Thursday, July 29, 2010

a little poetry

Just reading an anthology of essays on the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, and stumbled across a tiny essay on theological aesthetics - the relationship of beauty, art, to the doing of theology.  Rahner's vision of grace in the world is highly sacramental, that is, he sees the quotidian world as the place of encounter with God, but the little I had read of Rahner in the past was dense and prose-ish enough that I did not expect the morsels of poetry that Rahner wrote and which this author used to flavor her essay.  Rahner writes: "Whatever is expressed in art is a product of that transcendentality by which, as spiritual and free beings, we strive for the totality of reality...[I]t is only because we are transcendental beings that art and theology can really exist."  The author of the essay, Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, comments, "Poetry, especially great poetry, is important, because it takes shape where the human being radically faces who he or she is...In Christian existence, as in composing and listening to music or through writing and reading great poetry, the individual is led into the heights and depths, into hope, doubts and moments of despair."  In other words, theology is not simply about hammering out metaphysical truths in scientifically unassailable language, but at attempt to speak that which we know but can't ever get quite right.  This makes theologians of any of us who are struggling to face the messiness of human existence in light of the transcendence that grasps us far more surely than we can grasp it.  It is quite possible that explicitly religious art may fail to reach the level of transcendentality of explicitly non-religious art (what Rahner calls "anonymous piety") if it fails to engage the depths of the human condition - if it is merely religious "Kitsch."  Knowing that a reasonable percentage of my students in any given theology class are likely to not be particularly religious, I have always had an affinity for poetry, literature, art which ask all the deep questions without using theological-isms that can carry too much baggage for them to get on board with.  My wonderful friend Christa Shusko recently shared the following poem with me (in response to a previous post, in fact), and it has resonated with me repeatedly for its ability to EVOKE the theological without needing to INVOKE the theological.

Louise Gluck

There is a moment when you move your eye away
when you forget where you are
because you've been living, it seems,
somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky.
You've stopped being here in the world.
You're in a different place,
a place where life has no meaning.

You're not a creature in a body.
You exist as the stars exist,
participating in their stillness, their immensity.

Then you're in the world again.
At night, on a cold hill,
taking the telescope apart.

You realize afterward
not that the image is false
but the relation is false.

You see again how far away
each thing is from every other thing.

Sometimes those rare moments of being pulled clean out of our everyday life can make the rest of our existence seem somehow flattened, but I hope that the opposite can happen - that those moments of more explicit transcendence can refocus our way of seeing everything, can enable us to see that even the most ordinary folding-the-laundry moments are mystical moments, that there are no "ordinary" moments in our usual sense of the word.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Assisi travelogue - part 2

Before I continue with my Assisi travelogue, a small adventure from today. We have a few trips coming up in the next week that involve water – swimming pool, beach, so on – so I left the house this afternoon in search of a pair of running shorts, swim trunks, something other than the cargo pants kinds of things I have been wearing everywhere. I found a little sporting goods place not far from the house, and the woman behind the counter happened to have gone to high school in New Jersey, so she spoke great English (it's too late at night here for New Jersey jokes). When I mentioned I was looking for something for swimming, she pulled out a speedo about the size of a Post-It - apparently quite the rage among Italian men, which is certainly making me rethink my upcoming beach expedition. “You like?” “No, I’m not European enough for that…” After I found an actual pair of shorts, she talked with me for another 10 minutes or so, about everything – how bad the economy is, how many chemicals there are in the tomatoes in the States, how many people she knows who are getting cancer from the aforementioned tomatoes, and so on.  I halfway expected her to invite me over for dinner to prove that the tomatoes in Italy really are better, as if I didn’t already know that…

OK, back to Assisi...

21 July 2010

I finally felt like I made the retreat into a true pilgrimage today. We started off as a group going to San Damiano, which was nice – smaller, simpler than so much of the overdone stuff. After lunch, though, I took off right away for the Carceri, the caves in the mountains near Assisi where Francis and his friends would go to get away and recharge the batteries. It’s a good 4-5 kilometers away, on fairly steep roads just about the whole way, so I walked for a solid hour in the afternoon heat before I got there. Just when I thought I was in shape…Needless to say, I was more or less wiped out by the time I got there, but it was a totally different feel from so much of the rest of the Francis-and-Clare stuff in town. The Carceri has been built up too, no doubt about it, certainly far beyond the simple caves that would have been there at first – I saw a stone wall way up the mountain, so I climbed up and found on the other side – a two-lane road! So much for getting away from it all…Still, there is an aura of simplicity there in the open spaces that haven’t been domesticated, and even in the relatively rustic buildings that are there: no running water, doorways so small even a person as vertically challenged as I had to squeeze through, and lots and lots of little nooks and crannies to hide in. Add to that the fact that it’s enough of a challenge to get there (at least on foot) that it isn’t nearly as crowded as a lot of the places in town. I found a little hideout up in the hills, no noise but the cicadas, a few razor-thin slivers of sunlight slicing through the foliage. I just disappeared for a long while, and it made me realize how…useful…I have tried to make my religious life (yes, I do mean that in a negative sense). Perhaps that’s an occupational hazard of being an apostolic religious, but I think I raise it to an art form. There’s an old Zen mondo about the young monk who is so zealous about attaining enlightenment that he meditates day and night, night and day. The old monk comes and sits next to him and begins polishing a piece of tile. When the young monk asks what he is doing, the old monk tells him he is polishing the tile to make a mirror. The young monk protests that no amount of polishing can turn a tile into a mirror, at which point the old monk walks away to leave the young hotshot to his new insight. If I keep coming back to the same thing, believe me that it is for my sake, not for yours, dear (few) readers. At any rate, the burning bush at the top of this particular mountain is going to continue to speak to me for some time. Let’s just hope the old knucklehead can get it through the skull to take off my shoes and shut up for a while.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Retreat reflections - part one

