what lies beneath, it is now.

Christmas movies are a big deal at my house. Jeanne goes for the classics, such as “Miracle on 34th  Street,” “The Bishop’s Wife,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and (her favorite) “White Christmas.” Those are all fine (except “White Christmas,” which I can take or leave), but I tend to favor more recent ones, like “The Holiday,” “Love, Actually,” and (my favorite) “The Nativity Story.” “The Nativity Story” presents a remarkably straightforward, hence beautiful, rendition of the birth of Jesus narratives. All of the standard elements are there—Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men at the manger, angels in appropriate places saying appropriate things, along with a particularly creepy father and son team of Herod the Great and Herod Antipas.

These standard elements, though, arise from a conflation of gospel texts. The authors of Mark and John apparently didn’t think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth important enough to even report on, while the authors of Matthew and Luke construct their stories from “cherry-picked” details. Luke does not mention the wise men or the star, but has angels singing to shepherds, who then visit Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew has no worshipping shepherds or even a manger, but wise men following a star visit the holy family in a house, probably in Nazareth, sometime after Jesus’ birth. Throw in Santa and some reindeer, and you’d get the usual front lawn decorations for the holiday season.

So where lies the truth? A friend, who recently passed away, tended to be rather definitive in his pronouncements. Once at lunch he said that “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—he was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who knew and loved him expected him to do. But I think I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is “yes,” “no,” “let me think about it,” or even “which stories are you referring to?”—I’m inclined to say that “it doesn’t matter.” Our lives are built from stories that we embrace and own as ours—this story is one of the best. As I reported in this blog recently, a student of mine once said that even if it could be proven that Jesus never existed, she would “still be a Christian, because being a Christian makes me a better person than I would be if I wasn’t.” That’s a good start—the measure of one’s faith is what impact it has in real time on the life being lived.

Meister Eckhart once said that the Incarnation is something that happens within us, that the nativity story is the story of the continuing union of the Spirit of God with individual, fleshly human beings. But then Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy, was fortunate to escape being burned at the stake, and died in obscurity. No wonder I resonate with his insight. At the climatic manger scene in “The Nativity Story,” the gold-bearing wise man Melchior, who looks amazingly like a colleague and friend of mine in the history department, gazes at the baby and says “God made into flesh.” The message of Christmas cuts across every one of the boundaries that we spend so much time drawing and protecting, for it tells us that the human and the divine belong together and that the only way that God gets into the world is in human form. That’s you. That’s me. That’s us.

The heart and soul of Christianity is remarkable both in its simplicity and its iconoclasm. God made into flesh. Remarkably small. Disturbingly fragile. Completely mysterious. And utterly true.

Merry Christmas

That Hopey Changey Thing

Although I was raised in the most non-liturgical version of Christianity imaginable, I love liturgy. When I was introduced to the annual liturgical cycle when I encountered the Episcopal church in my twenties, I found that I particularly resonated with Advent, the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas that kicks off the liturgical year. Advent is the season of hope and expectation, which this year is particularly welcome. Because for many of us, hope is a particularly scarce commodity these days.Cyprian

Cyprian Consiglio, the Benedictine monk, theologian, hermitage prior and musician who ran the retreat I attended in Minnesota a couple of years ago, defines “liturgy” as “ideology in action.” Annie Dillard defines it as a collection of words and phrases that human beings over the centuries have been able to address to God without getting killed (she also suggests that we should wear crash helmets to church).

Annie Dilard I like both of these definitions. I have a deep resonance with liturgy, especially liturgy expressed in music, something surprising given that there was none in my Baptist world growing up. Although “ideology” is usually something I accuse people I disagree with of embracing, Cyprian’s definition reminds me that at its core, ideology is simply the collection of beliefs, stories, ideas and commitments, some conscious and some unconscious, that guides a person’s actions and frames a person’s life. We are all ideologues. Liturgical frameworks provide a container that shapes this collection with reference to what is greater than us. Annie’s definition is a reminder that the very attempt to say or do anything with content and meaning referring to what is greater than us is at best misguided, at worst ridiculous.

004Of the many varieties of liturgical celebration I have encountered over the past several years, including a number of them at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota (the Benedictines know how to do liturgy better than anyone), the most striking is the Good Friday morning prayer service I have experienced twice with the monks at the Abbey. On Good Friday afternoon there is the large, austere three-hour service permeated primarily with silence and capped by kissing the cross that certain sorts of Christians are fond of (I’m not one of them). But at 7:00 in the morning, the Good Friday morning prayer service sets the tone for the day as a solitary monk chants the entire book of Lamentations from the Jewish scriptures. lamentationsNot familiar with that book? That’s probably because it’s the most depressing book in the Bible—perhaps anywhere. Lamentations is a litany of five poetic dirges over the destruction of Jerusalem. Traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, the tone of the poems is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal. In Psalm 129 the Psalmist writes “Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long”—Lamentations is page after page of that sentiment.

