Category Archives: writing


Sowing the E-Seed

Today’s gospel is about sowing seed–a promising but ultimately inefficient activity, both in the field and on line. I was thinking about that a year ago . . .

I do not consider myself to be a particularly obsessive person (Jeanne might disagree), but my penchant for checking my blog statistics on at least an hourly basis belies my claim. In the middle of the summer when my schedule is less intense it is easier to explain why I frequently check my blog either on my phone or tablet, but I find time to do so regularly even when the semester is in full swing. my-stats-mapI have even stepped out of someone presenting a philosophy paper at a conference on the pretense of visiting the men’s room on a particularly busy blog day to see how many more hits my new post has attracted since the paper began a half hour before.

It did not help when Jeanne bought me a couple of hours’ worth of conversation online with a blog consultant several weeks ago. My blog has been in existence for close to two years now and I am continually surprised pleasantly by how well it is doing, but Jeanne would like to see it go through the stratosphere. I suspect there is an ulterior motive behind her promotional hopes for my writing beyond the fact that she loves me—she wants this blog to be the vehicle for my writing becoming so popular and my turning into a speaker so highly and lucratively in demand that she can retire. imagesRFB367C3During the first Skype-type hour with my very pleasant, very talented and frighteningly young blog consultant Matt, it was clear that he did not know what to make of me. I’m not selling anything on my blog, I’m not promoting anything other than ideas and stories—most of his clients are trying to become rich off their blog activities. It was clear that it would take some time for him to understand me when within the first ten minutes of our first conversation he suggested strongly that I should get rid of the penguins at the top of the entry page to my site. Unaware that messing with my penguins is like messing with my children, he backed off when I told him the penguins weren’t going anywhere (although he tentatively raised the issue again the other day at our most recent session).

On his advice my blog has been moved to a much more powerful platform. For the most part I have no real idea what that means except that it cost some money and forced me to learn a few new habits when preparing posts for publication (sort of the same as moving from word 2010word 2013Word 2010 to Word 2013; a general pain in the ass, but not impossible). The most tangible difference is that I now have access to approximately 1000 times more stats concerning where the people visiting my blog are coming from, how they got there, what they are reading, how long they are staying, what search engines are directing them to me most effectively, etc., etc., etc. Not a good thing for my stat-obsessibounce rateve tendencies, but I’m doing okay so far. That’s probably because I’m finding some things out that I don’t like.

For instance, the “bounce rate” on my blog for the month since it was moved to its new platform is 72.04%. The bounce rate is “the percentage of single-page visits (i.e. visits in which the person left your site from the entrance page without interacting with the page).” Well that’s not good. Matt says “we should try to get that under 70%,” which also doesn’t sound very good. I think he blames it on the penguins. My blog has been visited by folks in 67 different countries in the past month (over 150 since the blog began), but the bounce rate brings those numbers into sobering perspective. untitled 2I can just hear people in forty-five different languages saying “What the fuck is this??” as they zip away from my entrance page. They probably didn’t like the penguins.

Drilling down deeper (a cool, nerdy phrase Matt likes to use) into the location stats, I discover that in the US, not surprisingly, 39.06% of my visitors are from Rhode Island, with a close competition for a distant second between New York, Texas, and Massachusetts. Texas?? That doesn’t make sense. But the bounce rate from Texas visitors is 87.88% and the average duration of their visit is thirty seconds, so even Texans can figure out pretty quickly that my liberal, blue state, non-fundamentalistMt-Rushmore-006 blog is somewhere they don’t want to be. It’s probably the penguins. I am also disturbed to find out that there are three states who have not sent someone to my blog in the last month: cornSouth Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska. I’ll work on saying something nice about Mount Rushmore and corn in the coming weeks. By the way, I can drill down even deeper and find out what cities and towns visitors are coming from as well. I haven’t figured out how to find out my visitors’ mailing addresses yet, but if I do I’ll be writing you individually.

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t—that would require my spending even more time looking at blog stats. But I wondered for several days whether all of the time and energy I put into my blog is worth it when almost three-quarters of the people who arrive on my entrance page and have the opportunity to read my latest bits of wit and wisdom don’t. L07LIM26CHRFortunately the Gospel readings for the past few Sundays have been from Matthew 13, the wonderful chapter in which Jesus shares many of his most memorable parables. Like this one:

Listen! A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!

