Tag Archives: seeing

How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

Every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began six or seven years ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. You’ll be getting a lot of advice from a lot of people this weekend–most of them significantly older than you. This morning I want to spend a few minutes offering some advice from a group of people younger than you–a bunch of sophomores–on an important moral question that will be with you for the rest of your lives: the question of how to be good.

A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. Fr.Maximilian_Kolbe_1939What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity. And these were the figures that we studied in my colloquium—“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era’”–during the second half of the semester just ended.

During the first half of the colloquium, my colleague with whom I co-taught the colloquium and I delved with our students deeply into the dark side of the Nazis. Perhaps even more disturbing than the horrors they perpetuated were the various techniques people, with partial or even full knowledge of the atrocities, used to collaborate with, to deliberately turn away from, or to ignore evil. As we considered in the second half of the course examples of persons who did otherwise, who responded directly through words and actions to what was happening all around them, we found that the motivations for and manners of response were as varied as those responding.  BonhoefferSome had religious motivations, while the response of others was political in nature. Some lost their lives, while the activities of others were protected by distance and obscurity.

During the last seminar of the semester, I gave my eighteen students the following task: Suppose, based on what we have learned this semester, that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? If so, what are they? The students worked on this in small groups for twenty minutes or so, then reported back to the larger group with their results. Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

Know who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned this semester that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. Good SamaritanI cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. Moral character does not require moral heroism. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, a story frequently referenced by various people we studied. The Good Samaritan was just a guy on a trip who stumbled across an injustice that he could do something about. His response to the man dying in the ditch was not motivated by philosophy, religion, politics, or personal gain—it was simply a human response to human need. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. Le ChambonBut one of the continuing themes of this semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. The villagers of Le Chambon believed that human need must be addressed. Period. They also believed that all human life is precious, from Jewish refugees to Nazi officers. Period. The students of the White Rose believed that their country had been stolen from them and they had to help take it back. Period. Maximilian Kolbe lived his life believing that God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother love everyone. Period. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word this semester was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied this semester, this was not an academic exercise. During the first half of the semester we often saw people choosing not to act or turning the other way because they were afraid for their own lives. More often than not, my students were willing to give such people at least a partial pass, arguing that self-preservation is the strongest instinct that human beings possess. Then we encountered a series of people who proved that not to be true. Just as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. indexAs Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Spirituality: Any number of the persons we studied placed their understanding of themselves and the world around them within a framework that included something greater than ourselves. My students chose to call this “spirituality” rather than “faith,” because many of the persons we studied were not religious in any traditional sense. But all were convinced that we human beings are answerable to something greater than ourselves, ranging from the divine to a responsibility to create a better future. Which points toward another technique for the perpetuation of goodness . . .

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is that ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love asYoung Simone “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and from the villagers of Le Chambon through Maximilian Kolbe to the students of the White Rose, my students and I regularly observed persons who had incorporated this ability into their daily life. One of the greatest hindrances to goodness is what Simone Weil called “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” There is no greater technique for escaping these tentacles than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

Don’t be afraid: In The Plague, Albert Camus suggests that most human evil is the result of ignorance. CamusAlthough my students resonated with this notion, they concluded on the basis of their studies that in situations of moral emergency and stress, fear is a greater problem than ignorance. There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

What Are You Looking At?

Almost every Sunday during the months I spent on sabbatical a few years ago in Minnesota, I saw a canine in church—I didn’t know the dog’s  name, but it looked like a Ralph220px-Suzisnow[1]. I learned several months later that the dog is a female named Caritas, but in my imagination she still is Ralph. Ralph was in church because she was a service dog—now enjoying retirement—for a regular parishioner who is profoundly deaf. The woman sat at the end of the front row so she could read the lips of the celebrant, while Ralph laid next to her, usually with her back half hanging out into the aisle. Ralph is a mutt, with a good deal of some sort of terrier, weighing probably no more than twenty-five or thirty pounds. I’m not surprised that Ralph is now retired, given how she sighed and creaked a bit when she got up or laid down; the white hair around her eyes and mouth looked more like signs of age than normal markings.

