Tag Archives: Iris Murdoch

Colorblindness

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

Click on picture!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resembling the Picture

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

What Profession Should You Have?

I was pleased to be told that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There It Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the Salmon

unicorn-iris-murdoch-paperback-cover-art[1]In The Unicorn, one of Iris Murdoch’s characters drops the following into a mundane conversation: “Have you ever seen salmon leaping? Such fantastic bravery, to enter another element like that. Like souls approaching God.” The implications of this simile are striking. Salmon are hard-wired to do what they do, a hard-wiring that drives them to a place in which they are not equipped to survive and, ultimately, to death. This is hardly an attractive picture of the human search for God, but there’s a certain familiarity to it. In the Old Testament God is frequently hiding, in a thick cloudevil-face-captured-in-thick-cloud-of-smoke-500x292[1], in a burning bush, beyond a rock, because if a human actually experienced God directly that would be the end of the human. God’s element is not ours, yet just as the salmon there is something unavoidable in us that draws us toward that divine element and, perhaps, to our destruction. Great news.

Genetically Modified SalmonTwo salmon are discussing their options:

Bob: Are you ready to start heading upstream? It’s about that time.

Sam: I’m not doing it. You remember all those guys who headed upstream to do this last year? You ever seen them since?

Bob: No, but so what? This is what salmon do. This is what we were made for.

Sam: Not me. You go right ahead—been nice knowing you. I’m staying here.

BBrown bear catching salmonob: What are you, a salmon or a flounder? Any salmon worthy of the name swims upstream and leaps the falls!

Sam: I feel the same urge you do! But not every itch needs to be scratched. I prefer to be a wimpy salmon and alive to being a salmonly salmon and dead.

Bob: You’re no salmon at all. You can’t be a salmon and not leap!

Sam: You know what, I think this whole leaping thing is just a bunch of crap our parents and grandparents put on us. I can still be a salmon and stay in this part of the river. You leaping salmon are a bunch of schooling fish who believe you have to do something just because you were told you do.

imagescaf8jdis[1]I’m reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who once wrote that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” More great news. But how well does this salmon simile work? There’s a lot of effort on the part of the salmon to do something that makes no sense, yet is definitive of what it means to be a salmon. Are human souls hard-wired to seek for God? And is that seeking always a matter of extreme effort that leads to at least a virtual death? What choice do we have in the matter? That’s where the salmon simile breaks down, since despite Sam’s resistance, real salmon don’t have a choice. They just do what they’re programmed to do. We have a choice—or do we?

st-augustine-of-hippo7[1]With an idea probably stolen from St. Augustine, I was told in my youth that all human beings have a “God-shaped hole” inside of them that cannot be filled with anything other than God. I understand this and have often described myself as a “God-obsessed” person. This has nothing to do with any particular idea of God but rather with a gnawing hunger deep inside that nothing readily available can satisfy. I have no specific idea as to what might satisfy this hunger, while the salmon (or at least Bob) are convinced that only leaping will do it. But then there’s Sam, who’s at least considering the possibility of a fulfilled salmon existence that doesn’t involve leaping to one’s death. I’ve encountered Sam-like human beings who appear to have no such hunger, or at least claim not to have one, but that strikes me as odd. I’m obsessed with it and I’ll bet they are too—they just don’t call it God.

At the center of every human being is a yearning and desire for something good and divine and pure, a yearning that is never satisfied by anything in this world. Human beings are free only to the extent that they are free to choose either to work with this longing, without knowing exactly what this longing corresponds to, or to redirect this longing and seek to satisfy it with things closer to hand. Although the former choice is attractive, there’s probably also a lot to be said for the latter choice that, if we’re talking about salmon, Sam is making. Since the leaping choice is obviously a risky one, why not try to reinvent himself and search for meaning as a perfectly fine non-leaping salmon?

Sam and Bob agree on one big thing—there’s more to being a salmon than simply swimming around in a river. imagesCA6IDEGOBob believes he knows what that “more” is and will leap into it with all of his fins, despite the likelihood that he won’t come out alive on the other end. Sam, concerned about the lack of information from the other side, prefers to find another way to investigate this “more.” Dorothy Allison writes that “there is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.” I like that, and I think Sam would too (so long as salmon have politics and literature). It increases our options.

imagesCA4E0W95

In a Nutshell

John 3 16

 

Sports fans old enough to remember the 70s and 80s will recall that a regular occurrence at baseball or football games either in person or on television was, when the camera panned the stands, to see a person—often wearing a colorful fright wig—holding up a large homemade poster board sign with a cryptic reference that made sense only for initiates: John 3:16. John 316I often imagined the confusion that many might have felt at this ubiquitous, almost subliminal communication, especially in a pre-Google world. John 3:16? What does that mean? But for those in the know, it was no mystery, for John 3:16 is the address of perhaps the most familiar of all Bible verses, the first one (followed by hundreds more) that I learned as a young Baptist boy.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

In our fundamentalist, evangelical world, the whole gospel was summed up in this verse, often followed by its less quoted companion John 3:17:

For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

It really does have it all—a God of salvation rather than condemnation, of love rather than judgment, the incarnation, and—most important in the religious world of my youth—the promise of eternal life, which we interpreted as going to heaven and avoiding hell. It really is the gospel in a nutshell. Really. gospel in a nutshellI remember a crafts event during summer Bible camp when we inserted the text of John 3:16 in tiny print rolled up like a paper towel inside the two halves of a walnut shell which we then glued together with the end of the John 3:16 roll sticking out of a convenient slot. When completed, the text could be rolled out and admired, then snapped back in like a window shade.