It is difficult to imagine a more wasteful and non-economical activity. If this sower had Google Analytic statistics to gauge the success and effectiveness of his activity, I’ll bet his bounce rate (the sum of seeds that fell on the path, rocky ground, and among thorns) is at least as high as mine. But if, as Jesus’ interpretation later in the chapter suggests, the seed is the word of God, then this is just the typical divine strategy that I keep bumping into—“Let’s just throw a bunch of crap out there indiscriminately and see what happens!” ineffeciencyGod is no respecter of persons, statistics, focus groups, yield projections, bounce rates, or any other thing humans might devise as the best measures of effectiveness and efficiency. All you have to do is consider the extraordinary wastefulness of the way God chose to crank out endless varieties of living things, natural selection, to realize that Isaiah wasn’t kidding when he reports God as saying that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

I’ll try to keep this in mind whenever my stats aren’t to my liking or Matt tries to get me to ditch my penguins. Every Monday and Friday when I throw new e-seed out there and Wednesdays when I throw out recycled e-seed, I am imitating a divine activity that makes no sense but somehow produces fruit in the most unexpected and unpredictable places. Excellent. And I’m not getting rid of the penguins.untitled 4

Unvisited Tombs

I saw a bumper sticker once that said “So many books, so little time.” I agree. Even though I sometimes feel as if I read for a living, the fear that I might live my allotted fourscore years and never get to read the greatest novel I’ve not yet read or the most profound play that has not yet crossed my path is palpable. At age 59, for instance, I’ve not yet read all of Dickens’ novels. That worries me. I’ve read most of them, but what if Little Dorrit or Martin Chuzzlewitt is better than Bleak House, my favorite? What if one of the handful of Flannery O’Connor short stories I’ve yet to read is more profound than “A View of the Woods”? What if I die without ever having read The Fairie Queen? Very disturbing.

I’ve chosen to address this fear systematically, by dedicating a central part of my summer reading list to one great author (by reputation) whose work I have never read. One summer it was Zola, another summer it was Trollope; I even slogged through the first half of Swann’s Way and joined the legion of readers who started and never finished Proust. Three summers ago, it was George Eliot. I had read Silas Marner,but never Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda. I was pushed in the Eliot direction because a colleague of mine had told me that his wife, who is also a voracious reader, has proclaimed Middlemarch as the greatest novel ever written. I finished it a few days before a visit to The Coop with my son. My colleague’s wife has a point.

Cambridge, Massachusetts is a book lover’s paradise. There are more bookstores per square inch in Cambridge than any other town I’ve visited, so many that I once even found a copy of my first book, a reworking of my dissertation, on an out-of-the-way shelf in the corner of an out-of-the-way little shop there. The only other place I’ve ever seen that book, other than collecting dust on my own bookshelf, is collecting dust in various libraries on college campuses I’ve worked at or visited. As David Hume said about his first publication, “it fell stillborn from the press.”

The central, largest bookstore in Cambridge is The Coop, an impressive establishment with several stories, balconies, nooks and crannies in which to sit and read—the sort of place I could easily spend a week’s vacation. Probably alone, though–I don’t think Jeanne could survive for more than a morning. Once while visiting the Coop with my youngest son, we walked past a table with a seemingly random collection of books on display. I picked up a copy of Middlemarch. Handing it to my son, I said “read the last paragraph.”

“Holy Shit!” my son exclaimed.

“I’d give my left testicle to be able to write like that,” I replied.

The paragraph he read was Eliot’s closing meditation on the remaining life of the main character, Dorothea Brooke.

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the 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.

Through Dorothea Brooke, Eliot inspires reverence for the sacredness of ordinary acts and feelings, bringing to mind the prophet Micah’s injunction to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Dorothea, to the great consternation of her wealthy uncle and guardian, regularly looks for ways to improve the living conditions of the impoverished tenant farmers working the hundreds of family acres, treats everyone as her equal even though societal norms claim otherwise, and improves the lives of those she touches with her natural generosity and truthfulness. Her gracious humanness is not religiously motivated; indeed, the only cleric in the novel is Dorothea’s ill-chosen and unfortunate first husband Mr. Casaubon, an academic so cerebral and lacking in affect that he regularly fails to recognize the real existence of anyone other than himself. The wellspring of Dorothea’s goodness is simply her own, expansive heart.

