Category Archives: writing

Strange and Beautiful

Forgive me for name dropping, but I went to dinner with a New York Times best-selling author earlier this month. Twice. Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota, The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and a number of other wonderful books is a visiting scholar at Providence College this academic year and occupies an office that is literally across the hall from mine.kathleen I have known Kathleen for a number of years, but she was responsible for changing my life before we ever met.

I am currently in my final semester of teaching before a year-long sabbatical—it is still unclear exactly how it will all shape up and shake down, but I’m pumped. It seems like only a few months ago, but eight years ago I was in exactly the same situation—a sabbatical semester (the second of my career) on the horizon. During my first sabbatical, all the way back in 2002, I didn’t go anywhere; instead, I holed up in my office and wrote the first draft of a book that was published two years later. As I began to think about my second sabbatical on the horizon, I wanted to go somewhere for at least part of the semester (that’s what normal academics on sabbatical do), but my career has been shaped to fit the campus where I have now taught for twenty-one years. I didn’t even know where to begin.

the cloister walkA few months earlier I had picked up a book called The Cloister Walk while wandering around Borders. I liked the picture on the cover, a cover that also announced that the book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and contained the following review excerpt from The Boston Globe:

This is a strange and beautiful book . . . If read with humility and attention, Kathleen Norris’s book becomes lectio divina, or holy reading.

The Cloister Walk became my bedtime reading—a book that defies description or summary. Following Norris’s quirky faith through the liturgical year was both strange and beautiful just as the NYT reviewer promised; as another reviewer wrote, “she writes about religion with the imagination of a poet.” I had no idea before I picked the book up that this was exactly what some unknown part of me had been looking for, nor did I know that on a practical level it would point me toward where I would spend my sabbatical semester a year later.Institute

Kathleen’s experiences that frame The Cloister Walk occurred during two separate residencies at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. While there, she immersed herself in the daily Liturgy of the Hours with the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey about a ten minute walk away; she writes that the Benedictines refer to their daily office as “the sanctification of time.” The Cloister Walk is the fruit of that liturgical immersion—a “strange and beautiful book” written by a woman who I would come to know as equally strange and beautiful. As I read, I unexpectedly resonated with the eclectic spiritual vision of a fellow traveler steeped in Protestant tradition as I am—rule of benedictexcept that she was strangely attracted to the Benedictines and their ancient Rule.

An important aspect of monastic life has been described as “attentive waiting.” A spark is struck; an event inscribed with a message—this is important, pay attention—and a poet scatters a few words like seeds in a notebook.

I was familiar with the notion of “attentive waiting” from Simone Weil, another strange and beautiful person whose work had been the focus of my own spiritual journey as well as academic research and writing for at least fifteen years (Simone would have loved the Benedictines), but embedding such activity in the pressures of the “real world” had pretty much escaped me.

Kathleen describes in The Cloister Walk the frustration that her fellow resident scholars at the Institute felt with the poetic and decidedly non-academic energies she brought to their collective work, a frustration that I must confess I as an academic also occasionally felt when wandering through the intuitively organized labyrinth of her book. buberBut then, those who seek God must learn that there are as many paths to the divine as there are persons following a path.

When it comes to faith . . . there is no one right way to do it. Flannery O’Connor once wisely remarked that “most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow,” and Martin Buber implies that discovering that means might constitute our life’s work. He states that “All [of us] have access to God, but each has a different access. [Our] great chance lies precisely in [our] unlikeness. God’s all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of the ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one [person].”

I had no idea at the time just how badly I needed to hear that. On a deep level I had ceased hoping to find my unique spiritual path over the years, weary of running head on into what a monk described to Kathleen as “the well-worn idol named ‘but we’ve never don’t it that way before!’ And people wonder how dogmas get started!”

At the time I did not trust my ability to hear a possible word from God—I entirely relied on my intuitively attuned wife to do that for me. 209 inaugurationBut as I worked my way through The Cloister Walk I realized that something more than my usual resonance with a fine writer’s craft was going on—I wanted what she was writing about. Literally. I contacted the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, applied to be a resident scholar for my sabbatical semester during the first five months of 2009, and on the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated as our 44th President, a crystal clear Minnesota day with a high of zero degrees, I found myself in a tiny apartment situated in the very same complex and on the shores of the very same lake I had read about eighteen months earlier. my apartmentWhat on earth was I doing here away from Jeanne and my dachshund Frieda, all alone surrounded by a bunch of people I didn’t know? The only good answer was that I wanted what I had read about. And the rest is (my recent) history.

Professionally what I carried from that sabbatical was a new way of writing (that a few years later turned into this blog) and a bunch of academic essays that as of yet have not been published (because I haven’t sent them out). But I was changed from the inside out. I immediately tested the waters of daily noon prayer with the monks up the hill at the Abbey, a commitment that within a few weeks became a three-times-a-day habit. The prayers were important, but inhabiting the Psalms as a collective body opened a “deepest me” space that I have come to recognize as the place where the divine in me hangs out. Every possible human emotion and every possible encounter with the divine is in those ancient poems.

God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology.

The value of this great songbook of the Bible lies not in the fact that singing praise can alleviate pain but that the painful images we find there are essential for praise, that without them, praise is meaningless.

[The Psalms’] true theme is a desire for the holy that, whatever form it takes, seems to be a part of the human condition, a desire easily forgotten in the pull and tug of daily life, where groans of despair can predominate.

One day at noon prayer one of my friends from the Institute nudged my attention toward the row behind us. “That’s Kathleen Norris!” my friend whispered in a slightly too-loud-for-noon-prayer voice.beatles I don’t know what I was expecting a famous author to look like, but it wasn’t this. That evening Kathleen—on campus for a university board meeting—visited the Institute for dinner. For many of us it was like a visit from the Beatles. Like any groupie I made sure Kathleen signed my copies of her books (I had them all in my apartment) and we spent three or four minutes in one-on-one conversation (which I was sure she would not remember). But just meeting the person whose book had brought me to this wonderful place in the middle of nowhere was enough. A year and a half later, while I was back in Collegeville for a writer’s workshop at the Institute, Kathleen and I were both staying at the Abbey Guesthouse (I forget why she was on campus). We had several breakfasts and lunches together, enjoyed some conversation on the guesthouse patio overlooking the lake, and a friendship was formed. I particularly enjoyed the envious looks on my workshop colleagues’ faces when they observed me lunching with a world-famous author in the cafeteria one day. randall lectureAnd now, several years later, she’s our current endowed scholar on campus and inhabits the office across the hall.

