Category Archives: writing

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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

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Celebrating Life

I recently submitted two grant proposals related to my sabbatical that will begin next July. The stakes are high–especially since I don’t handle rejection well. But I am a bit better at it than I used to be, thanks to something that happened toward the end of my last sabbatical . . .

There’s nothing more pitiful than a grown man feeling sorry for himself. But that’s where I found myself a few years ago while on sabbatical. My first conscious thought upon awakening was of the email I received the night before informing me that Icollegeville-inst1[1] had not been accepted into a summer writing workshop at the Ecumenical Institute where I was spending my sabbatical, a workshop that I really really really wanted to be part of. My career in academia has mercifully been almost rejection free, and it’s a good thing because I don’t handle rejection well. Despite learning from the email that there had been 141 applications for 12 slots, I took the “no” as a negative judgment about the whole me, from my ponytail to my shoes. This, in addition to my second conscious thought–“I only have nine days left here on sabbatical and then I’m leaving this place I’ve come to love”–and my third thought– “I have an exit interview this morning with the Institute program director”– made for a less-than-fabulous morning.

Slouching in my usual seat in the choir stalls for noon prayer, I was definitely not in the mood. For the first time in the dozens and dozens of liturgies in which I had participated from that seat over the previous four months,100_0331 I didn’t feel like being there. The hymn was lame, followed as usual by a section from Psalm 119 extolling the wonders of God’s law and how fabulous it is to obey God’s word. Whatever.  One minute of silence. The second psalm was entirely forgettable, until the end when the solo monk for the day sucked some phlegm down his windpipe the wrong way. After several seconds of coughing and throat clearing, he finished the last three lines sounding like he’d been sucking on helium. No biggie, dude—happens to me all the time. One minute of silence. The third psalm, number forty-something, included the line “it is good that I was afflicted.” Oh really? Well if you were as afflicted as poor rejected me you wouldn’t have written that. Stand up and bow your head as you recite “Give praise to the Father Almighty . . .”.  Disobediently, I didn’t bow my head—what do they think I am, a sheep?

Sit back down, another minute of silence. Solo monk says “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia,” and we respond in kind, “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia.” Stand up for the final prayer, which sounds like the grownups in the old Charlie Brown cartoons on television.charlie%20brown%20teacher[1]

“Wah, Wahwah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wawah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wahwahwahwah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

In the name of Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ,

Who lives and reigns and celebrates life

With You and the Holy Spirit,

One God, forever and ever, Amen.”

“Lives and reigns and celebrates life”??? That one I’d never heard before—I think solo monk added it impromptu for my benefit. In any event, it worked like the face slap in the old Aqua Velva commercials and got my attention—“Thanks, I needed that!” I guess I’d never thought of the Father, J.C., and the Holy Spirit celebrating life together as one God forever and ever. What would that look like? My first image is of a Gary Larson-like cartoon. Imagine a round table. Seated on the left is an old, somewhat overweight guy with shoulder-length white hair and big white beard, wearing a white robe and drinking 18-year-old Balvenie neat (he saves the 21-year-old for Sundays). In the middle facing you is a sandaled younger guy with dark hair, skin and beard, hoisting a pint of Guinness and saying “Brilliant!!” imagesCAR35IOXOn the right, facing the white-haired old guy, is a dove standing on the table and dipping her beak into a martini with two olives. I guess it says something about me that my first image of celebrating life involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but it’s definitely a way of celebrating life.

Well if they can celebrate life forever and ever, amen, I guess I can try it too. And the evening before the day in question, for five hours before reading the email that shall no longer be mentioned, I had been doing just that with friends. Two of my good buddies (a married resident scholar couple), 100_0369a guitar-picking monk who is a native of Montana and tends the monastery orchard, and me. Our conversation ranged from still-new President Obama’s controversial commencement speech at Notre Dame to abortion to politics at the Abbey, while eating salmon, potatoes, salad, and drinking lots of wine. We ended up sitting on the back patio overlooking the lake as it got dark.  100_0366In the dusk the lake became still and as calm as glass, reflecting the trees along the shore in upside-down perfection. Brother John serenaded us with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez tunes, and talked about our colleague Conrad who had unexpectedly died (while pouring himself a martini) just a few days earlier. Conrad had loved this place, and thought it was a little bit of heaven. “I think this a bit of heaven too,” my friend said. If I believed in heaven, I would have agreed—but wait, that’s a different essay.

1852724[1]Then Brother John  started playing “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” and I knew my friend was right—this was heaven. “Summertime” is a song that Jeanne sings beautifully; she had sung “Suzanne” with Brother John after a group dinner when she had visited me for a few days over Easter and he fell in love with her (he told me so in an email). I can understand that because over twenty years ago, two days after we met, Jeanne, my dad, and I were having drinks in a Wyoming lounge attached to the restaurant where we’d just had dinner (my boys went back to my folks’ condo with Grandmaw).Jeanne singing Jeanne went to the front and, accompanied by the resident lounge lizard on the piano, sang another Gershwin tune, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine.” I decided she was singing it to me and I fell off the edge of the cliff I’d been balancing on for the previous two days. I was in love. I didn’t tell her for another month, but hey, that’s pretty quick for me.

