Sunday, December 23, 2007

a rerun

Hi all,

I'm back in New Orleans for the moment, visiting friends, Brothers, family. The SLU Ignatian retreat is coming up in a couple of weeks, and I have to prepare a talk on sin, but doing so got me reading back to last year's talk, on the kingdom of God. That thing came before this blog got up and running, so I figured I would do a "rerun," since the television shows seem to be doing the same thing these days. Here goes:

When I was in high school, I was pretty heavily involved in the martial arts, and I thought I was a pretty tough kid. I was strong, I could hit hard, and I figured I knew a lot about fighting. The best lesson I ever learned came one day, though, when we were doing an exhibition at some little county fair type thing. After I did my thing, three good old boys in their 20s (I must have been about 16) came over to me and talking smack for about 5 minutes. I let them say their thing and paw at me without a word, but afterward I felt ashamed for not standing up and letting them have it. I went through the incident a hundred times in the next couple of weeks before I figured out that, had I gone with my impulse to get after it with one or all three of those guys, I would either have gotten my butt kicked or gotten in trouble with the law, or both, just because my ego got bruised by someone questioning how tough I really was. Later on, my teacher told me that the loudest of this trio had come over to him and told him, “I want that guy,” meaning he wanted to have a go at me. “Oh, you can have him, just come on back when we’re finished,” my teacher told him, presumably because he knew the guy was full of hot air. Needless to say, the guy never came back. I spent all that energy, not trying to defend myself from an attack, but defending my ego from an insult from a stranger whose opinion really didn’t matter to me at all. That impromptu test ended up teaching me more than the tests I took for any of those belts, any of the little weekly sparring sessions we would have in class. That was the real beginning of my education; up until that time I had been building the skill to know how to fight guys like those three dudes, but that day I learned a lesson about fighting the need to “prove” how tough I was to myself or anyone else.

In all three synoptics there is also a tradition of Jesus being tested in the desert, but MT and LK expand MK's quickie version into the familiar story of the three tests. In both cases, of course, the tests immediately follow the experience he has at his baptism, namely the experience of being identified as beloved son. The texts say Jesus was driven out into the desert by the Spirit and tempted or tested by the devil, which I think means he had to work through what it could possibly mean to be beloved Son of God. Whether you believe in “the devil” or not, the tests that Jesus undergoes are just the kind of thing that someone with his kind of power HAS to undergo; the person who doesn’t face his/her “demons” of egocentrism will become a manipulator or a tyrant or an eternal adolescent. Did you ever notice that in two out of the three temptations, the tempter starts off with, “If you are the Son of God,…” trying to define for Jesus what being Son of God “should” be about? Jesus passes the tests by refusing to make life secure for himself or use his power for his own benefit. Spiritually, this is right on. For most of us, we would think that to be the Son of God or Daughter of God means having the divine hook-up. If God’s the king, that makes us the prince or princess, and everybody knows how the prince or princess is expected to live. We all know that Paris Hilton has the luxury of acting like a complete juvenile because she can bask in the perks of having a rich father. We also know that simply having power doesn’t make you a hero or even an adult, but whether you use that power for the sake of others, whether you are willing to put yourself on the line.

The first temptation is for Jesus to turn stones to bread after having fasted for a long time. In other words, “if you are the Son of God,” says the tempter, you shouldn’t be hungry, vulnerable, in need. On the contrary, Jesus knows that what it means to be the Son of God is not focusing on his own comfort or his own security, but on “every word that comes from the mouth of God," allowing his consciousness to be transformed for doing the will of God. Second, following MT’s order rather than LK’s, the tempter encourages him to throw himself down from the top of the temple, so everyone can watch as angels catch him, because “if you are the Son of God,” you should be acclaimed, popular, surrounded by crowds cheering your miracles. Sometimes that happens to Jesus, but more often, he is unpopular, rejected, misunderstood. To be the Son of God does not mean gaining cheap popularity through magic or miracles, getting followers who want tricks more than transformation, but being centered enough to deal with failure and unpopularity. The third temptation is perhaps the most insidious – the temptation to gain power by “selling your soul,” that is, selling out on what you know to be right, doing even the right thing, but for the wrong reason. I imagine the tempter telling Jesus, “Think of all the good you could do if you ruled all those kingdoms, all the good laws you could pass and the people you could help” and certainly, a man with Jesus’ intelligence and insight could easily have become a popular, well-respected Pharisee or even a powerful leader of a Zealot movement, a “Messiah” in the military sense that the people expected, had he so chosen. All it would have taken is for Jesus to make himself, not the Kingdom of God, the center of his vision. This is focusing on the ends without regards to the means; when Luke Skywalker asks Yoda if the Dark Side of the Force is stronger, and Yoda replies, “No. Quicker, easier, more seductive,” this is what he is talking about.

What Jesus encounters out there, that I think leads him directly to his vision of the kingdom of God, is one truth repeated in each of the three tests: it isn’t about me. I’m going to say it again because this is about the hardest thing we can hear: My life is not about me. Sure, at one level it is all about me, so that God is more “for me” than I am for myself, but in fact that means that it is about handing myself back over to something much bigger than I, to God’s purposes in the world. To truly be the son of God, the daughter of God, is to be like God, who is absolute self-giving; it is not to cling to the perks of power that come with having connections, or even merely to enjoy the consolation of having a warm-and-fuzzy prayer life. Paul understood that, which is why he incorporated the following early Christian hymn into Philippians 2:

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5-11)

What is it, according to this hymn, that leads to Jesus’ glorification as Lord? His self-emptying (the Greek word is kenosis) all the way to death. Unlike the rest of us, who grasp after status and thereby lose it, Jesus doesn’t grasp after it, he lets go of any kind of ego-reinforcement, and paradoxically, that’s what brings him glory. At some instinctive level, we all know that this is how it works: we code it into all of our myths and stories, from lives of the saints right down to comic books. Archbishop Oscar Romero is able to say, “If they kill me, I shall rise in the Salvadoran people,” because his concern for their liberation went all the way to his death. Martin Luther King is upheld because he was more concerned with getting his people to the Promised Land than making sure he got there with them. Spider-Man is revered as a hero by the people of New York because he lays his life on the line for them, because he knows that his power isn’t for him, that “with great power comes great responsibility.” This preoccupation with our own egos is the central struggle of our lives; if you think our focus on self doesn’t run right to our roots, ask yourself this: whenever I look at a photo album, say on Facebook or in a yearbook, whose face do I look for first? It is because it is so difficult to de-center the ego that we prefer to put our heroes on a pedestal, to worship from a distance rather than imitate, to make the cross into a piece of jewelry or a decoration for our walls rather than a pattern for living and dying and rising. The problem is that Jesus says very little about “worship me” and a lot about “follow me,” and following Jesus leads to the cross, where we just can’t bear to go.

So, what does any of this have to do with the kingdom of God? Well, everything. For Ignatius, the Exercises are about following Jesus, and that which we see Jesus doing is announcing and bringing about the kingdom: preaching and healing, healing and preaching. For us to encounter Jesus is to encounter the kingdom of God being made present, like Gandhi’s quote, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” The term “kingdom of God” is code language for the fulfillment of God’s will, for the world to run the way God wants it to run. Jesus tells us as much in the Our Father: “Your kingdom come” – what does that mean? “Your will be done.” It isn’t so much going to heaven (although that's in there) as the coming of heaven to earth. This is why I have never understood it when people say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Seeing genocide, rampant starvation around the world, the global AIDS epidemic or any other horrible reality through that lens would mean that God has written all this awful stuff into some cosmic script for a larger purpose that would allegedly make it ok. No! The very point of the kingdom of God is that things are NOT as they should be, that God’s will is NOT being done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Getting there from here is just as urgent, and just as difficult, as it was in Jesus’ time, because it demands that people de-center their egos and risk change, rejection, death, all of which we avoid at all costs. That is, for God’s kingdom to come, it means that my kingdom, the tower of success and popularity that I dream of creating, may well have to go. We can’t even reduce the kingdom to trying to fix all the problems of the world “out there,” because, to quote Thomas Merton, we first of all recognize that the power of error “was after all not in the city, but in ourselves.” How easily we can do ostensibly good things, helping others, protesting war or fighting unjust conditions out of an unenlightened egocentricity, a smug certitude of our own superiority and righteousness against the warmongers and the overlords, hating the rich rather than loving the poor. Ignatius does not intend for us to become social workers or to create messiah complexes in us, but to be converted to the person and ministry of Jesus as a necessary first step of our own ministries.

