Category Archives: music

Loose Him, and Let Him Go

Last Sunday coincided with All Saint’s Day–a day we paid no attention to in the religious tradition of my youth. I’m still not sure what to make of the idea of saints, but the day’s gospel is worth paying attention to. It’s Jesus’ signature miracle but is only mentioned in one of the gospels. My favorite treatment of the story comes from Hollywood . . .

During my childhood, we did not go to movies—that was something, along with a bunch of other things, that good Baptists didn’t do. But we did watch television—MV5BMTkyODYyNzE0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTc1OTM2MQ@@._V1_SX214_[1]except on Sundays. So my brother and I occasionally saw movies on television, after careful censoring by my parents. We always looked forward to the weeks leading up to Easter with great anticipation—not because it was Lent followed by Holy Week (I never even heard of Lent until I was an adult), but because that was when the networks might be showing Hollywood epic treatments of stories either from or related to the Bible: “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur,” “Quo Vadis,” “The Robe,” and others. Particularly favored was king-of-kings-movie-poster-1961-1020206924[1]“King of Kings,” a full-blown life-of-Jesus movie. These movies, despite their questionable accuracy by King James Version standards, were guaranteed to be approved by the parental censors. My mother, brother, and I popped popcorn and watched the Bible come to life in living black-and-white.

Then in 1966, when I was 10 years old, United Artists released imagesCAEO0LCK“The Greatest Story Ever Told,” one of the last of the great Hollywood biblical epics, directed by George Stevens. The cast was full of current as well as up-and-coming stars, included Max Von Sydow, in his first English-speaking role, as Jesus; Biblical epic superstar and future president of the NRA Charlton Heston as John the Baptist; Claude Rains, iTelly-Savalas-as-Pontius--003[1]n his final movie appearance, as Herod the Great; Martin Landau, the master of disguise in the “Mission: Impossible” of my youth, as Caiaphas; Telly Savalas of “Kojak” fame as Pontius Pilate,  imagesCA6OFXJKDavid McCallum (formerly one of the stars of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” of my youth, currently starring as Ducky in “NCIS”) as Judas Iscariot; and my favorite: John Wayne as the Centurion at the foot of the cross, who delivers his one line—“Truly this man was the son of God!”—with all the sensitivity of a cowboy.

imagesCAVTYVXRStevens’ directorial choice is to hinge the whole three-hour-plus spectacle on the raising of Lazarus, which takes place just over half way through the movie. It is a remarkable piece of cinematography—instead of focusing on Jesus and Lazarus, the camera focuses on the reactions of those present. Shocked faces, stunned silence, a woman drops to her knees, a man bursts into tears. the_greatest_story_ever_told_movie_trailer[1]One witness runs down the road, grabbing random people and sharing the news—“Jesus of Nazareth . . . I saw it, I saw it with my own eyes! Lazarus was dead, and now he’s alive!” “The Messiah has come! A man was dead, and now he lives!” And indeed this is a blockbuster miracle, worthy of a predictable Hollywood musical effect, the rapturous singing of the final measures of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah in the background. As the witness nears the walls of Jerusalem, he is joined by two men healed by Jesus earlier in the movie: “I was crippled, and now I walk!” “I was blind, and now I see!” “Who has done this?” shouts a Roman centurion from the walls of the city. “The Man Called Jesus!” Remarkable. Astounding.

But the gospel text is very puzzling, raising more questions than it answers. If this is, indeed, Jesus’ signature, career-defining miracle, why is it only reported in one of the four canonical gospels? Why do Matthew, Mark, and Luke not consider the story important enough to include in their accounts? Why does Jesus deliberately delay travelling to Bethany upon hearing that his friend is deathly ill, dawdling along the way in order to ensure that Lazarus is dead by the time Jesus arrives? imagesCANUX8Y0What exactly is the depth and nature of the Jesus and Lazarus friendship? We know a lot about Jesus with Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha, but this is the first time we’ve heard about Lazarus. Is he the domineering older brother of Mary and Martha, or the spoiled younger brother on whom they dote? Why does Jesus weep? And why is Lazarus still wrapped in his grave-clothes when he emerges from the tomb?

The gospel author mentions Lazarus only one other time, in the next chapter just before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds around Jesus have increased exponentially, as much to gawk at Lazarus as to see Jesus. The chief priests, plotting behind the scenes as always, plan to see both Jesus and Lazarus dead—this time there won’t be any resurrection. And Lazarus dissolves into our imaginations. What happened to him? How did he live out the rest of his life?

These are questions worthy of discussion, as are the questions raised by the account of the miracle itself. But Lazarus is not a museum piece to be dusted off and talked about once in a while. The story of Lazarus is our story, the story of all us who seek, in our individual and unique ways, to be friends with Jesus.

ValleyofDryBones-620x3101[1]In the liturgical year, the story of Lazarus often shows up late in Lent, just before Holy Week (although this year it is the gospel reading for All Saint’s Day; the Old Testament reading accompanying it is often Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. We all, I suspect, have spiritually experienced a valley of dry bones season. Dry bones are the remaining evidence of something that was once alive, but hasn’t been for a long time. Lazarus in the tomb is well on his way to becoming a pile of bones—“Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Here’s how this sort of experience, a season of dry bones. goes for me, as I suspect it does for many of you.

I claim to be a follower of Jesus, but the internal flame has slowly decreased to an ember that is threatening to die out. I haven’t seen or talked with Jesus, really spent time with him, for a while. So I send out a call for help to the last place I saw Jesus, where rumor reports he is currently hanging out. And nothing happens. “Hey! I’m dying here!” I silently cry. Those closest to me might realize that something’s wrong, but are unable to help. Nothing but silence. 173185024_c1419b6266[1]And I know this is not just a dry period, a time in the desert. I say to myself “I’ll come out of this, he’ll show up, I’m just in a down time, sort of taking a long spiritual nap.” But I know deep in my soul that I’m lying to myself. The spiritual ember flickers out, leaving a cold, empty space full of ashes at my core. This is real death, from which there is no return. “Lazarus is dead.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And death is not attractive. It isn’t pretty. No matter how beautiful the dress, how snazzy the suit, how professional the make-up job, a corpse is still a corpse. drybones[1]Spiritual corpses go through the motions, pretend that “there’s still some life left in these bones,” but deep down they know it’s a lie. I know, and after a while others know, that something smells. “Mortal, can these bones live?” I seriously doubt it. “My bones are dried up, and my hope is gone. I am cut off completely.”

