Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Reflection for 28 January 2009 - the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Shortly after Thomas Aquinas entered the Dominican order, his family, dismayed that instead of becoming a Benedictine, which would have held a good chance of becoming an abbot or bishop, he had chosen to become a Dominican. The Dominicans were still a new order at that point, and still flush with the poverty of their mendicant origins, so the family could not see for their son the prospects for status or influence they desired for a person of his noble birth. The story goes that they were so dismayed that they locked him up in the tower of the family castle for almost two years, to the point that they even sent prostitutes up to him to try to dissuade him from pursuing the life of a ragged friar (the story says he chased her out of the room with a hot poker from the fire).

I feel very fortunate that my parents never went to those kinds of lengths to keep me from joining my community, that in fact they were and still are very supportive of my vocation. On the other hand, the gospels so far this week have looked at the resistance Jesus faced from the beginning of his ministry – being accused of having an unclean spirit, being thought crazy even by his own family, and today being so badly misunderstood by his own disciples. The image he uses in the parable today, of the sower and the seed, is fitting, not only because they don’t get what he is trying to say, but because the farming image used seems to us to be so wasteful. As opposed to our modern method of farming, where we plow up the soil and plant seeds in it, the method being laid out here was to throw seed out indiscriminately and then plow to turn the seeds down into the soil. What that meant was that you couldn’t see what kind of soil you got until after you had already put the seeds out there – like Forrest Gump, “You never know what you’re gonna get.” Any teacher knows that even with the most objective of subject matter, but certainly with the work of the gospel, this is a lot like how teaching works – in a sense, it’s wasteful, because you keep working with whoever shows up, but you can’t tell what the end results are going to be. Sometimes maybe you can tell right up front if a person, like the footpath, is so thick that the seed never has a chance to get through, but just as likely, you just can’t predict it. Like with the rocky soil that has no depth to it, sometimes people can get all fired up at first, either because it sounds good on paper or because people want to win Brownie points with the teacher. Other times people have all the right stuff, but the world they live in is a mindkiller – I think of the talented, enthusiastic students I had in Zimbabwe or the Navajo Nation who could really have gone places, but because of the disaster they lived in or the environmental forces working against them, their potential got squelched. Finally, I have known a few students that I NEVER thought listened to a word I said, who have turned out years later to have put the pieces together, just like seeds going in the ground take a while before they show any signs of life and don’t just look wasted.

In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes, “Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in his or her soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of people. Most of those unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because we are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.” (14) The need for a renewal of attentiveness as central to the discipline of discernment, of not going through life functionally asleep -- as Simone Weil puts it, "Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer."

Monday, January 26, 2009


On Friday evening I went with a group of students to see the film Defiance, about 4 Polish brothers' resistance to the Nazi regime. Although it is hardly an "enjoyable" film, they wanted to process it afterwards, so we went back to my house and stewed about it for a while. I kept going back to a question that I have been working over in my head for a long while, in particular, was nonviolence possible against the Nazis? Of course the Danes and the Norwegians managed to pull off campaigns of nonviolent resistance, but those were rather atypical situations because of the Nazi position in the war at the time and the relative importance of those two countries in the Nazi vision (with requests for corrections and apologies for whatever inaccuracies come from my all-too-partial knowledge of the topic). Looking at the forest camps or the liquidated ghettoes, could a large-scale nonviolent resistance have been genuinely possible?

For the past few years I have done an activity with the Micah program freshmen around MLK Day, which includes talking about the way his nonviolent campaigns worked. We pass around the picture I have included below, talk about what was going on there, ask how the nonviolent strategy worked and what it might have been like to be in that situation, and I typically close by asking, "What would have happened if these three people and others with them had come to that street corner in Birmingham with rifles and shotguns to respond to the fire hoses, batons, tear gas and police dogs that were waiting for them?" Our history would certainly have been quite different if the spiral of violence had carried on. Yet, as brutal as Bull Connor's reaction was, he didn't simply mow people down with machine guns. On the other hand, Robert Jay Lifton talks extensively about the amount of psychic barriers necessary to keep German soldiers from having psychotic episodes: the development of the gas chambers as means of mass killing, extensive euphemistic reshaping of the German language, the enormous psychic weight of the bureaucracy, and so on. That all signifies the human conscience beneath the brutality that needs those psychic barriers to be able to carry on. Still, I can't imagine the kind of mentality it would demand to be in the belly of the beast, in Germany or Poland and trying to create and maintain some kind of nonviolent pressure, nor how slim the odds of surviving such an effort would be... I think I understand Reinhold Niebuhr's "realist" stance that would have us read the Sermon on the Mount as a judgment upon us who are unable to live up to it, but the fact that the folks in the picture ARE living up to it won't leave me alone...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

it can't be this long since I have posted something...

A few regulars came by the office this afternoon, and we somehow got talking about the implications of placing religion so in criticism of culture that it loses its perspective. I guess I never really thought about it quite this way, but from certain angles a prophetic model (Christ against culture) stands in opposition to a sacramental model (Christ in culture). Liturgically this model can easily end up viewing sacraments as means of “recharging” the batteries that get worn down by contact with the outside world so that we can go back out there and keep banging away at it. There is certainly something to that insofar as the gospel has both the ability and the need to stand in critique of a culture which all too often seems to have truly gone insane. On the other hand, this can end up being anti-incarnational and sectarian. A more broadly sacramental view would hold that the sacraments are not about recharging our batteries but about celebrating and bringing to conscious awareness the presence of Christ in the world. The danger is that it can lose its critical edge if it hunkers down into an “I’m ok, you’re ok” kind of relationship with the world. On the other hand, it reminds that Christ is found precisely in the messiness of the world, that grace is not a scarce commodity. It also avoids the dangerous tendency of the prophetic or “Christ against culture” model to see itself as a bastion of righteousness, holding at bay “the world” which exists out there. In a more sacramental model, just as Christ is in the world out there, so is “the world” in here, in my own self-centered and violent heart. Ironically, the inflated and twisted ego can easily enough inhabit the prophetic mind that believes that, having shunned “the world” outside the community, it has shed its own ego once and for all. That does not mean the abdication of the call to stand against a dehumanizing and self-aggrandizing culture, but to realize that saying no to the culture is not quite the same as exorcising its spirit from my heart.