Category Archives: writing

An Introspective Day

IGetImage[1]n our three years in Milwaukee, our first years together as a married couple trying to cobble a functional stepfamily together, Jeanne and I set our radio alarm to NPR, which would awaken us every morning at six o’clock. The early show was classical music, hosted by a local public radio fixture with the comforting and dulcet tones of an educated uncle. As we emerged into the day from sleep, the host would provide a brief weather report before queuing up the first musical offering of the hour. On some mornings, he would announce that “ladies and gentlemen, it is an introspective day—let’s begin with something appropriate from Beethoven.” EmperorConcertoCrop[1]The first movement from the Moonlight Sonata, or the second movement from the Fifth Piano Concerto, or the third movement from the Seventh Symphony—one of these products of Beethoven’s inner complexities would then serenade our rolling out of bed.

“An introspective day” meant that it was foggy, rainy, snowy, or at least cloudy—a day designed for redirecting one’s energies inward, the sort of day that everyone should be allowed to sit by a draft_lens18511478module153253276photo_1315951738read_by_the_fire[1]fire, drink their hot beverage of choice, and read. Nothing electronic blaring, no external demands, no pressures, just a chance to be quiet, breathe a bit slower, and feel a bit more deeply. Nice virtual image for a couple of minutes, but then real life showed up with two kids to arouse, feed and get to school, receiving a phone call telling Jeanne where in the large Milwaukee Public School system she was to report for the day, my twenty-minute bus ride downtown to the universityIMG_2762[1] where another day of PhD preparation activities awaited me. The introspective day stayed in the bedroom, a nice idea for the five minutes that it lasted.

I remembered this phrase one morning last June, more than twenty years later, as I arose at 4:30 to get a shower before Vigils at 5:30. The day before, my first full day on retreat at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur, was more touristy than retreatish, as I drove south on Route 1 along the Pacific Ocean from the hermitage, ostensibly to find someplace with cell phone service (no cell or wireless service at the hermitage or within thirty miles in either direction), but really because this was my first time at Big Sur073 and I was not ready to settle down into a few days of silent retreat until I saw more of the most beautiful scenery imaginable that I had driven through coming from the north the previous afternoon. Every switchback turn revealed another breathtaking vista; by the time the landscape flattened out a bit I had taken almost one hundred pictures. I finally found flickering phone service on my Droid at a large parking area right on the beach—a beach that just happened to be Elephant Seal Vista Point, where several dozen elephant seals, twenty or thirty yards up on the sand looking like small beached whales, were piled next to and on top of each other like so many random logs. It was molting season; apparently elephant seal molting is facilitated by rolling in sand and throwing it around with one’s flippers, all the time talking trash to your neighbor who is doing the same. Wishing that Jeanne, who is a great lover of all seal-related things, were with me, I took pictures until my camera’s battery screamed for mercy.084 After exchanging texts with the significant other, I headed back for the hermitage, having missed Sunday mass (mea culpa).

Stepping out onto the patio of my retreat house room at 5:00 AM, expecting to see, as I had the previous morning, brilliant stars above and the cavernous expanse of the ocean before me awaiting sunrise to come into view, I walked instead into a fog so thick I could not see the end of the patio ten feet in front of me. 014“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s an introspective day,” I heard the NPR guy say from more than two decades ago, and it indeed it was. For the first time I understood Moses’ experience when he went into “the thick darkness where God was.” The day was so introspective that I would not have dared to drive the two-mile long switchback road from the hermitage down to US 1 even if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to.

On the California Benedictine calendar, this day was the anniversary of the dedication of the Monterey cathedral, a place I’ve never seen and probably never will. But as we read appropriate psalms for the dedication of a building, rejoicing in the loveliness of God’s dwelling place, I returned in my imagination to Laramie.StMatthewsEpis.1925Skinner.Dunnewald01[1]St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming, where I first experienced God as more than an idea or intellectual construct. As the lector read Peter’s call to “come to him a living stone . . . and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” I said a silent thank you for the Living Stones group at Trinity Episcopal in Providence who have taught me so much over the past three years, and with whom I had met a week earlier.