Exactly two years ago I found myself sitting toward the back of Providence College’s main chapel waiting for the beginning of a service in memory of our beloved colleague and friend Siobhan who died far too soon in an automobile accident the day before Thanksgiving. As I sat with the several hundred persons who closed offices and cancelled classes in the middle of the day to honor ross-siobhan-headshotSiobhan and celebrate her life, I noticed in the program that the Old Testament reading was from Lamentations. “That’s appropriate,” I thought. “At least there’s nothing in Lamentations that will tell us we should not feel the devastating loss and sadness that we share right now.” But I had forgotten that just about half way through the poems, Jeremiah comes up briefly for air.

I will call this to mind, as my reason to hope:

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent;

They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.

My portion is the Lord, therefore will I hope in him.

Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him;

It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.

IHopey Changeyt seem like only a short time ago that a dynamic, fresh new face burst onto the American political scene promising “Hope and Change”; not long afterwards Sarah Palin, not particularly enamored of this new guy, snarkily asked “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?” Politics aside, it’s a good question. The Apostle Paul famously wrote “Now abide faith, hope and love—but the greatest of these is love.” The editor of First Corinthians took out something else Paul wrote: “But sometimes the toughest of these is hope.”

Advent is the liturgical season of hope—my favorite of all the liturgical seasons because it means that the semester is almost over, I like purple, enjoy the Advent carols that only come around once a year, appreciate the opportunity to do something other than slog through the interminable Ordinary Time that has been going on since May, and because I am by nature a very hopeful person. But it has been a bit of a tough sell for many of us lately, with seemingly daily evidence that the world is a mess, no one has the capacity or wants to do anything about it, our country has elected a spectacularly unqualified person to be our next President, sprinkled with regular and tragic reminders that human life is fleeting and even the best can be taken away in a moment. “NPRThe world really sucks,” my lovely wife commented as we listened to NPR the other morning on the way downtown to the bus station so she could catch a ride to NYC for a weekend with her sister whose husband just died. And it does suck. But if we are willing to poke our heads even momentarily up from the shit, Lamentations tells us that hope is always appropriate—and is a choice.

Providence College’s annual Advent Lessons and Carols Service, an annual early December event, always opens with a beautiful hymn:lessons and carols

O come, divine Messiah!

The world in silence waits the day

When hope shall sing its triumph,

And sadness flee away.

Dear Savior haste;

Come, come to earth,

Dispel the night and show your face,

And bid us hail the dawn of grace. 

Who doesn’t want sadness to flee away? Who doesn’t want to see the dawn of grace that will drive away the night? But when the sadness is palpable, when the night is especially dark, what hope can a song offer? More importantly, in the midst of Advent, do we have any reason to believe that what we hope for—a divine presence in the midst of human sadness and darkness—is anything more than a fairy tale we repeat regularly in order to convince ourselves that there is a glimmer of meaning in a horribly dark world?

According to Lamentations, we have reason to hope if we choose to have it. And the reason to hope will not be found in external events, which will be as they will be. Hope finds its home in waiting, in silence, in emptiness, and in the conviction that there is more going on than meets the eye. There are as many ways to nurture the space of quietness and silence within as there are people containing that space. Our task is to be ready, to prepare a space for hope and promise to be nurtured, even when every external indicator is that there is no reason to hope. As Lao Tzu wrote,lao tzu

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space that makes it livable.

I was taught as a child that I should find a place for the Christ child in my heart. I don’t exactly use that language any more, but I know what it means.

You come in peace and meekness,

And lowly will your cradle be;

All clothed in human weakness

Shall we your Godhead see.

Something Rather Than Nothing

One of the most reliable ways to deaden a lively conversation in class is to ask a “philosophical question.” indexNothing is more certain to produce blank stares, then uncomfortable silence, than questions like “Is the world we experience primarily a matter of what we perceive or of what we create from what we perceive?” or “Is the truth something we find or something we invent?” Jeanne read one of these sorts of questions—“Is the self assembled from my memories, and if so, what if my memories are inaccurate?”—in a book she was reading not long ago. “This person sounds like you,” she said. “The problem is, I just don’t care about this question.” I know. The fact that in twenty-eight-plus years together I have failed to get Jeanne to understand the importance of properly splitting philosophical hairs is a constant source of disappointment.

For most of my years of teaching philosophy, I have managed to ask such questions, which are the bread-and-butter of my discipline, in ways that actually have some relevance to the lives that my students live. But there’s one philosophical question, perhaps my favorite, which is close to perfect in the form that it has been asked for thousands of years. 100030303-the-mystery“Why is there something rather than nothing?” That doesn’t grab you? Try this version: Assuming that the world (and us in it) could have been different, or not have existed at all, why is it the way that it is? And what might we learn about ourselves and the larger reality within which we find ourselves by pursuing possible answers?