A lifelong cat lover, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for dogs over the past many years after marrying a dog fanatic and, more recently, being unexpectedly adopted by a dachshund as her pet human. $(KGrHqN,!i8E4r(HqlcsBORy0nku+w~~0_35[1]Ralph looked as if she would love to have a pat on the head or a belly rub, but I know better—don’t mess with a service dog while she’s on the clock. But just in case I, or anyone else within range, happened to have a hard time resisting the dog-lover’s urge to touch every dog, Ralph was more in-your-face than most service dogs. She wore a vest that, on its back, said “Service dog on duty. Do not pet.”

“Look—don’t touch.”Look_But_Don__t_Touch_PSD_by_archnophobia-1[1] This used to be my mother’s automatic command every time we walked into a store of any sort, from grocery to hardware to department. Every parent worth the job description has this directive in her or his repertoire, knowing that pre-civilized human beings are inveterate grabbers. hannaarendtsudomenica16ye8[1]Hannah Arendt once wrote: “Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians—they’re called children.” Absolutely true, and “Look, don’t touch” is one of the earliest and best tools to use for domestication purposes. In truth, though, the temptation to look and grab, rather than simply to look, is one that none of us ever truly overcomes. As soon as we see something, we want to possess it, to make it ours, to wrap it up in what Iris Murdoch calls “the avaricious tentacles of the self.”

Exhibit A is yesterday morning’s Sunday gospel, a strange story recorded in all three synoptic gospels . Yesterday was Matthew’s version. Jesus is worn out by the crowds and takes his best buddies, Peter, James, and John, with him to the top of a mountain for a break. While there, he is transfigured with Elijah and MosesRaphael Transfiguration[1], looking like a great laundry detergent ad. According to Mark’s version of this story, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” Peter blurts out, “Let us put up three dwellings—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Why does he make such a random suggestion? Luke tells us—“He did not know what he was saying.” Far be it from Peter to say nothing when he doesn’t know what to say, to look and attend to what’s going on in silence and awe, or simply to say “Whoa!” or “Holy shit!” or “Who does your laundry?” No, he has to nail it down, organize it, put walls around it, and either sell tickets or write up a doctrinal statement and confession of faith. The voice from heaven makes it clear what Peter should be doing. “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him.

Scripture makes it clear that there is a time to look and a time to touch—and don’t confuse the two. In II Samuel, tuzzah-01[1]he newly crowned King David leads the army of Israel against the Philistines and recaptures the Ark of the Covenant. They place the Ark on an oxen-drawn cart and head back to Jerusalem in a parade complete with singing and musical instruments, led by David dancing in his underwear. The oxen step in a pothole and stumble, the Ark starts tipping off of the cart, and some poor guy namedfbade8d75c[1] Uzzah makes the horrible mistake of assuming that he should put his hand on the Ark to steady it, because maybe God would just as soon not see the Ark lying on its side in the mud. God strikes Uzzah dead on the spot for his efforts. “Look, don’t touch.” As a kid I thought God’s treatment of Uzzah to be a disproportionate response and grossly unfair, and I still do, but as Jeanne would say, “it is what it is.” And in John 20, the resurrected Jesus says to Mary Magdalene “Touch me not,” exactly what Ralph’s vest would have said if she spoke in King James English.

nh_old_man01[1]As a native New Englander, one of my all-time favorite stories is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face.” It’s the story of a boy named Ernest who lives in a New Hampshire valley; on the perpendicular side of a nearby mountain hang 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_overlay_2[1]” The valley is Franconia Notch in the middle of the White Mountains, only forty miles or so from where I grew up, and was a regular point of destination for my family. I was crushed when I heard ten years ago that despite the best human preserving efforts, it finally fell off the mountain.

800890-M[1]According to Hawthorne’s story, there is a legend in the valley 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, who gazes daily with love and awe at the Great Stone Face, spends his whole life as a simple laborer in the valley. Occasionally a rumor would arise that the man resembling the Great Stone Face had appeared in town, but each candidate—a wealthy miser, a vain general, a pompous politician—turned out to be a fraud. 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.Stone-Face-by-visulogik-3001[1] Then one day as he talks simply and clearly on his front porch with a number of his friends about matters important to all of them, 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.

Iris Murdoch tells us that “man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture.” And the pictures we make will be fashioned from what we are looking at and what we see most clearly. imagesCASOE7U6In the book of 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 penitence, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. weil[1]“And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” Simone Weil comments: “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.” What are you looking at?