When my birthday came a couple of weeks ago, Jeanne and I took Kathleen out to dinner—she’s a great conversationalist and we had a wonderful time. Our plan had been to include our good friends Marsue and Robin (Marsue is also a Norris groupie), but our umpteenth snow storm of the season made that impossible. So the next week we did it again, and this time Marsue got to meet one of her literary heroes in person. It’s strange how things work out. Last August, just a few days before the beginning of the new academic year, I was sitting in the atrium of our student center minding my own business and I heard a voice from the stairs behind me—“I know you!” It was Kathleen. “And I know you too,” I thought. “You’re the person who changed my life.”

violet

The Wisdom of Violet

All this thinking is highly overrated. Violet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey

season fiveThe American showing of Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey’s fifth season just ended, to the dismay of its millions of fans who now must wait until next January to get their next Downton fix. It’s a bit worse for Jeanne and me. Late last year Jeanne signed up to throw a few monthly dollars in the direction of our local PBS station; in return, we were shipped the full fifth season of the series in DVD at the end of January. The fifth season had just started its Sunday evening run a couple of weeks earlier, and now we had in our hands the rest of the season with no need to parcel the episodes out one week at a time. The DVDs showed up a couple of days before we got smacked with Juno, the first and worst of a series of winter storms that came in unrelenting succession over the next month. With Tuesday and then Wednesday classes cancelled, we binge-watched Lord Grantham along his relatives and homies cavort and angst through eight straight episodes—about eleven or twelve hours of viewing. And we wanted more.

All Downton fans have their favorite characters—I’ve noted in a previous post from a few weeks back that mine is Mister Carson, the erstwhile butler of the establishment.

The Wisdom of Mister Carson

violetBut everyone loves Lord Grantham’s mother Violet, the dowager countess and source of endless entertainment from meaningful glances to pithy retorts, a lovably manipulative force behind virtually everything going on in each episode with a wit as dry as a martini. Violet is played so memorably by Dame Maggie Smith that I cannot imagine anyone else being Violet (although I suspect Dame Judi Dench could do it, just differently). In this most recent season any number of Violet one-liners made me laugh, then think. Here are a few of them.

All this thinking is highly overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914 nobody ever thought.

Downton Abbey begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and in five seasons has proceeded through the Great War to the disturbing, iconoclastic years in the war’s wake, concluding the fifth season at Christmas 1923. In my twenty-plus years of teaching in an interdisciplinary humanities program, the most important thing I have learned about history is that no event ever changed the world so fully and irrevocably as World War One. yeatsWilliam Butler Yeats captured these dark transformations perfectly in his 1919 poem “The Second Coming.”

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The best lack all conviction, while the

Worst are full of passionate intensity.

That these lines are directly applicable to our world a century later is testimony to just how complete the changes were.

Violet finds herself in a world she does not understand in which none of the fixed and reliable rules that have given her life and society stability apply. There was a time when people knew their place, when one knew what to expect, when things made sense. That world is gone, and she blames it on too much thinking. She might have a point. Not long ago some philosophical wag wrote that “Socrates may have been right when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but the overexamined life is nothing to write home about either.”

A lack of compassion is as vulgar as an excess of tears.

maryThis is Violet’s comment to her granddaughter Mary when Mary shows a remarkable lack of concern for her sister Edith’s sadness and mourning over the death of her lover and father of her child. It is a remarkable comment from a woman whose whole life has been defined by the sort of British aristocratic reserve that looks, at least on the surface, like lack of compassion on steroids. But an excess of any sort on the spectrum of emotion is “vulgar,” perhaps the worst thing that could possibly be said about a British aristocrat in the post-Edwardian era.

In my team-taught colloquium entitled “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom and Truth in the Nazi Era,” my students (and I) regularly struggle to find the appropriate emotional response to the horrors we are studying. At the end of our final class last week before spring break, my historian teammate Ray ended the two hours with a few minutes video from the liberation of Auschwitz. Emaciated, skeletal bodies piled fifteen feet or more high. auschwitzThese bodies being thrown one by one into a mass grave. Ray wisely ended the class with no comment, switching the computer off as students quietly gathered their things and filed out.

As I’ve been reading my students’ intellectual notebook entries this week, several have written “I don’t know how to respond to what I was seeing.” And neither do I. But our response cannot be academic and clinical, nor can it be a paralyzing wave of emotion. The worst that we humans can do to each other must be responded with all of the resources available to us. Our response must be human, in other words. This reminds me yet again of why I resonate with a religion whose central truth is that God became human.

Hope is a tease to prevent us from accepting reality.

To which the idealist responds that realism or pragmatism is a device to help us avoid dreaming of and hoping for what could be rather than settling for what is. I have written occasionally about the dynamic of hope in this blog,

Hopeful Thinking

and like to think of myself as a “pragmatic idealsimpragmatic idealist” or perhaps an “optimistic realist.” These things really are not contradictory, although many (including Violet) assume that they are. The philosopher in me tends toward realism, with Aristotle, David Hume, William James as three of my most important philosophical influences. Yet that realism is tempered by my faith which in my understanding both applies directly to the real world I struggle with every day yet offers transcendent hope that there is more to reality than what I struggle with every day. I resonate with Hamlet’s conviction that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy”—this is how I manage to be both a philosopher and a Christian, something that a good friend worried that I would not be able to pull off many years ago.

Thanks, Violet, for your thought-provoking insights and asides—keep them coming!violet 2

Your Heart’s Desire

fortune cookie“This thing better have good news in it,” I said as I unwrapped my P. F. Chang’s fortune cookie. And it did.

You will receive your heart’s desire

“Great,” I thought. “I wonder what the hell that is.

It had not been a good day. That morning I had received a rejection letter from the ##### Foundation to whom I had applied for sabbatical funding last fall. In typical rejection letter style, I was informed that “We received 76 applications and awarded 10 grants. The quality of the grant proposals made the work of the selection committee challenging indeed. I regret to inform you . . . blah, blah, blah and so on.” sabbatical proposalI’m surprised they didn’t add “Sorry for the inconvenience,” since that phrase has been on mind lately.