These were the guiding questions behind the “Beauty and Violence” colloquium I will spend with a dozen Honors juniors and seniors next semester. It’s odd to be thinking about next semester when I am buried under grading this semester, but the Honors Program director asked me for a course description of the colloquium a couple of days ago, which reminded me of how much I enjoyed it the last two times I taught it. One of the authors we will study is P2P_sphysicist-turned-Anglican-priest John Polkinghorne, who once said in an interview that Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. In other words, the creator might be more like Ella Fitzgerald than Ludwig van Beethoven. Many people carry a model of the natural world around that we inherited from the Scientific Revolution, the model of an intricately and finely tuned machine, designed and created by a cosmic being whose favorite things are precision, order, economy and control. If we speculate about the personality traits of this “designer God,” characteristics such as “powerful,” “rational,” “logical,” “rule-making” come to the fore, which are but a short step to “judgmental,” “controlling,” “aloof” and “distant.”

The problem is, we don’t live in that sort of world. If our world was designed with precision, order and economy in mind, the designer was having a teilhard-1-sizedpretty bad day. Darwin opened the door wide to speculation that the world we live in is vastly more messy and open-ended than ever imagined; a century and a half of further investigation in all of the various sciences has con-firmed Darwin’s insight. It’s very possible to investigate the messy, inefficient and spectacularly fascinating universe we inhabit without reference to anything greater than ourselves, but I find it impossible to do so. If we are in fact part of a creation that is unfinished, in which in Teilhard de Chardin’s memorable phrase, “God does not make: He makes things make themselves,” where does intelligent speculation about such a creator lead? In directions both stimulating and iconoclastic.

We spent a number of weeks the last time I taught the “Beauty and Violence” colloquium teasing out some of the differences that understanding the world in this way might have for how we think about God. For some of my students, the implications were fascinating and liberating, while for others they were disturbing and paradigm-shifting. Two of the traditional characteristics attributed to God, for instance, are omniscience and omnipotence. God knows everything and has the power to do anything. These “omni” characteristics have been problematic for centuries when thinking about human choice and freedom. 20080626_kristatippett_2When thinking about an open-ended universe that continues to be created by the creatures that inhabit it, such characteristics are more than problematic—they need to be jettisoned entirely, as many cutting-edge scientists and theologians suggest. Here is the full John Polkinghorne quotation, taken from an interview with Krista Tippett:

The act of creation, the act of bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves, to make themselves, is an act of love. Kenosis-school-of-art-and-creative-services_11310_imageIt is an act of divine self-limitation. The theologians like to call it kenosis from the Greek word. God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. And that sort of world involves God accepting limitations, and, I believe, accepting limitations such as not knowing the future.

Rather than a tightly controlled and designed universe, this is a universe in which power and knowledge on the part of the divine are sacrificed for—something. Freedom? Choice? Beauty? At thegod_created_risk_postcard-r1d8ae1c777454aa29480a38b805f6646_vgbaq_8byvr_324 very least, the motivations for such an ongoing creative process are something other than control and order. A world in which creatures are empowered to create in novel and unique ways sounds less like a universe energized by ordering power and more like one embedded with creative love and emerging beauty, a beauty that theologian John Haught defines as “ordered novelty.” Only a universe structured on the edge of order and chaos could generate such results.

A God who intentionally created a partially finished, non-economical and messy universe that is still a project in the making is not a God who knows everything that will happen or inserts divine power into every organizational detail. This is a God who has taken a significant risk—on us. In an intellectual notebook entry, one of my students captured this idea concisely and beautifully.

God is only truly taking a risk if He has a desired intention for us—a purpose, so to speak—that could either be fulfilled or unfulfilled through our free actions and the way in which we live our lives. God is gambling on us because He has allowed for the opportunity of failure. God has fixed His hand by giving us everything we need to fulfill our purpose. He is actually no less omnipotent, he is simply using His power to limit His power, a theory that if true would be the noblest of all divine endeavors. If we deny our egos, we are to be awakened by His silence and transformed by the realization of our limitations.