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

Remembering a Friend

“Happy Stoning Day!” Brother John said as he greeted me below the choir stalls after noon prayer. December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen, officially designated as the first Christian martyr. Brother John, a guitar-picking, out-of-the-box product of the sixties, is not your typical Benedictine. Dylan“I’ve always wanted to play Dylan’s ‘Everybody Must Get Stoned’ at mass on St. Stephen’s Day,” he said. My kind of monk—irreverence is my favorite virtue.

Stephen has always been a problem for me. Although Acts has been one of my favorite books of the Bible since childhood, with its exciting stories of early Christians acting just like imperfect and flawed human beings, regularly bailed out of tough circumstances by the Holy Spirit, I got uncomfortable when Stephen came up in church or Sunday School. Stephen died for Jesus, jstephenust like some missionaries in South America that we were always hearing about. “Would you die for Jesus, just like Stephen did?” the pastor or teacher would ask, to which I (internally) would definitively answer “Hell No!” Dying for Jesus ranked right up there with becoming a missionary to deepest, darkest Africa as things I definitely did NOT intend to do with my life. If being a good Christian meant being willing to die for Jesus, I thought, then maybe I should check out what they do at the Catholic church on the other, spiritually mysterious side of town.

Although I’m much more aware of it now, since I’ve been married to a cradle Catholic and have taught in Catholic institutions of higher education for the past two and a half decades, my still dominant Protestant sensibilities are occasionally jangled by the strong Catholic focus on saints and martyrdom. eyeballsJust a few years ago I burst out laughing when I stumbled across a very peculiar piece of artwork while looking around a little church in Boston’s North End. Peculiar in the sense that it was a statue of a demure young woman holding a plate with two eyeballs on it. “Oh yeah, that’s Saint Lucy,” Jeanne said in the same tone of voice with which she might have gestured in my direction and said “Oh yeah, that’s my husband” to an inquiring stranger

Two Sundays ago—December 13—was Saint Lucy’s Day; this is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Saint Lucy is the adopted saint of Sweden, the country of my ancestors on my mother’s side. For reasons about which I am not entirely clear, the celebrations and festivals commemorating the life and martyrdom of this third century Sicilian woman are most entrenched in Scandinavia—apparently the marauding Vikings carried her story back north with them after doing their part in bringing about the fall of the Roman Empire. candlesThese celebrations are striking, including young ladies wearing wreaths of lighted candles on their head—something that strikes me as worthy of being reported to the safety authorities. Lucy’s story is indeed compelling; as is often the case in stories of martyrdom, she was exceedingly faithful to her beliefs asaint lucy candlesnd suffered greatly before she died. As part of her suffering and torture her eyes were gouged out before she died; accordingly, she is the patron saint of blind people as well as of those who take care of our eyes. Which reminds me of a good friend who recently died.

Over the past few months three people I was close to have died. Ivan, with whom I formed a strong friendship during my last sabbatical, was in his seventies and died of a massive stroke during the summer. Matthew, a colleague with diabetes who regularly failed to take sufficient care of himself during the close to twenty years that I knew him, died of complications a couple of months ago. ColeneColene, a close friend of Jeanne’s and mine and one of the loveliest women I have ever known, died after a long and heroic fight against cancer a few weeks ago. The death of a friend is always difficult, but I’m particularly struggling with Colene’s passing.

Jeanne reminded me on Saint Lucy’s Day two weeks ago that Colene and Tom were married on Saint Lucy’s Day in 2009, a wedding so beautiful that I remember it as if it happened last week. Colene and Tom were not your typical love story—Colene had been married twice already and had five children, while Tom is a former Catholic priest. They met in Colene’s office—she was an ophthalmologist and he was one of her patients. Tom is one of Jeanne’s oldest friends, a relationship that predates Jeanne’s and mine by many years. weddingColene and Tom had been together for a while when they decided to have a wedding; I’ll never forget when, during the time reserved for the bride to make comments and offer a toast at the wedding reception, Colene let the hundreds of people gathered in on a secret that only a few knew about—she said that she had cancer and probably only had a few months to live.