But the normal human constitution is not well tuned to the importance of ordinary deeds—all of us want to accomplish something magnificent, to perform historic acts, to live lives that are recognized, and to establish a great name on the earth. What is the value of attempting to live the life of virtue if no one notices? At the time I read Middlemarch I had not yet started this blog. I had written several dozen essays over the previous three years, both the vehicle and record of a spiritual awakening that was transformational. Family and friends had let me know, at various times and in various ways, that they were been touched deeply by them. But I wanted them to be published, and no publishing house had the good sense or spiritual acumen to take on the project. After the latest “thanks for sharing, but no” from a publisher, I said in exasperation to Jeanne “If these aren’t meant to be in print, what are they for?” As has happened so often over the past twenty-five years, she responded with the truth—“You may never know, and that’s alright.” In my thinking, the value of something is established by its being recognized. But perhaps in a different economy, value is measured in secret, even unknown ways.

In Matthew’s gospel, those who are invited to enter into the joy of their Lord are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave the homeless shelter, and visited those in prison, all the time unaware that by doing so, they were advancing the Kingdom of God. It’s almost as if they are surprised that simply acting out of human kindness and solidarity was enough to satisfy the divine requirements. But in a sacramental and incarnational world, it makes sense. What does the Lord require of us? Justice. Mercy. Humility. Perhaps I simply need to keep WWDD? in mind. What Would Dorothea Do?

Resembling the Picture

Another academic year is in the books, and as I will gladly be shifting into sabbatical mode in six weeks, I’m reminiscing about how I became a teacher. It is a good thing when your conviction that you are perfectly suited for your profession is confirmed by an objective source. That’s not exactly what happened to me the other day, but when I took yet another internet personality test—“What career should you actually have?”

What Profession Should You Have?

I was pleased to be told that

enhanced-buzz-7133-1390948755-1YOU GOT PROFESSOR! You are a thinker, in constant search of knowledge and answers to life’s most illusive [sic] questions. You love to analyze everything, testing out theories and pushing mental boundaries. Basically you’re an Einstein, but then again you probably already knew that.

I probably should not put much stock in a quiz that does not know the difference between “illusive” and “elusive,” and had a student made this error I would have directed them to a thesaurus, but I’ll take affirmation wherever I can get it. Several of my colleagues also got “Professor,” while a couple of others got ‘Writer.” I would have been happy with that as well, as long as I could keep teaching to pay the bills. One of my colleagues in the music department got “Astronaut.” That sucks. It’s going to be annoying for her to have to quit a tenured professor position and start all over again.

Isoros200-438336cae96965c46c594c60bc99df0c15ee161c-s6-c30 have said to anyone who would listen that I was born to do what I do for a living for so long that I think I actually believe it. But I was not always this confident in my classroom abilities. free_angela_buttonI remember clearly the day, over twenty-five years ago, when it occurred to me that I had painted myself into a corner that I was not at all sure I wanted to be in. All of have heard of famous persons in all walks of life with philosophy degrees (George Soros, Angela Davis, Thomas Jefferson, treeeAlex Trebek, Susan Sontag, Steve Martin—just to name a few), but their philosophy degrees were a BA. Once you are deep into the several additional years of earning a PhD in philosophy, available options narrow. The day I learned that my graduate assistantship for my second year at Marquette would be a teaching assistantship rather than the research assistantship I had during my first year, it dawned on me—I’m going to be a teacher. And I had no idea whether I’d be any good at it or if I would even like it.

I had been a TA for a couple of years during my Master’s program at the University of Wyoming, where the job consisted of doing everything the professor of the 150+ student Introduction to Philosophy course didn’t feel like doing. ta_teaching_assistant_chemistry_element_symbol_t_mug-r11846fd890814a1583e540dd34d61964_x7jgr_8byvr_512That included all of the grading and trying to explain every Friday to two groups of twenty students what the hell the professor had been talking about on Monday and Wednesday. My Friday students seemed to like me, but that’s probably because anyone with fifth-grade level communication skills could have been clearer than that particular professor. At Marquette, however, a TA had her or his very own class, designing it from scratch, giving all the lectures, seeing all of the students, and grading everything from beginning to end. Just like a real teacher—except that I had never been in front of a classroom in my life, except to make a few five or ten-minute presentations over the years. So how is this ultra-introverted student, who is far more confident in his writing skills than his people skills, supposed to morph into a teacher?

