Tag Archives: Kilian MacDonnell

A Glorious Looniness

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHI went to Minnesota five years ago to begin sabbatical in the middle of January. Throughout the winter, native Minnesotans kept promising that the ice would eventually leave Stumpf Lake and winter would give way to spring, although they didn’t say that when May began most of the tree buds still would be buds. One native added that I would know when it would not snow again when the loons returned to the lake, because theHomePage-LoonWithChick[1] loons never show up until the winter is over. Having no experience with loons, I had no idea whether this is a provable fact or yet another of the many tall tales I suspected the natives enjoy telling each new batch of outliers who live with them from semester to semester. And it isn’t just Minnesotans who enjoy doing this. In the little Wyoming town3021973954_12c545aa33_z[1] in which I lived for a short while a number of years ago, there was a local watering hole called the “Jackalope Café.” The inside of the bar was a taxidermist’s heaven, with mounted heads of buffalo, moose, bear, elk, deer, some sort of wild cat, and bighorn sheep crowding for space. Always seated at the bar was a collection of interesting human specimens, cowboys and ranchers who all were missing at least one body part—an eye, a finger, several teeth, something. CM-07-02(1)[1]Over the bar were other unusual specimens, the heads of what looked for all the world like large jackrabbits, but sporting horns. And not just any horns—they look just like the racks of pronghorn antelope.

These heads were from specimens of the West’s most mysterious and mythical animal, the jackalope.jackalope1[1] A traveler can find evidence of the jackalope throughout the West, from the café in Afton, WY to Jackalope Pottery in Santa Fe, NM. In addition to the ubiquitous mounted jackalope heads, there are jackalope books, jackalope post cards, jackalope key rings, jackalope magnets, jackalope shot glasses, jackalope t-shirts—you get the idea. The regulars in the Jackalope Cafe had an endless supply of jackalope stories–how hard it is to find one, how elusive they are, their natural viciousness when cornered—stories that ratcheted up in complexity and detail when someone obviously from out of town walked through the door.jackalope_u_shirt-500x500[1] There’s nothing a rural Westerner enjoys more than astounding an Eastern city person with jackalope tales. Because as wonderful as the stories are, jackalopes don’t exist. The heads on the wall really are jackrabbit heads with antelope horns stuck on top of them. They are the source of many laughs when yet another gullible rube from the East has been duped. But don’t be too hard on the rubes—people in England thought that the preserved bodies of platypuses brought back from Australia were beavers or muskrats with duck billsplatypus[1] sewn on them until they saw a live one. And anything that’s as lucrative and entertaining as the jackalope must have some truth to it. As one of my colleagues once said after the veracity of one of his tall tales was challenged, “Well if it isn’t true, it ought to be true.”

100_0081At least loons are real. I know they are, because they eventually returned to the lake (and it didn’t snow after that, either). They showed up on a misty April morning, the morning after Jeanne’s week-long Easter visit ended, a week during which she saw lots of little birds, a million squirrels, one eagle off in the distance, and no loons (or deer,Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH fifteen of whom had an early morning breakfast picnic on the lawn in front of my apartment just before Jeanne came to visit). The morning the loon pair arrived, I heard their famous call. Later that day, upon hearing that I had seen and heard loons, one of my friends from Washington D.C. said “I’ve never heard or seen a loon. What do they sound like?” To which I replied, “There’s a reason for the saying ‘crazy as a loon.’ They sound like an insane woman’s laugh.” To which another friend, who is a bit of a know-it-all, said “I’ve heard loons lots of times, and I don’t think they sound like that at all.” Oh well.

Loons and jackalopes. Although there’s a significant ontological difference between them, it’s probably just a quirk of natural selection that there are no horned bunnies. Maybe there were giant prehistoric carnivorous jackalopes who were the bane of the earth, who became extinct along with the dinosaurs for still unknown reasons. Why not? MV5BMTM3MzQwMDA5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTM5NTkxNA@@._V1._SX640_SY467_[1]Horned rabbits don’t strike me as any less possible than water birds with long necks who sound like the Wicked Witch of the West. Annie Dillard, one of her generation’s most astute observers of the natural world, puts it this way: “Look, in short, at practically anything—the coot’s feet, the mantis’s face,louva a deus 2[1] a banana, the human ear—and see that not only did the creator create everything, but he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing.” The natural world looks less like intelligent design and more like an explosion of exuberance.

“He’ll stop at nothing”—that’s a pretty good summary of God’s dealings with us. Poet and Benedictine monk Kilian MacDonnellMcDonnell,Kilian[1] writes of “Our preposterous God with a preposterous love,” and that’s just the right word for it. In the Old Testament stories, time after time I can hear God sighing, “Okay, people, let’s try this again. Just do this handful of things, and everything will be fine.” Then, of course, it gets messed up, God tries again, gets pissed off but doesn’t give up, and so on. Then God has an idea so out of the box, so off the radar, that it’s ludicrous in its originality. “I’ll become human.” In a novel I finished recently, a character was explaining her decision not to convert from Christianity to Judaism when she married. “The great appeal of Jesus is the willingness of God to walk among the benighted creatures He just can’t seem to give up on. There is a glorious looniness to it—the magnificent eternal gesture of salvation, in the face of perennial, thick-headed human inanity! I like that in a deity.” So do I. This is one of those stories that not only should be true, it is true.1836660_604566519623279_291098012_o

God’s Worst Idea

I spent the Spring 2009 semester on sabbatical as a Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, MN. Father Kilian McDonnell is a living legend there. He is the founder and President Institute; a nice oil painting hangs in tribute in the Institute’s Butler Center. Although the Institute has a director and staff, Kilian’s influence and presence looms large. He is treated like Merrill Lynch once was treated. When he speaks, people listen. Kilian started writing poetry fifteen years ago, when he was 75. Now at age 90, his fourth book of poetry is about to be published.