Those few months ended up being six years, but they were not easy ones. Tom and Colene’s love had to withstand not only her intense periods of illness but also problems from her previous marriage that never seemed to let up. She worked as an ophthalmologist and eye surgeon until shortly before she died; at her wake and funeral literally hundreds of people told Tom and her children about how she had changed their lives. Although we did not see each other often,opthalmologist Colene and I had a strong connection. For one thing, we were both extreme introverts married to out-of-control extroverts. We understood each other in the sort of way that only two introverts can, without words or fanfare but deep nonetheless. Colene was very rational by nature, as I am, and often struggled with the intuitive way in which her husband and others sometimes approached spiritual matters without much concern for logic. Although I have learned over the past few years to trust intuition more strongly than I ever have, I still appreciate it when things fit at least generally into a logical pattern—I resonate with Colene’s clinical mind.tom and colene

People prayed for Colene’s healing until they were hoarse, and she died anyways. When visiting her grave with Tom a couple of weeks ago, he told Jeanne and me that although some might say that her passing was a “healing” of sorts in that it ended her pain and suffering, it was not the healing that she wanted. Or, I might add, the healing that her husband, her children, her friends, and her patients wanted. Colene was a modern Saint Lucy. She was a healer who literally brought light into darkness and caused the blind to see. She was an admirable tower of strength and resilience, and death had to work overtime to take her. Her passing left a huge hole in many people’s lives that will not be filled. But my guess is that Colene would not be pleased by an extended period of mourning. When a person of Colene’s character and beauty dies, we best remember her by being thankful for her all-too-brief presence in our lives and by finding ways to bring healing into our corners of the world, just as she did.

Reading the Fine Print

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casual, easy, they move in the world

As though untouched.

 

But you take pleasure in the faces

Of those who know they thirst.

You cherish those

Who grip you for survival.

 

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

To open your depths by plunging into them

And drink in the life

That reveals itself quietly there.

Books that Changed My Life: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. . . . “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.” Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Not long ago I posted the following on Facebook: What books have changed your life? I don’t mean which books do you think are “greatest” or at the top of the “Great Books” canon, but which books came along at just the right time in your life and changed something significant? The response was fascinating, with dozens of my Facebook acquaintances (and theirs) listing interesting and eclectic offerings from Dr. Seuss to Dostoevsky. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of my own life-changing titles—please share yours and let’s keep the conversation going!patc

At a writer’s workshop several summers ago one of the writing coaches gave us writer wannabes a terrific question to ask every time we write. “With Middlemarch and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in the world, why would anyone be interested in this?” Over the twenty years or so since I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the first time, I have occasionally mentioned to friends whose opinions I highly respect how the book has influenced me. More often than not, my friend has replied that she read it years ago and didn’t finish it, or he confesses that “I just don’t get it.” One said “I didn’t like it much when I read it, but I’ve never been able to forget it.” I understand these reactions—Dillard’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner is odd, quirky, eclectic, and one-of-a-kind. And it has helped me to see the world around me and myself differently.

leaf minerOur life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.

Annie Dillard is an intense observer of details, capable of seeing things that escape the notice of just about everyone. She finds worlds of complexity and interest in the tiniest matters—I often think of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who when I read Dillard. But I have encountered skilled natural observers before—Hortonwhat makes Dillard different is that she invites the reader into a new kind of seeing altogether. Given, as she writes, that most of us “waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves,” how do we learn to get out of the way and see what is actually there instead of what we expect to see?

There is another kind of seeing, which involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

And what Dillard sees is that “Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribbon of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small.” Dillard Frog and Bug 3From the slow-train-wreck horror of watching a giant water bug paralyze a small frog then suck the frog’s insides out through a puncture hole to the gratuitous beauty of a mockingbird free-falling from a five-story roof only to swerve and land light as a feather just a couple of feet before crashing into the earth—just because it can—Dillard finds that we are surrounded by endless details that belie our constant attempts to categorize and “figure out.”

Dillard is not the least bit hesitant to ask the big questions that arise from her intense attention to detail. As she describes it in another of her books, she continually participates in “unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup.” tea cupOur attempts to understand the big picture, however, must always begin with what is the case rather than what we would like to be the case. This requires learning how to see unfiltered.

What we know, at least for starters, is here we—so incontrovertibly—are. This is our life, these are our lighted seasons, and then we die. In the meantime, in between time, we can see. The scales are fallen from our eyes, the cataracts are cut away, and we can work at making sense of the color patches we see in an effort to discover where we so incontrovertibly are. It’s common sense: when you move in, you try to learn the neighborhood.

Practicing this sort of seeing was an “eye opener” for me (pun intended), opening previously undiscovered pathways I had always longed to follow. They led to ways of thinking about God that blew me away.