Although the graduate program in philosophy at Marquette did have a large safety net spread under its TAs, the process was pretty much like throwing a person who wants to learn how to swim into the deep end of the pool and seeing what happens. aristotle-success-largeSince in most PhD programs there are no courses in “How to Teach,” the assumption being that the ton of esoteric and possibly useless information in a grad student’s brain will somehow magically be communicated effectively to a bunch of undergrads who don’t care. I decided to teach by shameless imitation of the best professors I had, a decision that Aristotle—who said that a key to the moral life is to imitate those who are already the person you want to become—would have been proud of. My two mentor/models could not have been more dissimilar.

Father Jack Treloar was a Jesuit who looked like a short Marine drill sergeant, with less than two percent body fat and a grey flat-top. He scared the shit out of undergraduates; we graduate students who got to know him knew that he was a softie at heart. His favorite thing to do when he came to the house for dinner was to sit on the floor and play with my sons (8 and 6). His brilliance in the classroom was built on a foundation of crystal clarity and organization bordering on obsessive. Fr TreloarFr. Treloar’s flow chart “road map” through the labyrinthine thickets of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was so effective that I have shamelessly used it regularly, with only minor changes, over the past two decades with my undergraduates. As I often tell my students, “when you use someone else’s ideas, its plagiarism; when professors steal each other’s ideas, its creative pedagogy.” Fr. Treloar asked me a number years ago to stop calling him “Father Treloar” and call him “Jack”—I couldn’t (and can’t) do it. I’m not comfortable being on a first name basis with an icon.

Dr. Trene-descartes-and-immanuel-kantom Prendergast was undoubtedly the most enthusiastic teacher I have ever encountered. His obvious love of his subject matter of expertise (Early Modern Philosophy—Descartes through Kant) was so infectious that it spread through the classroom like a virus. The virus became so rooted in me that I took three seminars with him and he ended up agreeing to be the director for my dissertation on Descartes’ ethics. His class was energized by passion, not organization or necessarily even logical precision, qualities that he also lacked in his life outside the classroom. Two stories will suffice.

Tom (I had no trouble calling him that at his request) lived in one of the Lake Michigan lakeside suburbs of Milwaukee; we would meet at his favorite restaurant every other week to discuss the latest draft material from my dissertation. It was always Dutch treat—I usually only got a beer because that’s all graduate students can afford. But our final meeting before my dissertation defense happened to fall on my birthday. indexJeanne behind the scenes let Tom know that it was my birthday, and Tom greeted me at the restaurant with a hearty “Happy birthday! It’s my treat—get anything you want!” We celebrated both my birthday and the completion of my dissertation with dinner—very cool, until the bill came and Tom realized he didn’t have his wallet. I didn’t even have a credit card, but through some beneficial grant from the gods of philosophy I happened to have just enough cash to pay the bill and avoid washing dishes. I didn’t have enough for a tip, though—Tom promised he would return and leave a tip after he retrieved his wallet from home. I doubt he remembered.

On the evening after my successful dissertation defense a few weeks later, Tom and his wife Barbara took Jeanne and me out to dinner to celebrate. Yes we made sure he had his wallet. It was beginning to snow, so Tom dropped the three of us off at the restaurant door and went to find parking on the street, joining us within several minutes. Snow in BrusselsWhen we left the restaurant a couple of hours later, three or four inches of new fallen snow had covered everything. Barbara joked “I’ll bet Tom won’t remember where he parked the car!” She was right—he couldn’t remember. We spent the next ten to fifteen minutes brushing snow off all the cars in the surrounding blocks until we discovered theirs. That was Dr. Prendergast.

As I started thinking about teaching my first class, I sort of figured that if I could combine a bit of Fr. Treloar’s organization and clarity with Dr. Prendergast’s passion and enthusiasm, I might become a serviceable teacher. The organization and clarity came much more naturally to this extreme introvert than the passion and enthusiasm—I brought the energy of a performer to the front of the class, playing a role that ultimately became my own. Almost twenty-five years later, with many mistakes, embarrassing failures, increasing joy, and a imagesTeacher of the Year award behind me, I can, if I step back for a moment, see the imprint of both of these master teachers and generous mentors on everything I do for and in the classroom.