ANDR-S7F036[1]After bringing post-Vigils coffee to my room, I decided to read some more of War and Peace, where Tolstoy’s mastery placed me next to Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino. I observed as it slowly dawned on the Emperor that on this day, after years of unqualified victories, he was defeated by something that could not have been factored into his battle plans and calculations—the spirit of those willing to either defend their homeland or die trying. After then spending a few minutes with Pi PatelimagesCAXVBJ2Z floating with a four hundred fifty pound Bengal tiger on a life raft in the middle of the very ocean that lay unseen at the bottom of the steep mountain sloping down from my patio, I took stock. Without travelling more than thirty yards, I had turned back the clock more than twenty years for a visit to Milwaukee. I had visited a Pacific beach littered with elephant seals, my home town on the opposite coast, and a cathedral in a town between those coasts more than a mile above sea level. Without leaving the rocking chair in my retreat room, I had travelled back two centuries in time to the carnage of a battlefield fifty miles outside of Moscow, as well as to uncharted waters in the southwestern Pacific.

Someone once said that the whole universe is contained in a drop of water. And at 10:15 AM as I finish this essay on this introspective day, I am reminded that within this drop of water, at the center of my inner world, is the source of it all. I need go no further than that inner world to resonate with the cosmic, concluding doxology of Psalm 96, this morning’s final psalm.

7348428534_80057f1ee1_z[1]Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad,

let the sea and all within it thunder praise,

let the land and all it bears rejoice,

all the trees of the wood shout for joy

at the presence of the Lord who comes,

who comes to rule the earth,

comes with justice to rule the world,

and to judge the peoples with truth.

lots of books

Forty-Seven Books

WIN_20160404_11_32_58_ProLast June as my sabbatical officially began, I decided to keep a running list of books read over the next year. Usually academics head into a sabbatical semester or year with a lengthy list of “must read” texts, tomes directly relevant to their research and the articles or books that are the required product of such semesters. Not me. My primary sabbatical project had over 300,000 words of my own writing from my three-and-a-half-year-old blog to work with. All of that writing was strongly influenced by dozens of books I read over the past several years; over the past nine months I have been in the enviable position of being able to read whatever the hell I wanted to rather than what I had to. As of today my “Read During Sabbatical” list is at forty-seven books and counting. A quick look at the list is very revealing, to me at least.

Mysteries11

I prefer my mysteries in series; over the past few months I have caught up on Anne Cleeves’ series set in Scotland’s Shetland Islands and Jussi Adler-Olsen Department Q series set in Copenhagen. pennyI’m just starting Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books set in southern Quebec, no more than an hour or so from where I grew up in northern Vermont. I’m pleased to see that there are twelve books in the series—that will keep me busy for a few weeks.

Why do I love mysteries so much? And why do I prefer them in series rather than in stand-alone volumes? The growth, maturation, mistakes and inanities of my mystery friends from volume to volume remind me of just how complicated and fascinating the human journey is. They remind me of me. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing exactly twenty years ago today, just as I can’t tell you what murder case Tommy Lynley and Barbara Havers were solving eight or nine Elizabeth George mysteries ago. But I can tell you about how their love/hate partnership and friendship has developed and grown over their virtual years, just as I can tell you about my own wandering path over the past two decades. Alasdair MacIntyre is right—human beings are “story telling animals.” Pick your favorite genre and dive in.

Novels—19

Each summer for the past couple of decades I have chosen a well-regarded novelist whose work I have never read and immerse myself in her or his work. This year I chose Joyce Carol Oates, which turned out to be a mistake. tarttAfter plowing through three of her dozens of novels (selections recommended by my Facebook friends familiar with her stuff), I decided that (1) I am impressed that she is one of the most highly thought of contemporary novelists and, (2), I am not sure why she is so highly regarded.

  • Best novel read: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. Close second: A Big Enough Lie, by my friend and colleague, Eric Bennett.
  • Worst novel read: A tie between Wm. Paul Young, Eve and James Martin, The Abbey

Theology (very broadly conceived)—6

I suppose it says something about my tastes that the two most recent theology books I have read are Pub Theology and Evolutionary Faith. These titles reflect dominant threads in my blog over the past few years. No Barth, Newman or Schillebeeckx for me—I agree with a Benedictine monk friend who was a high school biology teacher before he retired several years ago. In a group discussion he once said that “Darwin has taught us more about God than all of the theologians combined.” And he said it with a beer in his hand.

Philosophy (broadly conceived)—3

A philosophy professor who has read only three philosophy books during the first nine months of sabbatical? My philosophical hunger gets fed from many sources these days; very few of them are professional philosophers narrowly defined. But then, philosophy should never be “narrowly defined”—I tell my students that philosophy, the art of better and better questioning, is a natural human activity that can and should be applied to everything. It can also be stimulated by anything.Robinson

Collections of Essays—3

Two of the three volumes of essays on my list of forty-seven books are from Marilynne Robinson. Her novels, particularly Gilead, are pristine, beautiful, and powerful—her essays reveal the philosophical and theological underpinnings and insights that make such fiction possible. One paragraph of a Marilynne Robinson essay provides anyone with an attuned mind and heart with enough to chew on for days on end. Reading and digesting anything by Robinson requires work—work that is abundantly rewarded.