Sorry for the Inconvenience

This sucked big time because of the two funding proposals I sent out last fall, this was the one I thought I had the much better shot at. The other proposal involves a semester residency at a think-tank on the campus of a prestigious university who shall remain nameless but whose name rhymes with “Voter Game.” The email I received from the think-tank confirming receipt of my full proposal application contained the following throw-away line at the end: “Please note that ***** Fellowships are very competitive, with past annual acceptance rates of 4 to 9%.” Nice.

I do not handle rejection well—not that I’ve had a lot of it in my career. I have never been an adjunct professor. Both of my teaching positions have been tenure track. Both times that I actually got an on-campus interview I got the job. My ascent of the tenure and promotion ladder had only one easily correctable glitch. I have spent twenty-one years teaching at the same college, loving every minute of those years (or at least 95% of the minutes). Three books, a number of articles, a teaching award, two significant administrative posts—I'm OkayI’m not writing this to impress anyone, but rather to illustrate my inner dialogue every time I do get rejected. I immediately start trying to convince myself that I’m really okay, despite the fact that the ##### Foundation did not deem my sabbatical project worth spending a dime on.

These are the times when I am grateful both for my training in classical music and for being forced to memorize lots of verses from the Bible in my growing up years. As soon as I read the cookie’s promise that I will receive my heart’s desire, my memory tapes started playing a song I don’t believe I had thought of in years, perhaps decades. It is a solo from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, with the seemingly appropriate (but very difficult to actually do) title “O Rest in the Lord.” I hate it when this happens, because the last thing I felt like doing that day was waiting or resting. My heart’s desire is to have funding for my sabbatical project, and what felixI considered to be my most likely source of that funding just said “thanks for playing, but no.” So “rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him, and he shall give thee thy heart’s desires?” Whatever—I don’t think so.

Mendelssohn’s Elijah is a dramatic musical treatment of various episodes from Elijah’s life as described in the Jewish scriptures, including his getting to ride in a flaming chariot to heaven once his prophesying work was over. In Part One of the oratorio Elijah has one of the greatest and most spectacular successes any prophet of God ever has or will experience. In a high stakes contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, God has shown up in impressive fashion, as Elijah calls down fire that consumes the sacrifice, the wood on the altar, the stones that the altar is made out of, and the water surrounding it.elijah All this after five hundred prophets of Baal failed to arouse even a spark or a whiff of smoke out of their god after hours of praying, chanting, dancing, and self-mutilation. The people fall on their faces and cry “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” In the exhilarating glow of spectacular success, Elijah has the five hundred prophets of Baal taken down the mountain to a brook and executed.

But then King Ahab reports to his wife, Queen Jezebel—a woman who in terms of evil and just plain nastiness puts Lady Macbeth to shame—what has happened to her prophets and everything changes. Jezebel sends a message to Elijah saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” elijah and angelBy the beginning of Part Two, Elijah is fleeing for his life into the wilderness. Exhausted, he eventually collapses into a fetal position under a broom tree and has a classic drama queen moment: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” And for once, God does something practical. While Elijah sleeps, an angel makes him breakfast; when Elijah stirs, the angel serves him the meal, then entertains him by singing a lovely setting of Psalm 37—which three thousand years or so later makes it into Mendelssohn’s Elijah as “O Rest in the Lord.”

Mendelssohn’s text rearranges a few of the verses from Psalm 37, but captures the point perfectly. For those who are fretting and stressed about what the future holds, the Psalmist provides a set of simple promises.

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;

Do not fret over those who prosper in their way,

Over those who carry out evil devices.

Although this text is steeped in a religious perspective that I became familiar with before I learned to walk, the Psalmist’s advice sounds remarkably like what the ancient Stoics tell us—be clear about what is in your control and what is not. Don’t waste energy trying to control the latter and create your moral and spiritual home out of the former. What I can control is how I will respond to what the largely uncontrollable world hands me—disappointment, dashed hopes, unexpected opportunities, and a hell of a lot of the mundane, daily grind. The verbs in Psalm 37 are telling: trust, commit, be still, be patient, don’t worry, and take delight. These are the core of a life of centeredness and peace—something available even when things don’t go my way.Psalm 37

As I venture into the last third of my years on earth, I realize that I have often received my heart’s desire, and it almost never has been what I would have predicted. I’m not so sure I even know what my heart’s desire is going forward, but I do want to tune my inner receptors more and more carefully so that I will recognize it when it crosses my radar screen. I have had two sabbaticals in my career so far. I wrote a book during the first, and the second changed my life. Even a disappointing letter from ##### Foundation can’t deter a new heart’s desire from wandering into my life during this upcoming one. I just wish I knew what it looks like.

A Trip to Middle Earth

Everyone has an unforgettable teacher or two in his or her history; I aspire to be that teacher for a person or two in every class I teach. When thinking about those teachers in my own history, I usually go no farther back than my mentors in graduate school, about whom I have written occasionally on this blog.

Resembling the Picture

But as I stood in line for a movie ticket for hobbit movie“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” a few weeks ago, I remembered Mrs. Lord, the wonderfully monikered teacher of my college-prep English class as a freshman in high school. We spent a lot of time with grammar (something that I think fell by the wayside in high school English classes long ago), but I remember the literature. Great Expectations, A Separate Peace, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Edgar Allen Poe short stories, “Romeo and Juliet,” just to name a few. I was well read for a ninth-grader, but had heard of neither the title nor the author of the book from that year that had the greatest influence on me. The Hobbit? I thought? What the hell is a hobbit? And why does tolkienJ. R. R. Tolkien find it necessary to have three initials rather than one first name? I don’t exactly remember the details of my original reaction to this book, but it was strong enough that after finishing it in two days, I went to Mrs. Lord after class and said “I really like this book. Has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact, yes he has,” she replied. And I was hooked for good.

This was decades pre-Amazon, and there were not a whole lot of bookstores in northeastern Vermont, so I don’t exactly recall how I got my hands on paperback copies of the three-volume The Lord of the Rings. But I did (probably my mother pulled it off—it’s the sort of thing she did behind the scenes all the time), and I feel headlong into Middle Earth. In many ways I have never fully returned. lotrStarting that year (1970), for the next three decades I read the trilogy through from cover to cover on the average of every three years. When I heard over a decade ago that a Peter Jackson was planning a trilogy film treatment of The Lord of the Rings, I was fully prepared to be a critic with the same intensity that the fundamentalists of my youth were critical of Biblical epics (“That’s not scriptural!” “That’s not in the Bible!”). But I loved the trilogy on the big screen (more than I enjoyed the unnecessary trilogy of The Hobbit), and plan to watch the fifteen-hour extended version of the trilogy I have at home straight through at least once before I die (when Jeanne’s out of town—she’s not into this hobbit/elf/dwarf/wizard/orc/ent/ringwraith stuff).