But after what seems like a spiritual eternity: a rattling of bones, a puff of breath, and there are the stirrings of life. I’ve been dead for so long, I’m disoriented. I don’t recognize my surroundings, or the voice in the distance. jesus_20lazarus_20raised[1]“Come forth!” As a moth toward a flame, I’m drawn toward that sound, toward a pinpoint of light and I find that, against all odds, what was dead is alive again. I’m surrounded by those I thought I’d lost, those whom I thought I would never truly see again. “We thought you were dead!” “I was!” But I can’t move properly, can’t see clearly, I feel like a mummy who just became alive again. And I hear a commanding voice: “Loose him, and let him go.

I’ve been raised to new life—so why am I still bound by the vestiges of death, by the grave-clothes of a past that I thought was gone? Because spiritual renewal and growth are like the Darwinian evolutionary process—I drag the remnants of a past reality into my new life. Vestiges of what has died still remain. If inattentive, I will attempt to weave new garments of salvation out of old, stinking, rags that have long outlived their purpose. And I cannot remove them by myself—I need help. We need each other’s help. I need the help of those who love me and who know what it’s like to try to get one’s bearings as a newly resurrected corpse. And the Lazarus cycle goes on.

No one wants to die. But life with God is a cycle of death and resurrection, a daily, weekly, yearly Lazarus event. Dying, abandoned, buried, called back to life, emerging to new life with lots of work to do. Sometimes we’d rather not. But the message of the story of Lazarus is “Don’t be afraid to die”—especially to those things we cannot bear to even think about losing. Don’t be afraid to release even what seems most necessary—familiar thoughts, comfortable patterns of behavior, habits set in stone, OXYGEN COMMUNICATION COMPANIONwell-intentioned but self-centered expectations—the very things that for each of us seem to be the cornerstone of existence. To truly live, we have to die. Simone Weil put it beautifully:

They alone will see God who prefer to recognize the truth and die, instead of living a long and happy existence in a state of illusion. One must want to go towards reality; then, when one thinks one has found a corpse, one meets an angel who says: “He is risen.”


Joy in a Minor Key


The readings from the Jewish scriptures today and last week are from the last chapters of Job, including a portion today that scholars say was added centuries after the main text. It reminded me of a post from a bit over a year ago–what can we learn from the “minor key” portions of our lives?

At some point early in their musical training, all serious musicians are introduced to the “circle of fifths,” a handy chart that maps out the complicated but fascinating relationships among the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, as well as the associations between the major and minor keys.I was fortunate to have Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard, as my piano teacher from age four to eleven—she was a stickler for theory and precision and had a large poster of the circle of fifths on the wall of her studio. I was immediately fascinated—it looked like a labyrinth or something out of The Lord of the Rings, and as I was gradually introduced to the twelve major keys, the twelve related minors, and their harmonic relationships I was able to trace geometrically on the chart the harmonies I had been hearing in my head for as long as I could remember.

Recently the following from Richard Powers’ Orfeo got me to thinking about the major and minor keys in a new way.

There’s joy in a minor key, a deep pleasure to be had from hearing the darkest tune and discovering you’re equal to it.

MajorMinor1A lot can be learned from the major and minor keys that is applicable to everyday life. Traditionally the major keys have been described as “bright, extroverted, upbeat” and so on, while the minor keys are “introspective, complex, sad” or even “depressing.” Yet the circle of fifths shows that each major has its relative minor that is literally only one note different—a note that makes all the difference. Powers, who is a classically trained musician, is noting something important about the minor keys—they are rich and evocative in ways with which the brighter and more popular majors cannot compete. Yet the dividing line between major and minor is razor thin—if we are to pay proper attention to the music of our lives, understanding how major and minor interweave is crucial.

I had the opportunity to explore this with “Living Stones,” the adult Christian education group that I lead after church once a month (and have written about in this blog)

Living Stones

last Sunday after the morning service. I was doing double duty, as I was also organist that morning,003 alternating with the organist emeritus every other week through the summer as the church searches for a new full-time music minister. The fifteen or so regulars have a wide range of experience with music (or lack of same), so I presumed no prior knowledge. Gathering in the choir stalls by the organ rather than in our usual location, I oriented them to the major/minor distinction by suggesting that in the cycle of liturgical seasons, Easter and Christmas are major key seasons while Advent and Lent are minor key seasons. We moved then to a listening exercise, as I played first My country“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” our closing hymn for the morning because of it being July 4th Sunday, in F minor rather than its original F major, then a representative minor key hymn, “If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee,” in G major rather than its original G minor. As the Living Stoners compared the new keys to the hymn texts, they agreed that major is appropriate for the first hymn than minor and minor more appropriate to the second than major. Different texts require different tunes—and so it goes with the chapters and texts of our lives.

The Book of Job from the Hebrew Scriptures is a case in point. The story is familiar. Job, “a man blameless and upright . . . who feared God and shunned evil,” is the topic of conversation between God and Satan, “the accuser.” In response to God’s “Have you considered my servant Job? There is none like him on the earth,” Satan replies “Well duh! You give him everything he wants and you have built a protective hedge around him.” In response to God’s agreeing to remove the hedge at Satan’s suggestion just to see what happens, Job’s flocks, crops, Job-wife1servants and children are swept away within six short verses and one of the greatest texts on the dynamic of suffering is underway.

The drama of Job is relentless, with his suffering unaddressed by his apparently well-meaning friends and his less than supportive wife. Underlying it all is Job’s insistence that his suffering and pain is not justified in any sense that he (or any other human being) can understand. It is clear that he will not “curse God and die,” as his wife advises him to do—his commitment to his God is unshakeable. “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him.” Job’s commitment, however, is neither passive nor facile. He wants answers and challenges a silent God to provide them. With very few exceptions, the Book of Job is entirely written in a minor key; the message of Job is that sometimes minor keys do not get resolved into major keys. Sometimes the text of one’s life demands a minor key; simply “waiting it out” or longing for it to be something it is not is to rob oneself of the richness and depth that only minor harmonies can provide.