Memoir—3

Memoir has fascinated me ever since I was told seven or eight years ago at a writer’s workshop that my essays are “philosophical memoir.” The genre is tricky; it is difficult to thread the needle and use one’s own experiences as a pointer to something important instead of delusionally thinking that one’s self is that important thing. Perhaps my favorite book from the past nine months is an example of memoir at its best: meadRebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. It’s a book I wish I had written myself, given that Middlemarch is the greatest novel I’ve ever read. Guess I’ll have to write something else.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells aspiring writers that they should write what they would love to read. After reviewing my list of forty-seven books, I find that the relationship between reading and writing is both two-way and continuous. I do tend to write about themes that I love to read about and ponder, but I regularly gravitate toward new books that shine fresh light on what I’ve been writing and thinking about. I’m sure that a person with the proper training could conclude a number of things about me by studying my list of forty-seven books; my own conclusion is that Jeanne was right many years ago when she observed that I don’t need a lot of human friends, because my books are my friends. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to spend so much uninterrupted time with them.

For those who demand way too much information, here’s my sabbatical reading list as it currently stands, in the order that I read them:lots of books

  • Nesbo, Blood on Snow
  • Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus
  • Klein, Travels with Epicurus
  • Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex
  • Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage
  • Tartt, The Goldfinch
  • Grose, A Good Place to Hide
  • Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem
  • Henry, We Only Know Men
  • Kanon, Leaving Berlin
  • Hawkins, The Language of Gracewatchman
  • Lee, Go Set a Watchman
  • Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
  • Cleeves, Raven Black
  • Cleeves, White Nights
  • Cleeves, Red Bones
  • Bennett, A Big Enough Lie
  • Cleeves, Blue Lightning
  • Oates, them
  • Wallace, Consider the Lobster
  • Ebrahim, The Terrorist’s Son
  • Jeeves, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods
  • Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys
  • Malesic, Secret Faith in the Public Square
  • Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints
  • Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing
  • Young, Eve
  • Martin, The Abbey
  • Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books
  • Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companionironic christian
  • Adler-Olsen, The Purity of Vengeance
  • Mead, My Life in Middlemarch
  • Wiseman, The Plum Tree
  • Gregory, The Taming of the Queen
  • Robinson, The Givenness of Things
  • Hannah, The Nightingale
  • Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene
  • Russell, Dreamers of the Day
  • Cleeves, Dead Water
  • Cleeves, Thin Air
  • Berghoef, Pub Theology
  • Adler-Olsen, A Conspiracy of Faith
  • Gulley, Evolutionary Faith
  • Russell, Doc
  • Russell, Epitaph
  • Adler-Olsen, The Marco Effect
  • Penny, Still Life

Adepto Ex Meus Visio

Jeanne and I are headed to Florida this evening to spend a week with family and friends. We’ll be staying with Caleb and Alisha, our tattooing legend son and daughter-in-law. I’ve learned a lot over the past several years about tattooing as an art form, a process that reveals a lot about Caleb’s and my relationship. At a writers conference several summers ago, I was seated on the sofa in the common area and licking my wounds after getting worked over by the writer in residence. My pocket vibrated. “Why is anyone calling me at a writer’s conference?” It was Caleb.

“Dude.”

“Hey, Dad—it’s me. Got a question for you.”

“You know I’m in Minnesota, right?”

“Yeah. This’ll just take a minute.”

“What’s up?”

“I’m giving Dante a tattoo, and he wants one on each shoulder. The first one says ‘Servant to None.’ We’re trying to figure out what to put on the other shoulder.”

“Well it’s got to be something that ends with ‘all’ or ‘everyone.’ How about ‘Loved by All’?”

“That’s not going to work.”

“Hated by all?”

“Nah. We were thinking ‘Feared by All,’ but thought you’d maybe have something better.”

“‘Feared by All’ sounds good.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

My son, the tattoo artist, relies on me, his college professor Dad, as his “go to person” whenever words and phrases are involved as well as his answer man for any question whatsoever, all at a moment’s notice. Sort of like a 24-7 lifeline on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

I have never doubted Caleb’s artistic ability, from crayons through tattoo needles, but just about everything else about our relationship has come into question, such as our inability to connect emotionally. Were we too different, too similar, both of the above, none of the above? Was he too much like his mother? I interpreted his lack of respect for school work and books as a direct affront to his egghead, bibliophilic father. Why didn’t he cry when his grandmother, his favorite person in the world, died of cancer years ago when he was eight? Where did his barely submerged anger come from, and why couldn’t I do anything about it? Why did he resist becoming a real part of his new stepfamily so tenaciously? Years later, why did he piss away two years at a top ranked art institute, majoring in beer drinking then flunking out?