We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet. praying mantisThere is not a people in the world who behaves as badly as praying mantises. But wait, you say, there is no right and wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept. Precisely: we are moral creatures, then, in an amoral world. The universe that suckled us is a monster that does not care if we live or die—does not care if it itself grinds to a halt.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is packed with page after page of excruciatingly detailed observations of violence and ugliness in the natural world, to the extent that my students sometimes wonder why Dillard finds it necessary to pound her readers over their heads with a basic fact: Nature is both violent and beautiful, deadly and life-giving. “Enough already!” they complain. Dillard’s point is not to fill up pages but rather to force us to face the implications of what we are seeing, including what these truths tell us about what is greater than us. What sort of being or process is responsible for this?

How many people have prayed for their daily bread and famished? They die their daily death as utterly as did the frog, people, played with, dabbled upon, when God knows they loved their life. AlgonquinsIn a winter famine, desperate Algonquin Indians “ate broth made of smoke, snow, and buckskin, and the rash of pellagra appeared like tattooed flowers on their emaciated bodies—the rose of starvation, in a French physician’s description; and those who starved died covered with roses.” Is this beauty, these gratuitous roses, or a mere display of force? Or is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?

Dillard knows full well that such Job-like challenges to the Divine are “out of bounds” in many circles, but she isn’t having it. “We are people,” she writes, “we are permitted to have dealings with the creator and we must speak up for the creation. God look at what you’ve done to this creature, look at the sorrow, the cruelty, the long damned waste!” As she asks elsewhere, “What the Sam Hill is going on here?” The fact is that what we are seeing is not what we would expect to see in a natural world created and overseen by a benevolent deity. dome of heavenSetting aside traditional constructs and concepts, Dillard freely explores other possibilities.

Could it be that if I climbed the dome of heaven and scrabbled and clutched at the beautiful cloth till I loaded my fists with a wrinkle to pull, the mask would rip away to reveal a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight?

I had wondered about this since my early years as a young Baptist boy, but this was the first time I found it in print. And it inspired me to fearlessly track what I see to what might be behind the scene—regardless of where it might take me.

But as Dillard regularly reminds her readers, terror and beauty are intertwined in our world, so intimately that our attempts to separate them will invariably fall short.

No, I’ve gone through this a million times, beauty is not a hoax—how many days have I learned not to stare at the back of my hand when I could look out at the creek? . . . Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it.

When I remember to get out of my own way, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek serves as a standard for me, a standard of how to see differently. pearlThis theme of learning how to truly see weaves through many of the texts that have influenced me over the past several years—Annie Dillard was the first to introduce me to it.

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. . . . But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.

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.

Auras and Cats

colorblindIn a world of partial color blindness, I have to make do with the colors I can experience clearly, without confusion, and in the same way that normal people apparently do. That rules out lots of different combinations, but leaves most of the primary colors intact. I’ve always said that blue is my favorite color, which indicates that I am more similar to normal human beings than I might think—people most often identify blue as their favorite color. But yellow does something very positive to me. I find it calming and centering; I was very pleased when shades of yellow were chosen for the halls, offices and ruane hallclassrooms in the beautiful new humanities great roombuilding on campus that is the home of the interdisciplinary program I direct, just as I was pleased when a slightly different shade of yellow was chosen several years earlier as the dominant color in the renovated building the philosophy department moved into during my stint as philosophy department chair back in 2006. Somebody must have known that keeping the chair or director centered and focused is step one to avoiding academic squabbling in the ranks.

So I was not surprised when I found out from the “What Color is your Aura?” quiz on Facebook that my aura is yellow. Most of my academic readers are now sniffing in contempt—“Aura?? Now you’ve really gone to the new-agey dark side, Morgan!” reikiNot really, although truth in advertising requires revealing that I just had my first forty-five minute Reiki session a couple of weeks ago from a Reiki master who is a friend of ours from church. I haven’t detected any life-changing results, but the session relaxed me sufficiently that I slept for at least fifteen of the forty-five minutes. Regardless, taking the aura quiz is far more about my obsession with Facebook quizzes than crystals or chakras.

What Color is Your Aura?

Your aura is yellow! You are optimistic and intelligent, with a friendly, creative presence. A yellow aura signifies that you are full of life and energy, an inspiring and playful person. yellow auraYou may be on the brink of a new awakening, close to finding new meaning in your current life.