Paradoxically, the point of all of this stuff is not to deny who we are; it is, in fact, to bring to bear all the abilities that we have, to become our best selves. We become men and women of the kingdom not by becoming some sort of emotionless robot, not trying to live up to some kind of abstract, “one-size-fits-all” holiness, but by incarnating holiness in the unique mix that we are. The history of Christian holy men and women should make clear that there is no one standard for what we have to do to be holy or to help bring about the kingdom: Mother Teresa cared for the dying, Dorothy Day fed the hungry, Martin King went to jail, Thomas Merton wrote books, Karl Rahner taught theology. There are others, though, that are less “churchy”: Oskar Schindler ran an enamelware factory to protect Jews from execution, Adam Neiman runs a fair trade clothing company, Bill Quigley teaches law students to seek justice rather than manipulate the system, and Jim Deshotels runs a free mobile clinic on the streets of New Orleans. You have something in you that can help others, and at a certain level, it doesn’t much matter whether that something is saving thousands of lives or making a really fine banana cream pie: the point is not to abandon that, but to us it for the center that lies beyond you, instead of using it to make yourself the center. The Hindu tradition puts it this way: “Plunge into the heart of battle and lay your heart at the lotus feet of the Lord.”

It is a really hard balance between using our gifts and letting ourselves shore up our own egos with them. Notice how often throughout the gospels we see Jesus urging people to focus away from whatever would lead them to shore up their egos and find their identity in something other than God: avoid all greed, sell all you have, take up your cross, whoever wishes to be first must be last. Think about it like this: what kind of value would I see in myself if I didn’t “produce” anything, if I weren’t doing something “useful” that gave my ego something to latch onto? This is the real value of the desert for Jesus, I think – it’s like the Buddha under the bo tree, helping him understand that life still goes on just fine without him. I can imagine Jesus in the desert arguing with himself, his ego trying to come up with reasons to leave the desert – there are sick people out there to be healed, there are outcasts to be forgiven, and you’re not helping anyone out here: you aren’t “producing.” Can you hear the insidiousness of this kind of thinking? It leads us to convince ourselves that we are acting nobly, desiring to help others, when in fact we are probably looking to convince ourselves that we are important, we are accomplishing things, so we can feel good about ourselves. When all those self-images are stripped away, who am I? What if no one paid me any compliments, what if I couldn’t work, what if I were unable to be a “useful” or “productive” member of society? What would my identity be then? When I went to the Navajo Nation to start teaching, it was a real culture shock, because the students were not very emotionally expressive, and I was used to getting lots of emotional feedback from my white, upper-middle-class, all-boys’-school students. I had to totally redefine my style and my expectations, because it let me know clearly that my life was definitely NOT about me.

As our self-created identities get ripped away, we slowly figure out that who we finally are is defined by our relationship to God and nothing else. It takes a lifetime to even begin to figure this out in our guts, but once we start we don’t have to try so hard to protect our little false identities, and we can stand with the powerless, who are precisely those who have no socially created identity to hang their hats on – the poor, the socially and religiously unclean, the disposable members of our world. This is why Jesus so often moves among the nonpersons of his society – to let them know that God’s valuation of them does not depend on what society thinks of them. I find it interesting that MT has Jesus say, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and LK’s parallel is, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” What does it mean to be perfect, and in particular, what does it mean to be like God? Be compassionate. The episodes in each gospel that immediately follow Jesus’ testing are instructive, because each is about compassion: in MT, the first protracted episode is the Sermon on the Mount, which lays out Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom, beginning with the Beatitudes, which can be broken down into two groups: blessed are the downtrodden, and blessed are those who put themselves on the side of the downtrodden. In LK, Jesus goes home to Nazareth and reads to his neighbors the text that answered his question of what it means to be the Son of God: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to announce a year of favor from the Lord.” (LK 4:18-19)

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Well, friends, if you have been reading this blog for a while, you've put up with me mentioning the class trip to Gethsemani for a while now. Last weekend we finally pulled it off, with some funding help from the good people in Arts & Sciences. We stayed in Louisville Friday night and drove to Gethsemani Saturday morning (Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception). It was an ugly day viz. weather, but it was a great day to be at the monastery. We had time to see Merton's grave (yes, I recovered my cross that I left there in October) and walk around a bit before tierce/mass, after which we met up with Br. Paul. He had to cook, so we drove to Bardstown for lunch and came back, at which point he took us to the hermitage. I had been hoping for maybe a half hour of his time, but he gave us a good hour and a half, which included reading part of "Rain and the Rhinoceros" to us (it was raining at the time), building a fire in the hermitage and telling us stories about Merton, discussing the meaning of the monastic life (fantastic!) and reciting some poetry for us. It got pretty smoky in there because the flue wouldn't open in the fireplace, but it was worth every second. After we left, the students later came to the consensus that Br. Paul is a great example of what 50 years of monastic life lived well can produce -- a humble, thoughtful, deeply warm and human person, no hangups, no foolishness.

We left there and went down the road to the Bethany Spring retreat center, home of the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living and my friend Jonathan Montaldo. Jonathan, a graduate of Cor Jesu, a former Brothers' school in New Orleans, is the epitome of southern hospitality. Even though he had a group there on retreat, he spent a long time with us, talking about what they do there, feeding us banana bread and taking us on a walk around the place. Another great experience for the students to hear from a real Merton expert. We left there to get back on the road to St. Louis, stopping in Louisville just long enough to visit the plaque at 4th and Muhammad Ali, which was once "4th and Walnut," the street corner at which Merton had a breakthrough to solidarity with the world rather than contempt for, or rejection of, the world. So, that's it. It wasn't a particularly BUSY trip, but I felt like we got to see and do quite a bit (at least, to see and do the stuff that mattered). Oh, we even got to buy some monastery cheese -- now our trip can truly be called a success! Now all that remains is to read the final papers and start fiddling around with the syllabus for next time (hoping I get to teach this class again, and sooner rather than later). Mercy within mercy within mercy...

Sunday, December 2, 2007

SOA/WHINSEC and more...

Let’s see, what’s been going on lately? Two weeks ago, I went to Fort Benning, GA for the annual School of the Americas vigil. It’s a big deal for the Jesuit universities and high schools because of the connection of the SOA to the deaths of the 6 Jesuit martyrs in El Salvador, and campus ministry hosts a trip down there every year, so I felt like I should do it so I could see for myself what is going on there. I’ve read a decent amount of stuff on both sides of the argument over the years, and still don’t feel like I’ve ever been able to nail down what my position should be. After a 12-hour bus ride down there, some of us were able to take a tour of WHINSEC (the current school for members of Latin American military personnel) and talk to a number of people who work there, all of whom were very hospitable and gracious. We were able to attend an hour-long Q&A panel with several higher-ups from the school, during which time I asked a question about the difference between the SOA (then) and WHINSEC (now) but which, I thought, no one really answered. Still, there was a lot of emphasis placed on the amount of human-rights education going on now at WHINSEC, and an obvious effort to distance themselves from the SOA, which is fine if they are indeed doing so much stuff right these days. If there were improprieties and even training in techniques that did not respect human rights back in the SOA days, that doesn’t mean closing WHINSEC is the right move, but it sure would be nice of the government to admit to it. Sunday was the big march down the street leading to the gates of Fort Benning, and the procession was some 20,000 people strong, as the speakers at the microphones spent several hours reading off the names of men, women and children killed or disappeared in a number of Latin American countries over the past few decades. Again, that doesn’t mean the closure of WHINSEC is the proper response (that depends on what is going on there now), but there is something is really right in keeping vigil for the innumerable people who were affected by their governments’ violence.
Throughout the trip, I saw a number of our students (and a number of people from other schools) doing the “violent pacifism” kind of thing that Merton hated about the peace movements of the 1960s – so dehumanizing the folks at WHINSEC, refusing to allow real discussion to happen, that they were in fact the violent ones, despite their rhetoric of being strictly nonviolent on the trip. Part of me wonders (not knowing all the background on that time period) if part of the problem with the protest folks is that the truth and reconciliation commissions in El Salvador allowed for amnesty for people who were guilty of human-rights abuses if they would tell the truth about their involvement – as good as the idea is in principle, it leaves a lot of unmanaged anger and the reality of a lot of guilty people not being punished. That means the urge to assign guilt is still out there, especially since the U.S. government hasn’t done much in the area of acknowledging its complicity with some genuinely dirty regimes. The need on our part is not to let our students stay at the level of simply being angry liberals – they will simply keep on banging heads with angry conservatives and fuel the fire of anger and mistrust. It is much harder and more costly to stand in the shadow of the cross, wanting to seek the truth with the folks on the other side, than to simply rail at injustices.
Since then has been less exciting, but still busy. A good trip home at Thanksgiving, a nicely cooked Tofurkey courtesy of my sister and a few hours of cracking a tiny fraction of the pecans that were in her yard, and a couple more days to spend with the parentals, seeing my mom’s new place, going for a bicycle ride with my dad, and still finding time to read a couple of books. Back to StL on Monday morning, and right back to the grind. That Tuesday after Thanksgiving was an information meeting about the trip to Haiti this summer, and I had a good turnout – between those who came to the meeting and those who couldn’t but emailed about their interest, I’ve got about 30 people in the hopper. We’ll see how many actually turn in applications…
These past couple of weeks have been crazy busy, even with the Thanksgiving break, so I’ve been fairly sleep-deprived and getting increasingly out of shape. Perhaps (ha) the Christmas break will be a chance to ameliorate both, but I doubt it. I’m finally shaping up my theological foundations class for the spring, but I still have to parse out the readings across the semester. Hard to believe this upcoming week is the last week of classes in the semester – next weekend is our much-anticipated trip to Gethsemani. On that note, I’ll go ahead and finish this little ramble with my old standby from Merton: mercy within mercy within mercy…

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sheesh, I can't believe how long it has been since I have posted something that isn't academic in nature. There has been a lot of great stuff going on, so I guess it is just a matter of having time to put together something worthwhile.