When I got back to my apartment that evening, I checked my email, got rejected, and stopped celebrating life. How stupid. I am an introverted celebrator—IMG_9677I’ll never suck the marrow out of every minute and second like my dachshund Frieda and some other people I know. My kind of celebration expresses itself in what Anne Lamott says is one of the two best prayers ever: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” (The other one is “Help! Help! Help!’) I have a lot to celebrate, as do we all, if I just remember to find it. I can’t promise that I can stick to it forever and ever, amen, but I can at least finish out the day.

What I Want, When I Want It

A Benedictine monk told me once that “sabbatical is God’s best idea.” I agree. My next sabbatical, which will begin in eight months, has been on my mind for the past several months, producing a couple of sabbatical project proposals that I have sent out over the past couple of weeks. NoahI felt like Noah might have felt when he sent the raven, then the dove out from the ark—you never know what’s going to come back (if anything). Which of these projects will be the raven and which the dove? Or are they both ravens? Or, in the best scenario, both doves? Wherever I end up and whatever I do during sabbatical, it will be a continuation of what I’ve been working on for a while (including in this blog): exploring the various ways in which the life of the mind and life of faith can mutually inform each other.

I have always claimed that a college professor’s teaching and research should feed each other and have tried to live that out, with occasional success. That teaching and research can be mutually supporting is a challenging enough idea for many academics. f and pBut supposing that the life of the mind, especially philosophy, and faith have much to say to each other is for many, from both the intellect and faith side of the claim, beyond the pale, simply because the intellect stereotypically is considered to be incompatible with faith. At best they can be separate rooms in a home, rooms between which no one ever passes. Imagine my surprise, during my last sabbatical, when I discovered over several weeks of daily prayer and reading of the Psalms with a couple of dozen monks that the wall between my faith and philosophy room is illusory—that both my mind and my faith want to inhabit the very same space. Not to argue or play a game of one upmanship, but rather to get to know each other and become equally committed to helping the guy whose house they inhabit learn to live a coherent and integrated life. I have been regularly surprised over the past five-plus years at what percolates to the surface from this collaboration of faith and intellect. schedulingBut even I did not expect to learn something about prayer from working over the past two or three weeks on the faculty schedule for the 2015-16 academic year in the program I direct.

You can learn a lot about people by observing what happens when they are given the opportunity to express preferences about something. This round of scheduling roughly eighty faculty into thirty three-person teams spread over three courses with two thousand enrolled students to take place during the upcoming academic year is my fourth round—each year it becomes a bit more complicated, and that’s my fault. ozOne of the greatest faculty complaints over the years that I have taught in this program is that the faculty had little to no say in whom we teach with or when. The process was as secretive as the wizard of Oz’s activities behind the curtain, with the faculty finding out the nature of two-thirds of their teaching load only when the schedule was made public as a fait accompli. You’ve been put with two colleagues with whom you cannot get along? Too bad. You’re lecturing at 8:30 on Monday morning with a seminar at 4:30 in the afternoon? Too bad again.

So I pulled back the curtain, just a bit, inviting faculty to suggest whom they would like to teach with and those they wouldn’t, as well as indicating their top three time slot preferences from the ten available in each semester. Promising only that I would “do my best” with their suggestions, the preferences began to roll in. Two pages of them, single spaced, the first year, increasing gradually each year to the five single-spaced pages Rubiks cubeI received this year by the deadline, after which I pulled the curtain closed and began solving the thirty-six sided Rubik’s cube I had just created. I have cursed my foolishness in pulling back the curtain several times over the past couple of weeks, but I do care (at least a little bit) about freedom of choice—this is what happens when you invite people’s preferences. They will tell you, sometimes in excruciating detail. And I’ve learned a lot about my colleagues and about myself.

Informally and unofficially I would guess that I received preferences from eighty to ninety percent of the faculty who will be teaching in the program next year. Some expressed time preferences only, indicating that they did not care with whom they teach—just when. Others were exactly the opposite, clear about whom they wanted to teach with, but less insistent about when. high maintenanceThe high-maintenance contingent (fortunately there were only three or four of them), told me not only their time preferences (“I prefer not to teach on Mondays, Fridays, or in the late afternoon.” Direct quote) but also provided me with two lists containing ten or twelve faculty colleague names each, lists entitled “I would be happy to teach with . . .” and “I do not want to teach with . . .” Clearly these colleagues trust my ability to keep confidences. These are the “I want what I want, when I want it” folks, an attitude that I once thought adults left behind in kindergarten.