Typically, but unfortunately, the textual context of this gospel in a nutshell was usually ignored. John’s gospel is strange and (for me, least) somewhat off-putting. It was written last of the four gospels, at least twenty years later than Matthew and Luke, perhaps thirty years later than Mark. The Jesus of John often sounds more like a theology professor than the no-nonsense man of few words and mighty deeds in Mark’s gospel. In John chapter 3, Jesus is visited secretly at night by Nicodemus, setting up one of the strangest conversations you’ll ever hear.

laurenceNicodemus, described by John as “a ruler of the Jews,” was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin—a significant player in the religious and political structure that Jesus was clearly challenging. For me Nicodemus will always be the bearded and aging Sir Laurence Olivier as he played the role in Franco Zeffirelli’s  Jesus of Nazareth. Nicodemus undoubtedly comes by night because he does not want his colleagues to know of his fascination with Jesus. It’s sort of like John Boehner checking in with President Obama in the middle of the night for budget-making advice—Boehner wouldn’t be able to live it down if word got out. Nicodemus gives Jesus an opening which Jesus takes by saying cryptically “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We Baptists took this to mean that “unless you accept Jesus into your heart as your personal savior, you don’t get to go to heaven” (although Jesus doesn’t say this), but the “eternal life” business isn’t what catches Nicodemus’ attention. Taking the “born again” line literally, he wants to know “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born”? Debates were raging in Jesus’ world between the Pharisees and the Sadducees about whether resurrection of the dead is possible—Jesus and NicodemusNicodemus, familiar with those debates, thinks Jesus is taking a position. But he’s not. He’s talking about something else entirely.

As the conversation continues, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the strange story from the history of the children of Israel wandering in the desert that was the focus of our first reading this morning from Numbers. In response to yet another round of blatant disobedience, God sends snakes into the midst of the children of Israel; many of those bitten by the venomous serpents die. In response to the people’s recognition of their rebellion and their penitence, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. “And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”   bronze serpentApplying the story to himself thousands of years later, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Which sheds a whole new light on the gospel in a nutshell passage just two verses later. Jesus is not talking about crawling back into your mother’s womb, nor is he talking about going to heaven when you die. He’s talking about importance of what we choose to look at.

Iris Murdoch tells us that human beings are creatures who make pictures, then over time come to resemble the pictures they have made. And the pictures we make will be fashioned from what we are looking at and what we see most clearly. Two years ago when standing in this pulpit I talked about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Great Stone Face,” a tale about a secluded New Hampshire valley; on the perpendicular side of a nearby mountain hung some immense rocks which, when viewed from the proper angle and distance, “precisely resembled the features of a human countenance.” Old_Man_of_the_Mountain_4-26-03In the valley there is a legend that someday “a child should be born hereabouts, who is destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.”

Ernest, a young man born and raised in the valley, was obsessed with the story of the promised great man his whole life, spending hours per day staring at the Great Stone Face and sharing the villagers’ disappointment as numerous visitors failed to live up to expectations. As the years pass and Ernest becomes an old man, he is loved by his neighbors and family but sadly concludes that the legend will not come true in his lifetime. Then one day as he talks simply and clearly on his front porch with a number of his friends about matters important to them all, the setting sun strikes Ernest’s face and someone sitting next to him exclaims “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!” He had become what he had spent his life lovingly looking at. Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and is telling us, that the possibility of transformation and renewal is right in front of us—but our attention is focused elsewhere.

It’s interesting to note that John 3:16 does not require us to do anything but believe. No deeds need to be performed, no special words need to be said, no special prayers need to be offered, no sins need to be confessed. Just believe. I spent many years trying to figure out what I needed to do to gain God’s favor—I suspect I’m not the only one in the room who has tried to figure this out. As it turns out, belief is about focusing my attention on the right thing. Not on my shortcomings and failings, nor on my strengths and what I think I have to offer that God might be able to use. lookJesus’ message to Nicodemus is “don’t act—LOOK.” In our consumer society we want solutions that we can make our own, that we can add to our list of useful things we have consumed. But Simone Weil writes that “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. Looking is what saves us.” The gospel in a nutshell.