There has always been a great deal of speculation about where Tolkien got his ideas and inspiration from, beginning with the Ring of Power itself, the possession or destruction of which is the driving energy of the thousand plus pages of the epic.

Ring of powerOne Ring to rule them all

One Ring to find them

One Ring to bring them all

and in the Darkness bind them

I can’t say for sure (although I’m sure that dozens of websites would be happy to school me on this), but I know where I hope Tolkien got the idea for the Ring of Power from. As a classically trained scholar, Tolkien knew his Plato—and so he also knew that at the beginning of Book Two of his masterpiece The Republic, Plato tucked a memorable story of another insignificant nobody who found a ring with remarkable powers and corrosive effects—the Ring of Gyges.

republicThe topic of conversation in The Republic is justice broadly conceived—something more like what we would call “morality” or “right living” rather than the narrower sense of justice as equality or fairness that we contemporary folks are familiar with. The overarching question in the early pages of The Republic is “Why be moral at all?” Socrates intends to argue that being moral is natural to human beings, but before he can get started one of his conversants, Plato’s older brother Glaucon, begs to differ. Normal people, Glaucon claims, believe that human beings are not moral by nature—we are self-interested, aggressive and competitive creatures who want what we want when we want it and are willing to pursue it at any expense, including the welfare of someone else, as long as we think we can get away with it. We impose morality and law on ourselves and each other because we are afraid of each other, but being moral is an artificial state for a human being, something contrary to our basic nature.

To illustrate his point, Glaucon tells the story of a lowly shepherd in the kingdom of Lydia named Gyges. One day while he is bored out of his mind tending the sheep and goats, ring of gygesGyges does a bit of exploring and finds a pretty gold ring. He has never owned anything so sparkly and shiny, so he keeps it. A few days later, as he is sitting in the middle of the weekly shepherds committee meeting with several of his colleagues, he is fiddling with his new toy and discovers that when he turns it a certain way on his finger, he turns invisible! Gyges uses his ring of invisibility as an instrument of empowerment—in short order his seduces the queen, kills the king, and becomes the ruler of Lydia. Furthermore, Glaucon argues, any person, from moral giants to lowly degenerates, would do the same thing with the ring of invisibility that Gyges did—whatever they wanted to do. And they would be fools if they did not.

The purpose of Glaucon’s story is to emphasize his point that being moral is artificial, not natural. We restrict our pursuit of self-interest because we fear what will happen if we are discovered breaking the rules of society, rules intended to keep aggressive and self-centered creatures from killing each other. We bind ourselves with the restrictions of the social contract while secretly wishing for a world in which we could do whatever we desire. gollumThe ring of invisibility opens for its wearer that very world, a world of power and opportunity—a world in which everything can be accomplished without fear of retribution or responsibility. That Tolkien’s Ring of Power turns its wearer invisible, just as Gyges’ ring does, is a telling connection to Plato’s ancient tale. But Tolkien introduces a new element—empowerment comes at a cost. Every character sucked into the vortex of the ring’s influence—wizard, elf, dwarf, hobbit or human—experiences the corrosive effect of power without responsibility. Sméagol the lowly hobbit devolves into the tortured Gollum; SarumanSaruman the White turns from a powerful force for good into an even more powerful force of destruction; kings become bodiless wraiths; once used, unlimited power is both seductive and deadly.

On the surface, the cosmic conflict that dominates The Lord of the Rings seems reducible simplistically to Good vs. Evil, a simplistic reading that makes Tolkien’s fantasy an endless source of ideas for violent video games. But lying just below the surface are the timeless questions that should obsess all of us. What are we? What is morality? Are good and evil mutually exclusive? How should we live our lives in the middle of a reality largely outside our control? Next Friday, I’ll return to the ring of power tales with the story of how I learned something twenty-five years ago from my seven-year-old son that I’ll never forget, something that forever influenced how I think about what is good and what is not.

the jesus lizard

What I Would Love to Find

bird by bifdIn Bird by Bird, the best book on writing that I have read, Anne Lamott tells the writing wannabe to “write what you would love to find.” That’s great advice—but of course that means the prospective writer has to do a lot of reading. At least I do, since I often don’t know what I would “love to find” until I find it. When things get busy, when I tell myself that I don’t have the time to read anything other than what I’ve assigned my students for the week (since it’s always a good idea to be a class or two ahead of them), my blog writing begins to resonate like vibrations in an echo chamber or the sound of one hand clapping. one handWhen I tack a new paragraph at the beginning of an essay I wrote a year ago and call it a new essay, I know it’s time to find another hand to clap with.

In my current state of affairs, this happens during semester or summer break. Last summer was filled with reading multiple volumes of Scandinavian noir mysteries which provided me with new ways to consider the familiar. What would I discover during the all-too-short Christmas break between semesters that just ended? I have learned to trust the apparently random suggestions of friends and colleagues for new reading material over the years, and once again they delivered. Thanks to two friends, I have discovered two more authors to love and to use as new sparks of writing energy.

The first suggestion came from my friend and colleague Bill, who occupies the office directly across the hall from mine in our still-new cathedral to the humanities. Bill and I know each other well; we have taught on an interdisciplinary faculty team together, have frequently talked about pedagogical issues, and share the privilege (?) of having directed the program I currently run (he was the director before I was). abyssBill brings his sons to his office on occasion—they like to peek into my office to see the penguins. And Bill reads my blog. One morning not long ago he said “I’m reading a book you would like. It’s called My Bright Abyss; Christopher Wiman is a poet, but this is sort of a spiritual memoir. It’s tough reading at times, but he writes about the sort of things you write about.” On Bill’s recommendation I ordered it from Amazon, despite Wiman’s being a poet (I have frequently described myself as “poetry challenged”).

Boy was Bill right. One of the many things I love to find is well-trampled territory described as if the author just discovered it for the first time.

Faith steals upon you like dew: some days you wake and it is there. And like dew, it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions.

Ain’t it the truth? I call myself a “person of faith” regularly, but that makes faith sound like something that—once the decision is made—is a regular part of one’s daily apparel like shoes or underwear. But faith is much more ephemeral than that, something that Wiman captures perfectly. When Jesus asks Peter, whom he has just rescued from drowning at the end of Peter’s ill-fated effort to walk on water, doubt“Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” I’m hoping Peter answered (or at least thought) “Because I’m a human being and this faith thing is like a magic trick: Now you see it, now you don’t.”