Then there are the lowest of the low-maintenance colleagues (about the same number as the highest of the high) who say “I know how hard scheduling is, so put me where you need me with whomever you want.” low-maintenanceI want to hug such people. It is no surprise that most of the persons who have regularly told me this are former directors of the very program that I am now directing. They do know that the scheduling process weeks are the toughest weeks of the year. They understand from experience that sometimes individual preferences, although important and worth expressing, pale in comparison to what is best for everyone involved or simply what works. Since this is my last year doing the schedule, I started wondering about the future. On the assumption that after next year’s sabbatical I will continue teaching in the program, and on the further assumption that the director who follows me invites preferences, will I be high maintenance or low maintenance?

I might be tempted, briefly, to be high maintenance just because I think I’ve earned it. But I won’t do that, because lurking in the back of my mind will be the questionspecial “Morgan, do you really think that your specific likes and dislikes are so disproportionately important compared to the rest of the universe’s interests that the lives of eighty people and two thousand students should be organized and manipulated just to make you happy?” Apparently two or three of my colleagues do think that their preferences are exactly that important, but I couldn’t pull it off with a straight face. Except perhaps as a joke played on the next director. At the same time, am I low-maintenance to the extent that I believe my preferences are so unimportant (because I really do have people I would prefer to teach with and times I would prefer to teach at) that they are not worth even expressing? My natural tendencies lean strongly in that direction, but that far?

The dynamic of preference expression and fulfillment expectation has been on my radar ever since I can remember, because I was born into a world in which preference-expression was a highly evolved art form with the most important stakes imaginable. prayer meetingThis high-stakes art form is called prayer. Prayer was so important that it took up significant space in every Sunday church gathering. There was even a middle of the week evening meeting dedicated specifically to the fine-tuning and honing of the art form. God is the ultimate wizard behind the curtain, but the book we considered to be literally true includes many passages in which the wizard invites the reader to ask for things, to express her heart’s desire, to “call upon Me and I will answer you.” Many of the prayers I heard as a child were detailed, extended laundry lists of things the pray-er wanted to have happen, a list that put the ones I received from my high-maintenance colleagues to shame. I learned to play the prayer game, but my heart was never in it. I observed that most of the preferences expressed were never satisfied and often wondered what the point of expressing always unanswered petitions was in the first place.delight Constitutionally I couldn’t do it simply because I wasn’t convinced I was important enough for God to push my wishes to the top of the divine to-do list.

But the other day I read in my morning Psalm reading that “the Lord takes delight in His people.” Over the years that has turned out to be one of the most welcome, yet shocking, lines in the Bible for me. If God is delighted in me, then perhaps God is not looking for me to be the lowest of the low-maintenance. My preferences matter, not because I have any particular insight into what is best, but because they are mine. I left the transactional God who might give me what I want if I beg or petition often or strongly enough behind in my childhood. I have no reason to believe that any given thing I ask for will happen. But I do believe that there is something greater than me and I do believe that my input is invited by whatever that something greater is. Where I fall on the high to low maintenance spectrum with regard to prayer tells me little about God but it tells me a lot about myself. I may not be important enough to get everything (or anything) that I want, but I am important enough to say something. And perhaps be heard.

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Reading the Fine Print

As predictable as the change of seasons is the point in any given semester when students will approach me for the first time and ask for out of class help. Usually it’s after the first exam or paper has been returned. Students with dreams of an “A” dancing in their heads tend to make an appointment when their first major piece of graded work has a “C” or “D” on the top of it. I’m a user-friendly professor and am more than happy to meet with any student; when first approached, I usually raise the student’s eyebrows when I direct the student to be sure and bring the appropriate texts along for the appointment.

When Jane comes to my office, conversation begins with her saying something along the lines of “I don’t understand why I did so poorly—I’ve done all of the readings and haven’t missed any classes.” I know whether the latter claim is true already, and will be checking on the first claim shortly. First, however, I tell Jane that “whatever I suggest in terms of strategies or help is going to require more time and more work from you. If you’re looking for a way to do better in the class without working harder than you have been already, there is no such way.” This is undoubtedly a disappointment, since the reason Jane made the appointment was to get the “magic bullet” that will slay the dreaded “C” or “D” and make room for the “A” to which she believes she is entitled. Learning that there is no such magic bullet is never good news.

And it gets worse, as I next ask to see her texts. They look as if they had just been taken off the bookstore shelf—no dog-eared pages, no scribbled notes in the margin, no underlined passages, no highlighted texts—and Jane’s name isn’t even in it. Handing my heavily underlined, highlighted and annotated copy of the same text to Jane, I remark that “here’s problem number one. Your text should look like this.” I even go so far as to provide her with the key to my quirky markings, according to which I highlight in yellow the first time through, focusing the second time through primarily on the highlighted areas and underlining with a black pen those part that appear most crucial. Then after class I return a third time to write notes and comments from class discussion in the margins. Not only will following something like this procedure lock the material into the student’s memory by requiring something more than simply looking at words, but it will also condense the material for reviewing purposes when exam time comes.