Where to begin? The weekend before Halloween the Micahs (the service-learning community with which I work at SLU) put on a Halloween party at a local elementary school here in St. Louis. If it's possible, I think our students had more fun than the little kids -- like last year, they had all kinds of crazy costumes and put on a bunch of goofy activities -- wrapping kids in toilet paper to "mummify" them, making them feel bowls of various nasty substances that were supposed to be innards, face painting, and so on. You know how those kinds of things go, so I'll just let the pictures do the talking:

The next weekend was the annual retreat for the same group of students, and this year, for the first time, we went to a state park and did more of a nature-y retreat; in previous years, we had gone to St. Meinrad Archabbey, which was fine, but this had a very different feel, and I think, a better one. We spent time introducing the students to centering prayer, walked the labyrinth (my small contribution to the weekend), had an amazing drum circle (see below) and a great evening around a bonfire. The drum circle was led by my friend Brian Robinette, a professor in the theology department (and a drummer in a local band), and it went something like this: he brought a couple of dozen percussion instruments, from drums to cymbals to tambourines to his kids' toy xylophones, enough for everyone to have an instrument, and he would play a basic beat and invite everyone to add the noise of their particular instrument, and somehow it ended up blending together really well.

That Monday I took off from work because I was at the retreat all weekend, and I went to go see the film Into the Wild, based on the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, which I had read a few years ago. A powerful film, not perfect, but going a long way to show the intensity and honesty of this young man who goes into the wilderness of Alaska to discover what is most true in human existence. It made me seriously consider using that book in the theological foundations class I will be teaching in the spring. I'm considering that one, Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Night by Elie Wiesel, and a couple of other books that, although not explicitly theological, deal with "the big questions."
This past weekend I worked on a Habitat for Humanity project with some of the students from the SLU Habitat chapter, and it was overall very good, mostly last-minute touches on a house that is just about ready to be lived in. That night a group of campus ministry folks went to see a film called Lars and the Real Girl, which sounded really weird but was getting good reviews. In a nutshell, the story is this: a reclusive young guy (Lars) in small-town Minnesota or Wisconsin who buys a life-sized plastic doll of a girl has a delusion that she is real and that he is in a relationship with her. There is a total innocence about the guy, nothing twisted about him, but his brother and sister-in-law, who are horrified by the whole thing, talk to the local psychologist, who tell them to play along so he can work through it on his own terms. What follows is a marvelous story of the entire town participating for Lars' sake, and the story was at once gentle and deep, with subtle use of drama to convey rich symbol. I couldn't get it out of my mind for the rest of the weekend.
Finally, this week has been hell on wheels from the start. A group from SLU, myself included, are going to the SOA/WHINSEC Ignatian Teach-In at Fort Benning, GA this weekend, so we have a laundry list of activities connected with that. Tuesday was the annual Campus Ministry Chili Cook-Off, a benefit for our annual Food Drive, so I made my not-so-famous apple-sweet potato chili; despite all my work in the kitchen and all my shameless self-promotion at the Cook-Off, I took a close second to my friend Laura. Next year…
All for now. I suspect I will have plenty to report on after the SOA trip. Mercy within mercy…

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

another paper...

I have a real post coming soon, because we have had a lot of fun stuff going recently, and plenty of pictures, but in the meantime, until I have a chance to properly write something, here's a little paper I did for my class entitled "Anthropological Issues in Theology." It's a synthesis of a book entitled The Ritual Process, written by an anthropologist named Victor Turner. Maybe it just proves that I'm boring, but this stuff really interests me, especially as a member of a religious community, since religious life is often seen as having something of the character of permanent liminality about it. Liminality, by the way, comes from the Latin limen, "threshold," and implies being outside of the social conventions of class and gender and hierarchy roles that exist in every culture, like being a "tweenager" -- neither child nor adult. Anyway, read it and sleep...

Turner spends a great deal of energy in The Ritual Process discussing the notion of liminality, including its occurrence in rites de passage, following van Gennep’s three-stage outline of separation, margin (i.e. liminality), and aggregation. He links the formation of communitas with liminality while attempting to analyze the peculiar phenomenon of socially marginal groups holding considerable sacral power.

Turner’s discussion of liminality has numerous connections to the notion of the regressus ad uterum discussed by Mircea Eliade: “The return to the womb is signified either by the neophyte’s seclusion in a hut, or by his being symbolically swallowed by a monster, or by his entering a sacred identified with the uterus of Mother Earth.” (Myth 80) Eliade then goes on to discuss the Indian upanayama ceremony, in which “the teacher is said to transform the boy into an embryo and to keep him in his belly for three nights,” (Myth 80) which symbolizes not only a return to the womb, but to the womb of a ‘male mother,’ an initiatory holy person who, holding together male and female, becomes “undifferentiated” and therefore himself a liminal figure.
In Turner’s words, “liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, to an eclipse of the sun or moon.” (Turner 95) Ritualized encounters with death in the belly of the beast typically enact rebirth as well, so that, “The initiatory cabin represents not only the belly of the devouring monster but also the womb.” (Birth 36) Anthropologist Martin Buss points out that the prophet or shaman in aboriginal cultures is typically a socially marginal person, and that such cultures watch their children for signs of such marginality, and are able to steer them toward shamanistic vocations. The unconventional figure might stand outside conventional gender roles: he/she may be homosexual or androgynous (which some Native American cultures see as “two-souled” and thus super-spiritual), or a celibate or eunuch. The shamanistic figure might be both haunted and gifted psychologically, which might lead to or flow from extended solitude or meditative distance which would lend itself to alternative modes of seeing reality. The possibility of physical handicap, especially blindness, also has a long history in the mythic tradition: the blind one is the one who truly sees, who is not confounded by the illusions of the senses, such as Tiresias, Oedipus, or the Stygian Witches. Eliade says by way of example, “In Siberia, the youth who is called to be a shaman attracts attention by his strange behavior; for example, he seeks solitude, becomes absent-minded, loves to roam in the woods or unfrequented places, has visions, and sings in his sleep.” (Birth 87) He then goes on to elucidate:
"the shamanic vocation often implies a crisis so deep that it sometimes borders on madness…
The total crisis of the future shaman, sometimes leading to complete disintegration of the personality and to madness, can be valuated…as a symbolic return to the precosmogonic Chaos…Now, as we know, for archaic and traditional cultures, a symbolic return to Chaos is equivalent to preparing a new Creation." (Birth 89)

This is in line with Jung’s statement that “the experience of the Self [that is, the true self] is always a defeat for the ego [that is, for the false self].” Although they are on different ends of a spectrum of “impressiveness,” to encounter one’s true naked and humble reality or to encounter the Numinous cuts the legs out from under the ego in favor of a more honest appropriation of who one truly is. The distance and social margination of which Eliade writes enables identification with the socially marginal or the ritually unclean, which then engenders critique of the religious symbol-structure itself, since the religion all too often enables and validates the purity code. As Turner puts it, “The shaman or prophet assumes a statusless status, external to the secular social structure, which gives him the right to criticize all structure-bound personae in terms of a moral order binding on all, and also to mediate between all segments or components of the structured system.” (Turner 128)

Turner says, “if liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it can be seen as potentially a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs.” (Turner 167) This has important implications for the concept of prophecy understood in keeping with Walter Brueggemann’s image of prophecy as a poetic imaginative rendering of alternative possibilities for the world beyond the data on the ground at any given moment. That is, the world need not be as it is, should not be as it is, particularly for those who are ground under the wheels of the machinery of social control; societas devoid of communitas is a structure devoid of humanity.