Wiman also has little resonance with the notion of finding comfort in religious belief. My students often suggest that “comfort” is the main attraction of faith commitment: comfort that “all things work together for good” and comfort that in an afterlife “everything will work out.” The next time I hear that in a classroom discussion (or anywhere else), I’ll introduce this from My Bright Abyss:

shardChrist is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how “ungodly” that clarity often turns out to be.

Imagine if Jesus had said that “following me will be like a shard of glass in your gut.” How many followers would that have attracted? Come to think of it, though, the gospels claim that Jesus said many things like that. We just tend to ignore them.

My other Christmas break discovery came to me when my good friend Marsue asked if I had ever read in the darkLearning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. “I want to get it for you,” she said, “but the last time I got you a book you already had it.” I had not read any of Taylor’s work, but her books have showed up frequently enough in the “Suggested Reading” on my Amazon Prime site (which I guess is generated based on what I have purchased in the past) that I have had this very book on my “Wish List” for a few months. Not wanting to undermine Marsue’s intended generosity, but taking this suggestion from a trusted friend seriously, I read three of Taylor’s other books over break. Not only have I found another literary soul mate, Jeanne is reading these books as well.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church is her memoir of how tending for her own spiritual health and growth required her leaving the active Episcopal priesthood, a story that I resonated with at many points. Her treatment of suffering and the book of Job in altarAn Altar in the World, however, was unforgettable, beginning with her memorable description of why pain and suffering are not logical puzzles to be solved or abstract challenges to faith to be overcome.

Pain is so real that less-real things like who you thought you were and how you meant to act can vanish like drops of water flung on a hot stove. Your virtues can become as abstract as algebra, your beliefs as porous as clouds.

I have for the most part been mercifully free in my life thus far from the sort of paralyzing pain that she is describing. I also have no reason to believe that the faith I care about and profess would mean much of anything in the face of such pain. But her directness and honesty is unusual and much appreciated from a priest and theologian. She’s excellent at “making it real”—something I continue to strive for both in my writing and in my life.

What would I like to find (and what am I interested in writing)? Anne Lamott is right—the answer is often the same to both questions. A friend and colleague the other day asked who the audience is for what I write. I couldn’t believe it when I answered “I guess my audience is people like me.” I’m writing in the hope that once in a while something I write will be what someone else will love to find. I write for people who might resonate, as I do, with Christopher Wiman’s analogy for the life of faith:

To live in faith is to live like the Jesus lizard, quick and nimble on the water into which a moment’s pause would make it sink.the jesus lizard

Convocation_2007_16

Nice Work If You Can Get It

The new semester begins in a week. I was interested a few days ago to read a Huffington Post article summarizing the results of what a bunch of anthropologists found out concerning the daily work habits of university faculty.

What Do Professors Do All Day?

After spending two weeks with a non-random sample of sixteen faculty of different ranks at boise stateBoise State University, the researchers found out that on the average the faculty worked 51 hours during the work week and 10 hours on the weekend at a host of different tasks. Amazing. It took a study to find out that teachers have full-time jobs after all and actually do work-related things on the weekend (although the numbers for both week and weekend seem a bit low). I’m wondering how to square these remarkable results with an article I read a year ago claiming that “University Professor” topped the list of “Least Stressful jobs of 2013.” Of course I had to respond . . .

Those who read this blog regularly or even occasionally know that I believe I have the greatest job in the world. For those who are finding this out for the first time, let me repeat—I have the greatest job in the world. As a matter of fact, it is so great that I don’t consider it to be a job at all. For me, teaching is a vocation rather than a job, something that I truly believe I am called and was born to do. Convocation_2007_16I raise eyebrows occasionally on the campus of the Catholic college at which I teach when I say that I consider teaching to be a vocation for me just as much as being a priest is the vocation of the guys who walk around campus in white robes. But even though I love what I do to an almost unhealthy extent, I taken aback when I learned from a colleague via Facebook that “University Professor” is listed by CareerCast.com at number one in its top ten list of “Least Stressful Jobs of 2013.”

The Ten Least Stressful Jobs of 2013

Really? Or as one of my colleagues commented on Facebook “Bullshit!!! [pardon my advanced degree French].” I guess I must have failed to notice how non-stressful my job is during my 25 year university professor career.

Every person who teaches in higher education has a virtual file full of stories about how difficult it is to get a non-academic friend or family member to understand exactly what is involved with being a college professor. pic_short_teaching_courses_londonMost difficult is getting someone to understand that this is not a part-time job. For instance, Cousin Bob finds out that the typical teaching load for a faculty member at a teaching college or university is three or four three-credit courses per semester (or perhaps five at a two-year college), meaning that the faculty member is in class at most fifteen hours per week. Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! Cousin Bob remarks. Early in my career I often patiently pointed out to the Cousin Bobs in my family that a good rule of thumb is that a teacher spends three to four hours outside of class (preparation, reading, grading, meeting with students, etc.) for every hour spent in class. “Really?” Cousin Bob replies. But he clearly is not convinced, since as we all know, easy working hours is the main reason that a person becomes a teacher.

Then, of course, Cousin Bob wonders about all of the weeks of the calendar year that I am not in the classroom. Christmas break, Spring break, the summer—teachers apparently get at least twenty weeks per year off.images Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! With what begins to feel like infinite patience, I explain to Cousin Bob that teaching is only one part of a university professor’s job. In order to advance through the ranks of promotion and, more importantly, in order to get tenure, one must research and publish on a regular basis. For most college faculty, the time and focus required for this aspect of the profession is not available during the semester, so the “breaks” are all about research, writing, and praying for publication. But I’m not in the classroom, right? Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! You get the idea. A colleague once told me about his frustrated response to a relative after one too many such conversations. Upon hearing Must be nice to make a full-time salary at a part-time job! one too many times, my colleague replied “It actually is really nice. If you were smart enough you could have a job like that too.”

CareerCast’s explanation of why University Professor is the least stressful job of 2013 has more than a whiff of Cousin Bob behind it, just expressed in a slightly less aggressive fashion. For instance, the article explains that

University professors are at the pinnacle of the education field. Their students are largely those who choose the classes they attend, and thus want to be in class. Unlike elementary and secondary educators, the performance of college professors isn’t evaluated based on standardized tests. 15rfd-image-custom3University professors also have the opportunity to earn tenure, which guarantees lifetime employment.