Nicodemus’Michelangelo_Pieta_Firenze conversation with Jesus clearly had an impact; we see him two more times in John’s narrative, once when he reminds his brethren in the Sanhedrin that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged, the second time when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial after the crucifixion. He did not drop everything he was doing and start following Jesus, but he did begin to see things differently. As we travel the Lenten path we would do well to wonder the same things that Nicodemus must have wondered about. Where do I usually focus my attention? What would it mean to shift my gaze toward something different? What would it mean to stop looking at the shortcomings, failures and sins in my own life and the lives of those around me? What would it be like to stop staring a few inches in front of me as I sleepwalk through my days and weeks and look up? What difference would it make if I looked at the promise of life rather than the inevitability of death? The bronze serpent lifted in the wilderness. The Son of Man hanging on a cross. Both are iconic images of God’s love and forgiveness, promising that new life can be ours now, that the kingdom of God is available now, and eternal life begins now. All we need to do is look.

Fearless Passivity

nixon

Last Sunday, Jeanne and I stumbled across Oliver Stone’s 1995 movie “Nixon” as we were surfing through the channels. In the last few minutes of the movie, on the same evening that he signed his letter of resignation from the Presidency, Richard Nixon (played by the always-brilliant Anthony Hopkins) gets a reluctant Henry Kissinger to kneel with him to pray in the Oval Office. A jarringly out-of-place activity, it would seem, for the disgraced and apparently unrepentant Nixon–but then prayer has seemed jarring and forced to me for most of my life. I reflected on that about a year ago in the essay below.

Wednesday night prayer meeting—yet another opportunity to go to church. As a creative youngster, I usually was able to find something in every foray to church to pique my interest, however briefly. I liked some of the hymns we sang on Sunday morning and evening, for instance, and enjoyed the stories in Sunday school. But we didn’t sing on Wednesday nights—people gave testimonies, and then we prayed. For a very, very, VERY long time.

p_profile_norrisheadshot1[1]Many Christians seem to regard prayer as a grocery list we hand to God, and when we don’t get what we want, we assume that the prayers didn’t “work.” This is privatization at its worst, and a cosmic selfishness. Kathleen Norris 

I remember prayers that were more like speeches than anything else, insistent, complaining sorts of speeches whose intent was apparently to wear God down. Not that the things being asked for were unimportant—“please bring X to a saving knowledge of you,” “please heal Y of diabetes,” “please help Z find a job”—prayer-meeting-image[1]but the tone was often strange, petulantly childish, demanding, insinuating that this time, for once, God had damn well better get off His ass and do something. Of course anyone actually saying that at Wednesday prayer service would have been in danger of hellfire, but that’s the atmosphere I remember.

How to pray was a mystery to me—I recall my mother saying frequently that I should just “talk to God the same way I talk to her.” That never struck me as one of my mother’s better pieces of advice, since I clearly couldn’t talk to an invisible, far away, scary “something” in the same way I could talk to her. But I did learn, as all good Baptist kids learned, how to make up a convincing sounding prayer at the drop of a hat. It’s just that it never seemed to go past the ceiling.images[8]

Are we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe? The silence is often so emphatic. And we have prayed so much already. Annie Dillard 

Remnants of my Baptist upbringing reared their head the first time I saw the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The whole idea of written, non-spontaneous prayer was foreign to me, despite the beauty of many of the petitions in the book. I’ve gotten used to the idea, though, since I’ve spent my working career with people trained in the “prepared prayer” campProduct3999_Photo1[1]. As the chair and only non-Catholic in a large philosophy department, for instance, it fell to me to ask a colleague to open our monthly meetings with prayer. I was expected, of course, to ask the professionals, one of my priest colleagues, so I took great delight in occasionally asking a lay colleague just before the meeting. Without fail, you would have thought I had asked the colleague to solve several problems in differential calculus on the spot—apparently Catholics aren’t used to praying on a moment’s notice, with priests in the room and no prepared text at hand. Well, at least I thought the reaction was funny.

My overall attitude about prayer over the years has been, sad to say, an angry one. Prayer is supposed to be such a central part of the life of faith, but the transactional model I had been taught revealed God to be arbitrary, powerless, uninterested, or hard of hearing. Angry prayer doesn’t do much to establish a prayer life with one’s spouse, especially a spouse who, like Jeanne, seems to take to prayer as naturally as a duck to water.400d828fd7a0a7c5e0bb3110_L[1]

There is an affinity between cursing and praying . . . both forms of discourse address what is out of human control: one with a destructive and the other with a creative purpose. Both praying and cursing flow from frustration. Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham 

One day after expressing my frustration about the whole prayer thing to her, Jeanne said something that, for the first time, began to chip away at my icy attitude about talking to God. “Vance,” she said, “for you thinking is praying.” And since I do much of my thinking in the context of reading, I took that to mean that maybe when I’m reading I’m praying too.

When the minister finally got to say his “Let us pray,” we were ready. We had been praying, all along. We had been being ourselves before God. Kathleen Norris 

That was the most helpful thing anyone ever said to me about prayer and, in turn, it freed me to hear from my teachers what else prayer might be.