Nevertheless, for it to endure, the communitas must undergo some kind of structuring. “Nowhere has this institutionalization of liminality been more clearly marked and defined than in the monastic and mendicant states in the great world religions.” (Turner 107) Both are meant to be states of “permanent liminality,” despite the never-ending sine wave of renewal and decline that inevitably accompanies them. Thomas Merton taps into this idea of “deliberate irrelevance” in his image of monastic renewal: “Are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No, we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being…The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these people live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life.” (Cunningham 227) The categories of people whom Merton linked to monks all stand outside of the conventions of the social order, have nothing left to prove, no claims to be made on their behalf by the structure of their culture. Similarly, Turner discusses the original communitas of Francis of Assisi and its later codification, pointing out that “Francis appears quite deliberately to be compelling the friars to inhabit the fringes and interstices of the social structure of his time, and to keep them in a permanently liminal state, where, so the argument in this book would suggest, the optimal conditions inhere for the realization of communitas.” (Turner 145)

Turner, discussing the nature of liminality, anticipates the later insights of René Girard on the paradoxical power of the seemingly powerless, those who seem to be below the system of social stratification but who nevertheless wield power over it. Often liminal persons and groups are at once despised and honored, seen as both powerful in their ability to pollute and reviled for being beneath the system. Speaking of the Greek figure of the pharmakos, Girard says, “On the one hand, he is a woebegone figure, an object of scorn who is also weighed down with guilt…On the other hand, we find him surrounded by a quasi-religious aura of veneration; he has become a sort of cult object.” (Violence 95)

In Turner’s mind this is because “from the perspectival viewpoint of those concerned with the maintenance of ‘structure,’ all sustained manifestations of communitas must appear as dangerous and anarchical, and have to be hedged around with prescriptions, prohibitions, and conditions.” (Turner 109) I would argue that, since the structure does not work for marginal people, they tend to create their own social organization, which necessarily takes the form of communitas, i.e., is egalitarian and generally dismissive of the distinctions such as property rights that enable structure to thrive. However, this non-structure is inherently subversive to the structure that says that existence apart from the structure is impossible, and so must be seen as poisonous to the health of the structure. Speaking of the “undifferentiated character of liminality,” (Turner 104) Turner comes very close to Girard’s view that liminality is dangerous to structure because it undermines “the very foundation of cultural order, the family and the hierarchical differences without which there would be no social order.” (Scapegoat 15) This would make sense in connection with the standard practices of allowing or forcing liminal people to transgress the usual conventions of the culture – initiates are sometimes allowed great sexual freedom or allowed to dress in clothing inappropriate to their gender and state of life, go about naked, or remain in solitude.

Paradoxically, this dangerous nature of communitas is also “almost everywhere held to be sacred or ‘holy,’ possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences of unprecedented potency.” (Turner 128) This, again, links with Girard’s notion that “the sacred embraces all those forces that threaten to harm man or trouble his peace.” (Violence 58) Hardly a predictable definition by our Christian standards, but interestingly in line with the imagery of the sacred-as-taboo (such as the prohibition against touching Mount Sinai in EX 19:12-3 because of its sacred character – “those zones of life that are inhabited by Yahweh in an intense way must be kept pure and uncontaminated.” (Brueggemann 192)) Turner and Girard both discuss how initiates into rites de passage “are kept on the periphery of the community or sometimes even exiled to the forest, jungle, or desert.” (Violence 282) However, Turner focuses on the goal of initiatory ordeals as “partly a destruction of the previous status [which, following Eliade, is essential for the rebirth of a new status] and partly a tempering of their essence in order to prepare them to cope with their new responsibilities and restrain them in advance from abusing their new privileges.” (Turner 103) Girard, on the other hand, claims that they “give the young person a foretaste of what lies in store for anyone rash enough to neglect or transgress prescribed religious rituals,” (Violence 285) that is, anyone who challenges the status quo of the structure.

Walter Brueggemann’s notion of Israel’s emergence from the hegemony of Pharaoh takes the shape of a new social phenomenon defined by communitas, in contradistinction to the faceless structure of Egypt, with the structure of the Decalogue defined precisely as a way to avoid Israel becoming that which it sought to escape. In this vein, following Turner’s insight that “it is the fate of all spontaneous communitas in history to undergo what most people see as a ‘decline and fall’ into structure and law,” (Turner 132) the prophetic tradition in Israel emerges as the structure of kingship begins to look more and more like that of Pharaoh, and the prophets oppose the kings as Moses did, with summons back to the communitas of covenant. Similarly, the monastic orders have been repeatedly reformed because of their ability to move away from the limen to the center of society, and the mendicant movements that emerged in response to the loss of liminality in the church quickly assimilated to the same kind of power and wealth against which they rebelled. Turner wants to hold structure and communitas in tension, and sees that tension as critical to sustaining the existence of a society while not sacrificing the esprit that makes it a community.

Works Cited
Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.
Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortess, 1997.
Buss, Martin J. “An Anthropological Perspective Upon Prophetic Call Narratives.” Semeia 21
(1981): 9-30.
Cunningham, Lawrence. Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992.
Eliade, Mircea. Birth and Rebirth: The Religious Meanings of Initiation in Human Culture. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1958.
---. Myth and Reality. NY: Harper and Row, 1963.
Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
---. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1969.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Reflection for 25 October 2007 – Romans 6:19-23

Apologies for the (perhaps) pedantic nature of what follows. It was the reflection I prepared for the daily mass, so it's not exactly the fun and games of my daily (mis)adventures, but hopefully it may still be worth reading.

In the series of readings from Romans that we hear this week, Paul is going on at great length about being free from the law by grace, about sin and death, and about life in the flesh vs. life in the spirit. Important themes, but confusing, and ones that we have heard, at least in caricature, so often that we can miss the depth of Paul’s understanding of our human condition. As I have written before, it isn't about seeing the body as bad and the spirit as good, but seeing the "bodily" (or better, the "fleshly") as bad -- living according to our passions. It isn't about seeing the world as bad, but about rejecting the "worldly" -- the attitudes and illusions of the mass mind. Unfortunately, our tendency is to see these texts through the mistaken lens of setting “the law,” i.e. Judaism and all the alleged nitpicky fussiness of their holiness codes, in opposition to “the gospel,” which, we say, is free from all that junk. All we need to do, so we say, is have faith, (which to our rationalistic mindset means to believe in a particular set of doctrines), and we’re good to go, we’re saved. [Note: Paul does not equate faith and belief -- faith is an existential stance, a manner of life, that generates and is generated by the ideational claims we hang on to.] Do you notice, though, that Paul talks several times about transferring our slavery from one master to another, but still being slaves? “For just as you presented the parts of your bodies as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness for lawlessness, so now present them as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” (Rom. 6:19) “[Y]ou have been freed from sin and have become slaves of God.” (Rom. 6:22) Paul has no silly notion of freedom as being free from responsibility to other people, or just doing whatever you want, nor does he even see the law as bad. Quite the contrary: he explicitly says a few verses down the road, “So then the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Rom. 7:12)

A few months ago I heard a speaker talk about Paul’s notion of freedom this way: who is the freest person in the world on a golf course? Or on a basketball court? Tiger Woods, maybe, on the golf course, or Michael Jordan, in his heyday, on the basketball court. It isn’t the kid who just goes and messes around, “doing whatever he wants,” but the person who submits to discipline, training, learning from the masters of the game. Michael Jordan was so free on the court because he had disciplined his body and mind to the point that he had the skills to do just about anything he wanted out there. That’s freedom. In the realm of transformation of consciousness that means freedom to do good, freedom to not be ruled by the falsehoods of popular society or of our own passions. Just like with those athletes who are free because they submit to learning from the masters of their craft, striving towards freedom means yoking ourselves to the spiritual masters – Paul, Augustine, Francis, Ignatius, Thérèse, Merton and more – and watching them in action. We read their books, not so much to multiply ideas, but to visualize them in action and to learn from them how to be. You see that in cultures in which a mentoring tradition is still alive and well, and it isn’t so much about passing on ideas, pedagogy, as it is about having people sit at the feet of the master, bringing people into the experience itself, mystagogy. Before and after the little section we read tonight, Paul talks about the members of the community being dead to sin, sharing in the death of Jesus, that “our old self was crucified with him” (Rom. 6:6) and that they are “raised from the dead to life.” (Rom. 6:13) While instruction is a part of it, and right speech does matter (I teach theology, so of course I think it’s important!), Paul emphasizes that they have been brought into the mystery, taught how to die and rise as it were, rather than that they have gotten all the doctrines formulated correctly. May we be “free to die” and allow what feels like breaking down to break us through. You know what that means -- mercy within mercy within mercy...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kentucky -- Louisville and Gethsemani

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Saturday night. I have just arrived at the hermitage at Bethany Spring Retreat, now owned by the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, directed by Jonathan Montaldo, Merton expert and graduate of Cor Jesu, a Brothers’ school in New Orleans which became our present school, Brother Martin High. But I get ahead of myself…