0_21_0706_stockdaleWhen God finally does respond to Job’s questions and challenges, it is in a way that on the surface, at least, is entirely unsatisfactory to our contemporary sense of fairness and justice. God does not provide any reasons for Job’s misfortunes, nor does God explain himself. Rather, God makes clear in a lengthy soliloquy that he does not have to explain himself at all. As Admiral James Stockdale once described God’s response to Job, “I’m God and you’re not. This is my world—either deal with it or get out.”

It’s a tough message for our modern sensibilities, but is far closer to the reality of the world we find ourselves in than the stories we tell ourselves about “things working out in the end” or “justice will prevail.” Whatever value there is in suffering cannot lie in hopes for its removal or resolution. Yet we continue to try. jobs-restorationThere is nothing hokier or more forced than to resolve a composition from a minor key to its accompanying major in the last measure of the piece. But this is precisely what we find at the end of Job. In the final verses of the last chapter, after Job has been subdued by the divine display of power and superiority, Job magically gets everything back—children, flocks, servants, lands—and even his useless “comforters” and unhelpful wife get told off by God. “And they lived happily ever after,” in other words. I learned from one of my theology colleagues a number of years ago that these closing verses are not in the oldest texts of Job, but were apparently added in several decades or even centuries later.

Why? I asked my group. Why would someone want to change the original minor key story of Job, resolving it to a major key in the last measure? “Because the original ending is too tough,” someone suggested. “Because people want to believe that the suffering has a point, that it is all for something,” another thought. Which makes the better story? The original or the one with the new ending? “The original is truer,” an eighty-something Living Stoner said. “People don’t come back. Things that you lose don’t return.” And she was right. If there is meaning in the minor key movements of my life’s symphony, it has to be in the movement, not because the final movement will return to a joyful major key. The major keys ride the waves, but the minor keys plumb the depths, depths that give a life its richness and texture.lean forward As Richard Powers suggests, there is joy and satisfaction to be found in the midst of the suffering, a joy that is largely unavailable in any other context.

A few months ago, MSNBC (the only 24-7 news channel I can stomach, and even that not for very long) had a new ad campaign: Lean Forward. Out of context, it made little sense. Lean forward to what? But in the minor keys of our lives, “lean forward” or “lean in” is far better advice than “hold your breath and wait it out.” The purpose of the minor keys is not to provide a temporary alternative to majors. Rather, as another ad campaign many years ago suggested, sometimes minor harmonies are the most important threads in “the fabric of our lives.”

gentle drizzle

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.

RFKAlmost twenty-five 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 Bobby Kennedy and 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 close to 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.

An Aria as Lovely as a Tree

As Jeanne headed into Dunkin’ Donuts to purchase her customary large decaf French Vanilla with eight creams and three Equals (and Mr Tpity the fool who doesn’t get it right), I stayed in the car surfing the FM dial—my coffee intake for the morning had already exceeded its quota. I landed on New York’s NPR classical station just in time to hear “Ombra mai fu,” the opening aria from Georg Friedrich Handel’s 1738 opera Serse. serseParked in an ugly Double-D parking lot on Long Island, I thought to myself that when the angels sing, they must begin and close with this piece—perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever heard.

As is my frequent custom, I shared my unexpected and much appreciated encounter with Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” with my Facebook acquaintances, then on my blog. Several who share my love of classical music shared their own favorite versions of the aria on YouTube; a good-natured debate arose over whether the aria is most beautiful in the soprano range, as Handel wrote it,

transposed into the lower and richer mezzo-soprano or contralto ranges,

or perhaps sung by a male soprano, as it would have been originally, since the aria is sung by King Xerxes in Handel’s opera.

The music is so glorious that I, not knowing Italian, speculated that the text of the aria was probably religiously themed along the lines of so much of Handel’s compositions. But no—the text of “Ombra mai fu” contains no lofty sentiments, no paeans to the divine. It’s a brief poem of thanks for the shade of a plane tree.

Ombra mai fu                         Never was a shade    

di vegetabile                           of any plant

cara ed amabile,                    dearer and more lovely,

soave più.                                or more sweet.

Over the centuries Handel’s glorious music has been co-opted for different texts, such as the hymn “Holy Thou Art.”

But it is fitting that one of the most inspired pieces of music ever written is originally in honor of a tree.

One of the greatest continuing insights of Reverend John Ames, the aging Calvinist minister from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, concerns the sacredness of all things. As he nears the end of his life, he pays close attention to the mystery and miracle of things most of us dismiss as “ordinary.”gilead

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?

For Reverend Ames, everything is a sacrament with intimations of holiness. And the Divine Being he has served and conversed with for decades is still a mystery.

“You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who has the courage to see it?” Good question. It takes a lot more courage to embrace this world with all of its imperfections and disappointments as a spectacular and continuing divine miracle than to step back and bemoan the fact that it seldom is the miracle we would have performed if it were up to us. It isn’t up to us—the power and glory of our created, sacred world is far above our pay scale. And yet sacredness and beauty embedded in imperfect matter is a reminder that according to the Christian narrative, this very strange yet compelling fusion of the divine and the imperfect is God’s intention with us.sunset

Slightly Improved

I have no idea why or how Miss Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard School of Music2139064083_fa0e5dd401[1] with a degree in organ performance, came to spend most of her adult life teaching piano to kids in central, rural Vermont. She was my first piano teacher, from age five (or was it four?) until age eleven. I spent forty-five minutes per week with her in the piano studio attached to her small apartment. While many of her students found her intimidating, she reminded me a bit of my imperious but loving paternal grandmother. But she could have been the Wicked Witch of the West and I would have put up with it, because piano was my life.

Music is in my genes from both sides of the family. I don’t remember when my older brother started piano lessons, but some of my earliest memories involved my mother forcing him to practice his lessons as well as my jealousy that he was getting to do something I wasn’t old enough for yet. He was an indifferent musician—he could play the notes but had no love of it. I was a different matter. I recognized the piano as a soul mate as soon as I started lessons. As I got old enough for school, I would rush to our old uprightimagesCAQOJENP as soon as I got home and play until my mother forced me to leave the bench for supper. The piano was my best friend.