Our group is just back from a weeklong retreat in Assisi, so this time I actually have an excuse for not writing for the past few days. My reflections from that week will trickle out onto this blog over the next few days and weeks. The first day´s reflection follows.
The theme of the retreat was “A Pilgrimage of Hope,” in line with the theme of our general chapter a few years back. In line with that theme, Br. André LaFlamme, the retreat director, started us with the text from John´s gospel in which the disciples of John the Baptist follow after Jesus, who asks them, “What are you looking for?” Like much of John´s gospel, their response to Jesus can seem cryptic, a non-answer to a (so it seems) straightforward question: “Where do you live?” Thinking about it though, I wonder if they ask because they genuinely don’t know what they are looking for. André gave us this question to prompt us to zero in on what we hope to gain from the retreat, and after several months of feeling like a spiritual black hole, I hardly even know where to begin with trying to identify a central goal of my pilgrimage. André told us at Mass that he would call us up one by one to receive the folders that contain our readings and reflections for the week, and that he would ask us the question from the gospel: “What are you looking for?” We were to respond with the subsequent line, “Where do you live?” but before he got to that second part, I was petrified that I was actually going to have to articulate what I was looking for during this retreat: petrified because I was not ready to admit how crushing this past year was for me, and because I hardly knew where to begin to dig out. Later, thinking about it, the first thing that came to mind was from the movie Brother Sun Sister Moon, which we watched a couple of days before the retreat began: after having given away the expensive cloths owned by his cloth merchant father, Francis is asked by Bishop Guido what he wants, and he responds, “I – I want to be happy!” With all the wonderful corniness that only Zeffirelli movies can provide, that simple line cut through a year of restlessness and frustration. The feeling of having made so many wrong choices with my life, having closed so many doors, and now living so compromised a vision of the Gospel despite what feels like a genuine desire to follow Christ without compromise, has welled up into deep loneliness and disappointment again and again this past year. One of the readings that André gave us was about allowing ourselves to feel loved, using the image of critically ill persons spontaneously assuming the fetal position, as if knowing the desire to return now and again to a place of security. In any other situation I probably would have dismissed it as self-indulgent or narcissistic, but recognizing my own profound brittleness, it gave me permission to quit trying desperately to hold it all together by myself. In one way or another I have so locked myself out of allowing myself to feel loved, whether by God or other people, that it feels as if the weight of the world is upon me, and knowing I cannot shoulder it alone, I despair. To twist Spider-Man, “With no power comes great responsibility.” Most times I find it difficult to experience God as personally involved in or concerned about my life, so that if my life is to have any meaning as a tiny speck against the backdrop of endless space and time, I have to focus in on myself and wrest meaning from history, which of course ends up being even more narcissistic and futile than whatever else I might be overcompensating to avoid.

From the notes that André gave us: “The Prodigal Son cries out: ‘I´m restless and I need to journey to far-off lands.’ Time and time again we have re-echoed the that cry of the Prodigal Son, in the silence of our hearts, but also amid the buffeting winds of life, or more often at those times when we felt that we’re not being heard or listened to by our Brothers. Behind our experiences of life, the good ones as well as the not so good, there is that yearning to travel, to walk, to go on a pilgrimage, to see countries in order to discover the Essential, and in so doing, return to the womb of God Father or Mother.”

I felt several times like André was writing directly to me, and this was one of them. What am I looking for? As much as anything it is the autonomy to be able to explore, without feeling bound to someone else’s path, and to not feel like I am being disobedient or wilful for having that desire. More deeply than the desire to do my own thing, however, is the desire for love. I readily admit that I am not at the point at which I could say with Francis that I am seeking not to be loved but to love. My sense of self is so caught in the web of the unsatisfactoriness of so much of life that it weighs me down against the pursuit of that which can satisfy. For this week I am in search of the experience of feeling loved, and to let that experience ease the frantic sense that my life is slipping away from me, that I am not and can never be what I should be, a sort of Sisyphean sensation that the endless “shoulds” of life are weighing down upon me despite knowing better. Having grown up in a happy but more or less un-cosmopolitan corner of the world (small-town Mississippi) and now in my late twenties and early thirties just starting to see into the vast world of literature, scholarship, art, poetry, travel, food, music, languages and so on, the sensation is very nearly a panic attack, like there is so much out there and I have to take it all in and I need it now and I have to take the ocean in at a gulp and when I try it’s like drowning and the community is holding me back and GASP (if you didn’t get the tone of that last sentence, try reading it out loud without pausing for a breath). Okay, relax. After all the stuff I have written about not getting lost in the things we can pin on our chests, guess where I got lost – of course, I suppose that is EXACTLY why I have written so much about it. The night before the retreat began, I had a stack of books lined up to bring along – books I “should” have read ten years ago – until at our evening conference André encouraged us not to bring any books. Again, talking right to me. In my head, I know that no amount of frantic flitting around could even scratch the surface of all the worthwhile realities of this wonderful world, let alone get beyond the most superficial of exposures. But it’s hard to not only know in my head but taste it on my tongue, to know that no quantity of experiences or books read can combine to solve the question that I am.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Romeing around

Sunday was a free day from our daily conferences, so I went on a little adventure with Pierre Maguelibu (a Brother from Vanuatu, an island in the South Pacific) to spend the day taking in as much of the city as we could.  I was a little proud of myself that I went just about the whole day in French - ugly though it may have been.  We started with Mass at the Gesu, the Jesuits' big daddy church where St. Ignatius is buried:

Then we were off to Piazza Navona, which had not only this sweet fountain (and several others) but as many artists (caricature, portrait, etc.) as I have ever seen in one place, French Quarter included:

Next, the Pantheon, which was so big I couldn't get a very good shot of the whole thing, so here are a couple of more selective pics.  The aperture in the ceiling looked pretty sweet with this sunbeam coming through, and the second photo, shot from the main entrance, does the place no justice, but it gives a hint of the scale:

I think anyone who knows me would not be surprised that my favorite of the day was Trevi Fountain - so much stuff to climb on! (*Not to mention that it was so blasted hot all day that seeing this much cold water in one place was a little slice of heaven.*)