“Dude.”

“Hey Dad, it’s me. Got a minute?”

“A couple—what’s up?”

“I’m designing a tattoo for this guy, and he wants it to say ‘Get out of my face.’ How do you say that in Latin?”

“In Latin? Why?

“Because he wants it in Latin.”

“You know Latin’s a dead language, right? Why does he want it in Latin?”

“I guess he thinks it looks classier or something.”

“Let me think about it. I’ll call you back in ten minutes.”

I didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t translated any Latin since my dissertation almost twenty years ago. I didn’t remember “Get out of my face” in Ovid, Virgil, or Julius Caesar. So I did what any college professor not wanting to let his son down would have done. I Googled “English to Latin translation” and had it in a couple of minutes.

“Hey guy, it’s me. Got a pen and paper?”

“Just a second. Okay, shoot.”

“Adepto ex meus visio.”

“Can you spell that?”

“A-d-e-p-t-o e-x m-e-u-s v-i-s-i-o.”

“A-d-e-p-t-o e-x m-e-u-s v-i-s-i-o?”

“Right.”

“Thanks, Dad. Talk to you later.”

Caleb spent his high school years with his mother and I didn’t see him much. He loaded up on body piercings and tattoos. When he and Alisha, his wife of two months, moved from Colorado to Rhode Island eight or nine years ago, looking for a fresh start, and settled into our half-finished basement with two cats and two dogs, I didn’t know what to expect. His work ethic was impressive. Alisha brought out a tender and emotional side of Caleb I’d never seen. Who was this guy? One day he opened up about how tough his years with his mother had been. In response to my wondering why he never asked to come back and live with Jeanne and me, he said “I didn’t think you’d want me.”

Recently he told me about a conversation he had with someone who has been at my house frequently but doesn’t know me very well.

“The last two times I was there your Dad was playing Christian music. Is he becoming a religious fanatic? A Jesus freak or something?”

“Dad plays music he likes wherever it comes from. He likes classical music and Led Zeppelin too. He’s definitely not becoming a religious fanatic. Trust me, I know my Dad.”

And I’ve come to know Caleb too. I embrace the man he’s become (virtually—we don’t do hugs). It seems like just yesterday that he bought out his partner at the tattoo shop and launched his solo career in skin design, but it has actually been several years. From the outset, Caleb’s shop has reflected the man. His hero Leonidas from the movie 300“TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELL!”—looms on a poster over the tattoo chair, where Caleb turns a canvas of flesh into art of astounding beauty and creativity, with a delicate touch and grace bordering on the other-worldly. That’s my son.

“Hey Dad”

“Caleb, that butterfly tattoo you did is unbelievable.”

“Oh, you like that one? I just put that one on the website a few days ago.”

“It’s incredible—the detail, the flowers, the color. With the way you did the shadows under the stems and the left wing, it looks like the butterfly’s flying off of her skin. It’s gorgeous. What’s that darker area over to the right?

“That’s her butt crack.”

I’m so proud.

Back in the Saddle Again

We in southern New England have been spared a tough winter. Shit can still happen, but this winter has been a breeze compared to last year’s two-month cycle of weekly snow storms. A few mid-fifties temperature teases thrown in here and there in February have been a harbinger of an early spring—furthermore, the groundhog didn’t see his shadow.groundhogThen two days ago, we broke a temperature record and hit 70 degrees. This is all good news for everyone, but especially for me. Because the arrival of early spring coincides with a signature event in my life—I’m back in the saddle again.

I wrote frequently in summer and early fall last year about how one of the central features of my early sabbatical weeks was the rediscovery, after many years, of the joys of bicycling. I loaded tons of pictures, wrote blog posts, got in the best shape of my life, then disaster struck. I tipped over unceremoniously in a completely non-spectacular bike mishap and broke my ankle in early October—less than a week before riding the seventy-mile round trip Woonsocket to Bristol trip that I had been building up to for three months (for those unfamiliar with Rhode Island geography, that’s pretty much the top of the state to half way down and back).RI It could have been worse—I didn’t need surgery or even a cast, only requiring a boot for ten weeks or so. But no more bike riding for at least three months, and by that time we would be in the dead of winter, so probably no more bike riding for six months.my boot

This was more of a problem than just being laid up without exercise for a while. As wrote in a September blog post,

Life at Ten Miles per Hour

“Riding my bicycle early in this sabbatical is doing the same sort of thing for me that reciting the psalms and saying prayers with a 100_0770bunch of Benedictine monks on a daily basis did for me during my last sabbatical seven years ago. Cobwebs and impediments are being removed by simply finding ways to get centered and discover what’s going on beneath the complicated and pressured surface of things on which all of us skate in our manic day-to-day existence.” As I watched my writing productivity become less natural and fluid when I no longer could spend 3-4 hours per day on my bike, I began to wonder about the mind/body connection, a favorite philosophical puzzle of mine ever since graduate school. Is it really the case that paying specific attention to the body is good for the mind and soul?