Miss Munn recognized immediately that she had a “true believer” on her hands and allowed me to progress through the standard lesson books at a much faster pace than most. She was a member of a national organization of certified piano instructors, meaning that once per year representatives of this group would visit, listen to her students play assigned pieces and sight-read new ones, grading the students (and presumably Miss Munn) in any number of categories. I remember the two judges as Kafkaesque,Kafkaesque[1] austere, unsmiling, unmoving, seated primly next to each other about five feet away on the left side of the piano, silently making checks occasionally on a sheet in front of them. Come to think of it, they looked and acted pretty much as I figured God looked and acted all of the time.

Miss Munn shared the judges’ scores with her students once she received them from the central authorities in the mail. I recall as if it were yesterday when she reported to me the results of my first judging: Twelve positive checks and zero negative checks. I was thrilled—I had set a goal of being perfect, and I had been. Miss Munn’s comments on my perfect score, however, were unexpected. She said, I’m very pleased with the number of positives, but I’m concerned that you had no negatives. What? What could be better than perfection? She continued by pointing out that my zero negative score was reflective, not of perfection, but of a strong sense of perfectionismPerfectionism[1] that is not desirable in an aspiring pianist (or anywhere else, I suspect). By being so concerned with not making any mistakes, I had closed off the possibility of additional positive checks only available if one is willing to take risks. I don’t remember exactly how I processed Miss Munn’s unexpected reaction to my perfect score, but I must have taken it to heart. My score on next year’s judging was twenty-seven positive checks, three negative checks. At least at the piano, I’d begun to learn that growth and excellence begin with embracing imperfection.

As Jeanne said when I told her this story, that’s a pretty difficult lesson for a five-year-old to learn. Indeed—it’s a lesson that I still struggle with. Miss Munn may have convinced me that perfection is not to be sought at the piano, but Jesus said “Be Ye PERFECT![1]Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father in heaven is perfect” (when he was speaking in King James English). That’s an even tougher lesson for a five-year-old, but it stuck. Not as something to strive for, but as an eternal impossible guilt-producing standard whose roots went deeper every year. As I grew older, I knew that this was an impossible standard. I even have said in class, to the nervous discomfort of my students, “What the hell kind of a moral standard is that”?

imagesCA6KS6YVIn  The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch asks “What of the command ‘Be ye therefore perfect?’ Would it not be more sensible to say ‘Be ye therefore slightly improved?’” Three decades earlier, she built this tension into one of her novels. The central structural pillars of The Belln43712[1] are the dueling Sunday sermons of James and Michael, rivals for the leadership of a lay religious community. James, on the one hand, is convinced that moral perfection is well within any human being’s reach—we know what is required of us and just need to stop thinking and do it. Perfection is measured by the external standard given to us by God through Scripture and tradition. We fail to be perfect through weakness of will. Throughout the novel James is also revealed as judgmental and self-righteous, rigidly insensitive to the nuances and realities of other people.

Michael, on the other hand, preaches that moral behavior begins with an honest assessment of one’s limitations and imperfections—“one must perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain: not the higher act which one bungles.” Although Michael’s position is far more humane and embraceable than James’, his life is a series of continual missteps for which he seeks and expects immediate forgiveness from himself and others. When, due to his moral blundering, a member of the community commits suicide, Michael himself becomes suicidal as he realizes that his lazy acceptance of his own limitations has poisoned his relationships and caused him to blindly miss the importance of continually striving for perfection. Contentment with “slight improvement” has become identical with self-absorption and stagnation.

So there’s the problem. How am I to embrace imperfection while at the same time avoiding complacency? My best clue, which I borrow from Jeanne who is far wiser than I on these matters, has to do with “the law of love.”imagesCAH78QB6 Perfection is a deadly burden as long as it is a standard of judgment. But through the lens of love, it becomes something different. As long as my image of perfection is avoiding judgment by making no mistakes, I live in fear and am doomed to failure. Miss Munn, however, wanted to show me that the growth inspired by taking risks and making mistakes without fear is directed toward a perfection of a very different sort. The wise Abbess in The Bell tells Michael toward the end of the book that “The idea of perfection moves, and possibly changes, us because it inspires love in the part of us that is most worthy.” As First John tells us (once again in King James English), “perfect love casteth out fear.”mural perfect love with cars[1]

Hats Off!

Portrait of German Music Composer Robert SchumannIn 1831, Robert Schumann published his very first review, in the form of an imaginary conversation about a recent composition by Frédéric Chopin. Both Schumann and Chopin were scarcely out of their teens, and neither was yet widely known. hats_off__gentlemen__a_genius_by_gcs211-d3krx3aRecognizing the exceptional qualities of Chopin’s music, Schumann had one of his fictitious characters introduce it by walking in the door and uttering the unforgettable words, “Hats off, gentlemen—a genius!”pdqface2

According to musicologist Peter Schickele, the only possible response he could make upon hearing the music of P.D.Q Bach, the “only forgotten son” of Johann Sebastian Bach, was “Hats back on, gentlemen—an idiot!” Reading the lyrics to one of P.D.Q.’s compositions,


Et expecto resurrecreation; Et in unum Dominos and checkers; Qui tollis peccate mundi morning. 

Mea culpa kyrie elei-Sonny Tufts et Allah in Pompeii; Donna nobis pacem cum what mei

Agnus and her sister Doris Dei; Lord, have mercy on my solo. 

Et in terra chicken pox romana; Sic transit gloria manana;

Sanctus estes Kefauviridiana; In flagrante delicto Svetlana; Lord, have mercy on my solo. 

Credo in, at most, unum deum; Caveat nabisco mausoleum; Coitus interruptus bonus meum;

Kimo sabe watchum what you sayum; Lord, have mercy on my soul so low.

then listening to a couple of minutes of the “Prelude and Fugue in C Major” from P.D.Q’s immortal The Short-Tempered Clavier

should be sufficient for you to draw your own critical conclusions.

We all have heard that there is a fine line between genius and insanity; for most of us, it is more relevant that we spend our lives wandering the vast terrain between genius and idiocy. I have had moments of such pure inspiration that I wondered why the MacArthur Foundation and the Nobel Prize committee don’t just give me their respective “genius grant” and prize without bothering with the application and paperwork. I105 have had many more moments when my inner voice, observing what I am up to, yells “You Fucking Moron! What the hell do you think you are doing?” Socrates’ inner voice instructed him to do what he knew was right rather than obey the demands of the Athenian authorities. My inner voice usually tells me to stop acting like a fool and embarrassing myself.