We saw a bunch of other stuff that I could add, like the Victor Emmanuel monument (apparently the largest equestrian statue in the world - the guy's mustache is 5 feet across!), the Roman Forum, the Church of St. Ignatius, and the outside of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (not open to the public for some reason).  For my money, though, the real hidden treasure of the day was the Basilica of Cosmas and Damian.  It was tucked away in a corner near the Colosseum, and the outside blended in with the ruins enough that it was almost easy to miss, but the inside was a real gem:
Passed by the Colosseum, but time was short and we were truly whipped, so all we got was an exterior shot - for now:

We still had a pretty good hike back to the metro station to get home, so we figured that was enough for one day.  Today we were off again, to the Capuchin chapel (the skeletons of over 4,000 friars are on display there - a macabre curiosity!) and the scavi - the excavations under St. Peter's.  But that will wait for another posting.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Longo della Tevere (or something like that)

The fun and games continue unabated in the Eternal City.  Our daytime sessions are about the Brothers' Rule of Life, and despite being about more or less serious stuff, we are getting into some good stuff about what the Rule actually looks like in the day-to-day of our communities, especially given the multitude of cultures that are figuring out how to apply it in their situations.  My small group is three Americans and one Zambian, and it goes without saying that the issues they are dealing with are literally and figuratively worlds away from ours.  The days are nicely paced to intersperse prayer and formal sessions, free time and impromptu trips around town.  Have managed to zip through three or four books in the past week, and am currently working on Dostoevsky's The Idiot, a surprisingly easy and quick read given that it's a pretty hefty tome and translated from the Russian in a fairly ponderous idiom.  Had been worried about getting enough physical activity with no gym facilities close at hand, but the four flights of stairs, plus all the walking, are keeping me busy, and doing pull-ups on the assembly they use for clotheslines hasn't broken anything yet.

Took a long walk yesterday afternoon looking for stamps (figuring out how to ask for that was an adventure in itself), and while looking up at the balconies and terrazzos, saw a kid, probably 5 years old, standing in his underwear on a tiny skateboard on a terrace two or three stories up.  He waved.  So, wave back and try not to laugh too hard until I'm out of sight.  Found a gelato place - no, there are tons of them, so there is no finding to be done - chose one of the many gelato places on the way home and asked for Nutella gelato as one of the three flavors I could get.  If you aren't familiar with Nutella, it's a spreadable chocolate-hazelnut dance party for your mouth, and I was expecting chocolate gelato with a little hazelnut flavoring - you know, Nutella FLAVORED gelato.  Not quite - they must have just given me a glob of Nutella right out of the jar, like asking for peanut-butter ice cream and getting a glob of peanut butter on your cone, or asking for rum raisin and getting a shot and a handful of grapes.  Believe me, I wasn't complaining, but now I owe the body about 400 pushups to make up for that little splurge.

Last night tagged along with a group of about 10 French-speakers to the Tiber River.  The ride there and back on the unbelievably crowded bus was a lesson in letting go, especially of things like personal space and expectation of hygiene, but hey, when in Rome, right?  Anyway, once we got there, it was just amazing - there are all kinds of kiosks, outdoor restaurants, even dance clubs right there in the open air along the river, right in the shadow of stone walls and bridges that are hundreds and thousands of years old.  Right next to one of the several outdoor hookah bars we saw was a sushi place with a little conveyor belt - the sushi comes along on a little plate on the belt, you take what you want, they charge you for the number of plates you take.  For a small-town boy like myself, a novelty.  Then we found an Italian band doing a concert at a restaurant (all open-air, mind you); the singer had a pretty solid Elvis impersonation going on, and he did 3 or 4 classic Elvis tunes mixed in with a range of Italian something or another.  More soon - too much hilarious and interesting stuff going on here not to write about.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

summer and the Eternal City

For one reason or another, I haven’t felt much like writing this summer, so I suppose a little catching up is in order. The first half of the summer was mostly uneventful – a weekend trip to St. Louis for their graduation and a wedding, another weekend at home for a wedding, then a visit to NYC to see friends, while taking a class at SU: Spiritual and Existential Approaches to Psychotherapy. Interesting material, especially as a once and future campus ministry person for whom talking with people’s experience of meaning was the order of the day. Super-nice people in the class – were totally fine with me not being a psychology person, and I got a little glimpse into their field. Also got to put in a bunch of time helping my friend Hanah get her new house fixed up – pulled up an old floor, rewired a light fixture, put in a shower curtain, helped paint – simple stuff that I nonetheless don’t get to do that often.

The second half of my summer just began – a four-week renewal session at our general house in Rome. I am at this moment typing very slowly because the keyboard is set up for Europeans qnd if I donùt look qt the keyboqrd qll the ti,e this is zhqt ,y typing zill look like::: I had not been in Europe in almost ten years, and Rome in almost twelve. There are about 25 guys here from all over the Institute, including some guys I have met in my travels (from Zimbabwe, Haiti, etc). Getting to work on the French and Spanish at the same time, and making slow progress, but these first few days have mostly been about getting tuned in to accents and pronunciations and unpacking the mental notebooks. Pretty sweaty here in the summer, but it is just an awe-inspiring place: the history, the architecture, *the food*. There is graffiti everywhere, which I guess makes sense – they invented the word, right? Today we had tickets for a papal audience, so we got there a couple of hours early and moseyed around, but when we got in the queue to get inside, the guards decided to close the line right as I was trying to pass security, so I ended up getting separated from the group. Ten minutes later they opened it back up, inexplicably, but by that point the Bro’s were long gone. I got inside the auditorium to see the papal audience, which in effect meant I was somewhere in the same time zone as the Pope. It could have been Carol Channing in white and I wouldn’t have known any different (except for the voice). After all was said and done, twelve languages later, I somehow caught up with a few of the Bro’s who wanted to get pizza and beer – always a plus in my book. BUT, they just wanted the closest place they could find (note – “menu turistica” is Italian for “rip-off”), so we paid too much for too little. OK guys, thanks, but I’ve got it from here. Did a solo act for the rest of the afternoon, saw the papal tombs and the basilica, walked halfway across Rome, sweating my can off the whole way, but made it back with no real problem (although I did get on the metro going in the wrong direction for about 2 stops before I figured out my mistake).