A full response would require something more like a book chapter than a blog post. Suffice it to say that the author of the article (1) has apparently never heard of core requirements if he thinks that college professors face “students . . . who choose the classes they attend, and thus want to be in class,” (2) is not aware that despite the (usual) lack of standardized tests, college teachers are evaluated by their peers, answerable for the results of student evaluations, and are under regular scrutiny in every aspect of what they do, and (3) needs to learn something about the tenure process (assuming that the faculty member is fortunate enough to be teaching at an institution that uses the tenure process).

Tenure. Such job security is certainly unusual in today’s job market and tenure is an attractive “perk” of the academic life. Once one earns it, that is. one-does-not-simply-become-an-adjunct-professorTenure-track positions are hard to come by in academia, more and more so as many institutions opt for hiring year-to-year adjunct professors or special lecturers then proceed to treat them as well-dressed slave labor (don’t get me started on that one). Should a teacher be fortunate to land a tenure-track position in today’s heavily buyer-skewed academic marketplace, the stress she or he will experience in the next several years leading to the tenure decision will be sufficient to last a lifetime. As is undoubtedly the case in many workplace environments, the tenure decision is often as much or more about internal campus politics as it is about the qualifications of the candidate and those things that she or he can control. “The opportunity to earn tenure” is indeed that—an opportunity that, unfortunately, for many talented and qualified teachers will never be available.

Then there’s the money. The article author points out that

csreport_header02_r1_c1_s1Harvard University pays full-time professors $198,400, with a 7:1 professor-to-student ratio, while University of Chicago professors receive $197,800 per year with a 6:1 ratio. Among public universities, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) is highest paying, with an average wage of $162,600 for its full-time staff.

Really? All of them? At all levels? In all disciplines? Such “statistics” are useless without context, about as useless as telling a lawyer in a public defender’s office working 80-100 hours per week and struggling to make ends meet that the senior lawyers in the top firms on Wall Street often make seven-figures annually. Here’s an anecdote from the real world. At least a dozen years into my teaching career, still paying off the loans from ten years of college in order to earn the PhD required to teach at the college level in my discipline,business-ethics it occurred to me one day that the second semester seniors in my Business Ethics class, most of whom would be entering the work force shortly after graduation as entry-level persons with undergraduate business degrees, would be starting at a monthly salary noticeably higher than my own. As I once told a younger colleague when I was chair of my department, in response to his complaints about how little he was being paid, “if you became a teacher for the money, you’re a moron.”

1385581_616281185091038_1215320450_nI have reached the level of experience and rank (a tenured, full professor) at which one could expect that maybe stress levels might reduce and ultimately disappear. But persons such as I are those who are tapped, appropriately, to significantly commit themselves to the third leg of the academic stool (along with teaching and research): service. After four years as chair of a department of 25 faculty and now in the middle of a four-year stint as the director of the core academic program at my college, responsible for 80 faculty and upwards of 1700 students at any given time, I realize that one sort of stress just gets replaced by another.

And actually that’s fine, since it is all part of the vocation I was born to inhabit. There are many attractive features to the life of a university professor. I can think of no other profession in which one’s creativity is required more often or in which one has more autonomy and flexibility. But it is anything but stress-free. A teacher never leaves the office. Your work goes with you everywhere. I realized at one point early last December that, other than Thanksgiving Day,  I literally had not had a day off since the middle of August. This is why I have recommended the teaching profession to no more than a half-dozen of my best students in more than twenty years of teaching. If you are looking for a profession that will fit nicely with your family obligations and other interests, don’t become a teacher.nice-work-if-you-can-get-it-1180 If you want to make a living wage at a stimulating 40-45 hour per week job, don’t become a teacher. If you want to “work to live” rather than “live to work,” you probably should not become a teacher. If you think of teaching as one among many equally interesting career possibilities, don’t become a teacher. But if you are incurably obsessed with the life of learning, if the dynamic of new ideas exhilarates you, if you suspect that you might have the heart of a teacher and nothing else will fulfill you, then this highly stressful but highly rewarding vocation might just be for you. It’s nice work if you can get it.

one thing

One Thing

In the 1991 movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal plays New York executive Mitch Robbins, whose hassled life is wearing negatively on his work, his marriage, and his friendships. At thirty-nine years old he finds himself deep in a midlife crisis. three amigosFor his birthday, his two best buddies purchase a two-week vacation for the three of them at a dude ranch in New Mexico to participate in a dude cattle drive. As is usually the case with Billy Crystal, hilarity and poignancy ensue simultaneously. The tough-as-nails trail boss Curly, played to great effect by Jack Palance, is an enigma to Mitch from day one—Curly is silent, curmudgeonly, skilled at his job, self-assured, and clearly in possession of information that Mitch badly needs. One day while rounding up strays, Mitch asks, “Curly, what is the secret of life?” As a good philosopher should, Curly answers with another question.

You know what the secret of life is?

No, what?

(Holding one finger up) This. one thing

Your finger?

One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.

That’s great, but what’s the one thing?

That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.

One thing. Finding out what that one thing is might be the point of anyone’s life, but that’s a pretty big task. At the beginning of a new year, a more manageable question might be “What is the one thing that I resolve to do this coming year?” And I don’t mean something like drinking less coffee or going to the gym more. I mean “What is the one thing that I resolve to do in this coming year that will be good for the inner me, for my soul?”one more thing I gave this assignment to the Living Stones seminar group that meets once a month after church when we met in December, and they’ll be bringing their “one thing” resolution when we meet next. As for me, I resolve that in 2015 I will be a more reverent person.

Reverence is not a concept that is particularly in favor in Western culture—it probably hasn’t been for decades. The term is almost always used in religious contexts, especially during the holiday season just ended. The shepherds and wise men gaze reverently upon the Christ child, Mary listens reverently as the angel tells her that her world is about to be turned upside down, the stable animals chew their hay reverently as they observe Mary reverently giving birth to Jesus while Joseph reverently boils water and finds some swaddling clothes. I suppose that sort of faux holiness has its place (maybe), but that’s not what I have in mind.