I had to work late on Thursday, and I’ve been working fairly long hours even for me the past few weeks, so Friday I woke up kinda late. I had wanted to leave early to be sure I got to Louisville in time for the start of the conference at Bellarmine University, but I realized that I needed to do laundry, so that cost me a couple of hours. I finally left the house about 2 pm, figuring that four hours in the car would put me there around 6:00, plenty of time to find the place where I was staying, drop off my stuff, and get to Bellarmine in time for the 7:00 keynote address. Of course, it didn’t work out quite that way. Getting to Louisville was no problem, apart from having forgotten about the time zone change, and finding the place where I was staying was easy enough, but my usual skill at navigating came through again, which means that covering the 3 miles from my room to Bellarmine and finding the right building took 45 minutes. Sheesh – sometimes I think I could get lost in my own house…At least I got to see some nice parts of Louisville. Anyway, I finally found the place and heard the last half-hour or so of the talk, shook a few hands, grabbed some dinner, and went back to my room. I work nights, of course, so I couldn’t get to sleep until late, and I had to get up early (earlier because of the time change!) to be back for the start of affairs the next morning. The conference was very good, and there were a lot of folks there who are important in Merton circles: Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO; Fr. George Kilcourse; Lyn Szabo; Ron Seitz; and so on. I got to meet Tommie O’Callaghan, a tiny woman with a lot of feistiness in her eyes, who was a Louisville friend of Merton’s back in the mid-to-late 60’s. The talks were quite good, despite my lack of sleep that had me fading in and out a couple of times during the day. At lunch I went up to the Merton Center in Bellarmine’s library, saw the marvelous collections of photographs, Merton books in various and sundry languages, artwork, and a few score theses and dissertations on every conceivable aspect of Merton’s life and work. I wouldn’t mind hiding in there for a few months and reading a couple (dozen) of those…

Overall the conference was really great; one talk even gave me an idea for a paper doing an interface between Merton and Walter Brueggemann on their notions of poetry and prophecy – one of the presenters said it was a great idea and encouraged me to pursue it. When it all ended about 8:45, Br. Paul offered to let me follow him down to Gethsemani, since the place where I’m staying is only about a mile away. Tomorrow I’ll go over to the abbey to tour, go to one or two of the offices, including mass, and, thanks to Br. Paul, join a group that is going up to Merton’s hermitage! Couldn’t pass that one up…

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Morning in the hermitage was splendid; although there is heat and air conditioning, I left them off last night so I could feel the chill that lets me know that fall is finally falling. Not cold, but brisk enough to make me move through my morning ablutions with a purpose. The shower quickly ran out of hot water, reminded me of Klagetoh at Christmas, made me want to be out there again. A quick bowl of soup with a perfectly ripe avocado scooped in, a little poetry by Jalal-ud’din Rumi, and I was gone.

I got to the monastery about 9:45, and Terce (one of the 7 daily prayer periods at the monastery) started at 10:20, so I had a little time to walk around. Nice place, nothing exceptional (which one should expect from a Trappist monastery), but I couldn’t stop wondering what exactly it looked like in Merton’s day. Even the “GOD ALONE” sign over one of the archways wasn’t the same one I had seen in older pictures of the place. I went into the abbey church a little early, looking for some quiet, but there was a group on retreat, and a lot of them were already in there, and they were a fidgety bunch, fiddling with cell phones and cameras and stage-whispering to each other about how great the quiet is. Terce finally started, a brief and slightly off-key affair, although whether that was because of the monks or the guests, I’m not sure. (*On a side note, in all the monasteries I have ever visited, they always use music that has no recognizable pattern or melody, and they go so slow as to make it almost inevitable that people will lose the beat. Doing that more than once every blue moon would drive me batty.*) After Terce, one of the monks opened a little gate that separated us from the monks’ choir stalls, and we all filed forward for Mass. The principal celebrant (the abbot, I later discovered) exuded a relaxed but no-nonsense kind of simplicity that made the liturgy very nice, all the crazy chant tones aside. Afterward, I went outside and found Br. Paul Quenon already gathering the group he had invited me to join the evening before, plus Fr. George Kilcourse assembling a group of his students from Bellarmine for a tour and picnic. I stuck with Br. Paul, who took us right away to Merton’s hermitage. It looked very much like I had expected, although not WHERE I had expected it. There were about 20 people in the group, all talking and bustling around and handling everything, so it didn’t feel quite right at first, but since I was bustling around too, taking pictures of everything, I couldn’t exactly resent them for wanting to do the same. Finally they all gathered for a lecture and I was able to find a tree trunk to curl up under and read some Edward Abbey. By this time it had become a perfect fall afternoon, ideal for doing what I was doing, and I went back and forth between reading a few pages and moving into meditation. It felt at once like I spent hours and like I was only there a few minutes, and I got an idea of why my co-worker and teacher Belden Lane writes about “backpacking with the saints” – bringing spiritual classics with him when he goes hiking or camping: reading a book by a crusty old desert rat like Ed Abbey while at the hermitage of another famous solitary somehow felt right.

After a couple of hours out there, I came back with Br. Paul to the retreat house where I was staying. The place, for a long time run by a community of sisters, was just bought by the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living and, as serendipity would have it, that was the day of the dedication ceremony, which they invited me to attend. I met the abbot, who I knew was a longtime friend of my former co-worker Judy Stewart, and Br. Patrick Hart, Merton’s secretary, as well as various and sundry board members and other Merton-philes. The ceremony was a little too long, a couple of speeches turned into verbal back-slapping of a thousand old buddies (you know the kind I mean), but all in all it was fine, and I was able to sneak away to my hermitage when the reception started.
I went back to the abbey for Vespers (evening prayer) at 5:30, then back to the retreat center for one of those wonderful, spontaneous meals in which a bunch of people show up unexpectedly, each bringing something, and strangers end up lingering at table because such a resonance occurs. The only two other people under 50 at the table were a young couple, younger than I, who are riding their bikes from Maine to Nashville, then going to a 5-week Vipassana (Buddhist) retreat. Both were very nice, so I invited them back to the hermitage after supper to see the place. We talked for a couple of hours about Merton, Buddhism, mysticism East and West, and so on. Very nice, but very telling that two former Christians went to Buddhism because they didn’t see Christianity having any kind of mystical tradition to offer. Of course it’s there, but we don’t do a good job of making it known or available – what a failure on our part to offer people more than minimalisms and legalism!

Monday, 22 October 2007

Got up early today, said my goodbyes, and got on the road. Stopped by Gethsemani again, went to the Trappists' cemetary and saw Merton's grave marker. There was still a Tibetan scarf there from when the Dalai Lama came to honor Merton. After a very minor bit of thinking, I left my cross there, the one I wear every day. I figure I'll get it back when I go next month with my students, but it seemed appropriate to offer something as important to me as that cross to the memory of a person who continues to be so important to me and to so many other people.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


So I promised a birthday post, but last week was crazy enough that it has taken me a while to get around to it. I showed up at work on Monday (my birthday) and found this poster taped to my door:

That day was a fairly normal work day; I was pretty wiped out still from the Nature Retreat, but I had meetings and stuff to be at. That evening during the community night for the Micah Program (a service-learning community with which I work) a couple of the older students came and "serenaded" me with a birthday song. Throughout the day people were coming by or leaving notes on Facebook, and a couple of people brought food, so by the end of the day my office smelled like a bakery. My friend Laura and one of the campus ministry student workers conspired to print a shirt for me (picture to follow) with "BP" on the front and "Destructo" on the back. (*Long story short -- the Brothers in my community don't change our names anymore when we take vows, but we used to up until Vatican II, and when I was a novice, I jokingly said I wanted to take the name "Destructo" as a religious name. Somehow, it followed me up here.*) I also heard from a lot of friends and Brothers throughout the day. Laura's boyfriend John found a shirt made by Schlafly's (a local brewery in StL) that had the quote, "Bier trinkt man nicht nur zum Frühstück" -- loosely translated, "Beer: it's not just for breakfast." Gee, am I that transparent?
Thursday evening I met a friend who works at a local PBS affiliate, and we watched a documentary sponsored by PBS on the Miss Navajo Nation pageant. That pageant takes place about 5 minutes from where I used to live, and it brought back a lot of memories, good and bad. Part of the pageant involves the contestants butchering a sheep -- somehow I can't picture them introducing that into the Miss America pageant...With all this monasticism stuff, and the sacred landscapes class, the desert has been calling my name for a while, so I hope to get out to AZ this winter or spring to go get lost for a while.