Was I born to be a teacher, or did I become the teacher that I am through necessity and the extraordinary blessing of having models of what I wanted to become smack in front of me? Iris Murdoch writes that “Man is the creature who makes pictures of himself, then comes to resemble the pictures.” Just as Ernest in Story of Great Stone FaceNathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face” came to resemble what he had spent his life looking at, so I have come to resemble those teachers who I observed so closely many years ago. Perhaps I observed too closely. I am extraordinarily organized in my planning for a class, a semester, or future blog posts as well as in my administrative duties, but often can’t find my reading glasses or wallet.

work in progress

There It Is

I did something a couple of weeks ago that I have not done in four years—present a paper at an academic conference. Conference papers are the bread-and-butter of the academic life when climbing the tenureconferences and promotion ladder, but I’ve never been a fan. A lot of posturing, name-dropping, networking and having papers read at you. I do not learn much just by listening to someone—I’m more a visual and tactile learner—but traditionally that’s been the way things go at conferences. Of course I usually forget that when I present a paper, I’m expecting my audience to appreciate mine far more than I enjoy theirs.

I have many colleagues and friends who like nothing better than giving papers at conferences. More power to them—I don’t. I have many conference pet peeves. The person who starts out her paper with work in progressThis is a work in progress. Really? How about finishing the work in progress, then presenting it at next year’s conference. Or the guy who says I’m going to just talk instead of reading a paper. Great—such people always ramble on past the allotted time, have no text to ground their blabbing, and generally sound like a Facebook post in person. Or the person who brought a thirty-page paper to be read in thirty minutes (humanly impossible), then with five minutes left summarizes the last seventeen pages with a brief paragraph then says that we can all talk about the full version of her argument over lunch. Fat chance.

A “truism” in the humanities end of academia is that when weighing the importance of various professional activities toward tenure and promotion, the following equation is a good rule of thumb: A published book is worth five blind refereed articles, and a blind refereed article is worth five conference papers. tenure and promotionI like this equation, because it favors those who prefer the introverted activity of writing over the extroverted activity of conference-hopping. When applying for promotion to full professor a number of years ago, I presumed I was in good shape in the research portion of the teaching/research/service trinity because with two books and a dozen or so articles in print, I was well over the standard publication bar for full professors at my college. After I recovered from the shock of a negative promotion decision, I got a member of the super-secret committee who makes such judgments to tell me (someone always will) what the fuck the problem was. My colleague revealed that questions were raised when discussing my promotion case about a surprising paucity of conference presentations. “Really?” I thought. “Don’t these people know how to do the research math?”

westmontI decided that the next year I would overwhelm the committee with conference presentation splendor by participating in as many conferences as my available faculty travel funds would allow. Ranging from Santa Barbara (beautiful) to Rochester (not so beautiful), I gave papers at five conferences during the next academic year, including a paper on a Saturday morning attended by four people—my wife, my father, and two guys who had agreed the night before to come to my paper if I would come to theirs on late Saturday afternoon when half of the conference attendees would be headed for the airport to fly home. But a vita does not specify how many people came to each paper on the presentation list, so how is the promotion committee going to know? Notre DameOne year after rejection, I received a unanimous vote for promotion. And I still remember that year with less fondness than most.

My most memorable academic conference was in the fall of 2008 when I was invited to give one of the keynote papers at a conference in Paris. This was my first ever trip to Europe, let alone Paris, so I took full advantage of the experience. street sceneThe conference was held at a hostel sort of establishment in southeastern Paris, only a couple of blocks from a major Metro station. Big Bird was with me, as my paper was scheduled first on the first morning of the three day affair. Starting with lunch that first day, I tirelessly walked or Louvrerode the Metro for 48 hours straight, stuffing in as many sights, sounds and tastes of the City of Lights as I could. Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the left bank (and the right), the little street where my favorite Zola novel is set, the Pantheon, Montmartre, Sacre Coeur—I saw them all and more. I don’t remember much about the conference, which is no surprise since I did not attend a single paper other than my own. Sacre CoeurBut I saw Paris—at least some of it. Beats the hell out of Rochester.

