Monday, November 30, 2009

expert humans wanted

We read some Emerson and Thoreau for one of my classes this week, and I just finished the reflection paper, so I have snippets of both those guys whirling in my head, with a liberal sprinkling of clips from Dead Poets' Society for good measure.  Thoreau's quote, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them" has got me thinking, and not just because it's the end of the semester and I'm up to my eyeballs in reading and papers: how much do any of us avoid the possibility of unknown suffering by clinging to sufferings to which we are accustomed?  Pink Floyd shares Thoreau's sentiment: "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way."  Stiff upper lip, lads.  How much of my life is extraordinary?  That doesn't mean life-as-extreme-sport, (for God's sake, no) but how much do I live to get somewhere else, not pay attention to where I am, muddle through what I am supposed to do?  How often am I genuinely alive, really soaking in the full range of human experience, and not running away from some part of it?  Whatever we are doing, work, school, whatever is about developing or making use of a certain expertise of ability or information, but how many of us are expert human beings?  I have become an expert at keeping the world stable around me, but when that stability is threatened, how easily my little world falls apart.  I don't know how to become an expert human being, but, even if just for this night while writing this paper, Emerson and Thoreau have reminded me that the goal of all of it - work, school, community, ministry, whatever - is the deadly difficult task of becoming who we are, becoming real human beings.

For me in my little universe, that means more than having a much-expanded personal library at the end of this degree program.  A mental rock star like Thoreau can say that he kept the Iliad on his table at Walden Pond but didn’t read much of it; again, he isn't dismissing intellectual work, but seeing the task of intellection directed to knowing himself.  Plenty of people have dismissed his experiment because he was only a mile or so from Concord, but I challenge anyone to spend a week without reading or talking to anyone – that might sound like heaven at the end of the semester, but not reading, not writing, not accomplishing, not producing is a lot more work than it seems. In my head I share Thoreau’s sentiment, “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers,” but in my real life I also see how needy I can get after a few months of continual interaction, communication, productivity, when I have not disciplined myself to be still and let go of "relevance."  My fear in this place is that academe become a barrier between myself and real life, cutting me off from the desperation of real people's real sufferings as well as Thoreau's “quiet desperation” in my own life, not just because I have spent a ridiculous amount of time this semester cooped up reading or writing, but because a university can be a cozy place to hunker down away from the chaos of the world. “Apocalyptic never makes sense to people who are tenured,” one of my OT professors once told our class. Point taken: To the degree that being here opens my world to the rawness of the world of people who live without safety nets, and gives me the tools to bring people to see outside their bubble, I'm in the right place. To the degree that this kind of work insulates me from it, I’m in big trouble.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Time of the End is the Time of No Room - 15 November 2009

The readings today include apocalyptic sections of Daniel and Mark, so given the opening of this new film 2012 (which I have not seen, and don't particularly intend to see), I thought my reflection for today might bring those two together.  Here goes...

Merry Christmas! I see that we already have a Christmas tree out in the lobby, but how many of you have seen Christmas decorations up at stores or heard Christmas music on the radio? I started hearing it before Halloween. According to this new movie 2012 the Mayans apparently say the end is coming in three years, and I think that by then, stores are going to start Christmas sales on the 4th of July. In the past few weeks, how many of you have said something along the lines of, “Oh my God, the semester is almost over!”? Personally, I don’t want it to be that close, because I have a lot of work to do between now and the end. We see something of that sense of anticipation this week in the readings: sun being darkened, stars falling, heavens and earth being shaken. In other words, the world as we know it is falling apart. We still have a few weeks to go before the end of the liturgical year, but we are already hearing readings that seem to be directly pointing at the end of things. The technical term for thinking about “the last things” is eschatology, so we might say that these readings are eschatological. Preachers throughout history have just loved these texts, usually pointing to current events to convince people that the end is almost here. War here, famine there, the end must be close. There have ALWAYS been wars and famines going on, I’m sad to say, so current events is not the best yardstick. Even the earliest generation of Christians seemed to believe pretty soundly that Jesus would return within their lifetimes, and it’s easy to see why from the content of the gospel: “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Both the first reading and the gospel point to a select group who will endure the end: those whose names are written in the book, says the first, and the elect, says the gospel. Of course, people of all times have been at pains to show that they are among the elect, usually showing at the same time who is NOT among the elect. Some group took it upon themselves some years ago to calculate exactly what percentage of people are going to be condemned, and suffice it to say it’s pretty high, 87-point-something percent, if my memory serves. Anybody want to guess whether that group was in the 87 percent or the 13 percent?