The parents were here this weekend, in fact just left a few hours ago, and we ran around all day yesterday. We spent most of the afternoon in the Botanical Garden -- how had I never been there before?! -- and it was just marvelous. The pond in the Japanese Garden has the biggest carp I have ever seen, and they have a little dispenser for fish food, so we fed these monsters, and they had a mini-feeding frenzy over the little pellets we were tossing them. My mom's watch dropped in the pond while she was feeding them, so we joked that some fish is going to be swimming around ticking like the crocodile in Peter Pan. I found about a hundred little hiding places I could go spend an afternoon meditating or reading. I would go next weekend, but I'll be in Kentucky at a conference on Thomas Merton's poetry, followed by a visit to Gethsemani for a couple of days. I hope I am allowed to go looking around for Merton's hermitage while I am there, but at least I can see the abbey and the cemetery. Hopefully the brunt of the cold weather stays away long enough for me to get in an afternoon or so at the Garden when I get back. I am in the planning stage of bringing the students from my class up to Gethsemani at the end of the semester to see the place, and I plan to give them a couple of hours of quiet to explore and hide and soak in the spirit of the place.
All for now. Mercy within mercy within mercy...

Monday, October 8, 2007

Nature Retreat

This weekend was the second annual SLU Nature Retreat, offered by Campus Ministry of course, at the Reis Biological Station near Steelville, MO. I worked this retreat last year, and I just couldn't wait to go on it again. I worked support staff this year and last, which basically meant cooking and cleanup, so I interacted less with the students than other staff members, but nice to not have the pressure of preparing a speech or leading a small group. My friend and co-worker Laura Buck organizes this retreat, and just does a fantastic job. Friday I got up WAY too early to go buy all the food, then loaded it all up for the folks who were going out early. The students and the rest of the staff met at 3:00 to catch a school bus out to the retreat site, but I brought a van with some more odds and ends, and I got to ride out alone, which made for a wonderful 2 hours of quiet. That night we put out hot dogs and all the fixings for everyone (see photo below), and had some introductory activities, including a marvelous reflection involving stargazing and the reading of a couple of the chapters from the end of the Book of Job, where God outlines the grandeur of creation.

The next morning was a talk by Dr. Tobias Winright, one of the theology profs at SLU and one of my profs, followed by our major activity of the day, a canoe ride down the Huzzah River. The water was great, cool but not too cold, shallow enough that at points we had to carry our canoes, while at other places we could jump in from some of the little bluffs along the bank (see below). We were all pretty wiped out after that, so we had an hour or so of quiet for journaling/nap time/whatever before forging ahead. Dinner that night was fajitas, and the students who were assigned to me for that meal worked like troopers, and the outcome was that it was a truly memorable meal. The other support staff person, Patrick Devney, was a real rock star with keeping up with it all and making sure there was enough of everything. That night was caramel apples (a total mess to make, but wow, were they good) and s'mores around the camp fire. I was on for night prayer, so I kept it simple and read them Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, one of my favorite stories, and let the story speak for itself.

Sunday was pancakes and sausage, which was lots of fun, another talk, and then mass with Fr. Joe Fortier, SJ, who did a great homily on our place in the created world, followed by lasagna for our final meal. We got out by 1:30 and home by around 4:00, by which point I was pretty wiped out, so I came home to hide for a while. All that cooking took me back to my short-order days in high school, and how much I enjoyed juggling all the different pots and pans.

I know I have to put out a birthday post, so more soon...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

goings on

Yesterday was my community's foundation day -- the 186th anniversary of our first 10 brothers taking vows at Our Lady of Fourviere church in Lyon, France. I love what I am doing here in StL, and the Marianists are marvelous, but I really missed being with my brothers for our celebration. I emailed a bunch of the bro's, and got back quite a few replies, including encouragements about the work up here and the Haiti trip. Nice reminder of our connection to each other, distance or no.

This next weekend is the SLU Nature Retreat, and I can't wait. It is only starting to get cold in the evenings (50s), whereas last year at this time it was frigid (for a Southern boy like myself). Camping, stargazing, canoeing, and more are all on the menu for the weekend, and I get to be support staff -- cooking and behind the scenes stuff. As much as I enjoy cranking out speeches and doing "spiritual direction" with people, cooking eggs and pancakes for 3 dozen people is a nice change of pace.

I got a notification on Facebook today that the sister of a student who comes rock climbing every week made the following comment on one of the photos she took of us at the climbing gym: "veronica!!! mommy says that british pertoleum looks like a thief!!!!! can u believe that. anyway he does not look like a brother (no offense to him of course he probably is super devoted and super after all that u told me but o well)"

A thief? Me? Here's the pic -- I'm the bald one. Judge for yourself...

In case you were wondering, "british pertoleum" (sic), by the way, is me -- BP for Brother Patrick.

Oh, the SLU chapter of Habitat for Humanity is trying to recruit me to be their new staff advisor, so I went back to the build site this past weekend to get to know a few more of them. Good time, not even close to the physical intensity of the week before. Which is good, because my hands were sore a whole week after the last time... Here we are at lunch -- I promise we're not just hanging around wasting time!
All for now. Mercy within mercy within mercy...

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The belly of a paradox

Next Monday (October 8) I turn 30. Yeesh. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, who writes a lot on masculine spirituality and initiation rituals, says that it's hard for us to "get it" in terms of the spiritual quest before the age of 30, so I'm really hoping that I am about to start to "get it." It also just so happens that the readings for that day are from the Book of Jonah, a delightful little book with a serious message. In the monastic literature, Jonah in the belly of the beast is a standard image for the "hidden life" of the monk in the monastery, being transformed (digested?) by the encounter with God's purposes taking him/her in a direction away from his/her desires.

Just as Thomas Merton, in his classic book The Sign of Jonas, could contrast his desire for more solitude and silence (with the Carthusians or Camaldolese hermits) with the inexplicable something that kept him at Gethsemani despite the noise, the busyness, the crowdedness, I can look back over the last eleven years as a member of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart and marvel at the inexplicable something that has conspired to overcome my impatience, my arrogance, my personal preferences. In many cultures, the initiation of the boy into the young man involves a ritual death, such as baptism in the early church, or even “digestion” by a god or a monster, which culminates in a ritual rebirth. I can’t exactly say I have had more than my share of death to deal with, but I am greatly blessed that my community has, as Richard Rohr puts it, held my feet to the fire long enough to become feet. I say all of this by way of gratitude to the community of Brothers and friends and family who have mentored me and put up with more from me than any of us realize, and by way of introduction to the little essay that follows. I wrote this for the directed readings course I am taking on "Sacred Landscapes" -- spirituality and geography -- as a synthesis of the book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, by my teacher Belden Lane.

“[L]ike Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.” (Merton 11) Images of being swallowed, digested, and regurgitated abound in the mythological literature, including the Judeo-Christian scriptures, and in the monastic tradition of Christianity. What is it about the archetype of the “belly of the beast” that serves as an image of transformation in so many cultures and spiritual traditions?

Central to the desert spirituality and the transformation that takes place “in the belly of the beast” is an anthropology that understands our truest self over against the ego, which operates on a certain set of illusions and falsehoods. If it is true that the primary task of the ego is to secure itself in relation to the world, then it will follow that the ego will react negatively to anything that serves to un-secure it, whether through denial, violence, or any of a hundred other smokescreens that can distract the ego from its own essential fragility and unimportance to the world. “Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth.” (Cunningham 392) This seems to be why harsh taskmasters and elders have been so important in the initiation of young people in so many cultures and time periods: the ego squirms away from the “death” that initiation inevitably forces them to face. Even if it is true that “the desert tradition never seeks the destruction of the self,” (Solace 13) undercutting the ego and its need for control is a fairly standard practice, essential to bring the person into contact with the self, the true self who is to be distinguished from the false self that the ego tries to construct for itself.

Here the image of the belly of the beast becomes important. For Jonah, the beast symbolizes that which takes him in a direction he does not want to go, while “the sign of Jonas” represents for Jesus the transformation that comes from entering into death. For the Christian, as Merton puts it, “To fully ‘hear’ and ‘receive’ the word of the cross means much more than simple assent to the dogmatic proposition that Christ died for out sins. It means to be ‘nailed to the cross with Christ,’ so that the ego-self is no longer the principle of our deepest actions, which now proceed from Christ living in us.” (Cunningham 418) This rather wintry piety is essential to avoid turning Dame Julian’s deep truth, “All will be well” into an artificially sunny (and self-serving) “All will be well for me.” Like the parent who lets the baby cry itself to sleep rather than get up every time it makes a little noise, the belly of the beast is a reminder that the world is not here to be at my disposal. Job, another of the many classic Biblical figures who are thrown into the belly of the beast, has to reckon with the fact that the world “goes on perfectly well without him, even though it surely seemed in the bleak corridors of his imagination that nothing could have continued beyond the enormity of his suffering.” (Solace 55)

What happens when there is no one around to affirm all the personae I put out for people to praise or console, when no one is impressed by how many degrees or cars or sexual conquests (or, for that matter, levels of humility or spiritual “attainments”) I have racked up? In such a situation, “the fragile ego loses its props and supporting lines. Its incessant need for validation is ignored.” (Solace 43) This is quite a far cry from the “Jesus loves me, this I know” brand of Christianity which has so compartmentalized God to some private corner of my life that all it can do is bolster my self-esteem, the “housebroken and eminently companionable” God (Solace 53) who is functionally an extension of my ego and so has nothing new to challenge me with. It is also, by the way, a far cry from the God whose truth can be summed up, "Vote Republican" or "Vote Democrat," a God who is useful only for structure legitimation, which is the crudest and most shameless extension of ego legitimation.