Among the writers who have been most important to me over the past several years, there turns out to be an amazing consensus about what prayer is and is not. It definitely is not begging, asking, bartering, transactional, projecting religious white noise into the void.Convent of Visitation Reunion 2010 Rather, it has to do with openness, with waiting, with an attentiveness that does not fill in the silence but, as Adorno said, is “fearlessly passive.”

“Writing is prayer,” Kafka, that most afflicted one, said. And writing, certainly, isn’t wishing; it is witnessing. Patricia Hampl iris-murdoch-1[1]

Prayer is properly not petition, but simply an attention to God which is a form of love. Iris Murdoch 

page1[1]Attention, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer. Simone Weil 

Experiencing Benedictine noon prayer over the past few years has helped me with this. There is more silence than speaking in their petitions, between the lines of the psalms that we read together and between each portion of the rubric. I’ve heard “Be still and know that I am God” since my childhood, but finding myself a part of it in action is transformative.

As a new attitude of attention develops, it has slowly been possible to return to spoken prayer without all of my previous baggage. imagesCA69WZ3KYet for the most part, prayer is an attitude rather than something verbal, an attitude that begins with finding the silent space inside. Some days are tougher than others, the sorts of days when Anne Lamott’s insight that the best prayers are often “Help! Help!” or “Thank you! Thank you!” rings true. But when Jeanne said to me a while ago that my prayers aren’t angry any more, I was both thankful and aware that a change had indeed begun.

heschel[1]The essence of prayer is a song and men cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and men. God needs our help. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

My Neighbor

0[1]Humility is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement. It is a selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues–Iris Murdoch

I recently found myself in the midst of a Facebook discussion, the sort of online discussion that I try to avoid at all costs. The topic was same-sex marriage;s-FACEBOOK-PROFILE-PICTURE-RED-HRC-large[1] in the middle of some testy back and forth between persons of vastly different beliefs and commitments, one of the few students I am friends with on Facebook, a young Muslim woman, posted this:

I honestly wonder – why are some religious folks so quick to condemn and oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage and yet lack a response of even a marginally close degree of intensity to such inequalities of wealth and resource that inevitably lead to world hunger and suffering – inequalities which their respective religious texts and prophets make clear to condemn and resist far more than to gay marriage? I am not seeking to belittle or invalidate anyone’s beliefs but am genuinely seeking to understand the difference in importance given to these issues – I would truly appreciate an answer to this, from anyone here.

For me, at least, that cut through a lot of the bullshit that had been e-flying around in previous comments. I posted the following in response:

Unfortunately, I think it is because what the great religions REALLY require of us is too hard. The prophet Micah wrote that what God requires of us is to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” That’s a lot harder than taking positions on social issues that don’t cost anything. It’s very clear from reading Scripture that the measure of our journey with God is how we treat the poor, the needy, the disenfranchised, the suffering–not the positions we took on same-sex marriage, or abortion, or how often we were in church.Aime-Morot-Le-bon-Samaritain[1]

All of this is placed in sharp focus by a very familiar story. Is there any of Jesus’s parables more familiar than The Good Samaritan? And is there any parable whose message is more impossible to live out? Jesus uses the story to illustrate mercy, the second of Micah’s directives for following God, agreeing with the man who concludes that the true neighbor in the story was “the one who showed mercy.” I’d like to reflect on the Good Samaritan story with the last of Micah’s directives in view: Humility.

On its face, humility is not a popular virtue; indeed, self-effacement, being a doormat, deference to others—all popular synonyms for humility—seem more like vices than a virtue. aristotle-conferance_1[1]Humility is not included in Aristotle’s famous list of virtues, and philosophers for millennia have struggled with humility, often ignoring it or altogether denying that it is a virtue. One contemporary philosopher suggests that humility “seems at best a saving grace of the mediocre and at worst an excuse for passivity towards human wrongs.” It certainly doesn’t fit comfortably with the dominant American notions of independence, individuality, and aggressive achievement. And yet one can scarcely read a page of the Psalms or the New Testament without encountering calls for humility. So what exactly is being called for?

In the Good Samaritan story, the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all see the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead in the ditch. And yet their manner of seeing is very different. The story says that in the case of both the priest and the Levite, “levite[1]when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.” I have heard and read many explanations, theories, and accounts of why these religious guys walked on by; the most common is both the priest and Levite assumed that the man was dead and did not want to violate the many prohibitions in the Law against those who handled holy things for a living touching anything dead. In other words, the priest and the Levite saw the injured man through the lenses of their societal roles and commitments. They saw the injured man with the eyes of the self.