The description is only partially accurate—I’m happy to own “optimistic,” “intelligent,” “creative,” and “inspiring,” but no one has ever accused me of being “full of life and energy,” “friendly,” or “playful.” Maybe my aura is “dirty yellow,” the color my mother used to say my hair was before it started turning gray in my early twenties.

My natural way of engaging with fellow humans was described quite well when I took the “What Kind of Cat are You?” quiz a while ago. I could not resist. I am a cat person, and have been owned by several cats over the past fifty years: Stokely, Natalie, Rachel, Midnight, Express, Moses, and Spooky, just to name a few—the bookend cats on the list both lived to be eighteen. Cat personalities range as widely as human personalities do, and I was not surprised to find out that

What Kind of Cat Are You?

introvert catYou are a cat who is like, “Nope! Leave me alone.”! Everybody always wants to be all up in your business and you are like, “No thanks! I don’t really like people? Please go away and leave me alone?” But they don’t. They never go away and leave you alone.

The “leave me alone” cat sounds like a lot of my freshman students. He managed to use the word “like” both incorrectly and correctly in just a couple of lines. Let’s be clear: I do not use the word “like” improperly, have never used the phrase “all up in your business” and do not turn statements of fact into questions (that would make me sound like a Valley Girl). That said, the “leave me alone” cat’s general attitude about human beings is quite familiar. MIMAs The World’s Most Interesting Man might say, I don’t always ignore people, but when I do it’s because my available daily minutes for engaging with people have been used up. I am pretty much a leave me alone cat with relatively well-developed social skills.

Back to colors. For some strange reason Jeanne does not demonstrate the same obsession with Facebook personality quizzes that I do, but she was interested enough to take the aura quiz. Hers is blue—unfortunately we neglected to record the description, although it seemed to fit her reasonably well. So I looked elsewhere. After Googling “color moods” and randomly clicking on one of the hundreds of sites instantly available, I learned the following about the psychological properties of blue and yellow:

blueBLUE: Intellectual.

Positive: Intelligence, communication, trust, efficiency, serenity, duty, logic, coolness, reflection, calm. Negative: Coldness, aloofness, lack of emotion, unfriendliness.

Blue is the color of the mind and is essentially soothing; it affects us mentally, rather than the physical reaction we have to red. Strong blues will stimulate clear thought and lighter, soft blues will calm the mind and aid concentration. Consequently it is serene and mentally calming. It is the color of clear communication.

yellowYELLOW: Emotional

Positive: Optimism, confidence, self-esteem, extraversion, emotional strength, friendliness, creativity. Negative: Irrationality, fear, emotional fragility, depression, anxiety, suicide.

The yellow wavelength is relatively long and essentially stimulating. In this case the stimulus is emotional, therefore yellow is the strongest color, psychologically. The right yellow will lift our spirits and our self-esteem; it is the color of confidence and optimism.

Now I’m really confused, since the description of “Blue” sounds very much like me, while “Yellow” sounds a lot like Jeanne (minus the suicide and depression). But perhaps we’ve been together long enough that our colors are beginning to mingle. And we all know what happens when you mix blue and yellow (regardless of which person is which):blue and yellow make green

GREEN: Balance

Positive: Harmony, balance, refreshment, universal love, rest, restoration, reassurance, environmental awareness, equilibrium, peace. Negative: Boredom, blandness, enervation.

Green strikes the eye in such a way as to require no adjustment whatever and is, therefore, restful. Being in the center of the spectrum, it is the color of balance – a more important concept than many people realize.

And I must say that this sounds right. Jeanne has often said that she wants our home to be a place of peace and healing—maybe we are on the way. A certain amount of blandness and boredom is a small price to pay for the privilege of creating a space of harmony, balance, rest and peace in a world that is anything but. When extreme opposites attract and mix, sometimes something cool happens.green house

Being There

In my early years of teaching, I used to include one of Woody Allen’s insights in the syllabus for every one of my classes: “80% of success is showing up.”ShowUp[1] Although I’m far less anal about taking attendance than many of my colleagues, from semester to semester I tweak and fine tune my course offerings so that success is impossible without regular, indeed almost perfect, attendance as well as a commitment to daily preparation. Frequent unannounced reading quizzes (that can’t be made up) in my lower division classes make life difficult for students who “do the readings” but skip class, as well as for students who never miss a class but don’t prepare. In my upper division classes and seminars I require students to prepare intellectual notebook reflections on the day’s text and bring them to class; I choose a student randomly to read her or his reflection to begin discussion.