Lastly, a friend pointed this page out to me last week - I had forgotten the editors had compiled it out of the hours of interviews we did in the fall.  More as it unfolds, but I want to publish before something goes wrong and I have to figure this keyboard out all over again...

Thursday, June 3, 2010

taking the wind out of the sails

I was in St. Louis a few weeks ago, and I saw the following on a faculty member's door:

Unread books

Suppose you read four books a week every week for 70 years. Allowing for a day here and there where you're unable to read, we can call that 200 books a year, and 14,000 books over the whole three score years and ten. It's a lot of books. But relative to all the books there are, it's a tiny, tiny fraction. According to the guy who manages the Google Books metadata team, at the latest count the books in the world now total 168,178,719. Your 14,000 books are just 0.008324477724 per cent of that. You can think of it as follows. Suppose all the books in the world made up a single calendar year, and you were reading through the pages of that year, cover to cover. Then, 14,000 books - and that's going some - would only get you through the first 44 minutes of the year. There'd still be 364 days, 23 hours and 16 minutes that you hadn't read. And if you get through fewer than 14,000 books in your lifetime, it will look even worse. Comforting in a way.
(see the original post at

Comforting and nerve-wracking all at the same time, but it reminds me of one of my favorite websites, (I know), which answers all those cutesy motivational posters you see in offices with "demotivators": snarky little sayings that can take just enough wind out of my sails to let me laugh at myself a bit. In the spirit of the post above, how about this one:

All for now: have to get back to reading!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Kalina prize

Just for the hell of it, at the end of the semester I used one of my final papers as a submission in an essay contest on the Holocaust, sponsored by the Judaic Studies Department. A few weeks ago I got an email from the director saying, congratulations, you won for your essay "______," (I don't remember the title) which was not the essay I wrote, then another email saying, oops, we sent the wrong email to the wrong person. OK, no problem. Today the Religion Department secretary congratulated me for this prize, and when I explained what had happened, she told me to get in touch with them. Long story short, the essay I didn't write was the undergraduate winner, and mine was the graduate winner. Not a gigantic deal, but here's the paper anyway.

“Raiding the Unspeakable: Parody in three antipoems of Thomas Merton”
During the late 1950s and until his death in 1968, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, author, poet, artist and social critic, moved from being a traditional, pious monk extolling the virtues of monastic separation from the world to an outspoken commentator on the horrors of his time: Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Vietnam, Watts, Birmingham.  Confronting these grim realities with his ever-present poetic ear, he heard the ways in which language was being emptied of its power to reveal, was being co-opted by euphemism and officialese into the service of atrocity; Merton came to believe that “in our mechanical age, all words have become alike, they’ve all been reduced to the level of the commercial.  To say ‘God is love’ is like saying ‘Eat Wheaties.’”[i]  Responding not only to the discrete events that made the headlines, but more critically to what he saw as the debasement of language in the twentieth century that helped legitimate all those events, he moved into what he called “antipoetry,” a rejection of more flowery visions of poetry in favor of a more socially engaged poetic voice that gained a brief moment of popularity in the mid 1960s, particularly among Latin American poets, many of whom Merton counted as friends and allies.  Characterized by parody, that is, the ironic repetition with critical distance,[ii] of the unspeakable, Merton’s variety of antipoetry, a sort of “assemblage art,” mimics quotations and paraphrases from those who enacted and supported the horrors of the time so as to highlight the absurdity and obscenity of the worldview they inhabited.  In three of his antipoems, “Original Child Bomb”; “Chant to be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces”; and “Epitaph for a Public Servant” Merton makes use of irony at every turn, appropriating the language of officialese, turning it back upon itself to break through the numbness it fostered and resensitize the reader.
From earlier forms of poetry that favored images of seclusion from the world, the paradise of the world inside the monastic walls and later in the woods where his hermitage was situated, Merton came to link poetry with the capacity for prophetic critiques of what he called “the mass mind,” and what I call “the prosing of the world”: the world of absolute finality, of officialese, euphemistic speech designed to eliminate the toxic reality of language.  While he continued to produce prose essays on any number of social concerns, he singled out his vocation as a poet as a privileged place of recognizing what has happened to language.  In his article “War and the Crisis of Language” Merton argues that “poets are perhaps the ones who, at the present moment, are most sensitive to the sickness of language – a sickness that, infecting all literature with nausea, prompts us not so much to declare war on conventional language as simply to pick up and examine closely a few chosen pieces of linguistic garbage.”[iii]  In the words of his friend and fellow antipoet Nicanor Parra, “The poet is there/To see to it the tree does not grow crooked”.[iv]  In his poem “The Tower of Babel”, the stanza “History is a dialogue between/ forward and backward/going inevitably forward/by the misuse of words”[v] illustrates the cessation of dialogue, back-and-forth, as language serves the unstoppable juggernaut of power, progress, “prose,” shouting down those who, on behalf of those caught in the treads of empire, counter with a poetic destabilization of the finality that a prosaic account of reality would claim.
Antipoetry arises for Merton as a sort of “last resort,” when even language, the fundamental medium of the poet, is no longer available, when even language has lost its power to open communication.  “Then it becomes necessary in such a situation to write antipoetry.  For what appears to be poetry and what appears to be communication is actually a common plot to repudiate poetry and refuse communication.  The pretense has to be attacked with the anti-poem.  The anti-poem is positive communication of resistance against the sham rituals of conventional communications.”[vi]  Merton’s antipoems typically allude by eluding – the horrors to which they point are made present by what they do not say, what remains a step or two beyond what is immediately given, but which the reader cannot help but connect to the banal tone and the statements quoted in the poems.  In “Original Child Bomb” the emotionless, almost casual prose, parodying the bureaucratic language of the development and deployment of the atomic bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki, contrasts with the unspeakable reality that is being reported.  In “Chant” and “Epitaph” Merton adopts the “persona” mask technique of Ezra Pound, appropriating the voice of the person whom he wishes to attack so as to show its absurdity and horror: the narrator of “Chant” evokes Rudolf Höss, the commandant at Auschwitz, while “Epitaph” directly claims to speak in the voice of Adolf Eichmann.  Direct accusation and condemnation are unnecessary “when a diabolical anti-Psalm like ‘Chant to be used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces’ can be constructed by adapting only slightly the self-justificatory statements made by defendants at the trials of those responsible for murdering millions of Jews.”[vii]