“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” If the Samaritan had chosen, as the priest and the Levite did, to see the injured man through self-defining lenses, he also would have walked on by. Travelling on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, the Samaritan was in enemy territory—Samaritans and Jews had nothing to do with each otherpara-1[1]. The man in the ditch was almost certainly the sort of person that the Samaritan had been taught to hate. The Samaritan is on a journey, undoubtedly in a hurry, with miles to go before he sleeps—why does he stop and allow his agenda to be seriously disturbed? What does he see that the priest and the Levite did not see?

As simple as it sounds, the Samaritan stopped because he saw the injured man unfiltered. Simone Weil calls this ability to see unfiltered “attention,” and suggests that it is at the heart of true human connection. “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” 1358330283_humility2[1]Another word for this miraculous ability to see unfiltered, to attentively look at what is in front of me unencumbered by my usual filters and agendas, is humility. And it is at the heart of true faith.

And this, I believe, is why defining ourselves morally in terms of positions taken on hot button issues is far more attractive than actually attempting to live a life guided by what the texts simone_coat[1]and principles of one’s faith actually demand. As Simone says, true attentiveness—true humility—is a miracle. Human beings are not naturally wired in this way. Iris Murdoch notes that “we live in a dream, we’re wrapped up in a dark veil, we think we’re omnipotent magicians, we don’t believe anything exists except ourselves. Our attachments tend to be selfish and strong, and the transformation of our lives from selfishness to unselfishness is sometimes hard even to conceive of.” This is what makes the Good Samaritan miraculous—he is able to truly see what is front of him and respond directly without a moment’s concern for anything other than what this man needs.

Iris Murdoch defines love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” Love and humility, in other words, go hand in hand. Love and humility energize the apprehension of something else, something particular, as existing outside us. In our daily lives we are continually confronting something other than ourselves. We all, not only can but have to, deal with the resistant otherness of other persons, other things, history, the natural world, and this involves a perpetual effort. Good_Samaritan_Sicard_Tuileries[1]But at the heart of the Christian faith, illustrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan, is the promise that the possibility of transformative love and humility is in each of us, ready to be introduced into the world if we will only look away from ourselves toward what is directly in front of us.

We are called to cultivate Good Samaritan moments—moments in which the human being in front of us is not dark-skinned, poor, female, gay, disabled, conservative, wealthy, Muslim, male, straight, ugly, liberal, old, Christian, obese, or attractive, but rather is a person whose needs, hopes and dreams are real and independent of us. It is a task to come to see the world as it is, a task that can only be attempted with the miraculous energy of humility. When I believe that I have seen all there is to see, the Christ in me says “let me look again.”

Living Stones

The Bible is filled with rocks. The patriarchs pile rocks up every time they want to remember a place where they encountered the transcendent. Moses strikes rocks twice, once in obedience and once in anger, to produce water for the thirsty and complaining Israelites. David-and-Goliath-painting[1]David drops Goliath with a stone thrown from a sling. Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread and have something to eat. And so on. I’m sure there’s a dissertation on Biblical rocks in there for someone. Theologians and Bible interpreters have a field day with the typology of rocks and stones, precious or otherwise. But I’m taking a basic approach—there are lots of rocks in the Bible because the people of the Bible encountered lots of rocks. Every day, all the time. How could the story of people who lived in a rocky desert not include rocks? I understand this, because I also grew up in a terrain filled with rocks. I grant you that northern New England, with its forests and green meadows, is not immediately reminiscent of Palestine. But as any Vermont farmer will tell you, dig or plow just a few inches under the surface and you hit rocks. Lots of them. Big ones. The neighboring state of New Hampshire’s official nickname is “The Granite State” (not “The No Sales Tax State” or “The Live Free or Die State”). bwquar[1]One of the largest granite quarries in the world, quaintly called the “Rock of Ages” quarry, is less than forty miles from where I grew up.

Just as most everyone, as a teenager I had my share of horrible summer jobs. The worst was the summer I helped dig swimming pools for a construction company run by the vice president of my Dad’s little Bible school. Really—a pool digging preacher. Who knew that swimming pools could sell in Vermont? On one occasion my co-diggers and I had just about finished digging the swimming pool hole—everything was planed off, measured, and ready for concrete pouring, except for one small detail, and they even add other things as the best pool heater to keep the pools warm. There was a rock sticking out of the deep end wall-to-be about ten inches. That rock would have to be removed and the hole filled in before the concrete could be poured. But the more we dug around the rock to loosen and remove it, the larger it got. Soon it became clear that this “rock” was a pimple-sized bump on a massive boulder. Removing the boulder required pulling it out with chains attached to a backhoe; once it came out, the whole back wall of the pool-to-be collapsed, setting the whole project back a couple of days. I didn’t see it through, as I fortunately got a job bagging groceries the next day and quit without giving notice.