This, of course, raises many more questions than it answers. But they are better questions in my estimation than the traditional ones, in keeping with my favored definition of philosophy as “the art of asking better and better questions.” Yet another confirmation that Socrates was right when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”quote-the-unexamined-life-is-not-worth-living-socrates-174068

The Joyful Owl

SagataganJust about seven years ago, on a beautiful summer morning very similar to the ones we are experiencing in Providence these days, I was just finishing a post-morning prayer walk around beautiful Lake Sagatagan behind St. John’s Abbey on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. I had been in Collegeville for the first four-and-a-half months of 2009 on sabbatical and was now back for a week of writing and relaxation while Jeanne participated in a workshop at the Episcopal House of Prayer nearby. ThMary at stella marise point of destination when walking the perimeter of the lake is Stella Maris Chapel on the opposite shore from the Abbey, a lovely little chapel which contains an exquisitely unique statue of a pregnant Mary. St. John’s is situated on a national wildlife preserve; I learned during my months in residence never to walk the trails without a camera. On this particular morning, I noticed a dark shape in one of the massive trees just off the trail to the right. I stared at it for what seemed like several minutes. After concluding that it must be a large abandoned nest or simply the remains of a long-ago fallen branch, the top third of the shape turned slowly 180 degrees and looked directly at me. It was an owl.100_0767

I have noted occasionally in this blog that I am obsessed with penguins, to the extent that I once dedicated a post exclusively to penguins.

Well-Dressed Birds

But I also love owls. They’re not quite as cool as penguins, but come in a very close second. If penguins did not exist (a world I do not care to consider possible), my office would be full of owl paraphernalia instead of penguin stuff. And I could make a better case for an owl obsession than I can for penguins. Owls are iconic symbols of wisdom, something everyone wants (I think).the owl of minerva Accordingly, philosophers should like owls. As a matter of fact, The Owl of Minerva is generally considered to be the best philosophy journal in the English-speaking world dedicated to the philosophy of the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, just in case you’re interested. The title of the journal is a reference to the owl being the favored bird of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom (Minerva is her Roman name)—who just happens to be my favorite resident of Mount Olympus. Stuttgart_Athene_ZeusYou have to take notice of someone who sprang fully grown and clothed in battle armor directly from her father’s skull and started giving him advice. So I immediately chalked up my owl sighting as yet another gratuitous favor sent to me from the divine as confirmation that this place in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota is indeed a spiritual home. It only could have been topped by some penguins waddling down the path in my direction.

I don’t recall that owls were a favorite of mine as a child. My attraction to owls was most likely triggered during my first couple of years of teaching after graduate school. I was on the faculty at a small Catholic college in Memphis where they basically needed someone to teach business ethics to their business and engineering students. spotted owlSo I did—five sections per semester for three years. I always included a unit on environmental issues, and during the early 90s this invariably meant spotted owls. Native to the Pacific Northwest, the endangered spotted owls were very picky about where they nested and lived—which just happened to be in the middle of prime timber forest. Every time well-meaning people would relocate the owls, they immediately moved back to their original section of the forest that various constituencies wanted to cut down and turn into useful items that people will pay money for. So the debate raged—tree_huggertree huggers arguing that this forest must remain untouched so the spotted owls could live where they chose, and good capitalists screaming foul over the idea that a stupid, useless bird that no one ever saw because they only came out at night when everyone was asleep could actually hold up progress and money-making. My students had many fine, spirited debates—so many that at the end of one semester they presented me with a stuffed spotted owl toy that perches twenty years later proudly on top of one of my office bookcases.

Imagine my delight when taking the “What Animal Were You in a Past Life” quiz that popped up one day on Facebook to find out that

What Animal Were You in a Past Life?

You were the Owl. Graceful, quiet, and majestic, you glide silently through the night. You are self-sufficient, independent, and make the most of everything around you. You are not very picky about what you like, and when you love something, it will be forever. You would make a wonderful parent, but in no way would you spoil your children; they would be taught how to look after themselves. You are a symbol of guidance.

flying owlIt’s very interesting how these descriptions put a positive spin on features that aren’t that attractive. For instance, “You are not very picky about what you like” is a reference to the fact that owls are birds of prey and will basically eat anything they find. The positive qualities listed are ones that I certainly aspire to and I can almost remember “glid[ing] silently through the night” in my past life as an owl.

Owls are not funny. Here’ a typical example of owl humor:

An owl and a field mouse walk into a bar. The owl turns to the field mouse, but doesn’t say anything because owls can’t talk. Then the owl eats the field mouse, because owls are predatory birds.

Owls are serious predators of the night, wise and stealthy as they swoop about taking care of their nocturnal business. Nothing humorous there.

So I was confused a few days later when I took the “What is Your Spiritual Power?” quiz (I really do need to get a life) and was told that

What is Your Spirit Power?

You got Joy. You are the most joyful spirit around. The happiness within you never stops flowing. You’ve never kept it all for yourself either, you’ve always made others happy when they needed it most.

Joy? Really? This will come a surprise to Jeanne. She’s the one who has Pharell Williams’ song “Happy” as the ringtone on her phone.

I would be more likely to have the tune to “Leave me the fuck alone” on my phone. What would a happy, joyful owl be like? In the world of Photoshopping, all sorts of possibilities are available.untitled But in the real world, owl joy is hard to detect. Take my word for it—it’s in there. As soon as I find it, I’ll let it out.Caleb owl

I AM smiling.

I AM smiling.