The true solitary is able to critique and challenge, without needing to condemn (and without needing to see him- or herself as a prophet), because he or she has seen his or her own voracious ego and has been caught in the web of attachments to false security and gratification; the solitary too has known the “rhinoceritis” (in Merton’s language) within him- or herself and has felt the temptation to join the herd. It is for this reason that the desert mothers and fathers feared pride as the greatest of sins in the desert: contempt for the world could lead them to believe that they were better than others, that they were free of the ego-chains that bound “ordinary” people, in effect lording their poverty over the wealthy and taking pride in their humility. However necessary asceticism-as-discipline may be for the sake of equilibrium and attentiveness, the danger is that the person see him/herself as a hero, as having accomplished something through force of will that others have not, which is simply one more accomplishment upon which the ego could hang its hat.

Biblical language such as John’s use of “the world” or Paul’s use of “the flesh” as something in opposition to the kingdom of God has long been misunderstood, often producing a dualistic, spiritualized concept of salvation that dismisses sexuality as shameful and injustice as irrelevant to gospel. Both metaphors, however, point to something quite different: not “the world” as physical place, but rather “the worldly” as set of assumptions about who and what we truly are; not “the flesh” as weak and sinful biology, but “the fleshly” that makes either our appetites or our neuroses the standard of behavior. In contradistinction to these two stands the proper understanding of the monastic virtue of contemptus mundi: not a literal “contempt for the world,” but contempt for the illusions that the uncritical ego assumes are the final reality of the world and the self. “What they [the desert monks] fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.” (Solace 166)

Ideally, there is nothing left to prove, nothing left but to acknowledge one’s own falsehoods and humility; if the desert, as vast and ancient as it is, does not seem to take my ego and its demands seriously, why should I? “The greatest spiritual teachers in Zen Buddhism were those who took themselves least seriously. When they met each other, they would roll with laughter at the idea that they were supposed to be holy and worthy of reverence-having somehow mastered the infinite in their teachings. They drew pictures of each other with fat stomachs and scowling faces, dressed in tattered clothes, playing in the dirt with children. They gave titles to each other, such as ‘Great Bag of Rice’ or ‘Snowflake on a Hot Oven.’” (“Zen Clown” 260) One author, reviewing the film Into Great Silence, says of the Carthusians pictured in the film, “They look like soldiers. I suppose that means that they look like men who have seen a lot, and borne a lot. They also look like men you wouldn't cross: they look almost like criminals in that way. One might say, too, that they look like the ideal of the peasant or the seaman. Some of them permit themselves a dry, minimal smile, and those are very enigmatic moments.” (North) They don’t have angelic faces, don’t smugly look down on the lay person who comes to film them or claim to have mastered the mysteries of God. They are simply men, albeit men who have spent their lives trying to cut through the noise of “the world,” both the external world and their egos’ needs to “be somebody.”

Ritualized encounters with death in the belly of the beast typically enact rebirth as well, so that the tomb is at once the womb, from the emergence from the deathly waters in early baptism (“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” – Col 3:3) through the emergence of the initiate from the womb of the sweatlodge. The kernel of the ego, with the falsity of life it needed to live to sustain itself, has been cracked so that the new life of the true self (which was always there, but unseen and unlived) can be manifest. “Thus, in the heart of anguish [that is, the belly of the beast] are found the gifts of peace and understanding: not simply in personal illumination and liberation, but by commitment and empathy, for the comtemplative must assume the universal anguish and the inescapable condition of mortal man.” (Cunningham 394) That is, kenosis, the desert, the belly of the whale, has on the far side of it an opening up into compassion, which comes from having seen the shipwreck of one’s own inner life, having seen the foolishness of the person we try to present to others, having an ongoing awareness of one’s own dance between addiction and grace, and thus being able to recognize the same in other people.

Cunningham, Lawrence. Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992.
Lane, Belden. “Merton as Zen Clown.” Theology Today. Vol. 46, #3, October 1989 pp 256-68.
---. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Merton, Thomas. The Sign of Jonas. NY: Harcourt & Brace, 1953.
North, Philip. “Being a Fly on the Monastery Enclosure Wall: Into Great Silence- Philip
Gröning.” The Social Affairs Unit. March 9, 2007.
<> Accessed 30 September 2007.

Monday, September 24, 2007

23 September 2007

This weekend was the Marianists’ province chapter in Dayton, so one of the Brothers in another local community in the area asked me to house-sit, since all the Brothers in that house would be out of town. I wish I could say that I made a mini-retreat out of it and immersed myself in solitude for three days, but that would be a lie. Friday night a friend and I watched Pan’s Labyrinth on DVD – if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It’s a sort of mélange of real world and fantasy world, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, and its use of classic themes from various myths and legends from all over the world is rich and polyvalent. It’s a dark film, and very violent at times, but beautifully done.
Saturday I got up early to work with Habitat for Humanity in a somewhat rougher part of the city called the Mark Twain neighborhood. I have loved Habitat ever since my days at Catholic High, and this was a particularly great day to be on the job. First, it was a great day to be outside – mid-80s, not a cloud in the sky. Second, a bunch of students from the SLU Habitat group happened to be working on my build site, so I got to meet some of them. Third, and most important, there was a lot of stuff to hit and dig. We were mostly working landscaping all day, and when the site manager told us that, I was a little disappointed because I figured I’d be planting flowers and that kind of thing. Not so much. I ended up spending about 6 hours digging holes for trees with a post hole digger, breaking up old bricks and concrete with a pickaxe, and moving wheelbarrows full of rocks. As you might expect, I was pretty beat up by the end of it all. It is a blessing to be able to go and hit stuff and dig holes and be engaged in physical labor for a while, but it always reminds me of how grateful I am for higher education. Still, it was a great day.
After all the fun and games, I went home and collapsed for a couple of hours, but my friend Laura had her two sisters in town, so they all wanted to go out to City Museum. Of course, I’m an idiot, so I couldn’t pass up City Museum, so we went and ran around and climbed stuff for another two hours or so. When I finally crawled home after all this abuse, I felt like I had been on the receiving end of the aforementioned pickaxe, but it was completely worth it.
After I woke up this morning and tried to stop the shaking in my hands long enough to get a few spoonfuls of cereal from the bowl to my mouth without spilling milk all over the table, I finally did enjoy having the house all to myself, so I was able to read for 4 or 5 hours before coming home and doing some work around the house and limping off to the 10pm mass.

One sadder note: since my last email, I received word that Br. Hubert Bonnette died. Br. Hubert returned to the Brothers just a few years ago after having been out of the community for several decades, and while we were only in the community together for a few years, and I didn’t get much of a chance to know him well, I knew from the first time I met him that he was the real deal: wise, humble, a real Brother’s Brother. He had that same kind of simple, honest centeredness that I saw in someone like Br. Pierre, another old hero of mine, and that has drawn me to the Brothers from my earliest days in the community. I wish I had gotten to know him better, but I am so glad for the time I was able to spend getting to know him, and that he was able to spend his last years back with his Brothers.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Reflection for 20 September

This entire week in the daily readings we have seen the contrast between hardness of heart and conversion of heart. On Sunday, the people of Israel, newly freed from Egypt, are called “stiff-necked,” while Paul describes himself as “a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant,” and the Pharisees are amazed that Jesus would welcome sinners and eat with them. Later we see statements about what kind of person should be chosen to be bishops and deacons, and Jesus complaining that the same people who complain about John the Baptist’s asceticism complain about Jesus’ lack of asceticism. Tomorrow will culminate with the Pharisees asking the disciples why Jesus eats with sinners, to which Jesus gives the classic answer:

“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (MT 9:12-13)

Throughout, Jesus and Paul point us toward authentic humility. Holiness is not really about all the virtuous deeds we can stack up, since that can very easily end up simply inflating our Christian egos. Jesus’ citation here of the book of Hosea (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” – Hosea 6:6) points to a standard thread in the prophetic tradition that sacrifice without transformed consciousness, without justice and mercy, is worse than worthless, because it can so easily allow us to believe that we are “doing it right,” that all I need to do is throw a little food through the bars of the cage that I keep God in, and I will stay firmly in control of my own salvation. There is a book in which one of the characters has a vision of the afterlife, which involves crossing a bridge over a lake of fire, and the character is horrified to see that as people cross the bridge into salvation, even their virtues are being burned away. What is left for the person's ego to hang its hat on? Instead, perhaps real holiness is more about allowing ourselves to be honest and acknowledge how much of a mess we really are. Of course, we don’t want to be a mess, and we don’t even want to admit that we are a mess. But when Jesus says, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners,” who of us can honestly say that we are righteous? Of course, the standard line in our day is to talk about how “I’m not really into religion, but I’m a good person.” What exactly does that mean? I am only too aware that I’m not a good person – in fact, the more I pay attention to what I do, and why I do it, even the stuff that on the surface looks like “good-deed-doing” usually comes out of a selfish motive – to look good, to manipulate the other person, or even just to allow myself to believe that I am a “good person.”