The Bible says a lot about gems and precious stones, especially in the crazy, weird books like Daniel and Revelation. But I’m more interested in just regular rocks, as I think Jesus was and still is. He is the stone rejected by the builders. Why? There are plenty  of reasons why a builder might reject a stone—too big, too small, wrong shape, not what is needed, just doesn’t fit expectations—all the sorts of things that people said about Jesus. The-Stones-Would-Cry-Out[1]This guy’s not what we expected, so let’s ignore him or, better yet, get rid of him. But in Luke’s telling of the Palm Sunday story, we get a clear indication of what Jesus is up to. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the crowd continues to sing “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Pharisees, thoroughly annoyed as usual, want Jesus to tell the crowd to stop singing, to which Jesus replies “if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.” What God is after is living stones, and Jesus is the cornerstone of the new transcendent structure to be built out of these stones. Jesus wasn’t referring to gems and jewels that would cry out. He was talking about rocks. He was talking about us.

Peter (finally) got the message by the time he wrote the first letter attributed to him in the New Testament,  a Sunday reading from a couple of weeks ago:  “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.”living-stones[1] But stones, even living ones, are so random, so ordinary. We reject ourselves and each other for the same reasons that the original stone was rejected by the builders. Too fat, too thin, too hard, too soft, wrong color, wrong shape, wrong size, wrong gender. But when God makes a stone live, turns a heart of stone into a heart of flesh as Ezekiel says, that living stone is unique. Just the way God wants it.

Marsue-hed-shot[1]During Lent 2011 Marsue, a close friend and the rector of the Episcopal church Jeanne and I are involved with, and Bill, the junior warden, asked me if I would be willing to use some essays I had written while on sabbatical in Spring 2009 and after as a jumping off point for a biweekly adult education series. Apparently previous attempts at getting adult education off the ground had not been particularly successful.Trinity_Cranston[1] Marsue knew about these essays because I had been sending them to her, whether she liked it or not, over the past couple of years. The idea was that I could bring a couple of essays to the group, read them aloud, and try to generate discussion. I said “sure”—I had been looking for an outlet for these essays, given that no publisher had shown an ounce of interest in them—and we decided to give a try every other Wednesday night. I suggested to Bill and Marsue that we call the series “Living Stones,” reflecting Peter’s suggestion that “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.”

Those first few Wednesday nights attracted 8-10 people; just enough to justify continuing even after Lent and Easter season were over. Some essays worked well, some did not—but I was gratified that people were slowly opening up, willing to talk about their spiritual growth (or lack of same) more and more honestly as we got to know and trust each other. By the time Fall 2011 arrived we decided to try doing these “seminars” after the 10:00 Sunday morning service in hopes of attracting more people. We got into a routine of meeting after church every three weeks, a routine that continued until the beginning of this year, when we went to once a month in order to make room for a growing list of other classes that people were interested in.

As many as twenty have been in attendance on a given Sunday, but there are a dozen regulars who never miss. We have become so comfortable with each other that reading just one essay sparks a solid seventy-five minutes or more of fascinating discussion, with depth and insight that regularly astounds me. Telephone%20Book%203[1]I have said frequently that I’m quite sure that I could read from the phone book for ten minutes and the Living Stones group would turn it into something fascinating and powerful. I almost never am able to correctly predict what the group might pick up and run with—almost always it is something that carries my ideas to places far more interesting and edifying than I had in mind when writing.

Looking around the circle at a given seminar, I am first struck by our ordinariness. We’re just a bunch of normal folks who enjoy talking about our serious, but often pitifully or comically inadequate, attempts to live out what the closing prayer in the Episcopal liturgy challenges us to do—“to love and serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart.” I am also struck that the average age of the group is at least in the upper 60s, perhaps as high as 70. NewEngland[1]I am usually the youngest person in the group, and at 57 I’ve stopped pretending I’m just “middle aged” any more. The transparency and honesty of each member facilitates community in a way that I have seldom experienced. Sixty-something Episcopalian New Englanders are not supposed to be this open, honest and welcoming. Rock-ribbed New Englanders have little use for talking about religion in public. But living stones are different, as I am happily reminded every time we meet.

12817[1]In my favorite of Iris Murdoch’s later novels, Nuns and Soldiers, one of the main characters, Anne, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. The God of her youth is dead; she’s not sure that there is any God at all. During a walk on the beach, she takes notice of the regular, ordinary, but unique stones lying all around her. The big, metaphysical questions fade into unimportance as she grasps the miracle of utter uniqueness. rocks[1]“What does anything matter except helping one or two people who are nearby, doing what’s obvious? We can see so little of the great game. Look at these stones. My Lord and my God. She said aloud, ‘My God . . . There they are.’” And as I look around the Living Stones circle this coming Sunday as we meet on our regular first-Sunday-of-the-month schedule, I will say the same thing: “My God . . . there they are.” Each flawed, imperfect, but unique living stone contributes to the building of a spiritual house that is the divine purpose in the universe. pearl[1]God knows rejection, insignificance and failure first hand, because God was the original rejected stone. But because of that, each living stone is unique and holy, a “pearl of great price.” Each insignificant stone has a divine space to occupy.