I spent part of this past semester studying Albert Camus’ The Plague with a bunch of second semester sophomores. The Plague is one of my top five favorite novels ever, both to teach and just because it is a great novel. Otumblr_l5rqy6R4A01qbmt20f the many powerful characters in the story, my favorite is Grand (Camus’ characters generally don’t get a first name). Grand is a low-level bureaucrat, a paper pushing clerk acquaintance of Dr. Rieux, the narrator and central character of the novel. Grand is a simple but fundamentally decent man who eventually becomes fully committed to assisting Rieux in the impossible task of trying to act humanely and professionally in the face of increasingly inhuman circumstances. As his friendship with Rieux develops, weaving its way through the early outbreak and spread of plague throughout the city, Grand occasionally drops cryptic hints that he is secretly working on a “grand” project. One evening as they share a drink in Grand’s humble apartment, Grand reveals his secret: he is writing a novel. He has been working on it in his spare time for years and it seems to be no closer to completion than when he began it. But it consumes his life, and it is clear that Grand’s identity and self-image is tied up with the future success of his work of fiction. In response to Rieux’s wondering how much more Grand has to go before the novel is finished, Grand says

I don’t know. But that’s not the point . . . What I really want, Doctor, is this. On the day when the manuscript reaches the publisher, I want him to stand up—after he’s read it through, of course—and say to his staff, “Gentlemen, hats off!”45134267

It doesn’t take long to realize that no one will ever be taking their hat off in honor of Grand’s novel. He’s been stuck on the first sentence—“One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne”—for months. We revisit the sentence, with various modifications, throughout The Plague, and it never rises above its original bland mediocrity. But Grand’s dream is shared by most of us, the dream that sometime someone somewhere will recognize our latent genius and honor it appropriately.

Grand is one of the solid anchors of the “sanitary teams” organized by Dr. Rieux and others, groups of volunteers who do whatever is necessary—removing dead bodies, comforting those left behind, struggling with bureaucracy—as the plague runs unchecked for weeks, then months. Then it unaccountably begins to subside, fewer persons die each day. But Rieux notices that he has not seen Grand for a day or two. He finds Grand in bed at home with a raging fever and swollen glands, the clear early signs of plague. In yet another absurd twist of fate, a man who has exposed himself freely and willingly to contamination for months with apparent immunity is infected with the plague just when it seemed that it the disease was finished. Rieux is crushed but administers to Grand in the same way that he has hundreds of others. In a weak and raspy voice, Grand says “If I pull through Doctor—hats off!”

Sometimes mere survival is more worthy of praise and admiration than any other accomplishment. As it turns out, Grand does survive to the end of the novel—a small and rare piece of mercy in Camus’ relentless tale. But in a story both infused with agnosticism and largely lacking in hope—much like the world we live in—Youth_Tree_webGrand strikes me as an embodiment of the prophet Micah’s simple explanation of what the divine expects of us: Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. As I explored last week,

Unvisited Tombs

George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke also embodies such a life, as described in the final lines of Middlemarch:

1331772810The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and  me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Hats off to the Grands, to the Dorotheas, and to all who live lives of justice, mercy, and humility under the radar. As my good friend and colleague Christopher would say, “That’s genius.”

Divine Stalking

He sees you when you’re sleeping

He knows when you are awake

big[1]Big Brother? The NSA? CIA? IRS? No—this is about Santa Claus, the most benign stalker ever. According to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the jolly fat elf has even appropriated moral authority over us: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!” Who gave him that authority? For that matter, who gave him permission to monitor my sleeping habits? As a kid I was entirely in favor of Santa Claus’ generosity with presents once per year, and was in awe of his amazing ability to almost be omnipresent, visiting every abode on the planet in one short night. But I found his interest in my bedtime routine and my moral behavior to be a bit disconcerting and creepy.[1]This week some of the top news stories, in the context of renewing the Patriot Act, have focused on to what extent the right to privacy of citizens in this country has been and continues to be regularly invaded by various government agencies in the professed interest of national security. At this point, a disclaimer—I am one of the least paranoid and most trusting persons on the planet. Accordingly, I have found the outrage, the self-righteous indignation, expressed by many in all sorts of ways rather amusing, especially given how each of us cavalierly leaves a trail of identifying information in our wake each day. The indignation often appears to be directly dependent upon who happens to be in charge at the time.945654_10151486576681275_89686085_n[1] I also wonder just how gullible a person has to be to imagine that this is anything new or beyond what has been the case ever since the beginning of the digital age.

A question that never fails to generate interesting classroom conversation is What do human beings want more—security or freedom? Students invariably conclude that, as is the case with many interesting questions, the answer almost entirely depends on context and circumstances. september-9-11-attacks-anniversary-ground-zero-world-trade-center-pentagon-flight-93-second-airplane-wtc_39997_600x450[1]My freshmen this year were four or five years old on September 11, 2001, and each of them could tell me exactly where they were and what they were doing when the Twin Towers fell, just as I remember vividly President Kennedy’s assassination when I was six. Four short weeks after 9/11, Jeanne and I flew from Providence to Fort Lauderdale for a conference where I was giving a paper and chairing a session. All I remember about the conference is that at least a third of the academics scheduled to give papers did not come because they did not want to get on an airplane. But I clearly remember the Fort Lauderdale airport on the day we returned to Providence. It took us almost three hours to get through security, the terminal was filled with armed military personnel, all of which would have been unheard of a month earlier. tsa-lines[1]But most remarkable was the behavior of the hundreds of travelers whose schedules were being disrupted by the inordinate wait. I did not hear a single complaint; indeed, what I did hear was regular “thank you’s” from those in the lines directed toward those whose job it was to keep us safe. If anyone was bemoaning the obvious loss of freedom in exchange for at least the appearance of security, they were not saying it out loud.