The sort of reverence I am resolving to develop this year is more like Moses’ reaction to the burning bush in Exodus. As he is taking care of his father-in-law Jethro’s flocks one day, he notices something weird out of the corner of his eye—a bush that is on fire but is not being burnt up. He could have thought “that’s weird” and kept on going. burning bushHe could have made a mental note to check back later when he wasn’t so busy. He could have Googled “burning bush” on his tablet after dinner with Zipporah and the kids when he had a few minutes of down time. But he didn’t. Instead, he said “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” Loose translation—“Holy Shit! What the hell is that?” Moses was willing to interrupt his busy day to take a look at something outside his usual frame of reference. Reverence begins with the ability to see in a different way, to notice what’s going on outside the boundaries of my agenda, to be attentive to even the most mundane items and events that cross my path. Most importantly, reverence is cultivated by an increasing awareness that everything is important in its own right. simoneThe Greek philosopher Protagoras famously claimed that “man is the measure of all things.” Reverence says that I am not the measure of anything—what is most important and interesting is almost never about me.

The work of the French, Jewish mystic, activist and philosopher Simone Weil has been important to me both personally and professionally for many years, but one of her many cryptic phrases has been a mystery to me until just recently. In Gravity and Grace, she writes that “Here below, to look and to eat are two different things. . . . The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating.” This truly made no sense to me for a long time. But as I’ve learned something about peace, silence and attentiveness over the past few years, I’ve begun to see Simone’s point. Human beings are naturally acquisitive and devouring creatures—we are seldom willing to let things be as they are. If X is attractive, I want to buy it. If Y looks useful, I want to consume it. If Z is important, I want to make it mine. We turn these manic energies on the world around us and on each other on a regular basis. Simone’s point is that not everything is here for my use and pleasure. it isThe importance of what I encounter during a given day is not to be judged according to how important it is to me. And as I learn that everything is important in its own right, I can begin to see it differently. To “let it be,” as the Beatles sang, and to remember that “it is what it is,” as Jeanne frequently says.

So in practical terms, what does reverence amount to? At the very least, it means giving each task, person, and event in my life my undivided attention. A colleague of mine defines “multitasking” as “doing several things poorly at the same time.” If multitasking is the enemy of reverence, which I’m quite sure it is, then I’m in trouble. I find it very difficult to do one thing at a time—the very writing of this essay has been interrupted, sometimes in mid-sentence, by going to a second screen to check on my blog numbers, multitaskingthen a third screen to see if my latest important email has been responded to yet. During a typical evening it is not unusual for me to be watching a television show with Jeanne, farting around on my tablet, and grading a paper or two all at the same time.

So I resolve to ask myself the following question frequently in the following weeks and months: Is what you are doing worthy of your undivided attention? And if the answer is “yes,” then the follow-up question is Then why are you not giving it your undivided attention? Learning to give my undivided attention to each thing as I encounter it is the first step in recognizing the value inherent in even the tiniest and most insignificant part of reality. Moses took the time to check out something unusual and found out that he was standing on holy ground. And so are we. All the time.tutu

Happy New Year Jesus

Random Resolutions Revisited

Last year on New Year’s Day I posted several random resolutions for the new year–today I’m checking up on how I did.

1. I resolve to stop complaining about the stupid shit that people put on Facebook. If I am stupid enough to read the stupid shit that people put on Facebook, I get what I deserve.get-rid-of-dead-weight-on-facebook-L-X_hm8X[1]

FAIL: I don’t complain as much about stupid shit on Facebook as I used to, but sometimes the level of content is so abysmal that I have to say something. It has never helped.

2. I resolve never again to buy a Christmas tree from the guy who sells Del’s lemonade in the summer. No one can be good at both selling Christmas trees and making lemonade.dels_lemonade_cup__79765.1382898369.451.416[1]

FAIL: A Christmas tree purchased from the same lemonade man is sitting in our living room as I write. It started dropping needles well before Christmas, just a couple of days after moving in.

3. I resolve to never post a picture of what I am eating on Facebook. I have never done this and resolve to continue not doing it. For those who do, please stop.aecd87be60e079ba31daf89feed38cd2054bd378f8459b6bb14f88a7da8a7d9c[1]

PASS: This was one easy to keep, and my blood pressure still rises when someone finds it necessary to take a picture of their current gastronomic delight and put it on Facebook. Who cares?

4. I resolve to own a cat again before I die. More accurately, I resolve to let a cat own me again before I die.Regardless of gender, the cat’s name will be Mister Fabulous. (Random “The Blues Brothers” reference there–who knows what it is?) 

Calebs catFAIL, but I did at least meet a nice new cat this past year. His name is Bleistift (German for “pencil,” I think)–he was given this unfortunate name by my son and daughter-in-law (who is from Germany). He’s a lovely animal and has a far better attitude about life than he should, given the name he has been saddled with.

5. I resolve to stop thinking that the several dozen people I graduated with thirty-five years ago, with whom I have never been in touch, are now my friends because we are members of a Facebook group.join_our_facebook_group[1]

PASS: Another easy one to keep, since I never have thought that Facebook connections I have never met meet the ontological status of “friends.”

6. I resolve never to find out what it is like to tweet.tw[1]

EPIC FAIL: I am now on Twitter, thanks to taking the advice of blogging expert who said that being on Twitter is more important for a blogger than being on Facebook. I’m not buying it, although I do admit that I am more aware of how to say something in 140 characters or less than I used to be.

7. I resolve to never again check out a conservative media outlet’s Facebook page “just for the fun of it.” The cognitive dissonance is not worth it.FNCFacebook[1]

PASS, although I must admit that I really wanted to see what they had to say about Cuba, the improving economy and my favorite Catholic, Pope Francis, in the past few weeks.

8. I resolve to only check my blog once per hour to see how many posts I have. I don’t think I’ll be able to keep this one.imagesMZKPM2SC

BIG TIME FAIL. If I could get my blog stats intravenously 24-7, I probably would.

So there it is. I was 3-5 on my resolutions, which I expect is better, unfortunately, than average. I’m working on 2015 resolutions right now, ones that will have nothing to do with social media. In the meantime, Happy New Year Jesus

elastic-rubber-band-stretch-top-chef-masters-science-png[1]

Being Uncomfortable

Final exams begin next week, so I’m getting ready for the next round of reading surprising things that my students have learned. One of the things I learned shortly after becoming a college professor twenty years ago was that there is a certain sort of black humor that teachers find particularly entertaining. Contributions used to be anonymously tacked onto bulletin boards in faculty break rooms; now, they tend to spread like a virus on Facebook and other social media outlets. images[2]For lack of a more genteel title, this sort of humor can be called “Stupid Things My Students Say (and write).” Especially during finals week, teachers love sharing the outrageously awful and pitifully humorous mistakes that students make as they meld various items from lectures and readings over the semester into unique and bizarre new facts. Sometimes such mistakes involve just one wrong word or name, such as when one of my students told me on the midterm exam that a central event in the images[3]Epic of Gilgamesh is when

Gilgamesh and Enkidu went on a quest to kill the great monster Hammurabi.