“So,” you ask, “what was the topic of the conference paper you just presented?” Well, maybe you didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyways. The conference was the annual colloquy of the American Weil Society, the one group of academics I enjoy hanging out with (although I have missed the colloquy two of the last three years). My paper was entitled “‘To Look until One Exists No More’: Iris Murdoch and Simone Weil on the Metaphysic and Ethic of Attention.” The title will undoubtedly have to be shortened when they make the movie version. The paper is a rather detailed look at the influence of Simone Weil on Iris Murdoch’s philosophy and fiction—it’s fine if you wait for the book and the movie. I wrote a good deal of this paper during my last sabbatical six years ago as part of early work on a book that never got written. But as I read the paper to an audience of twenty-five or so the other day, I took note of a vignette from Murdoch that summarizes a shift in perspective that has become central in my life—cezanneone that I barely took note of when I put it in the paper six years ago. Murdoch writes:

Rilke said of Cezanne that he did not paint “I like it,” he painted “There it is.” One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals, or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals. We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else, a natural object, a person in need.

How to engage things as they are rather than as I wish them to be. Remembering that I am not, after all, the center of the universe. Not to stifle the beauty and promise of a day by wrapping it in what Murdoch calls “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” These are newly learned lessons that I need to practice as I move into sabbatical in six weeks. I am glad for the reminder—even if it came at an academic conference.

How Do I Get There?

I was at a conference last Friday and Saturday to present a paper for the first time in five years, an opportunity to connect with old friends and colleagues while being reminded of why I really don’t like academic conferences (a blog post about that coming soon). The conference was held in a room that clearly had once been a chapel, containing a huge, round stained glass window on the front wall.VANCEPC - WIN_20150424_083221

From a distance I could not figure out the theme of the window–its central figure was a young man in full medieval armor, so I figured it was probably St. George without the dragon. Upon closer inspection, I read the text on the banner underneath the soldier: “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” “Oh my God!” I thought as I returned in memory to my childhood–“that’s Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress!”

As I followed the various scenes around Christian clockwise around the window starting at the bottom, I observed Christian’s struggle against various tempters and opponents on his journey from despair to heaven. PilgrimThis book, with beautiful illustrations, was a staple of my childhood home, ranking in my mind equally with the omnipresent picture Bible. My mother read it with me frequently–I’m pretty sure I hadn’t thought of it in forty years. But it came flooding back to me as the conference began–Pilgrim’s Progress introduced my at a very early age, more effectively than anything in scripture, to the most basic human questions that have obsessed me my whole life. Where do I come from? Where am I going? And, most pressingly, how do I get there?

220px-Dead_poets_society[1]In my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating teaches an important lesson about non-conformity to his students with a brief experiment. Bringing his young charges out of the classroom into a nearby courtyard, Keating directs three of the students to start walking around the perimeter. Although they start off at a different pace, soon all three are marching in lock step, with Keating singing an impromptu Marine-style tune and the other students clapping in accompaniment. Keating’s point is about conformity. Given the opportunity to walk uniquely and independently, the boys choose instead to fall into step with each other. Keating then evokes Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken ” to introduce the alternative of individual risk and choice.

IMV5BMTc2MzgwNjAzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTUyNjQzMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR7,0,214,317_[1]n another of my favorite movies, Young Frankenstein, director Mel Brooks inserts a hilarious version of a visual joke that’s older than the hills. After entering the Transylvanian castle where he is employed, Igor, played by Marty Feldman, says “walk this way” to Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein, then sets off with a cane-assisted gait, dragging his lame leg and hunchbacked self down the stairs. Frankenstein follows him down the stairs with precisely the same limping and awkward gait, until after a few steps Igor turns around and says, “No, I mean follow me!”

The right way to walk, the best road to take, is on my mind a regularly as a teacher and just a normal human being. I frequently have the opportunity to introduce freshman students to Rene DescartesFrans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descartes[1], one of the most—arguably the most—influential philosophers in the Western tradition. I wrote my dissertation on Descartes twenty-five years ago and was told by my director that, at that time at least, more secondary literature had been written on Descartes than any other Western philosopher, including Plato and Aristotle. After his education was finished, Descartes in his early twenties decided to see the world. As many young men of his time, he chose to do this by signing up as a mercenary soldier for a local political power-broker, in Descartes’ case the Duke of Bavaria. One night while on campaign in the winter of 1619, Rene sought refuge and warmth in a small, stove-heated room.220px-Fouday-Poêle[1] That night he had three dreams or visions that changed his life. In the third dream, he opened a book of poetry and read the following line from the Roman poet Ausonias: Quod vitae sectabor iter? What path in life should I follow? Descartes’ self-interpretation of this dream produced his lifelong project—the unification of science and, ultimately, all knowledge on a foundation of unshakeable certainty. What path in life should I follow?

