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?