I lost Jane’s attention as soon as she saw my copy of the text. Even though Jane doesn’t know what the colors and markings mean, she at least knows that they mean a lot of work. You mean I have to read more than once? That I have to read and think critically? That I have to read it again after class? You’ve got to be kidding! That’s going to take a lot of time and effort! And indeed it will. Jane has been introduced for the first time to the fine print in the life of learning—it’s hard. It requires building good reading and study habits. True education isn’t for lazy people and it isn’t for sissies. And it certainly isn’t for anyone who wants to cut corners, to get to a desired outcome without taking all of the necessary steps in between. Every one of them.

In Mark’s gospel, we read of a classic “fine print” experience. In Mark 10, a young man (called a “certain ruler” in the Luke version of the story) approaches Jesus and asks “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers that the young man knows very well what to do—he should keep the commandments. Jesus lists a few for the guy, just in case he had forgotten them. But the young man replies “Teacher, all these I have done from my youth.” He’s not looking for a “good boy” pat on the head from Jesus; he’s already past the point of thinking that simply following the rules is good enough, or he wouldn’t have asked in the first place. The young man is looking for more. He’s thinks that he’s ready for the fine print.

We all know Jesus’ response—he reads him the fine print. “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” We also know the end of the story—“He was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” The fine print demanded the one thing the young man could not do. But what precedes Jesus’ reading of the fine print is even more interesting. Mark says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This is a man who wants more, Jesus knows it, and Jesus loves him for it. But that damned fine print—the thing that you cannot do, that’s the thing that is required. And it will be something different for each of us. This story isn’t about the incompatibility of wealth and following Jesus at all. It’s about the fact that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “ when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The God of love is not a cure for anything. The God of love is the greatest of all disturbers of the peace. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” and this is a sword that cuts deepest in those who are the most obsessed with knowing God.

This is a disturbing story because it absolutely runs roughshod over our idea that human dealings with God are transactional. “What do I need to do in order for X to happen, in order for Y not to happen, in order for Z not to die?” is the question we so often want answered, and this sort of question is always wrong when directed toward the transcendent. While on sabbatical I heard the poet Michael Dennis Browne speak of an insight that unexpectedly came to him as he mourned the tragic death of his younger sister, a woman for whom family and friends had gone hoarse with their prayers and petitions for healing. And she died anyways. What the hell is going on? Browne said “It came to me that this is not a God who intervenes, but one who indwells.” That changes everything, in ways I’m not sure I’m fully ready to think about yet. But the following from Rainer Maria Rilke gives me hope:

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.

Casual, easy, they move in the world

As though untouched.

 

But you take pleasure in the faces

Of those who know they thirst.

You cherish those

Who grip you for survival.

 

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late

To open your depths by plunging into them

And drink in the life

That reveals itself quietly there.

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Stuffed Soul Mates

I have a good friend and colleague in the philosophy department whose twin daughters have just begun their senior years in high school. DartmouthThis means that my friend and his family spent a significant portion of the summer just completed visiting college campuses—seventeen of them, to be precise. emoryThe young ladies in question, although twins, could not be more different in appearance or personality. Daughter #1, whose interests are predominantly focused on science, favors Dartmouth College but is also very interested in the University of Virginia and Emory University. Daughter #2, a quieter more bookish type, is strongly attracted to St. John’s College and its curriculum of the Great Books. This prompted my friend to email me, knowing that in the misty past—the middle seventies—I earned my Bachelor’s degree at St. John’s. “Do you have anything you would like to tell Daughter #2?” my friend asked.

St. John's booksIn reply I wrote:

I’m the world’s worst alum, but I’m quite sure that the program at St. John’s is virtually unchanged over the 35 years since I was there. I’ve recommended it very infrequently–it’s perfect for the right person, but there are very few “right persons” for what they do. If Daughter #2 loves books more than anything else, loves to talk, discuss and debate ideas 24/7, is ready to work really hard, is more concerned about learning than preparation for a job, and doesn’t care a lot about intercollegiate sports (there aren’t any at St. John’s), then she might be the “right person”!

“Sounds just like Daughter #2,” my friend said. I suspect the description might sound familiar to my “Johnnie” friends and Facebook acquaintances as well.

St. John'sExactly forty (!) years ago I began my freshman year at St. John’s College. The older I get, the more I realize what a life-shaping experience I was beginning. I have written frequently on this blog about how the Great Books program shaped me as a teacher, how it gave me ways to talk about the new directions in which I’ve been nudged the program I’ve been shepherding for the past three years, and how it stirred my soul in lasting ways. But one of the most memorable regular occurrences during my years in Santa Fe had nothing to do with tutors, books, labs or seminars.

The heart of the St. John’s curriculum is the seminar, which occurs every Monday and Thursday night from 8-10. Actually I don’t remember a seminar ever ending at 10:00. They always went at least until 10:30, then continued informally in the coffee shop until midnight. What was happening in the hour before seminar on Thursday nights? Students rushing to finish the reading? Checking notes and annotations one more time? Muppet showGrabbing a quick forty winks? None of the above, because at 7:00 PM every Thursday night in the lower dorms common room everyone—and I mean everyone, tutors included—gathered to watch “The Muppet Show.”