After telling this brief story to my students not long ago, I asked What do you think would happen this coming weekend if people at the airport had a similar experience—hours to get through security, lines moving at less than a snail’s pace, armed soldiers at every turn? One student’s quick response summed it up concisely: “People would be pissed!” And so they would. Why? Because the overwhelming sense of insecurity that pervaded everything and everyone in the weeks after 9/11 have been replaced by a general sense of security, simply because nothing on the scale of 9/11 has happened on our turf for a number of years. heathrow-airport-london-security-scannersjpg-79ec3477441a411a_large[1]A line like the one in Fort Lauderdale in October 2011 is okay today in Tel Aviv, London, Riyadh, or some other place, but this is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Don’t mess with our freedom to do what we want when we want in the way that we want—unless we don’t feel safe, then feel free to suspend our freedoms in whatever ways deemed necessary, so long as you guarantee our security. I am sure that if the news of NSA surveillance was leaked shortly after a terrorist attack, the outrage would not be over violations of our right to privacy. The outrage would be over why the surveillance had not been more extensive and more effective. As the ad slogan says, “Appearance is everything.”

Perhaps the reason why worrying about the threat of someone watching me and knowing my deepest secrets, whether Santa Claus or the government, has never been high on my radar screen is because I learned at a very early age about the impossibility of escaping the scrutiny of the most effective and omnipresent stalker imaginable.

Before ever a word is on my tongue, you know it through and through.

Behind and before you besiege me, your hand ever laid upon me.psalm_139_1_by_beesadie-d30ijri[1]

If I climb the heavens, you are there; if I lie in the grave, you are there.

Your eyes saw all my actions, they were all of them written in your book;

Every one of my days was decreed, before even one of them came into being.

Now that is effective surveillance, straight out of Psalm 139. The first time I read Orwell’s 198459-4[1] as a sophomore in high school, I had no difficulty imagining a world in which everything about me is an open book. This is not because I sensed that the government’s intrusion into our lives was becoming more and more pervasive, but rather because I had known about the divine stalker, the God who would show me a Technicolor movie of my life at the Last Judgment, focusing on all of my sins and failings, since I had learned how to walk. Perhaps this is why I have always found the deism[1]Deist idea that God created the world then left us alone to do the best we can or the notion that God created the world partially complete and gives us the task of completing it somewhat attractive. I’ve known many people, my mother, for instance, who are comforted by Psalm 139’s information that God knew everything about me and had every detail about me planned out while I was still in utero, but not me.imagesCANNTSSE I just wanted God to get off my back and leave me the hell alone.

As long as my image of God is as the divine Big Brother—benign or otherwise—who knows everything about me before I think it or do it, the problem of squaring that sort of cosmic surveillance with even a shred of human freedom and choice cannot be solved. But perhaps the intimacy of God’s connection with my life can be understood differently. As is often the case as I ruminate on divine/human relationships, Incarnation provides a new perspective. What if God is not an external monitoring agency, keeping track and keeping score, but mysteriously interwoven with each human being so intricately that divine and human cannot be separated? What if finding God and finding me are the same search? These are open questions, but the very notion of incarnation, of a fusion between divine and humanimages[3], removes the fear factor, the concern that someone somewhere is holding me to a standard that I cannot possibly satisfy.

While on retreat a couple of summers ago, I met Cyprian Consiglio, a Benedictine monk who is a renowned and respected musician, composer, and author. My favorite of his compositions is “Behind and Before Me,” a setting of Psalm 139. In the CD liner notes, he writes the following about this song:1576301_350[1]

Ancient wisdom tells us that the beginning of the spiritual life is when we realize that God is within us—how long it takes us to reach that realization! But the next stage is when we realize that we are in God.


When I was growing up in northeastern Vermont, the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury was a favorite point of destination. It is an impressive stone structure, a small natural science and history museum, planetarium, and place to hang out all rolled into one. Admission was free for residents of St. Johnsbury, where my cousins lived, as well as for residents of neighboring towns, which included me. My cousins and I spent many Saturdays with nothing to do at the Fairbanks, followed, if we had any money, by a few strings of bowling at the alley just a few blocks farther down Main Street. Since the Fairbanks was also a favorite place for grade school classes to take their field trips (it was free, after all), I got to know the place very well.

Click on picture!

I’m sure it is now a cutting edge twenty-first century establishment (or maybe not), but in the sixties and early seventies when I frequented it, some of it was up to date (the planetarium), some was quaintly dated (the rest of it), and a few things were just plain creepy (such as the curators’ obsession with bad taxidermy and endless glass cases filled with decaying moths, butterflies, and other assorted insects). Other than the planetarium, my favorite part of the museum is one that I’ll wager has either been thoroughly revamped or discarded entirely—the “hands-on” science experiments in the crypt-like basement. The displays were as far removed from what one would find nowadays at even a mediocre science museum as Pac Man and Pong are from today’s video games, but Pong came out when I was in middle school, so it doesn’t take much to entertain me.

It was in the basement of the Fairbanks Museum that I gained, for the first time, empirical evidence supporting what I had suspected for my whole life—I’m partially color-blind. In a glass display at the bottom of the basement stairs was a row of color test plates (I learned today from Wikipedia that they are called “Ishihara color test plates”), circles containing colored spots within which were embedded a figure, usually a number, made of spots with a slightly different color. People with normal color vision can see the number easily, but those with certain color deficiencies can’t. I couldn’t. My normal color-seeing companions could immediately see the “25” in the circle, while I only saw spots. I learned that I have red/green color deficiency—nobody’s perfect.

Being color-blind has not turned out to be a big deal. I always ask Jeanne to endorse my clothing choices and especially to match a tie to a shirt when she’s home; when she’s not, I dress in safe colors, primarily blue, gray, black, red, yellow—anything that doesn’t require me to tell the difference between shades of green and brown, or various permutations of purple. Actually, purple turns out to be the biggest problem for this particular red/green colorblind person—go figure. But when I was a kid, my colorblindness was frequently a source of unwanted attention. My father and brother, for instance, entertained themselves by finding a house, a billboard, or car with the sort of color that I didn’t see as they did. “What color is that?” they would ask, and would laugh like hyenas when I got it wrong. When I finally started saying petulantly “I’m not playing that game anymore,” they laughed even harder.