Not long ago I heard Maria Popova, a social media/blogging phenomenon, talk about the mind/body connection in an interview with Krista Tippett. brain pickingsWhere, Tippett asked Popova, do you get your most creative and fertile thoughts? I resonated fully with Popova’s response:

Those ideas, the best of them came to me at the gym or on my bike or in the shower. I used to have these elaborate theories that maybe there was something about the movement of the body and the water that magically sparked a deeper consciousness. But I’ve come to realize the kind of obvious thing which is that these are simply the most unburdened spaces in my life, the moments in which I have the greatest uninterrupted intimacy with my own mind, with my own experience. It’s a kind of ordinary magic that’s available to each of us just by default if only we made that deliberate choice to make room for it and to invite it in.

In the early weeks of my sabbatical when I was still feeling a bit guilty about riding for hours per day when I was supposed to be writing, a colleague (who is also an avid biker) said “You have it all wrong. Sabbaticals are all about thinking (while riding bikes), then maybe when you get home, you write something down.” She was exactly right—the first drafts of two of the first chapters in my big sabbatical writing project were formed in my head while floating down a bike path.

I took my first real bike ride since October two days ago, a beautiful day when even the turtles were seeking to get an early tan.WIN_20160309_12_17_22_Pro My ankle is ready for it. My mind is ready for it—I need some inspiration for my next big project that doesn’t seem to be coming just sitting in my library recliner. My body is not entirely ready for it—I rode twenty miles and can tell that I’ll need a while to get my stamina back up to where it was in October. My greatest concern, though, is how to make the mind/body wonders of bicycle riding transferable to my “real” life once sabbatical ends and I am back in the classroom in a few months. I’ve found that the inner healing and silent centeredness that were features of my last sabbatical have been transferable to real life, as long as I take the time to work at it. But I will not have three to four hours available per day for bike riding once sabbatical is over—what might serve the same purpose?

It should not be impossible to create more “unburdened spaces” in one’s life, but it goes without saying that our twenty-first century world does not readily accommodate the finding or constructing of such spaces. The only other space in my life where I occasionally have moments of “uninterrupted intimacy” between my mind and body are when Madame DefargeI’m working in the yard—something about digging in the dirt liberates my mind from its usual fifty-things-at-once energies. One thing to remember is that although the mind/body connection goes both ways, this particular facet of it goes from body to mind, not the other way around. My body has never become healthier by my simply thinking a lot (although improved attitudes certainly can help), but bike riding and working in the yard are two examples of how physical activity can liberate my mind and consciousness. Maybe this is why my mother used to knit all the time, so often that one of my father’s nicknames for her was “Madame Defarge.” Maybe this is why apparently mindless and rote activities find their way into the routines of so many people. I need to cultivate such activities; something tells me watching a lot of television, even the good stuff, doesn’t count. Suggestions welcomed!

Sixty Years On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lenten Valentine

I don’t know whose idea it was for Valentine’s Day to fall on the first Sunday of Lent this year, but in a way it makes sense. I’m currently reading tolstoy liedRachel Kadish’s novel Tolstoy Lied; I started reading it because the main character, Tracy Farber, is a professor in a large academic department who is close to her tenure review. Kadish is an academic herself—in my experience only those who have lived in the insanity and pettiness of the academic world are qualified to write about it. Kadish is nailing it. But thirty-something main character Tracy is also in love for the first time, with amusing implications. She thinks too much, is unable to settle into the unfamiliar emotions, and is generally overstressing about everything she and her new love say and do. I recommend that Tracy go on a Lenten retreat. And perhaps do some research on the original Saint Valentine.