Strange to say, “The Muppet Show” was just irreverent and bizarre enough to be a perfect fit for the young misfits who had chosen to spend their first years of college immersed in the “Great Books,” the best texts the Western tradition had to offer organized into a curriculum so rigid and liturgical as to not allow students a single elective choice in class offerings until their Junior year (and even then only one class). I was too young to know then what I know now, forty years older and with twenty-five years of college teaching experience behind me: a college curriculum with no electives runs so against the normal grain of  pedagogy in this country that it sounds more suitable for youngsters from Mars than for earthlings.stallone

“The Muppet Show” was more for adults (or at least non-children) than for kids; definitely not your kid’s Sesame Street, although many of the characters were the same. Current events, the best human guest stars (none of whom visited more than once)—in many ways it played the role that current shows like “The Daily Show” now play. In the past couple of years I have occasionally taken the “Which Muppet Are You?” online quiz

Which Muppet Are You?

and regularly get the same result—Kermit the Frog. Nothing against Kermit or against the quiz—if you read this blog regularly, you know that taking online quizzes is my preferred form of therapy. But this one is wrong, because I have known for forty years which Muppet I am (actually two of them):untitled[1]

attitudeSince the first time I observed Statler and Waldorf criticizing and mocking everyone and everything on the stage from their perch in the box seats, I recognized them as stuffed soul mates. The natural foundations of my sense of humor are sarcasm, irreverence, bemusement, and irony—an extreme case of “don’t ever take anything too seriously.” Their removal from the action but self-authorization to critique the action from afar is very attractive to an introvert; it also provides an avenue for the introvert to be “involved” without really being involved.

Statler and Waldorf HighlightsOld school

It could be that Statler and Waldorf did nothing but sit up in the box seats and critique even when they were young puppets, but I choose to believe that, given their elderly status, they were “in the trenches” guys for decades and now have earned the right to step back and make fun as others make the same mistakes they made in their youth. Forty years ago I resonated with Statler and Waldorf because their senses of humor are just like mine and they struck a deep introverted chord in me. Both of these things are still true, but now I not only resonate with S and W—I am on the cusp of becoming them. I also have earned the right.

The academic year just beginning promises to be an odd one for me, a year of closure as well as a year of opening the door to new things. This is my final year (of four) running the large interdisciplinary program that is at the heart of our core curriculum. It is also (so help me God) the end of a decade of almost uninterrupted administrative duties (department chair followed by program director) that have occasionally threatened to take my life over and choke the life out of my teaching. sabbaticalThis will be followed by a sabbatical year in 2015-16 (YAY!!) during which I intend to write several scholarly tomes, a best-selling novel, steer my blog into the stratosphere, see the world and SLEEP. When I return from sabbatical, I intend to spend the rest of my vocational years finding out what is actually like to do nothing but teach—since that is what I went into the profession for in the first place. Of course as they say, if you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans. But there they are.

500074-R1-052-24A_025Whatever the future holds, I believe that as I approach sixty years of age I am entitled to channel Statler and Waldorf on whatever occasions I deem appropriate. The lovely coupleI even look a lot like them. They say that couples who have been together for a long time start looking like each other, just as dogs and their owners start resembling each other. I sure as hell hope that neither of those turns out to be true (at least for Jeanne and Frieda). But it is indeed true that over time each of us starts to resemble our stuffed soul mate. In my case, it could be a lot worse.

kermitanimal

ineffeciency

Sowing the E-Seed

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

Tell Me a Big Story

A retreat at a Benedictine hermitage means the opportunity to plug into the daily cycle of psalms and prayers that has been going on for over fifteen hundred years. I learned five years ago as I experienced this daily cycle for the first time that something deep in me resonates with its rhythms. One June morning last summer, at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur bright and early at 5:30 Vigils, Psalm 5 began as a cry for someone, anyone, to listen.

6888193861_dd1dc9ea4c_z[1]To my words give ear, O Lord,

give heed to my groaning.

Attend to the sound of my cries,

my King and my God.

As so often with the psalms, the psalmist has a story to tell and insists that it be heard. And so it goes with all of us; the stories that define and shape us, that clothe the bare facts of our lives in fancy dress, are only the sound of one hand clapping unless there is someone to receive the story on the other end.

erie_pa[1]My early story was enriched by the presence of all four grandparents during my formative years. Visiting my paternal grandparents was always an event that took several days of careful and intense planning. We lived in northeastern Vermont; they lived on the outskirts of Erie, Pennsylvania, still in the house that my father grew up in. It was an almost six hundred mile trip, with the first two hundred on narrow two-lane roads before finally hitting the New York Thruway headed west, 550px-Clean-Refrigerator-Coils-Step-2[1]so some serious entertainment planning on my brother’s and my part and food packing on my mother’s part for the trip was always in order. My grandfather worked for General Electric, wrapping the coils in the back of old-time refrigerators by hand around a mold. He had forearms like popeye[1]Popeye—one of his favorite parlor tricks was to bet someone that he could make them close their hand just by squeezing their wrist in his vice-like grip. He never lost the bet.