“Original Child Bomb”
While referencing in the title the Japanese name for the first atomic weapon, the subtitle, “POINTS FOR MEDITATION TO BE SCRATCHED ON THE WALLS OF A CAVE”, alludes to a post-apocalyptic future in which survivors, recollecting the origins of the (il)logic of nuclear proliferation that culminated in the obliteration of civilization, will record these events in the only way left to them – with the Stone Age scholarship of marks scratched on cave walls.  The ironic humor throughout the poem reflects a tone of disbelief at the insanity that had become so readily accepted: “Mr. Truman was a vice president who became president by accident when his predecessor died of a cerebral hemorrhage.  He did not know as much about the war as the president before him did.  He knew a lot less about the war than many people did.”[viii]  The suggestion to share information about the bomb with the Russians to improve their friendly relationship was shut down because “all finally agreed that the Soviet Union was now friendly enough.”[ix]  Merton repeatedly uses religious imagery, including the belief and unbelief of those who speculated about whether the bomb would detonate properly, code names such as “Papacy” and “Trinity,” and the dreams that some officials had of the bomb producing “eternal peace”.[x]  Compared with the droning pace of “Chant,” the slow, even understated pace of “Original Child Bomb” produces a contrast between the chilling subject and the matter-of-factness with which the narrator describes it.  It leaves behind meter, diction, imagery in favor of “the poem as statement, even as journalism, reporting in a flat undramatic prose facts that are at the same time so banal and so inhuman that they become the images of their own inherent horror.”[xi]  The use of contrast language subtly draws attention to the incongruity of that flat mode of reportage, drawing attention to the technologizing logic that dissolves humanity (figuratively and, in the case of Hiroshima, literally): “When they bombed Hiroshima they would put the following out of business: The Ube Nitrogen Fertilizer Company; the Ube Soda Company; the Nippon Motor Oil Company; the Sumitoma Chemical Company; the Sumitoma Aluminum Company; and most of the inhabitants.”[xii]  “Putting out of business” takes a grimly euphemistic turn, re-inserting the dissonance it was intended to stifle in its original context, appearing suddenly, unaffectedly enough in an otherwise predictable verse to produce that shock.
The repeated mention of the innocuous code language similarly produces a contrast of signifier and signified, chilling all the more because Merton is parroting, not producing, that incongruous linguistic fracture: The weather scout plane, called “Straight Flush, in reference to the mechanical action of a water closet,”[xiii] sneeringly uses scatology to mask eschatology, while one of the escort planes was named “The Great Artiste,” appropriating an image of God in the act, not of creation, but of annihilation.  Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the plane carrying the bomb, had named it after his mother, Enola Gay, tenderly carrying an apocalyptic Little Boy, an Original Child, in her womb.  His pen dripping with irony, Merton says, “At the last minute before taking off Col. Tibbets changed the secret radio call sign from ‘Visitor’ to ‘Dimples.’  The Bombing Mission would be a kind of flying smile.”[xiv]  A vaguely unwelcome guest now comes with cooing, chubby-cheeked innocence to bring death to the firstborn, and so many more, of Japan.  “Good soldiers” are those who can see through the unspeakable human cost, both to the bodies of the killed and the psyches of the killers, to unflinchingly maintain focus on the goal of victory “at any cost”; the Japanese “professional soldiers” who wanted to continue fighting “until everybody was dead”[xv] parallel Col. Tibbetts, a “well balanced man, and not sentimental”,[xvi]  Merton quotes President Truman, “We found the bomb…and we used it,”[xvii] the imagery of “finding” the bomb giving the sense that it is a natural resource, that America stumbled across it, that they were not looking to create a weapon of such magnitude, but since they found it, they should use it.  In the subsequent years, the plethora of similar (and greater) bombs that have been “found” led to “brisk speculation” about the future, but thinking about it is tiresome, uninteresting.  Returning to the subtitle, the lack of interest in speculating about the future has played out in the devastation of civilization that has returned people to a Stone Age, as in Albert Einstein’s quote, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”[xviii]  The “sane,” like in Merton’s later essay “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,” are the ones who can unflinchingly carry out institutional insanity. unlike the men in his crew who later suffered nervous breakdowns and are implied to be weak.