I don’t use Woody’s quote any more, since it doesn’t mention that if 80% of success is showing up, the other 80% is being prepared when you show up. Instead, while discussing the syllabus during the first class meeting I give everyone the secret of surviving and thriving in Morgan’s classes: “Do the readings, and be here. Make sure you do those things, and your grade will take care of itself.” GUWG-Be-Prepared[1]Be prepared and show up. In recent semesters I’ve had almost entirely juniors and seniors in my classes, so “be prepared and show up” might seem rather juvenile and basic for sophisticated and experienced upperclassmen. But a few years ago, a second semester senior came up to me after class several weeks in and said “Dr. Morgan, you know what you said the first day about do the readings and be here? It works!!” Indeed it does—it’s too bad it took you until your eighth semester in college to find out!

I’ve known for a long time that “Be prepared and show up” has been the simple key to classroom success; I’m just beginning to realize that it’s also the key to divine encounters. This was bubbling below the surface for years; I think the beginning of that percolation coincides with my first encounters with Simone Weil. In Gravity and Gracegravity-grace-simone-weil-paperback-cover-art[1], a sampling of her voluminous notebooks that was one of her first books I read in the middle 1990s, she asks a question: “The will of God. How to know it?” To which my response at the time was “you tell me, Simone. I’ve been wondering my whole life, and I’m tired of asking. I’m tired of throwing prayers out into the void. I’m sick of seeing what I thought was God’s will end up in a pile of shit. I’m tired of taking one step forward, two sideways, and one backwards when trying to find a path to God. You tell me.”

as-the-deer[1]Be prepared. In Psalm 42 the psalmist writes “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?” Preparation is energized by desire, not the mind. I’ve occasionally described myself to my colleagues or students as a “God-obsessed” person. Not long ago I read something by Iranian American scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz that puts the question beautifully: “How is one to nurture this God buried like a ruin in the treasure of one’s being and let it permeate all of life?” Most important, I think, is the word that begins the Rule of St. Benedict: Rule_of_St._Benedict3[1]“Listen.” Shut up and be quiet. If preparation were primarily about what you know and what you’ve read, I’d be in decent shape. But only when my sabbatical experiences included a daily commitment to quietness did I begin to realize that, for me at least, preparation for God requires me to stop thinking and start listening. Simone Weil’s answer to her own question about how to know the will of God is slowly becoming mine. “If we make a quietness within ourselves, if we silence all desires and opinions and if with love, without formulating any words, we bind our whole soul to think ‘Thy will be done,’ the thing which after that we feel sure we should do (even though in certain respects we may be mistaken) is the will of God. For if we ask him for bread he will not give us a stone.”

Show up. This is more about internal awareness than external place. When I’m too busy, too stressed, or too lazy to see anything other than what’s an inch in front of my nose, I’m failing to show up. When I assume that I know that these texts, those places, these people, and those situations can’t possibly be vehicles for contact with the divine, I’m failing to show up. When I continue to forage through the books and experiences where I’ve bumped into the transcendent in the past, presuming that God will remain there on my terms, I’m becoming an idolater rather than showing up. When I rely heavily on my brain, with which I’m most familiar, rather than my heart, which I’m not as comfortable with, I’m failing to show up.

Be Where You Are[1]The many texts that have been meaningful to me over the past fifteen years have a major thread in common—we live in a reality soaked in transcendence, sacramental to its core. Everything is important–nothing is disposable. At a workshop last summer, our leader frequently said that two things are key to the spiritual life–“Be where you are,”12527[1] and “Do what you’re doing.” Sounds easy, but just try it–it’s a never-ending challenge to be present every moment of the day. But I don’t want to miss anything. Although I’m a very slow study, Annie Dillard’s simple observation is beginning to seep in. “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is be there.”