It is a great question, perhaps the best question, to get nineteen-year-old freshmen to consider. Strangely enough, I have found over the past few years that it is an equally important question for a now fifty-nine year old guy to ask.Marquette University Old Postcard[1] In many ways my professional path has been clear from the moment I chose in my early thirties to major in philosophy in graduate school and do my PhD at a Catholic university (to the dismay of my professors and mentors in my Master’s program at a secular state university). Twenty-five years later I have achieved some success as an academic scholar, great satisfaction in the classroom on a daily basis, and have never regretted walking down this particular academic professor path. But I’ve learned more and more over the past few years that there are many paths more important than the professional one. By defining myself for years by what I do, I found it very easy to forget about figuring out who I am.micah_prophet[1] As Christian found out in Pilgrim’s Progress, the path to wholeness and integrity as a human being is fraught with far more pitfalls and dangers than any path to professional success. The prophet Micah tells us that all God wants is for us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. But what is the nature of this walk? What paths am I to take? These questions have become more and more pressing.

Yesterday was “Good Shepherd Sunday” with sheep/shepherd readings from both the Gospels and the Psalms. Psalm 23 is all about paths. We are told that the Lord our shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness and even is with us in our darkest hours, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Such a familiar text, however, can breed, if not contempt, at least complacency. Shepherds and sheep evoke a pastoral and peaceful image,sheep1[1] but very few of us have any knowledge of what the daily lives of shepherds and sheep are like. I got a peek into this life once over twenty years ago while we were living in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee is a city of festivals, with every ethnic group imaginable getting its own weekend and festival. During a celebration of all things Scottish, Jeanne and I were with the boys at one of the many large parks that Milwaukee has to offer for Scottish Fest. The weather was appropriate, drizzly and foggy with bone-chilling dampness.

One of the events that day was a demonstration of sheep herding. Upon being let out of the penned enclosure in which they were being held, a flock of forty or fifty sheep immediately scattered to the four winds, running into the surrounding residential neighborhood faster than I ever imagined sheep could move their fat, wool-laden selves. The shepherd remained standing in the now-sheepless park, with two small border collies at his side, as residents of the surrounding streets wondered where the hell the sheep in their back yards came from. Then at a signal from the shepherd, the border collies leaped into action. After they disappeared into the neighborhood like lightning bolts, we could hear the dogs occasionally barking in the distance. Border Collie, 9 months old, rounding sheepWithin a few minutes, sheep started appearing from various directions, with the border collies running manically back and forth behind them, nipping at their heels and talking trash as only a dog can. Before long, all of the sheep were back in the pen and the border collies returned to the shepherd’s side. He bowed in acknowledgement of our applause, even though his four-legged buddies had done all of the work.

As a youngster I always bristled at the frequent Biblical comparison of human beings to sheep, because I knew (or had read at least) that sheep were both smelly and stupid. I appreciated our rector pointing out yesterday that in ancient times, sheep were highly regarded sources of milk, wool and companionship, only becoming mutton once they became too old to provide any of the other stuff. I still resist the analogy, though, and believe that there are many more fruitful paths available to me than to a sheep. 5800660559_37c6d20f29_z[1]But it is comforting to know that there is divine companionship and guidance on whatever path I find myself on, as well as to know that if I listen, all of those paths lead home to God.

Two years ago, a couple of weeks after the end of the semester, I headed for the Benedictine New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California for a week of silence, meditation, centering, writing, and sampling of monk-made fruit cake (their specialty, apparently). I heard about the place from an Episcopanapa_valley[1]l priest I met the year before at a “Wisdom school workshop.” His parish is in the California wine country; someday I hope to have a chance to connect with him. Strange where unexpected paths might show up—“Yea though I walk through the valley of Napa . . .” My week at the hermitage was perhaps the most fruitful week of writing I have ever experienced. I may not be a sheep, but I’m happy to take whatever guidance that happens to come my way.

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.”


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