Grandma was loving and had a great sense of humor, but also was noisy and abrupt, sort of like my Dad, and was a horrible cook. I don’t remember any item of food—meat, vegetable, fruit or starch—that my grandmother could not reduce to tasteless pulp after what seemed like endless hours sweating and complaining in the kitchen. But she sure could dish up ice cream.IMG_0853[1] Her signature dessert, usually served in the early evening in front of some mindless thing on television, was to open a half-gallon carton of vanilla ice cream, cut it in quarters with a knife so large that my brother and I were warned upon pain of serious comeuppance (one of her favorite words) to stay away from it, then serve a quarter to each person in the room with so much chocolate sauce and so many peanuts slathered on top that one would forget that it was vanilla ice cream underneath. This, of course, was before healthy eating habits were invented. A dessert designed to make one forget the less-than-palatable meal that preceded it.

The Erie homestead was nothing special, just old with creepy and creaky bedrooms upstairs. My other grandparents’ home in the Finger Lakes region of southern New York State was far more interesting and “homey,” probably because that set of grandparents was more touchy-feely and grandparently than my Dad’s folks. But the fun of going to Erie was not the house—the fun wasn’t really even my grandparents. hqdefault[1]What made Erie a favored point of destination was that my grandfather, in addition to being a blue-collar factory laborer, was also a “city farmer.” Stretched behind their house on a busy road in what served as suburbia in the early 1960s was two acres of land upon which my grandfather ran a small farm, complete with a barn, horse, cow, chickens, tons of barn cats, an outhouse, a huge vegetable garden, a dozen long rows of grape vines, and a lower field where hay always seemed to be growing unnoticed. My other grandfather was the real farmer who made a living growing fields of potatoes, but my gentleman farmer grandfather in Erie is the man of the soil I remember most clearly. When I take delight in digging around in the flower beds, pruning bushes, watering things and watching them grow, I am channeling my Grandpa Morgan.

imagesCA0SKN5LIn addition to their farm animal menagerie, my grandparents had a dog named King. King died of old age before I was ten years old, but if he actually looked like my memory picture of him, he was probably a collie/shepherd mix of some sort.lassie-face[1] We had two dogs at home, a collie named Lassie and Rex our German Shepherd; if they had ever mated (which they didn’t)germanshepherd_kearney[1], their offspring might have looked something like King. King could do two things that neither of my dogs could do. To begin with, King was the first dog I ever met who would chase a ball and bring it back to you over and over again until your arm got too tired to throw any more. At home, if you threw a ball for Lassie to chase she would look at you with a “You’re kidding, right?” sort of look as she laid down, and a ball thrown in Rex’s direction would most likely bounce off his head.dog_chase_ball[1] I thought King must be a genius with his ball retrieval abilities and should be on the Ed Sullivan show; it wasn’t until much later that I learned that ball retrieval is a normal dog activity and that my dogs at home were just strange.

King’s other trick was vocal in nature. My grandfather or my Dad would say “Tell me a big story, King, tell me a big story!” in a certain tone of voice and King would immediately raise his snout heavenward and start howling up a storm.cartoon-dog-howling[1] The story King told was sad and full of pathos, dramatic and primal, with the mournful tones of his wolf ancestors. But King was selective about who he would tell stories to. Only my grandfather or Dad would do. In response to such requests from my grandmother, my mother, my brother, me, or any of my aunts and uncles who lived in the area, King would stare in mute silence. King’s stories were meant only for the chosen few, those who knew how to ask properly.

Our best and most important stories should be, and usually are, saved for the ears of those who deserve it. Because woven into every story worth the telling is the intended listener. A story is far more than a linear reporting of facts; by fashioning facts into a narrative the storyteller reveals a great deal about who he or she is as well as about what he or she considers to be of ultimate importance. In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi,Yann Martel holding Life of Pi[1] in response to a demand for nothing but the facts about what has happened, Pi responds that “a story always has an element of invention in it. . . . Isn’t telling about something—using words, English or Japanese—already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon the world already something of an invention? The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?” Yes it does. And by sending his cries and groans heavenward, the psalmist is weaving a fascinating character into his story—a God who listens. This is the hope of the believer, that there is not only something greater than meKNorris1[1], but something that knows me better than I know myself, that listens, and promises a response. Sound like a fictional character, someone from mythology? I hope so, because as Kathleen Norris writes, a myth is a story that you know is true the first time you hear it. By including God in my story, I create a space in which God can show up.