So who was this Valentine guy? As is the case with many early Christian martyrs, little is known about him. It’s possible that the stories surrounding Valentine are actually an amalgamation of the experiences of several different persons—Saint Valentine“Valentinus” was apparently a popular guy’s name in the third and fourth century Roman Empire. One persistent story is that Valentine ran afoul of an edict from Emperor Claudius II that all Romans must worship the twelve Olympian gods. This isn’t as restrictive as it sounds–I learned a few years ago from a classicist colleague and friend that the Romans were very tolerant of other religions just as long as everyone went through the motions of worshiping the state-approved gods as a statement of community and political solidarity. Eight centuries earlier Socrates got in trouble for apparently failing to obey a similar law in ancient Athens. But as one might expect from a Christian looking to be a martyr, Valentinus would not obey Claudius II’s edict and was thrown in prison. While waiting for his execution, Valentinus’ jailer—noting that the prisoner was a highly educated man—took advantage of the situation and brought his blind daughter to Valentinus’ cell for lessons. Somehow the idea of home schooling in a prison cell seems entirely appropriate.

The jailer’s daughter Julia was very bright and learned a great deal in a short time, including that Valentinus believed that the God he worshiped and who was responsible for him being in prison actually answered prayers. “Will God heal my blindness if we ask?” Julia wanted to know, and sure enough when she prayed with Valentinus, there was suddenly a brilliant light in the prison cell and for the first time in her life, Julia could see. from your valentineThe evening before his execution, Valentinus sent a note to Julia urging her to stay close to God—he signed it “From your Valentine.” And the rest is history. In addition to being the patron saint of engaged couples and happy marriages, according to the History Channel website Saint Valentine is also in charge of beekeeping, epilepsy, fainting, the plague and travelling. Lots of multitasking going on in saintland, apparently. But I can see that—other than the beekeeping, all of those other things fit with love relationships.

At first look, yesterday’s scripture readings are far more appropriate for the first Sunday of Lent than for what Valentine’s Day has become in our contemporary world. But maybe not. Ttemptationhe gospel reading from Luke, for instance, describes the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Moral of the story—the temptations of material things, power, and fame are always seductive and present, seeking to distract each of us from where our focus should lie. Stripped of everything, including his freedom and eventually his life, but also stripped of everything that might distract him from his central focus and belief, Valentine became a channel of transcendent goodness and power. Yesterday’s Psalm 91, one of my favorites, reminds us that our strength is to be found in divine shelter, shadow, and quietness rather than in the more obvious sources of manic energy and stress. Paul reminds us in yesterday’s passage from Romans that “the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” The energy of Lent, as well as of yesterday’s readings and the Valentinus story, is all about renewed commitment and inward exploration—none of which guarantee outward success, but without which full humanness is impossible.

Each of the past three Ash Wednesdays I have posted an essay on this blog about why I think that Lent is a bad idea. For those who observe Lent, practices are often trivialized and simplified so that anyone can do it and feel good about themselves, just as Valentine’s Day in the twenty-first century makes a mockery of its ancient roots.

Beauty for Ashes, or Why Lent is a Bad Idea

But this year I’m remembering the first time I ever did anything for Lent. Over twenty-five years ago I attended an Episcopal men’s silent retreat during Lent, an experience that I look back on now as being the first of an unexpected series of events over the years that incrementally awakened and changed me internally. wfgI first read Simone Weil at that retreat; studying, teaching, and writing about her thought has shaped me in more ways than I can count. I gained insights into why teaching is my vocation at that retreat. I first poked my toe into the waters of silence as spiritual practice at that retreat. Most importantly, at that retreat I for the first time began to suspect that God could be a reality in my life at a deeper level than intellectual assent. It has taken many years for this to develop—I’ve noted before that my encounters with the divine are more like a gentle drizzle than a steady rain—but I’m not the same as I was. Thanks, Lent.

One need not be Christian, or religious at all, to experience the healing value of what Lent offers. Finding a space of silence, quietness, attentiveness, and deliberation in the middle of a world that values none of the above is a challenge—but one worth taking up. This is why I recommend that Tracy go on a Lenten retreat. It beats finding all the above in a prison cell.

violet

The Wisdom of Violet

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

season five

As “Downton Abbey” continues through its sixth and final season here in the States, here are some thoughts from a few months ago from everyone’s favorite character . . .

The 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 to 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

Hope in Exile

As is the case with any profession, the life of an academic includes some great and some not-so-great features. After twenty-five years of being a college professor, here’s a brief list:

Great:

• Sabbatical

• Being in the classroomlove teaching

• Team-teaching with colleagues

• Planning courses

• Writing

• Beer with fellow teachers on Friday afternoons

Not So Much:

• Gradingtechnology

• Being in a dysfunctional department

• Trying to get what you have written published

• Technology in the classroom

And academic conferences. Especially academic conferences

I have written in the past about my dislike of academic conferences. Conference papers are the bread-and-butter of the academic life when climbing the tenure and promotion ladder, but I’ve never been a fan. A lot of posturing, name-dropping, networking and having papers read at you. Not to mention overheated and ugly seminar rooms along with stale pastries and lukewarm coffee. 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. colloquy posterOf course I usually forget that when I present a paper, I’m expecting my audience to appreciate mine far more than I enjoy theirs.