The Sounds of Silence

220px-ELP_Trilogy[1]During my senior year in high school, I joined a record club for the first time, one of those “buy ten for ten cents, then buy five more at regular price over the next three years” sort of deals. These were vinyl records, of course, LPs that no one seems to know what to do with any more except try to sell them on Ebay or make dishes and ash trays out of them. The albums in our house were mostly classical, some religious, a few movie scores (like Sound of Music and Man of La Mancha). My joining the club coincided with the sad recognition that I was not going to be a concert pianist, as my selections from the record club reflect. For the first time Jethro Tull - Thick As A Brick(Front)[1]I turned my back on classical music and chose an eclectic introductory package, including Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Trilogy, America’s Homecoming, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Elton_John_-_Goodbye_Yellow_Brick_Road[1]The Elton John double album was the beginning of a continuing love of Sir Elton’s music, culminating in Jeanne buying me tickets to one of his concerts two years ago for my birthday, a concert which he gave on the day after his 60th birthday and I where I celebrated over 35 years of being an Eltonophile. My how time flies.

imagesCAIHMC4WMy favorite album in the introductory package was Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water . It contains one masterpiece after another, the lyrics to which I don’t even need to use Google to remember. I listened over and over again to “I am a Rock,” which includes these life-affirming lyrics:

simon-and-garfunkel-i-am-a-rock-1966[1]A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

Yes, I liked that song, so much that I sort of thought of it as my personal statement, the “Vance anthem.” My girlfriend said “that song sort of sounds like you”—imagine someone with this song as his anthem having a girlfriend. I guess it’s not surprising that our subsequent marriage failed. But “I Am A Rock” fit me so well—sandman_island[1]an extreme introvert, addicted to books, trying to develop a sense of identity, sick to death of trying to live up to others’ expectations. Not that different from a lot of sixteen year olds. And to John Donne and his “no man is an island” crap—up yours.

I hope I’ve changed at least a little bit in the intervening years. I found out that I’m not an island pretty quickly when two sons arrived and I ended up being a single parent for a while. I had to modify the “shielded in my armor” routine at least a little bit if I expected my second marriage to work out any better than the first one. I discovered that other human beings aren’t really that bad or scary, although I’m still very wary of ones I don’t know. INFJ+poster[1]And in the classroom I learned that I could only be an effective teacher if I was willing to be virtually naked. But I’m still a 19 to 1 introvert on the Myers-Briggs test, I still am exhausted by being around lots of people without any down time, I still get my batteries recharged by being alone with a book. So when I headed off for a four-month sabbatical five years ago, I prepared myself for a lot of alone time, a lot of solitude, and a lot of silence. Bring it on.

Silence is interesting; great writers from God to Paul Simon have something to say about it. A character in one of Iris Murdoch’s novels says “Love is action, it is silence,” while weil[1]Simone Weil writes in one of her essays that “Christ is the silence of God” (I’m not sure what that means). KNorris1[1]Kathleen Norris writes that “without silence, there is no ecstasy.” Samuel Beckett says that “writing is a sin against silence,” while W. H. Auden thinks that “truth is a silence toward which words can only point.” If you can put together a coherent definition of silence from all of that, you’re a lot smarter than I am. But over the past few years, I’ve discovered a couple of things about silence.

First, silence is not the lack of noise. In our daily lives, filled with traffic sounds, human chatter, television noise, doors slamming, and thousands of other unwanted aural invasions, I think many of us long for a length of time filled with nothing but no noise. At least I do. But even in my little sabbatical apartment overlooking a lake in rural Minnesota, it was almost never completely quiet. Birds always have something to say (do they ever shut up?), squirrels are chattering, the furnace comes on—mpr_logo[1]it can be downright noisy. And that’s a good thing, because I discovered that I don’t like absence of noise. It creeps me out. This is why I like to read in the cafeteria at school with all sorts of noise swirling around me. It reminds me that something other than myself exists. On sabbatical, I always had the local NPR classical station on—really local, since National Public Radio began several decades ago on the campus of St. John’s University in Minnesota where I spent sabbatical–even though I seldom listened to it. It drowned out the noises in my head that I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear, the noises that only pop up when it’s completely quiet.

Second, silence does not require being alone. As a matter of fact while on sabbatical I began to experience the most profound silences of my life, pregnant with meaning and transcendence, in the company of anywhere from fifteen to forty other people. Noon prayers at100_0023 St. John’s Abbey only take fifteen minutes, but at least eight to ten of those minutes are silent pauses between and amidst the three Psalms assigned for the day. It took me a while to get the hang of the reading break at the end of each line about a second longer than I was expecting, and to make it through the one minute pause between each psalm without fidgeting or looking at my watch. After a couple of weeks, though, I found a space inside myself that the pace of noon prayer fit exactly. And I discovered for the first time what the Psalmist means by “Be still, and know that I am God.”bible-verse1[1] Silence has to do with stillness, with listening, with quietness, with Adorno’s “fearless passivity.” Even in the cavernous Abbey, there are always sounds—the ventilation system, someone’s cough, the rustle of papers. But something began to happen to me while sitting in the choir stalls. The quietness of disciplined monks, in the company of less disciplined non-monks, regularly helped me to notice, for the first time, an internal space for God to inhabit and, amazingly enough, to perhaps say something. I continue to listen.