The Powers of Words

The building looked like the love child of a logic problem and a crossword puzzle. Richard Powers, Orfeo

            During the summer I tend to plow through a book per week, making up for all of the months during the academic year when I do not have the time to read anything other than what I have assigned the students or have been assigned by my colleagues and superiors. Powers orfeoLast week’s book was Richard Powers’ Orfeo. Powers is one of my favorite novelists, but I don’t recall ever having a conversation with anyone about his books. He’s the sort of author whose books win awards, whose novels reviewers rave about as “brilliant,” a “tour de force,” and “his generation’s Herman Melville,” but few people read. Orfeo is his eleventh novel—I’ve read them all, but could not tell you off the top of my head the plot of any one of them. Powers is incredibly smart, knows a ton about classical music, science, philosophy, politics and a bunch of other things—and he enjoys showing off his intelligence. His books often strike me as clumps of genius loosely connected by characters and a plot. What makes me keep track of when the next Richard Powers novel is coming out and purchasing it as soon as it is released is his mastery of the English language. I can think of no author—and I’ve read many—who astounds me more often, page after page, with a phrase or descriptive sentence that makes me put the book down and simply say “Wow. That’s beautiful” (or brilliant or a tour de force). Orfeo is no exception.

And so she sat pushing her pen across the page like a pilgrim slogging to Compostela.

compostelaReplace “pushing her pen” with “clacking his laptop keys” and I know exactly what Powers is describing. I’ve never made the pilgrimage to Compostela, but have talked to a few persons who have. It takes daily preparation beforehand, but above all requires a daily commitment. Some days will be bright and beautiful, filled with great conversation and a general joie de vivre. Other days will be drizzly, cold, gloomy, and invite one to stay in bed. But getting to Compostela requires putting in the miles every day, regardless of weather and/or emotional contingencies. Writing is like that. Waiting until the stars are aligned and you have something important to say means that you will wait forever. It’s like police work—days on end of boredom punctuated by unpredictable moments of sheer terror (or inspiration or insight if one is writing—hopefully writing doesn’t always inspire terror). The immediacy of regular blog writing is helpful—committing myself to two new posts every week guarantees that I won’t wait on elusive inspiration.

Dissonance is a beauty that familiarity hasn’t yet destroyed.

one of these thingsI try to introduce my students to the important concept of cognitive dissonance all the time, usually starting with a reminder of the Sesame Street game: “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things doesn’t belong.” Our natural tendency is to resolve dissonance into similarity, even if it requires forcing the issue. But part of a liberal education is a growing awareness that sometimes contradictions not only cannot be but should not be resolved. Familiarity breeds contempt, but dissonance keep us on our toes—and that’s a beautiful thing.

“Isn’t the point of music to move listeners?”

“No. The point of music is to wake listeners up. To break all our ready-made habits.”

TNelsonhe same is true of the learning process. Important thinkers from Aristotle to Simone Weil tell us that the struggle and process involved in grappling with unfamiliar ideas is often far more important than getting “the right answer.” In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Christopher Nelson (President of my alma mater St. John’s College) nails it: “A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match.”

We are brought back to ourselves by solitude, and from ourselves to God is only a step.

With this I return, as I frequently do, to a phrase from an obscure medieval nun that captures the essence of what I learned on sabbatical five years ago: My deepest me is God. Using the vocabulary of Christianity, Powers is identifying the truest meaning of incarnation, the divine embedded in human form. The point is just as powerful when taken outside of a religious context. Usually what I most need and desire cannot be found by turning outward to things, persons, jobs or events. The source of everything I need is internal. EttyI spent all of last semester with a bunch of sophomores studying how various people in the worst possible circumstances time and again came to this realization. Etty Hillesum was a case in point.

Etty Hillesum has been described as “the adult counterpart to Anne Frank”; her diary and letters, published as An Interrupted Life, reveal a remarkable awareness and compassion in the midst of some of humanity’s darkest days. She died in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine. Knowing that I taught a colloquium on various issues related to the Holocaust last semester, the President of my college recommended it to me at lunch the other day. I knew that the recommendation was a fortuitous one as soon as I read the introduction by Jan Gaarlandt. Gaarlandt writes of Hillesum’s “totally unconventional” spirituality and rejects the attempts by both Jews and Christians to claim her as typically Jewish or typically Christian as “unprofitable.” As I suspect is the case with most persons described as “religious,” Etty’s spirituality was uniquely her own; she regularly addresses God in her diary and letters as she would address herself.

I hold a silly, naïve, or deadly serious conversation with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God . . . I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call “God.”

This may not be “typical” in any sense, but it captures the incarnational heart of Christianity beautifully. As the medieval sister said, My deepest me is God.

Ordinary Lives

There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, or truth Leo Tolstoy

Although Jeanne and I have lived in our house since 1996, there has never been a time when some portion of the house hasn’t been under revision, ranging in seriousness from furniture arrangement through a new coat of paint to knocking down walls and starting over again. money pitOur largest project, transforming the basement into livable space, a three-year process that turned out to be about ten times more expensive than we originally budgeted, was finished last fall. We are currently working on a small bedroom that has served multiple purposes, from a TV room to the living space for my son for four years through several eventful and difficult years that also just ended last year. We are finally turning it into the library/reading room that we have always wanted but have not been able to create until now.