Color-blindness, at least of the sort I have, is not a debilitating condition—it’s just good to know that I have it so that I can adjust accordingly. Far more important, I think, are the sorts of blindness that all of us are afflicted with, limitations so insidious that every one of is convinced that we see perfectly (even if no one else does). One of the continuing issues that I’ve grappled with over the past few years has to do with the importance of seeing, not just clearly, but differently. The natural human procedure is to view everything through filters and screens that tend to be invisible, yet distort everything that we see. A recent Sunday gospel provides a powerful example of the power of seeing differently. Jesus’ ministry of healing and teaching is in full swing. The crowds are so unrelenting that Jesus and the disciples do not even have time for a proper meal. Jesus has a good idea—let’s get away to a deserted place and rest for a while. With that in mind, Jesus and his inner circle hop into their boat and sail on the Sea of Galilee to where they think they can have a bit of quality down time together. But word spreads so fast that a new crowd is waiting for them when they land. So they try it again, jumping in the boat and sailing away. But the masses are waiting for them wherever they land.

Put yourself in Jesus’ sandals—what do you see? I remember Andrew Lloyd Webber’s interpretation of a scene just like this in his 1970 rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Crowds of people in need of healing are swarming around Jesus demanding his attention, which he tries to provide. But for every person he touches, five more show up. The crowd becomes larger and more insistent, grabbing at his clothes, blocking his way, surrounding him in a closer and tighter circle. Their musical chant increases in intensity and pitch; Jesus begins to sing “There’s too many of you, don’t push me, please don’t crowd me” in a high pitched wail above the cacophony. Finally he screams at the top of his lungs—“HEAL YOURSELVES!!!” and the stage goes black. Then one spotlight shines on Mary Magdalene as she soothingly sings “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you; don’t you know everything’s all right, yes everything’s fine.”

Webber’s imaginative score is brilliant because it is so real. Trust me; the reaction of Webber’s Jesus to the crowd is exactly what my reaction would have been, except I might have included an f-bomb or two. In Jesus’ sandals, I would have seen a mob seeking to suck me dry of everything I have to offer, treating me like a miracle-dispensing ATM instead of a human being who gets exhausted and needs to get his batteries recharged. And there is an element of that in Mark’s account—Jesus is trying (twice, no less) to get away from the crowds that are demanding more than he presently has to offer.

And that’s the beauty of the story. Because although Jesus wants and needs to be alone with his friends and rest, he ultimately does not run from the crowd—he sees them for what they are. “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Yes Jesus was the Son of God and yes he perhaps had more to offer than we do, but his compassion for the crowd is not due to his divinity. It is due to his choosing to see differently, to get past the normal human self-centered filters and look at what is in front of him. He sees a need that he can address and addresses it, even though he’d rather be doing something else. Iris Murdoch defines love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and Jesus’ compassionate gaze on the crowd is one of pure love.

Color-blindness isn’t so bad. But other-blindness, the blindness that is part and parcel of being human, is. In John 14, Jesus promises that because he is going back to his Father and because of the coming of the Holy Spirit, we will do “greater works than these.” And although I don’t completely rule out the possibility of healings and other spectacular miracles today, these are not the works Jesus is talking about. Our greatest works will flow from our divinely energized ability to see things as they are, not as we would like them to be or as we wish they were, and to address the needs with unfiltered directness. Jesus looked at what was right in front of him with compassion. Let’s go and do likewise.

How I Know That I Am Getting Older

I recall once when I was barely thirty hearing my father describe himself as in his “later fifties.” “What am I going to feel and look like when I’m that old?” I wondered—then immediately dismissed the question since me in my “later fifties” sounded like something in a futuristic fantasy. Guess what? That future is here, so much so that this is my last year of my “later fifties.”imagesCAL3HKNZ

A couple of years ago a colleague told me “it’s time for me to retire, Vance.” I asked her why—“because I don’t like the students anymore,” she replied. That strikes me as a very good reason for a professor to retire. My colleague is probably eight or nine years older than I am. I don’t think I will ever get to the point where I don’t like my students—my plan is to die in the classroom at age ninety or so—but I have recently been noticing a few signs that I am getting older. Here are a few from the past few months.

The Good WifeI know I’m getting older when Super Bowl Sunday is an annoyance because it means that “True Detective” and “The Good Wife” will not be on. At least “Downton Abbey” had the guts to compete with the game.

I know I’m getting older when a new friend asks me how old my “boys” are and I say “33 and 36.”  I still refer to them as the “midgets” (they got their mother’s vertically-challenged genes and are both several inches shorter than I am).

untitledI know I’m getting older because here is how I react to the inexplicable recent insistence that each winter storm be named: “When I was a kid growing up in Vermont, we had real storms, not these wimpy posers! We didn’t name our storms because there were so many of them that we would have run out of names in one year! And if we had named them, they would not have had pussy names like “Nika” or “Janus” (or was that “Anus”?). Our storms would have had names like “Winter Storm Buryyouuptoyourfreakingeyeballs” and “Winter Storm Freezeyourfuckingassoff”!328833_original

I know I am getting older because I would rather watch skiing in the Winter Olympics or World Championships than go skiing myself.

I know I am getting older when I not only am not the slightest bit tempted to watch the Grammy awards, but do not recognize the names of a single group or solo act in the list of winners online the next day.Picard

I know that I’m getting older because I felt more manly when I found out from the “Which Star Trek: The Next Generation character are you?” personality quiz that I am Captain Picard.

Which Star Trek: The Next Generation character are you?

really fat squirrelSpeaking of such quizzes, I know I am getting older because I felt smug and superior when I found out from the “What Arbitrary Thing Are You?” quiz that I am “a really fat squirrel” rather than the “box of dead AA batteries,” “a bunch of random hangers” or “Baha men” results that some of my Facebook friends got.

Which arbitrary thing are you?

Albigensian crusadeI know that I’m getting older when my reaction to a snow day off from work is to be pissed because my lecture on the Albigensian Crusade is cancelled. How are my nineteen year old students supposed to live a flourishing and successful life now?