One of the most reliable sources of such humor is when a student innocently creates a wonderful anachronism, such as when one of my colleague’s students suggested thatThe_Murder_Of_Agamemnon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_14994[1]

Agamemnon expected his wife Clytemnestra to act like a good Christian wife, but she didn’t.

And then there are the times that a student, scrambling to fill in the lines of a blue book with words when he or she doesn’t have a clue about what to write, just makes shit up, as in these responses reported  by a colleague to a prompt on the final exam to summarize what imagesLZZD9UTDAristotle has to say about happiness:

People attain happiness through being happy – overall, it is not the wealth or pleasure or power, it is the state at which they are happy to achieve happiness.

or

Aristotle believed that in order for humans to achieve happiness, he or she must practice happiness in order to achieve happiness.

As a Facebook commenter exclaimed, imagesE102E0KD“Holy tautology, Batman!” But as a matter of fact, after many years of introducing students to Aristotle’s ethics, that last one isn’t bad . . .

Then there is a related game that professors play called “Things My Students Say Trying to Get Their Grade Changed.” This one isn’t so much funny as just disheartening—teachers share these stories and chuckle about them because if we didn’t we would bang our heads on our desks in frustration. The latest came yesterday on a Facebook post from a colleague reporting that she just received an email from a student who says that she “is uncomfortable with the idea of receiving a C.” I must admit that I have received very few emails or communications of this sort over the years from my students. M3[1]That’s probably because I often include the following story from my favorite professor during my Master’s program. Dr. H said that when he was a young and clueless undergraduate, he once received a “C” on a paper. Armed with all of his best arguments as to why this grade was a gross injustice, he marched to the offending professor’s office to make his case for a higher grade. Before Dr. H even opened his mouth, his professor snatched the paper out of his hand, crossed out the “C” with a red magic marker, replaced it with a “D”, and as he handed the paper back asked “Would you care to try for an ‘F’?” Perhaps it is when my students realize that I think this story is sort of cool that they decide not to challenge a grade in this class.

When my colleague reported that her student was uncomfortable with the grade she had earned, I was reminded of a text I had not thought of for a long time. In her powerful and moving memoir Testament_of_Youth_Book_Cover[1]Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain gets to the heart and truth of the learning process more directly than any author I am aware of:

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think–which is fundamentally a moral problem–must be awakened before learning can occur. Most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

This insight, along with Simone Weil’s observation that

5395352874_4919fa8d03_z[1]The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade

has been the basis of my “teaching philosophy” for many years. I often tell my students early in the semester that I consider each new class to be like a rubber band. My job is to see how far I can stretch the rubber band before it snaps.elastic-rubber-band-stretch-top-chef-masters-science-png[1]

Around this time last year I held eleven one-hour oral final exams with the juniors and seniors who were part of my honors colloquium entitled “Beauty and Violence” this last semester. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, and I cannot recall a class in which the students worked harder, struggled more mightily with new and challenging ideas, and embraced being uncomfortable more than in this one. The issues at hand were of the highest stakes imaginable—it is possible to have an honest faith in the middle of world that challenges just about every one of the traditional ideas we have inherited about God?—and students expressed frequently in class, in writing and on-line just how paradigm-shattering yet strangely attractive the semester’s work was. During her oral exam, one of my students simply said “This class really messed me up—in a good way!” I told Jeanne that evening that this phrase would be a part of all of my course syllabi from now on. Each syllabus used to say “My job is not to tell you what to think. My job is to get you to think.” Now it will simply say “My job is to mess you up—in a good way.”  Did I ever mention that I have the greatest job in the world?BeUncomfortable[1]

The Universe in a Coffee Cup

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

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

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

I have never had much difficulty with this particular truth—case in point is that the eleven year old Hyundai Jeanne and I are currently driving is the nicest car we have owned in the twenty-five plus years that we have been together (although we just dropped a bunch of money to keep it in good running order). Even though we have accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, stuff just isn’t that big of a deal for me for the most part. Except for books. And my favorite coffee cup. We must have a couple of dozen coffee cups at home, two of which are my favorites, one because its handle accommodates two fingers on my large right hand rather than one, the other because it has an image of the Book Cow from the CowParade phenomenon of several years ago. NPRI also have a favorite cup in each of my offices on campus, one with a pissed-off bluebird and one that I got free from NPR for upping my monthly contribution $5 last April. This does not include my “I’m a Big Fucking Deal” coffee cup that sits proudly on a top shelf in my program director’s office. That cup is so important that I have never drunk anything out of it.

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

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

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

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

A bit over a week ago I returned to Collegeville for a four-day retreat; before even showing up at the retreat venue I drove onto campus in order to visit the bookstore and purchase a new monk-crafted coffee cup (I still choose to believe the myth). From a row of a half-dozen candidates, I chose a cup with the same shape, color scheme and imprinted cross, plunked down my $35 (inflation has not hit Minnesota pottery yet) and I was in business. I drank tea and coffee from it mindfully and with proper attentiveness at the retreat and it is now my favorite coffee cup in my office. But in comparing it with the fragmented shard from the broken original, I noticed that while the exteriors of the new and old cups are quite similar, the inside of the new one is significantly more attractive than the inside of its predecessor. 006The swirling contrasts of the colors are more interesting, a couple of random cream-colored spots celebrate its uniqueness, and I especially like that the inside of the bottom says “Hi Vance” when I have emptied the liquid (not really). I’m drinking coffee from my special cup (carefully) as I write.

I choose to consider my new monk-crafted cup as a reflection of what has been going on with me over the past few years. I’m pretty much the same on the outside (except for a few less pounds and larger bags under the eyes); all of the change has been internal. And for the most part, the changes have been welcome. lao tzuBecause I like what I’m discovering inside, I’m becoming more effective externally. Inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. The workshop I recently attended reminded me of the importance of internal peace and tranquility as a proper receptacle for the divine within me. As Lao Tzu wrote, We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. Advent began yesterday, my favorite liturgical time of year because it reminds us to prepare for the greatest gift of all: Incarnation.007