Fortunately I have not had to work the academic conference circuit vigorously since I earned promotion to full professor almost fifteen years ago. There is, however, one group of academics that I enjoy gathering with annually for a conference—the American Weil Society. If you read this blog regularly or even occasionally, you know that Simone Weil shows up on a semi-regular basis. I’ve had an intellectual affair with this strange woman from the first half of the twentieth century for at over fifteen years now (Jeanne calls Simone my mistress), a connection that has produced a book, several articles, and a paper at the Weil colloquy almost every year.

I have attended the annual Weil Society colloquy just about every year for the past couple of decades; we have hosted the Weil colloquy twice in the past ten years here at Providence College. There are a solid two dozen or so Weil scholars from North America who attend just about every colloquy. The theme of this year’s colloquy is hope in exile“Hope in Exile,” an evocative topic that prompted me to send in a brief proposal. The proposal was accepted, so now I have to write the paper. That’s one of the great things about a blog—it provides me with an opportunity to run my thoughts past intelligent people before I am responsible for them in person.

As I searched my notes and Simone Weil texts the other day for “hope” references, I was surprised to find that she doesn’t explicitly discuss the topic very often. And yet, the theme of how to avoid despair in the middle of a world that seems determined to drive us toward it on a daily basis is a thread that winds through most of her writing. In her final work, NfrThe Need for Roots, Weil considers why despair is not a necessity.

If pure good were never capable of producing on this earth true greatness in art, science, theoretical speculation, public enterprise, if in all these spheres there were only false greatness, if in all these spheres everything were despicable, and consequently condemnable, there would be no hope at all for the affairs of this world; no possible illumination of this world by the other one. But it is not so. (Emphasis mine)

This reminded me of something I just read the other day from Marilynne Robinson:

Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat.

One encounters this sort of “somber panic” and such proposed “terrible remedies” everywhere one turns these days. When everything is pushing intelligent people toward cynicism and/or despair, what reasons are there, if any, to cultivate hope? The cynic is likely to agree with Violet, dowager countess of downtonDownton Abbey, who says that “hope is a tease to keep us from accepting reality.” The hopeful person might counter with something like what I heard Maria Popova say on NPR’s “On Point” the other day: “Cynicism is the sewage of the soul.” My guess is that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes.

Simone Weil’s insight is a good place to start. If it is actually the case that human beings are incapable of producing anything of value, if it is true that even the best of human endeavors are polluted by falsity and worthy of condemnation, then cynicism or despair are the reasonable order of the day. There is no reason other than naïveté to hope for anything other than a continuation of mediocrity, violence, and death until we finally manage to snuff ourselves out. But after setting the stage for such despair, Weil opens the window a crack with just one sentence: But it is not so. RobinsonMarilynne Robinson concludes her comments on the attractiveness of cultural pessimism with a similar sentiment.

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism—exactly the same grounds, in fact—that is, because we are human . . . To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

The stakes could not possibly be higher. As I begin working on this with the upcoming conference in mind, I start with the premise that what really needs to be sorted out is the relationship between critical thinking and hope, since critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Our contemporary challenge is to find a place between the scylla and charybdisScylla of cynicism and the Charybdis of naïveté, seeking to build a life in that space because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom as well as a futile self-protection mechanism. And perhaps it is worth taking note of Simone Weil’s suggestion that the illumination of this world by “the other one” might be a reason to hope. What is that other world? How might a passageway for mutual illumination be opened? Stay tuned—I welcome your ideas and contributions!

Reading and Writing

My twenty-plus years teaching at Providence College have afforded me an opportunity every semester for team-teaching in the large interdisciplinary program that is the heart of our core curriculum (a program I directed for four years ending last July). downloadTeam-teaching is fun, exhilarating, and demanding; this begins with the planning of the next semester’s syllabus. Faculty from different departments having different experiences with and notions about pedagogy bring all sorts of ideas to the table and do not always agree, particularly about the amount of daily and weekly work to schedule for our future students. My contribution to the discussion is always the same: “They should read until they drop, then write until they drop again.” In that order—there’s nothing that feeds intelligent writing more effectively than reading.