The future library has one large interior wall that we have decided will be the location of family pictures that we have never displayed fully. Both of us came into our relationship over twenty-five years ago with some pictures and many more have accumulated since. We have never been organized in our picture taking—years on end have passed with no apparent record of anything happening—but we have an eclectic mixture of items that will more than fill this wall. weaving-world-simone-weil-on-science-mathematics-love-vance-g-morgan-paperback-cover-artOne item on display will be the cover of one of my academic books. Published almost ten years ago, the promotions people provided me with a half-dozen dust jackets suitable for framing, all of which have been collecting dust in one of my philosophy department office drawers ever since. I am proud of the book, but a book entitled Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics and Love was not likely to be a bestseller. And it wasn’t. Framing the dust jacket has given me yet another opportunity to think about how to measure success. VM Ruane 8I’ve had a number of high points in my career, but the vast majority of it has consisted of day after day in the classroom, days that turn into weeks, months and years that meld together into a generally pleasant but indistinguishable conglomeration. Will there be any more mountain tops? Are my most memorable experiences behind me? At the end of year twenty-two of teaching, I can’t help but wonder.

Last week I led a seminar during the morning of the first day of an Honors faculty two-day workshop with twenty colleagues. The text was a handful of essays from Montaigne; toward the end of a fine discussion we focused our attention on one of Montaigne’s many memorable reflections, this one from the next to last page of the Essais:

The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture

My colleagues were not unanimous in their reaction to Montaigne’s sentiment, but when are academics ever unanimous concerning anything, even the Pope’s Catholicism? A few suggested that this seemed to be both a recipe for mediocrity and a denial of the importance of miracles and ecstasy. emily_dickinsonA fellow philosopher said “Socrates would not have agreed with any of this,” and I overheard another colleague close by opining sotto voce that Emily Dickinson would not have approved either. They are probably right, although I suspect that Montaigne did not have Socrates’ past or Emily’s future approval at the top of his list of concerns as he wrote.

Other colleagues found much to like in this passage. richardgraceA professor from the history department who had just finished the final year of an outstanding teaching and scholarly career as he moves toward professor emeritus status said “I find this inspiring. It says that a beautiful life is not to be judged by whether you get your name on a plaque in City Hall.” This from a man who has a seminar room in our beautiful new humanities center named after him in honor of his extraordinary contributions over several decades to thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues.

I agree that this passage from Montaigne is inspirational. He is not suggesting that mountain-top experiences are unimportant; rather, he is reminding us that a beautiful life is not constructed from such experiences. There is a reason why the majority of the Christian liturgical year, although seasoned with the miracle of the Incarnation and the rapture of Easter, churchyearis spent in long stretches of inwardness, waiting, and getting down to the day-to-day, week to week work of being a regular human being trying to live a life in the presence of the Divine. The biggest chunk of the liturgical calendar, from Pentecost Sunday in late spring to the beginning of Advent the Sunday after Thanksgiving, is Ordinary Time. As the old saying says, life is what happens while we are making other plans. Montaigne suggests that the beauty of a life is to be judged by what you are doing between the miracles and the ecstasy.

Last Sunday Jeanne and I had brunch with two couples after church, a lovely occasion that we all agreed should happen more frequently. All six of us have been to a few rodeos—at fifty-eight I was the youngest person at the table. Jeanne singingMy friend Marsue’s birthday had occurred a week or so earlier, so we all sang happy birthday as the waiter brought her a small dessert. The waiter remarked on Jeanne’s beautiful singing voice, a nice connection was made, and good vibes were in abundance. Jeanne and I tend to be generous with tips when the service is good; this time, Jeanne was so generous when bill-paying time came that the waiter returned with the cash, wondering if Jeanne had made a mistake. She assured him that she hadn’t; we then learned he would be headed for LA in a month to pursue a career in entertainment promotion. Grabbing his hands, Jeanne offered a quick, heartfelt and spontaneous prayer asking for the Divine’s blessing on this young man’s endeavors. “I’ll remember you,” he said to Jeanne as he headed back to the kitchen. And I’m sure he will—it was a lovely moment of grace in the midst of an ordinary Sunday afternoon.middlemarch

I have written in previous posts about my love for the closing paragraph of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It not only is the most perfect paragraph I have read in any of the hundreds of novels in my reading life, but it is also a perfect expression of the sort of life Montaigne considers to be beautiful. Of her heroine Dorothea Brooke, Eliot writes:

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.

I would love to write a bestseller. I would love mine to be the first  likeness carved on the Mount Rushmore for Teachers that someone should create sometime. indexI would love to have thousands of people all over the world waiting with rapt attention for my next wise and witty blog post. But I would like most to faithfully live a life according to Montaigne’s “common measure,” bringing what I have to offer into each new day with intelligence, energy, and an occasional infusion of divine humor. Miracles and rapture are fine if you get them, but at the end of the road a “nicely done” would be even better.