Original Sin

Five summers ago, I attended a writers conference for the first time in my life. My workshop was “Literary Essay”; each of the fifteen members wrote daily 500 word essays, which were submitted to colleagues for critique and (hopefully) helpful evaluation. My essays tended to praise the virtues of my dog and the Boston Red Sox, while frequently expressing struggles with faith, God, religion, and my own very human inadequacies. About halfway through the two-week conference, during a critique session when I and my most recent submission were on the hot seat, one of my colleagues said “You write so negatively about yourself in your essays. You seem like a really nice guy—why do you have such a negative self-image?” Other colleagues murmured their agreement.

My immediate reaction was not defensive—despite being supremely (perhaps over-) confident in some aspects of my life, my overall self-image is more negative than positive. My internal reaction instead was a quick realization that I might be the only person in the room who didn’t think he or she was pretty much okay. My fourteen colleagues were a diverse bunch, including a specialist in Chinese history, an archaeologist, a high school student, a vice president of an international banking firm, a local politician, a poet who just published her first collection of poems, several self-described “writers conference rats” (one was at this conference for the seventh straight year), and our workshop leader, a well-known essayist and columnist who had just published his third novel. And they were mildly uncomfortable with my being explicit about my self doubts and honest about my shortcomings and failures.

I was in the midst of some difficult internal stuff that summer, but I’ll bet many of my colleagues were too. I realize now that what really made me different from them is original sin—it has defined me for as long as I can remember, and they had never heard of it. I learned early on that I don’t measure up, that I’m not good enough, that “within me dwells no good thing.” And it’s not an exclusively Christian idea (although it sometimes feels as if it is); the Psalmist says “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” We’re all screwed from the start (thanks, Adam and Eve). Some make a bigger deal of this than others. Martin Luther, the guy responsible for Protestants, likened divine grace to a layer of freshly fallen snow covering a pile of shit. Grace doesn’t transform the pile—shit is still shit—but it covers it so that its smell is not quite as offensive and it doesn’t look quite as disgusting.

This is a wonderful foundation upon which to build a positive self-image, but it’s the engine that drives a lot of religious activity. I remember that several years ago the Catholic Dominican Matthew Fox was excommunicated for teaching, among other things, that the doctrine of original sin is wrong and for writing books with titles like Original Blessing. He became an Episcopal priest after his excommunication, which makes sense—we Episcopalians will take anyone as long as they appreciate good liturgy and have sufficiently liberal social and political commitments. And to be honest, after twenty years as a recovering Protestant involved in Catholic higher education, I’ve discovered that most Catholics I know take original sin far less seriously than the people I grew up with. Catholics pay lip service to the notion that human beings need divine help; my people meant it. They told me I deserved to go to hell and would undoubtedly end up there unless I was “right with Jesus.” And my colleagues wondered why I wrote negatively about myself.

Many groups of people, both religious and otherwise, speak as if they have a corner on feeling guilty and inadequate. I knew no Catholics when I was growing up, but now that I spend a large portion of my time with them professionally and have many Catholic friends, I know all about Catholic guilt, despite the fact that they don’t talk about original sin that much. I was surprised to find out that Catholics think that Catholic guilt is particularly debilitating, just as they were surprised to find out that I know all about it; I just call it Protestant guilt. I’ve even participated in good-natured debates about whose guilt is more paralyzing. Everyone knows about Jewish guilt, Irish guilt, and so on. We apparently don’t need religious doctrine to tell us that we are inadequate and flawed. We just need to be human beings. John Henry Newman wrote that just observing what’s going on around us with the slightest care reveals that humanity is afflicted by “some aboriginal calamity.” That’s a wonderfully British, urbane, nineteenth century way of saying “we’re really f–ked up.” It’s true. There’s something fundamentally wrong at our core, and we all know it. Many manage to cope with this by ignoring it, by refusing to include it in their vocabulary, by defining themselves in terms according to which they can be acceptable and successful. “I’m okay, you’re okay”—but as Emily Dickinson suggests, there’s still a “tooth that nibbles at the soul”—we’re not okay.

A few years ago, toward the end of a lovely lunch conversation, a new friend and colleague observed that “it’s hard being a person,” in the same factual tone of voice in which he might have said “these waffles are cold.” I said in response that what told me, years ago, that Simone Weil is my kind of woman was when I read in her notebooks that in her estimation, “human life is impossible.” So often, that’s where I begin. I’m not okay and I need help. And the first step forward has to be one of trust, of a hope that this can be better. Iris Murdoch writes that “God is a belief that at our deepest level we are known and loved, even to there the rays can penetrate.” Let it be so.