It is strange that I temporarily forgot this important connection between reading and writing during the past few months. The working highlight of the first half of my sabbatical was an intense spurt of writing from September to Thanksgiving, surely energized by a bicycle mishap in early October; I all of a sudden had to find something to do with the four to five hours per day during which I had been riding my bicycle and getting into the best shape of my life prior to the mishap. In addition to completing a second draft of my current book project, I was able to maintain my established blog routine of two new 1200-1500 posts per week—something that my most famous writing friend, kathleen Kathleen Norris, suggested last May that I would probably not be able to do while writing a book. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the book is closely related to my past three-and-a-half years of blog work.

But since Thanksgiving, the writing energies have begun to dry up. I still have been able to produce new blog posts, but a couple of them seemed forced and I was often writing under self-imposed deadline pressure. The proposal that needs to be written for my book draft wasn’t getting written. Just a few days before Christmas I realized one of the main reasons for my current writing malaise—reading and writingI haven’t been reading much for the past few months. There are a number of excuses I might offer, but none of them fully explain why, when I actually have more unstructured time than any grown-up should have, I have been neglecting my first love—reading. I’ve even gotten out of the habit of reading the daily psalms every morning. Very bad idea.

A quick review of my blog posts from a year ago was illuminating. Many of my late December and early January posts either mention or focus directly on either Barbara Taylor Brown or Christopher Wiman. Why? Because just before Christmas break last year the work of these two authors was recommended to me by two different friends, so I spent Christmas break reading several of Brown’s books and a memoir by Wiman. The point? I write about what I am reading—the ideas, images, and insights of a good book never fail to be evocative. my life in middlemarchSince I think best when I am writing, that’s where these ideas, images and insights become my own.

Awareness frequently produces change, and this time was no exception. Awareness of my reading slump caused me to pick up Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a biography/memoir centered on George Eliot’s masterpiece (and my favorite novel). Sure enough, several passages inspired by Mead’s book are central to my New Year’s Eve blog post, and others will form the core of my forthcoming Valentine’s Day post for Jeanne. Then for Christmas Jeanne gave me The Good Book, a collection of essays, edited by Andrew Blaumer, in which thirty-two writers from all sorts of angles write about their favorite passages and characters from the Bible. Although the older I get the less I believe in mere coincidence, good bookI “coincidentally” opened first to “The Womb and the Cistern Cell,” an essay by Brooks Hansen about John the Baptist.

John “just happens” to be one of my favorite characters from the New Testament; twice in the past four years I have had the privilege of giving an Advent sermon on John the Baptist Sunday in early December. On one end of his life is a miraculous birth narrative that in my estimation rivals that of his younger cousin Jesus, and at the end of his life he finds himself in a dungeon (a cistern well) and a state of despairing doubt. He sends a question via his disciples to Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another? These are the last words we hear from this man, the first person recorded to recognize adult Jesus for who he was. Hansen finds this remarkable, and so do I; he concludes his essay by reflecting on the intimate connection between belief and doubt.

Light is born of darkness. Darkness is the necessary precondition of light. Belief, likewise, is born of doubt, the baptistwhich is its necessary precondition. Doubt is the soil from which faith grows. Therefore, if one is determined to imagine John the Baptist as the first and most authoritative voice to recognize Jesus as savior—the first, in other words, to believe—then John must, by that token have been the first to doubt. That, too, is Law. And if we ever encounter any teaching, or feel ourselves succumbing to any creed or system of belief, that does not admit this, and does not struggle intimately and often—in the cistern of its soul—with the fear that it is mistaken, misdirected, falsely premised, or corrupt at its heart—we should take heed:

That is not faith. That, in fact, is a fairy tale.

I wish I had read this before my most recent sermon three weeks ago—it would have made the cut. I frequently say and write that in just about all aspects of belief, certainty is vastly overrated—Hansen makes the same point much more eloquently. This is why reading feeds writing. Reading enlarges one’s vocabulary, broadens one’s perspective, and provides examples of the richness of language and experience. And it is fun—what’s not to love?

one thing

One Thing

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

You know what the secret of life is?

No, what?

(Holding one finger up) This. one thing

Your finger?

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

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

That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.

One thing. Finding out what that one thing is might be the point of anyone’s life, but that’s a pretty big task. At the beginning of a new year, a more manageable question might be “What is the one thing that I resolve to do this coming year?” And I don’t mean something like drinking less coffee or going to the gym more. I mean “What is the one thing that I resolve to do in this coming year that will be good for the inner me, for my soul?”one more thing I gave this assignment to the Living Stones seminar group that meets once a month after church when we met in December, and they’ll be bringing their “one thing” resolution when we meet next. As for me, I resolve that in 2016 I will be a more reverent person.

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

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

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

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

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