I know that I’m getting older because this past winter, during an different storm, the thought crossed my mind that “Maybe I’ll stay home and watch the Friars play basketball on TV rather than driving downtown in the snow to see them play.” I know that I’m not getting that old because five seconds later I thought “What the hell is wrong with you?? Get your ass in the car and go to the game!” which I did, then sent smug Facebook posts from the Dunkin’ Donuts Center to my friends and colleagues who had stayed home.retirement

I know that I’m getting older because when Jeanne and I realized that our mortgage will be paid off when we are both seventy, I thought for the first time in my life “That might be a reasonable time to retire.” Retire?? Retire?? I thought I was going to die in the classroom at ninety! Fortunately I have a bit under eleven years to seventy—more than enough time to come to my senses.

Mulch in the Morning

snowmageddon-300x300It is the next-to-last day of April, and I think it is finally safe to say that we have survived a very tough winter. I often make fun of Rhode Islanders and what they consider a “tough winter” to be. But the winter just ended really was a bad one–one of the snowiest on record, all coming in a one-month stretch from the end of January to the end of February. We had plenty of opportunities to talk about “Snowmageddon,” the “Snowpocalypse,” the Polar Vortex, and to wonder what ridiculous name the Weather Channel would come up with for the latest storm as well as how many more days of classes would be cancelled.

A few days ago I walked out the front door of the Ruane Center for the Humanities and was struck by a distinctive scent wafting on the breeze. Somewhere on the olfactory spectrum between a pristine pine forest and an overpowering air freshener hanging on the rear-view mirror of a car,mulch this scent had rotting organic material tones, with the tangy hint of chemicals. “I love the smell of mulch in the morning! Spring has actually arrived!” There are a number of interesting sights as well as smells that accompany the arrival of spring. That same day as I approached the house returning home briefly for lunch to check up on our four-legged daughters, I saw a squirrel hanging upside down by his back feet from the top of the metal shepherd’s-crook pole that holds several bird-suet cages on our side lawn, using his front paws to open the latch on one of the cages for a free lunch. Our blue spruce that the feeder is next to has apparently grown large enough that squirrel at feederan enterprising squirrel can leap to the feeder from the closest branch at risk of falling several feet to the ground. Amazing what some people will do for a taste of bird seed encased in blocks of greasy suet.

This means that it is time to start getting the yard in shape—one of my favorite projects of the year that I intend to attack with fervor this coming weekend. I use the word “yard” loosely, since we live in the city and our available land is postage-stamp size, comparatively speaking. That’s fine with me—we have lived here for nineteen years and I am regularly grateful that it takes no longer than twenty minutes to mow the lawn, back, front, and side. I have little interest in a luxurious, weed-free lawn. 005 (2)Indeed I suspect that in the height of summer at least one-half of our lawn is covered with what those in the know would call weeds. But the lawn is green, and that’s all I care about.

What I do care about is flowers. I had no idea how much pleasure there is to be found in the annual cycle of cleaning flower beds in late March and April, watching lilies, tulips, columbines, and peonies poke their heads through the dirt despite having as much as six-foot snow banks on top of them during the winter. I keep a sharp eye out for the first leaf and flower buds on the flowering cherry tree, roses, and hydrangea bush in front,100_0918 as well as the butterfly, blackberry, and lilac bushes in the back. I inspect each potential bud-producer every day and take it very personally when no progress is evident. The process has been entirely trial-and-error over the years; assorted azaleas and hydrangea bushes have failed to make an appearance in given springs, tulips and daffodils have tended to be a disaster, leading to digging up last year’s remains and replacing them with something that might possibly do better. The perennials and flowering bushes we presently have are survivors of Morgan’s version of natural selection—if you don’t show up when I think you should, you’re out. The plants that have survived both my impatience and incompetence over the years are hardy enough to survive nuclear winter, let alone Winter Storm Juno. 757854410188[1]I’ve learned a few things over the years, of course—loosening the flower beds and working in bags of shit from Lowe’s (really—they contain manure), then covering with a layer of mulch is a stimulant for growth and a deterrent for weeds. The primary purpose of the mulch for me, of course, is to get high on the aroma. I never seem to buy enough bags, though, and always have to make another trip to purchase three or four more.

19cuaresmaC3[1]Luke’s gospel tells the story of a land owner who had as little patience with his plants as I have with ours.

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Jesus must have had a bad experience with fig trees as a child; Holy Week Monday a few weeks ago is the day that Jesus killed a fig tree for failing to bear fruit, even though it was not even the season for fig-bearing. Jesus and the Fig Tree[1]He probably was in a bad mood because he knew what was coming in a few days. I completely understand the impatience of the fig tree owner. There is no room for fruitless and flowerless plants in my yard—no slackers allowed. But the fascinating part of the parable is the remedy suggested by the gardener, the resident expert, for the figless tree. He says “Let me disturb it at its roots, throw some crap in there, and I’ll bet it will start producing!” That’s generally the suggested solution for any recalcitrant plant. Cut it back to the ground, lop its branches indiscriminately—in short, do things to the plant that any sensible person fears will kill it, then wait and see what happens.

It seems to be a truism in almost all everything I’ve ever read about spiritual growth that such growth is impossible without conflict, pain, suffering, and violence. 250px-Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831[1]Even the great and extraordinarily difficult philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel wrote that “periods of peace are blank pages in the book of history.” I want to know why. Of course, the classic expression of this problem is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and, more problematically, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But I’m not that concerned about why human beings have to suffer and struggle—this is such an obvious feature of the human landscape that it hardly seems worth asking about. I’m more interested in what to make of a creating being who presumably had infinite options when choosing the guiding principles and template for the world to be created, and chose to do it in the most open-ended and messy fashion imaginable. This is not a world created with efficiency in mind.

1594489270[1]In her fascinating and eclectic memoir Wild Harmonies, classical pianist and dedicated environmentalist Hélène Grimaud writes that “we can be essential only when we are suffering. It encourages us to remain honest.” I think most of us would appreciate being given a shot at living essentially and honestly without suffering, but we don’t get that chance. Instead we get to do it as plants do it, through productive seasons and dormant, through times when even we are astounded by our beauty as well as those times when even the most generous observer would swear that we are dead. In a charismatic church I attended many years ago in a previous lifetime, Olive treewe often would start the morning service with an annoying song based on Psalm 52:8.

Like a tree, like a tree, I’m like a green olive tree
In the house, in the house of the Lord.
I will trust in the mercies of God forever,
I will trust in the mercies of God.

I’ve never heard such a song about being a fig tree.