There are Kilian stories in every corner of the Institute and St. John’s University in Collegeville where the Institute is located; my favorite is about Kilian and the helicopter. Some years ago, Kilian arrived at evening prayer with a packed suitcase. Shortly after prayers began, the monks were interrupted by the deafening sound of a helicopter landing right in front of the Abbey in order to whisk Kilian off to yet another important event requiring his presence. He hopped on board and the helicopter lifted. Prayers then resumed, only to be interrupted yet again by a descending helicopter. Kilian had forgotten his suitcase; once again united with his luggage, the helicopter lifted carrying him to distant parts, while evening prayer picked up once again.

Kilian has a wonderful, Irish sense of humor. I once sent him an email in which I incorrectly spelled his name “Killian.” In a return email, Kilian corrected me writing that “they only gave me one ‘L’. Maybe when I get to heaven I’ll get to have another one.” Kilian and a fellow monk, Wilfred, attend almost all Institute scholar lunches and evening get-togethers—as Kilian says, “I may miss evening prayer, but I never miss a party.” Kilian and Wilfred needle each other constantly, with Wilfred poking fun at the “fame” and “special importance” of a humble Benedictine monk, and Kilian responding that those who are famous and out of the ordinary obviously deserve special treatment. One Sunday after mass Kilian and Wilfred invited the Institute scholars to brunch in the monk’s dining room (a rare treat for non-monks). Kilian met us at the pre-arranged spot in order to lead us into the labyrinthine depths of the monastery, but Wilfred was nowhere to be found. Someone asked if we should wait for Wilfred; Kilian retorted “I’m willing to wait for scholars, but I’m not waiting for Wilfred!”

Once during my sabbatical, St. John’s was visited by Cardinal Kasper, the Vatican’s bigwig on ecumenical dialogue, coming to receive the University’s Pax Christi award. Given Kilian’s stature as the founder and President of the Institute, as well as his lifelong contributions to liturgical reform in the Catholic Church, he was part of almost every lunch, tour, and discussion during the Cardinal’s whirlwind visit. A couple of days later, Kilian and I were walking together from our Institute offices in the bowels of the library across to the Abbey for noon prayer. I noticed that Kilian was low on energy and walking more slowly than usual, but didn’t say anything. Kilian did. “Vance, don’t ever get old. Getting old is God’s worst idea.”

Indeed it is. Kilian would undoubtedly agree with Jeanne, who simply says that “getting old sucks.” Jeanne and I are only in our later fifties, mere youngsters in many people’s estimation, I’m sure. But the swift passage of time is hard to ignore when my sons, 8 and 5 when we first met Jeanne, are now 34 and 31, when the Stairmaster tells me that my maximum heart rate when working out is 25 beats less per minute than it was when I started exercising regularly years ago, and when the face looking back at me from the mirror always looks a lot older than I expect (even when I’ve looked at the reflection several times that day). Talk about planned obsolescence. When teaching the existentialists, my students often ask why Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, et al are so morbid and obsessed with death. My response is that the existentialists are trying to counter our human conviction that we are immortal. Oh, we don’t say that, but we live our lives as if we have all the time in the world, as if we will never die. We “know” that we are short-term creatures, but we don’t want to hear about it. As Tolstoy reminds us in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, it’s one thing to intellectually affirm the familiar syllogism that

All men will die.

Socrates is a man.

Therefore, Socrates will die                                            

 It’s another thing entirely to realize what this means.

All men will die.

Vance is a man.

Therefore, Vance will die. 

Sometimes it takes a life-threatening illness (as for Ivan Ilyich) to get the idea. I’m gradually getting it just by looking in the mirror.

Psalm 90, one of the psalms at evening prayer yesterday, is all about this. God is eternal, and you’re not. And as usual, the Psalmist doesn’t pull any punches. Verses 5 and 6: “You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass. In the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered.” Verse 10: “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.” True, but certainly not comforting. Sartre or Camus could have written verse 12: “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” In a bad mood, this doesn’t sound much better than “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” In a better mood, I can skip the “life’s a bitch” part, but my days are still numbered.

There’s no promise of eternal life, of bliss in heaven. That’s a New Testament concept. And to be honest, I’m not attracted to the idea that this life is just practice for eternity, even though that often seemed to be the only reason to be a Christian in my youth. Perhaps I’m too influenced by the existentialists—I want to live my life at least trying to stay conscious of being a short-term creature. And the Psalmist provides the proper daily attitude focus, with just a hint of wishful thinking thrown in.

In the morning, fill us with your love.

We shall exult and rejoice all our days.

Give us joy to balance our affliction,

for the years when we knew misfortune.

Show forth your work in your servants,

let your glory shine on their children.

May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us;

prosper the work of our hands;

prosper our handiwork. 

There’s no guarantee that joy and affliction will balance out at the end of my life. But rejoicing is a verb and a choice, even for a short-term creature.