“Chant to be used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces”
“Chant” was one of Merton’s best-known poems and, because it marked a new moment in his antipoetic style and inaugurated a series of poems and essays critiquing the function of language in the legitimation of violence, one of his favorites.  In a letter to his friend James Laughlin, Merton discusses “Chant,” which he refers to as “the Auschwitz poem”, bemoaning the inability to break through the tone-deafness of the times.  Thinking about how to write something about peace, Merton says, “There is no purpose to a silly book of editorial-like platitudes.  Some more poems like Auschwitz, maybe.  But the thing is to be heard.  And everything is perfectly soundproof and thought proof.  We are all doped right up to the eyes.  And words have become useless, no matter how true they may be.”[xix]  Discussing with Nicanor Parra his method of composing “Chant” “almost in its entirety from the very words of the commanders of Auschwitz,” Merton comments, “it would be impossible to invent something more terrifying than the truth itself.”[xx]  Finally, in a letter to a religious Sister, Merton refers to “Chant” as “a florilegium of statements from official documents and other declarations, for the most part”, noting, “That makes it even more terrible.”[xxi]  Merton saw this poem, then, as a “floral arrangement” of words, an ironic and black-humor twist on the assemblage of quotes from concentration camp officials, held together by the bombast of the imagined commandant himself.
The lack of punctuation and the placement of the spaces between strophes indicate the tempo at which “Chant” is to be read – not measured or halting, but a sort of droning recitation that indicates the voice of “officialese,” the accumulation of formulaic slogans that allow the speaker to bypass critical thinking.  Language of purity, cleanliness, efficiency, and improvements made further amplifies the disconnection of the values that the “good functionary” can point to in his own defense from the horrible context in which he was so efficient and managerially competent.  “[I]t was not hot water that came through vents though”[xxii] gives a hint of the diabolical nature of the work – something is not as it seems – only to take it back immediately with an organizational flourish: “efficient winds gave full satisfaction.”[xxiii]  Merton uses an actual recipe for making soap from the remains of murdered Jews, found in the paperwork of one of the camps, to further illustrate the numbed industriousness of the commandant and the productivity of the camp: “How I commanded and made soap 12 lbs fat 10 quarts water 8oz to a lb of caustic soda but it was hard to find any fat,”[xxiv] again alluding by eluding, the absence of fat pointing not only to the use of human fat from which they would make soap, but to the emaciated bodies of the Jewish prisoners that lacked any fat, throwing into relief the images of love and happiness which the “guests” in the poem experienced.  Using a combination of sophisticated terminology and near-baby talk (e.g. “big heater”), the commandant comes off as “simultaneously vacuous and moronic and technically sophisticated…[he] has no images in his prose, no metaphors, no emotion; his is the prose of fact, observation, and euphemism; the prose of clinical and detached discourse.”[xxv]  The very prosaic flatness of the language underscores the incapacity of the speaker to critique his own self-contained world, as if there were no other way to imagine a concentration camp except in terms of efficiency and hygiene.  Only at the end does Merton allow any slippage in the persona of the narrator, warning the audience that while they condemn his megalomaniacal actions, they are guilty bystanders to the actions of their government (particularly, but not only, in Vietnam), expressing a functionally identical mindset: “Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”[xxvi]  (*As a side note, comedian Lenny Bruce adapted “Chant” for use in his stand-up comedy routines, goose-stepping across the stage while reciting it in a loud, droning voice.*)

“Epitaph for a Public Servant”
Again using direct quotations and paraphrases, this time from Eichmann’s trial in Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, the repetitive and derivative nature of the poem indicates that whereas Merton is intentionally burlesquing Eichmann, Eichmann was himself merely following Nazi doctrine.  Whereas Merton still appears in “Chant” and “Original Child Bomb”, the poet disappears totally in “Epitaph,” Speaking of Eichmann, Arendt claimed that “‘the longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that this inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else’.  His speech was full of ‘empty talk’ and ‘stock phrases;’ he was ‘genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché;’ he was, in short, not stupid but vacuous.”[xxvii]  Thus numerous lines are repeated throughout the poem, signifying the stock phrases to which Eichmann would turn for ready-made legitimations of his deeds.  His refusal to think manifests in the repetition of the line, “Who was to have his own thoughts (in such a matter?),” referring to Arendt’s own parody of Eichmann’s “Pontius Pilate feeling,” his hands washed of all responsibility by awe at the “Popes of the Third Reich,” Hitler, Müller, and Heydrich.  “Who was he to judge?” Arendt asks, ironically twisting the self-exonerating question he asked at his trial, “Who was he ‘to have [his] own thoughts in this matter’?”[xxviii]  The refrain “Repentance is for little children,” which occurs six times, is a direct quote from Eichmann as he acknowledged his own legal (but not moral) guilt: he was prepared to hang himself as a warning to anti-Semites, but not because he felt remorse for what he believed had been, at the time, the appropriate thing to do.  The nine repetitions of the line “Not out of mercy (did I launch this transaction)” refer to Eichmann’s conversation with Heinrich Himmler to trade one million Jews for ten thousand trucks: Eichmann considered the deal, not as a means of sparing Jewish lives, but out of a desire to keep the deportation of Jews from falling into the hands of someone who lacked the technical expertise he had.[xxix]  Merton’s more noxious statements become weapons against the worldview that would use language to insulate itself from the reality of its actions: the line “From then on/Official orders/Were my only language” is an obvious paraphrase of Eichmann’s own statement that “Officialese is my only language.”  Similarly, “Long live Argentina/Long live Germany/We will meet again” is drawn nearly word-for-word from Eichmann’s final statement before his execution by hanging in Israel in 1962.
In his later essay “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,” Merton discusses the sinister implications of Eichmann’s sanity, that he had allowed his pursuit of rationalistic values to override whatever basic humanity might resist his orders: “The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing.  We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people.  We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction.  And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.”[xxx]  Merton’s focus on the normalcy of Eichmann resonates with Leonard Cohen’s 1964 poem “All There Is To Know About Adolf Eichmann”:
EYES: Medium
HAIR: Medium
WEIGHT: Medium
HEIGHT: Medium
Although Merton uses Eichmann several times as a foil in his writing, most successfully in his “Devout Meditation”, Merton is less concerned about Eichmann himself than about the bureaucratized “mass-man” whom he comes for Merton to represent, and the calm and measured insanity of those who enacted the nuclear proliferation of the Cold War and the vast devastation of Vietnam in the name of peace and democracy (and not uncommonly, God).  As Merton scholar Anthony Padovano puts it, “We have forgotten the name by which God is to be called, the language by which the message we send can be read.  The laws of technology have taken the place of the language of the heart.”[xxxii]  The skintight fit of the mantle of officialese is sobering because Eichmann represents a new kind of criminal who, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well nigh impossible for him to know that he is doing wrong.”[xxxiii]  When language has built such an impenetrable world, what language is left to deconstruct it?
Merton gives insight into his sense of the relationship between his political understanding of poetry and resistance to the hegemonic claims of the inhuman, arguing that “The real dynamic of nonviolence can be considered as a purification of language, a restoration of true communication on a human level, when language has been emptied of meaning by misuse and corruption…Above all, nonviolence is meant to convey and to defend truth which has been obscured and defiled by political double talk.”[xxxiv]  His antipoetry, then, becomes a parodic attempt at the reclamation of words from their euphemistic legitimation of untroubled, “sane” devastation, and at the reclamation of the human person from the morass of the mass mind.