My Own Skin

As has happened more often in the last 25 years than I could possibly recall, Jeanne dropped something unexpected into my consciousness during a phone conversation several months ago. I was in Minnesota getting ready for a week-long retreat and conference; she was driving to Vermont on business and planned to see some close friends who we have not seen in a long time. “They’ll be wondering how you are doing,” she said. “I think I’ll just say that you’re comfortable in your own skin. You’re just comfortable with who you are.” Somewhat taken aback, in response I said something lame like, “Well I guess that’s true some of the time but not all of the time.” But long after the phone call that phrase—“comfortable in your own skin”—remained embedded in my brain. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve heard the phrase, but it was definitely the first time that I ever heard someone use it to describe me.

Recent Sunday gospels have  provided me with some insight into this “comfortable in your own skin” thing. For instance, a few weeks ago we heard the highlights of just another random day in Jesus’ life in Mark’s usual straightforward and sometimes uncomfortably honest style. In Mark’s gospel, we get the sense that Jesus knew who he was—and I’m primarily referring to who he was as a human being, not that he was the Son of God. He knew his gifts and talents, what he had to offer. And he knew his limitations. He knew, for instance, that he was an introvert. That is why the gospels so often report him as trying to get away from the daily crowds pressing around and demanding things from him. That explains why at the beginning of this gospel we find him sneaking into the back door of someone’s house because he “did not want anyone to know he was there.” But of course it doesn’t work, and in short order a Syrophoenician woman is begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter.

Jesus’ response to this Gentile woman is spectacularly dismissive: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What’s wrong with him? Does he say this because she’s a Gentile? A woman? Both? Whatever his problem is, this vignette certainly doesn’t fit the traditional picture of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” who accepted and loved everyone without exception all the time. This doesn’t look like the Sermon on the Mount in action. This sounds more like what a narrow-minded, judgmental jerk might say, the sort of thing that we all have thought but probably pride ourselves in never actually saying out loud. Is this the Son of God, the Savior of the World?

Strangely, that often seems to be a question that Jesus is asking himself in Mark’s gospel. One thing’s for sure—this is the reaction of a tired, worn-out human being who would like to have his first day off in three years. But then Jesus does something remarkable—he realizes that he is wrong and, by his actions, apologizes for his rudeness. The woman’s clever and intelligent response—“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”—reveals to Jesus just how wrong his first response was. “Touché,” he says (or at least thinks), and then casts out the demon from the woman’s daughter from long distance.

Jesus having a bad day—not exactly what we are asked to consider on a regular basis when in “religious mode.” But this is a powerful passage because it reveals Jesus as a total package, in his full humanity. This is a Jesus I can relate to far more easily than the traditional description of Jesus who is so far removed from my own human weaknesses and foibles as to be unapproachable. I get no sense that Jesus on a bad day berates or kicks himself for not being his best self. Instead, he still is able to listen in spite of his limitations, to change, and to embrace his complete humanity. That, I take it, is what being comfortable in your own skin is all about.

Several weeks ago, I went to the philosophy department on lower campus to pick up my office mail for the first time in a week. Being director of a large program on campus precludes me from getting to the philosophy department more than once or twice a week, unfortunate because my philosophy department office is beautiful and peaceful, while my other office is often the vortex of an administrative whirlwind. It was late in the afternoon of a long day filled with meetings, admistratia, containing none of the parts of the academic life that give me energy. As I sifted through a small pile of book catalogs, memos, junk mail, hoping to find at least one thing that would make my trip to the department worthwhile, I let out a deep sigh. From inside the office on the other side of the mailbox-bank wall, I heard a voice call out: “Long day, Vance?” It was Michael, our current department chair who now occupies the office that I occupied several years ago when I was department chair. “How did you know it was me?” I asked. “I recognized your sigh,” Michael replied. “No one sighs like you do.”

Wonderful—my sigh of frustration due to overwork is my most recognizable calling card. But shortly after his exchange with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus encounters a deaf man with a speech impediment. This time Jesus seems to make it up as he goes along, sticking his fingers in the guy’s ears and spitting on his tongue. “Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” He sighed—he may still be tired and having a bad day. But Jesus knew who he was and was comfortable in his own skin. His halo did not need to be in place for him to accomplish miraculous things. Such things flowed from his core naturally even when his halo was askew. That’s worth remembering—my own sighs and impatience are as much a part of me as my best teaching moments. To the extent that I remember that the best that is in me need not be hindered by my less-than-best, even on an off day, to that same extent I’m becoming comfortable in my own skin. And that’s good because it is, after all, not only the only skin I’ve got—it’s the skin that the divine lives in.