Do we notice how Jesus keeps going to sinners and tax collectors, to people who have been kicked around and who, we might think, deserve what they get? Do any of us really think we deserve what we get? The “sinner and tax collector” type in our time could be the compulsive gambler who loses his house and whose family leaves him, the pregnant teenager who has to face the rejection of her peers and who has to grow up really fast to raise her child, or perhaps even the politician or celebrity who gets caught in some compromising situation and gets lambasted by the media. At that point, for that person, mercy is no longer about earning Brownie points, no longer about stacking up proofs of one’s virtuousness, but about gratitude for being shown mercy. That is just what we see in today’s gospel (LK 7:36-50) – this woman who comes to Jesus has nothing to prove, no ego to wave in anybody’s face – everyone knows who she is. But Jesus never attacks what in Jungian terms we might call the shadow – what we try to keep others from seeing about ourselves – instead, he hammers the ego, in this case, Simon the Pharisee’s ability to say that this woman is not worthy of Jesus’ attention, while he (Simon) presumably is. Since he does not see himself as in need of mercy, he is not grateful for the mercy that he has in fact received and does not respond with the mercy that comes from being treated mercifully. The point of all of this is simply Jesus’ own point – what God desires from us is mercy, not a self-serving, condescending pity that can make us feel smug about how tolerant and generous we are, but the mercy that comes from realizing how desperately inadequate we are, and how desperately we are in need of the mercy we have in fact received. As usual, "Mercy within mercy within mercy..."

Friday, September 7, 2007

reflection for 6 September -- a fish story

Today’s gospel (LK 5:1-11) is one of those fish stories that you might expect an uncle or a grandpa to tell. Interesting that not only does Peter catch a lot of fish, not only is he assigned to start catching people, but I presume it isn’t lost on him that he himself has been hooked and reeled in by Jesus.

This gospel story of Peter’s interaction with Jesus after a miraculous catch of fish looks like it parallels the story at the end of John’s gospel, but it is interesting to see how Peter interacts with Jesus in each. Here in Luke, upon making such a large catch, Peter wants Jesus to leave him for, as he puts it, “he is a sinful man.” In John, upon seeing the catch of fish, Peter, who has just denied Jesus a couple of days before, jumps in the water and goes racing toward him, although he is quite obviously still a sinful man! What is going on here? Peter knows that this catch of fish is not simply Jesus’ way of paying for letting him sit in his boat while he teaches the crowds, not simply a “thanks for all the fish, Jesus” kind of thing. If this were just about getting a great catch of fish where previously he had none, he would tell Jesus to stick around and have the revenue keep pouring in, but instead he begs Jesus to leave him alone. Why? Presumably because he knows what’s coming, which is a call to follow in some dangerous footsteps, and which is not where he wants to go. Perhaps I am going way out on an exegetical limb here, but perhaps these fish do something like what the owls do at the beginning of the Harry Potter series, or the white rabbit does in Alice in Wonderland: they call Peter into a new realm that takes him away from the security and stability of home. There is something really scary here, because all of the efforts to manage one’s own life get shot to pieces, and being thrown into this kind of unknown means that there is nothing tangible to count on. Rather like another famous fish story, that of Jonah in the belly of the beast, this kind of encounter takes your ego in a direction it doesn’t want to go. We want to be at the helm, but the reality of life is that we aren’t, and despite all our attempts to manage our reality, God calls us to something beyond the control and techniques of our voracious egos. Joseph Campbell puts it this way in his study of heroic figures in myth and literature: “The divinity itself became his terror; for, obviously, if one is oneself one’s god, then God himself, the will of God, the power that would destroy one’s egocentric system, becomes a monster.” (Campbell 60) This is just what Jesus points to in the parallel fish story, when he tells Peter, “‘when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.” If Peter would have known about all that at that first fishy encounter, perhaps he would have been less likely to bite the hook that Jesus threw out for him.

Let me try to draw this fish story together with the photograph on the left side of this blog. This was taken by Thomas Merton in the late 60s. He jokingly titled it, “The only known photograph of God.” The image, playful but serious, is that God is always throwing us a line, hoping we’ll bite, whether through our classes or family or through communities of faith like this one. Such morsels of bait often contain within them a sharp edge, usually involving being drawn out of our little fishbowl into new and scary situations of undercutting the image of ourselves that we want to project and believe in. The call is to become more concerned with prophecy than survival, more about following the path of the cross than the path of my secure plan for myself, to become more deeply conformed to Christ, emptied of self, clarified into men and women of peace and compassion.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

hoo boy

I just finished my class a few moments ago, and I am just blown away at what is going on in there. We started talking about the desert tradition, and I figured I would spend 20 minutes or so lecturing, we'd do some discussion, and then I'd move on with the cenobites. Geez, we ended up talking about the desert stuff the whole time, and still have more to cover! We got into some heavy stuff like kataphatic and apophatic prayer and theology, which I had intended to hold off until later, but it came about of itself, so we had to open that can of worms. I am enjoying it so much, it's actually making me nervous. I pray the students are enjoying it all, but I fear that I am talking too much, being too oblique, too vague. They are asking amazing questions, but it's obvious that they aren't just rehashing stuff they already know. They knew the basics of the legalization of Christianity, for example, but when we got into the apophatic stuff and quies and the Jesus prayer, they didn't seem to know it, but they jumped all over it. The hunger out there for something people can sink their teeth into is just mind-boggling. It's so hard to talk about any of that stuff, and the whole time we are talking our words are just failing miserably, and we're all laughing at our poor efforts to express intelligently what we know we want to say, but I can tell that people are really getting fired up about it. Everything they say sets off ten ideas in my mind, so I really hope I'm not so scattered that I am just muddling the confusion even more. I wish we could just sit together in silence for a few hours and let the silence do the talking, but we are condemned to speak. O God, let my words and the clutter of my thoughts not be a hindrance to the utter simplicity and silence that You are. Mercy within mercy within mercy...


So this evening a few old and new friends from the local Catholic Worker house came over to my place for a while, and it was so nice to be able to reconnect, talk with like-minded people of similar age, and listen to how they are putting their energies into really trying to be men and women of peace and simplicity and of protest against a popular culture that seems to be constantly on the verge of implosion under the weight of its collective ego. Each person in the conversation has stories of spending weeks or months or years in Central America or Africa, working in another language, and working with some very marginal people. On that last note, I again find myself restless at the thought of the kind of life they and I lead. Hopefully this doesn't have roots in the old ego-serving concepts like how difficult the work is, so that I could feel more heroic if I worked in more trying circumstances, but given the immensity of immediate needs around the world, for food, vaccinations, basic literacy, and so on, it makes me aware what a luxury it is to have the time and means to do theology, to offer ministerial services to students, to have all the resources I have at my fingertips. My Catholic Worker friends generally do very earthy but very important works: maintenance work at a nursing home, teaching at an alternative high school, advocacy with a local community organization, running a food line for hungry people, letting homeless people crash on their couches. Perhaps part of me envies that kind of earthiness, but on the other hand, I have to acknowledge that I have some measure of aptitude for doing theological work, and that I am retreating into solitude more and more frequently as I get older. I wouldn't really want to go home to the noise and controlled chaos that is the usual Catholic Worker house, nor do I think I would best make use of my abilities by spending my days directing janitorial staff or piddling through algebra I (but I have done so before, and kudos to those who do it). I have no notions that I am accomplishing something magical by spending a lot of time in silence, and I can't even claim that I am developing some kind of spiritual depth that my friends aren't getting because they are too "active." On the contrary -- I feel less and less like I have made any kind of "progress" (whatever that means) in the religious life, institutionally speaking, or in the spiritual life, existentially speaking. My every action still seems to proceed from amazingly selfish motives, or better yet, from an addiction to the cult of ME. Even tonight, I am ashamed at how much I tried to "compete" (unsuccessfully) with the experiences the others have had, how hard I tried to sound wise or to sound theologically sophisticated or to turn the conversation back to myself. There is the true monastic ideal of "contemptus mundi" -- contempt for the world -- not hating secular things or living in some rarefied (and false) holiness, but freeing oneself from attachment to the images of success that are held up for us: degrees earned, countries visited, languages mastered, and so on. What will it take to crack through the seemingly endless layers of self-defense mechanisms that just can't stand the fact that I am not the smartest or wisest or most talented guy in the room?