[i] Paul Pearson. “Poetry of the Sneeze: Thomas Merton and Nicanor Parra.”  Thomas Merton Society.
[ii] Linda Hutcheon.  A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms.  (Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 2000), p. 10.
[iii] Thomas Merton.  The Nonviolent Alternative, ed. Gordon Zahn.  (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1981), p. 234.
[iv] “Poetry of the Sneeze.”
[v] Lynn Szabo.  In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton.  (New York: New Directions, 2005), p. 145.
[vi] Thomas Merton.  A Vow of Conversation.  (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1988), p. 13.
[vii] George Woodcock.  Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet.  (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1978), p. 144.
[viii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 111.
[ix] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 112.
[x] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 112.
[xi] Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet, p. 143.
[xii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 113.
[xiii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 116.
[xiv] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 117.
[xv] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 112.
[xvi] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 116.
[xvii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 118.
[xix] David Joseph Belcastro.  “Chanting on the Rim of Chaos, Sane Language in an Insane World.”  Across the Rim of Chaos: Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Vision, Angus Stuart, ed.  (Stratton-on-the Fosse, UK: The Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 2005), 60-72, at 63.
[xx] “Poetry of the Sneeze.”
[xxi] “Chanting on the Rim of Chaos”, p. 66.
[xxii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 121.
[xxiii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 121.
[xxiv] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 121.
[xxv] John Porter.  “Thomas Merton as Public Intellectual.”
[xxvi] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 122.
[xxvii] “Thomas Merton as Public Intellectual.”
[xxviii] Hannah Arendt.  Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 114.
[xxix] Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 25.
[xxx] Nonviolent Alternative, p. 161.
[xxxi] “Thomas Merton as Public Intellectual.”
[xxxii] Anthony Padovano.  The Human Journey Thomas Merton: Symbol of a Century.  (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1984), p. 111.
[xxxiii] Thomas Merton.  Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.  (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1989), p. 290.
[xxxiv] Thomas Merton.  The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton.  Patrick Hart, ed.  (New York: New Directions, 1985), p. 27.


A little something from Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian/ethicist at Duke: "The deepest enemy to Christianity is not atheism - it's sentimentality." I think what he means is that whatever "holiness" is supposed to mean, it's either a politically critical holiness or it's nothing. The Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, attempting to reject a romanticized or affected poetic form in favor of speaking to the world on the ground, says:
"We repudiate
The poetry of dark glasses
The poetry of the cape and sword
The poetry of the plumed hat
We propose instead
The poetry of the naked eye
The poetry of the hairy chest
The poetry of the bare head.

We don’t believe in nymphs or tritons.
Poetry has to be this:
A girl in a wheatfield -
Or it’s absolutely nothing."

I think I would have to say the same thing about holiness - at a moment in history at which our attention span seems inversely proportional to our capacity for destruction, holiness simply cannot afford to content itself even with "good-deed-doing," let alone more sentimental "me and Jesus" spiritualities or any kind of feel-good that is taking us away from recognition of the genuinely iconoclastic spirit of the gospel. If you will excuse my copycat attempt at a parallel, We repudiate the holiness of the folded hands and the upturned eye. We propose instead the holiness of the shackled ankle and the knotted stomach. Of course, we don't find a lot of that terribly often - not in our parishes, our schools, our universities. What would it look like, Hauerwas asks, to be against something like greed? We can't even think of what greed even looks like apart from completely over-the-top examples.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


No, I'm not going to talk about the proliferation of vampire-themed movies and television shows that are emerging of late in the media. I got a telephone call yesterday (that's rare enough in itself) from a blood donation center in Louisiana, asking if I could come in and donate. That was the third donation center that had called me in the past two weeks, all of them asking for donations (blood, not money). So, I know that my posts are usually about pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities, but this once, something more practical: if you can, please donate blood. It's the easiest way to save lives that I know of, just about everyone will need blood at some point in his/her life, and if my phone records are any indication, a lot of blood centers' reserves are in bad shape. Plus, some places have started giving out much better swag than the usual t-shirt. Lastly, a number of studies have suggested that donating blood lowers the risk of heart disease by removing iron that would otherwise build up in the body. For adult men, who have no regular means of eliminating iron from the body, donating blood could play a significant part in maintaining your heart. Whatever reason you can come up with to donate blood, please do so.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Farewell discourse - the end of the school year...

It's the middle of finals week, so I'm up to my eyeballs in paper writing (and enjoying all the snow falling on Mother's Day...), but I did give a little reflection at the masses today, and since it was the last Sunday of the regular school year, I themed it around moving on. More once all the papers are out of the way and I have some time to think about something else...

I suppose it is appropriate that as we are saying farewell to one another, the gospel comes from what is called the “Farewell Discourse” of John’s Gospel. When we return in the fall, it will be a drastically new community – without some old friends, and with a good number of new ones, but one way or another, almost all of us will be away from this place for some time. In today’s gospel Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” Of course I hope you will be active in a community of faith this summer, but wherever you are, I hope that you remember the peace that Jesus is talking about. He says this in the context of facing his death, so he clearly doesn’t just mean that you are happy and content and smooth sailing. “Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” “The world” for John has a very specific meaning – not the physical reality of the planet itself, and not the bodily realm as opposed to the spiritual, but a particular imagination – a vision of how life is supposed to operate. Let’s call it “the worldly” rather than “the world,” so you don’t think I’m saying the world itself is bad.

The worldly vision of peace is more or less about “success,” managing your life well enough to climb above the chaos, to make your life a comfortable and stable one. I presume we all came to SU or ESF for a reason – they have a good reputation, you are likely to get hired quickly and get a good salary, whatever. In brief, you thought it would help you to succeed, to make your life work for you. We have implicitly made a deal: we will make ourselves useful to the world by providing ourselves with valuable skills, and the world will make use of us, and in exchange it will make us more or less comfortable and safe and, we hope, happy. All of you, graduating or not, are already successful people by the sheer fact that you got into SU, ESF, wherever, and of course you are all the kinds of folks who will continue to do noteworthy things as captains of industry, businesspeople, politicians, thinkers, educators, health care providers and so on. Now, of course that’s fine, but I do hope you are getting more than job training in exchange for the sizeable amount of debt you are piling up, and that you expect more than that from your education – more than becoming well-paid operators. Certainly you know more stuff now than you did when you first arrived here, but have you become more genuinely human, in all of its glory and anguish and simplicity and complexity? Are you learning not only how to make a living, but how to live?

In a commencement address to the 1961 graduating class of Columbia University, his alma mater, Thomas Merton had the following to say about university education: “If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves.” (TMSM 365) Now again, don’t misunderstand me; please learn all you can and bring your gifts to the table. As one of my brothers once told me, “The world is an endless black hole of misery and suffering,” by which he meant that whatever gifts you have, the world needs them badly. What the world does NOT need, though, is more glory-hounds killing themselves to have their picture on the front page of the New York Times or to have someone else think that they are successful. We’ve got more than enough of that. But that’s all the peace that the worldly can give: this Promethean struggle to be successful in the eyes of a world that can at most see you as a useful instrument. I hope you hear the real violence operative in a world like that.

The peace that the world cannot give is based in seeing beyond instrumental value; those people who cannot be squeezed into an imagination based on usefulness are either invisible or dangerous – the elderly, disabled, undereducated, incarcerated, so on. We have come here every weekend this year hoping to challenge that imagination, to be at least a little dangerous – wasting perfectly good work time producing nothing, accomplishing nothing, and trying to align ourselves with the unsuccessful – with the broken body of Christ, the crucified people of our world. We know that the voice of relevance, success, efficiency, is at full volume wherever we go, and it’s alive and well in us too, but this year we as a community have been here to at least whisper something else, to not give the worldly the stage all to itself. Wherever you are going this summer, remember that whisper, hang onto it when the worldly is trying to shout it down. Stay connected with a community of friends who can keep tuning you in to that whisper and reminding you of the peace that is worthy of your life, the peace that the world(ly) cannot give.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The oasis in my day

It has been a long time, as usual. The end of the semester means lots of things to be read and written, but hopefully also some things emerging that might not be out of place in this forum. A very dear friend just sent me this poem entitled "Ithaca," and it was for me this afternoon a small oasis of reading and rereading and letting the words play on my tongue, with the attentiveness and care of a wine tasting. (*The fact that Ithaca is only about an hour down the road from Syracuse made it all the more relevant for me as I am looking ahead to the chance to get out on the road a bit soon.*) Simone Weil said, prophetically for our sound-bite era, "Absolutely unmingled attentiveness is prayer." I hope these words might be a small oasis of attentiveness for you as well...


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon---do not fear them;
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long,
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber, and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.

---Constantine Cuvafy

Sunday, April 11, 2010

mercy and bodies

Fr. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who is also a Syracuse native and a well-known peace activist, is famous, or infamous, for having said (and I hope you will pardon the colorfulness of this metaphor), “Faith is not where your head is at, and rarely where your heart is at. Faith is where your ass is at!” Today the church celebrates “Divine Mercy” Sunday – typically celebrated in remembrance of the devotion of St. Faustina – you might recognize the pictures of Jesus with the red and white rays of light coming out of his chest. Anyway, the way she talks about mercy is mostly about getting plenary indulgences and eliminating purgatory time, and believe me, I’m all for forgiveness, but mercy in the life of Jesus is way too focused on people’s bodies to reduce it to something that happens only in your head or your heart, let alone after the grave. When we talk about Jesus as the presence of God, we use the term “Incarnation” – coming in flesh. When we talk about Easter, we don’t say his spirit goes to heaven – we talk about the resurrection of the body, the transformation of this fragile stuff. So today I want to talk to you about bodies; for a church that talks about Incarnation and eating the body of Christ and being the body of Christ, we are awfully good at acting like Jesus just came to save souls. How many of us think that spirituality is about feeling it in our hearts rather than living it with our bodies, or imagine that having faith means believing the right things, or think that religion and politics (which is all about people’s bodily reality) don’t mix? Nothing is more embodied than Christianity done right.

And look at the readings – there are bodies everywhere: What does mercy look like for the disciples in the gospel? It looks like a body – the body of Jesus, three times offering them peace, making himself available to Thomas, breaking up the fear that has paralyzed this group of people since his death. What does mercy look like for the people in the first reading? It looks like being healed: these bodies that had been hiding with fear have become so saturated with the mercy of Jesus that even Peter’s shadow has power to heal these broken and diseased bodies. I think I have mentioned before that the Greek word for compassion literally means that the person’s guts are churning inside them, and the Hebrew word for compassion, rehem, comes from the same root as the word for womb, rahamim – mom love, I-carried-you-in-my-body-for-nine-months-and-this-is-the-thanks-I-get kind of love. Any mother knows that mercy is not just in the head or the heart - any mother knows how bodily mercy actually is.

We are all familiar with the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, and I don’t have any particular need to slam that reality in itself, but the biggest danger I see among both “spiritual” and “religious” people is that when people say, “Well, I believe in God/a higher power/whatever,” they mistakenly think that what you BELIEVE is the most important thing. Belief makes no sense at all apart from where you put your BODY. Now, that doesn’t mean that just showing up for church, your body being in the seat, is all it is about; it’s about the commitments you make and what “belief” actually looks like when it is written in human flesh. We miss the point of that because we hear the word “believers” so often in the readings today – believers in the Lord were added to the community, happy are they who have not seen and have believed. The words they are using in Greek are cognates of the root word pistis, which doesn’t mean faith the way we think of it as “what you believe,” so much as faithfulness in the sense of fidelity, “being there” for people, being “count-on-able.” I am so happy that we greet one another at the Catholic Center, but I hope that none of us treat that moment as a formality. I hope there is an actual community, an actual body being created here, the body of Christ, that we are coming to know one another and be available to one another – to take care of this body, not just that “I’m going to church,” like a blip on our radar screens, but to celebrate and strengthen what we are trying to be when we leave this building, for each other and for the people we will meet who need mercy. Augustine is remembered as having held up the consecrated host during the Eucharist and saying, “Christians, see yourselves”; that is, become the body of Christ, individually parts of the reality that is greater than any one of us.