What do we do with readings like this when, a couple of millennia after they were written, the end still hasn’t come? Well, there’s eschatology and then there’s eschatology. I did find it interesting that with all this buzz about this movie 2012 coming out this weekend, a professor of archaeology or some such thing pointed out that the Mayans didn’t see this as the end of the world, but the end of the age, the end of a particular arche, a particular power structure. That, I think, is the sense of what we see in this gospel; right around the time Mark’s gospel was written, the Romans sacked Jerusalem and burned down the temple. For the Jews of that time, this was huge, the “end of the world,” rather like that country song after 9/11, “Where were you when the world stopped turning?”, or all those action scenes in the end-of-the-world movies that Hollywood keeps pumping out: the White House blowing up in Independence Day, the frozen Statue of Liberty in The Day After Tomorrow, the fall of the Eiffel Tower in G.I. Joe, and so on. The world looks different after this has happened, because what we thought was stable, sturdy, eternal is shown to be vulnerable. At the same time as these massive catastrophes change the world, that’s also what the life and ministry of Jesus is about, in a completely different way: the outsider, the weak, the unworthy is paradoxically shown to be the place where God is to be found. Thinking back to the “percentages” of who will be saved, who did Jesus spend his time with? The power elite? The well-connected? The really religious folks? Try the unclean, the outsiders, the unworthy, the repentant. So, this age is dying, even if it is a slow and painful death. Unfortunately, instead of this vision of who God is infiltrating our model of power politics, we have allowed it to norm our sense of what God is. The first reading speaks of Michael, and of course we usually get an image of an angel with a sword or a spear, reenacting a power that, while bigger than earthly powers, is the same kind of control: the biggest of the big sticks. In the early Church, Michael was an image for Jesus: Michael means “who is like unto God?” And who is like God, who shows us what God is like? Jesus, who has neither sword nor spear, but only the earth-shaking model of crucified love. God is to be found in the unstable places of history, and while life generally works for all of us who are here, we know well how large a proportion of the world can’t say the same. Despite the death grip of the old age on control and manipulation, the business-as-usual power politics that favors the powerful and the well-placed is giving way to a new era in the ministry of Jesus, who points to the nobodies of his world as signs of the reign of God, a scandal to the reign of power. That’s the already and the not yet; the promise has been made, and we believe that promise is trustworthy, so we can live in a new world and also await its full enactment. The death knell of this arrangement of power and injustice has been sounded in the new reality that is the coming of Jesus, who defies all the power politics of the world, who is born into obscurity and poverty and dies in pain and disgrace.

Since you are all anticipating the end of the semester, and the readings are anticipating the end of the liturgical year, and 2009 is anticipating the year 2012 (why didn’t they wait three years?!), allow me to anticipate a bit and bring the eschatology of this week’s readings into conversation with a reflection on the Nativity, the initiation of the end of the age. Thomas Merton wrote an essay in the early 60’s entitled, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room,” a reflection on the Nativity, when there was “no room” (in the inn) for the coming of the new vision.

“We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration.

“As the end approaches, there is no room for nature. The cities crowd it off the face of the earth.

As the end approaches, there is no room for quiet. There is no room for solitude. There is no room for thought. There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state.

“In the time of the ultimate end, there is no room for man.

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it - because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it - his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. For them, there is no escape even in imagination. They cannot identify with the power structure of a crowded humanity which seeks to project itself outward, anywhere, in a centrifugal flight into the void, to get out there where there is no God, no man, no name, no identity, no weight, no self, nothing but the bright, self-directed, perfectly obedient and infinitely expensive machine.

“For eschatology is not finis and punishment, the winding up of accounts and the closing of books: it is the final beginning, the definitive birth into a new creation. It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving as actual.”

Friday, November 13, 2009


I met with my academic advisor today to plan next semester’s courses, and at the end of the meeting she, with great sensitivity and candor, brought to my attention a concern that some of the other students in the department had about me. She included that she thought they had not come to talk to me directly because they saw me as a religious authority and may have felt intimidated. I was brought up short by the concern she raised, as I was not even aware of the effect of my actions, but it made me think about what it means to be seen as a religious authority. While I know that the mere fact of being in religious life connotes a certain kind of authority, I don’t consider myself an authority on anything. I am certainly not an intellectual authority, not when it comes to knowledge of the faith, a topic that I have actually studied, let alone any other topic. I don’t consider myself a moral authority; quite the contrary, my sense of religious community is that we are here together because we are greatly aware of our fallibility, and we need to be here together because we are such great sinners.  One of the great blessings of community is that, at its best, it holds a mirror to our actions like my advisor did this afternoon. In Christianity in particular, it seems to me that religious authority takes on a peculiar cast, an anti-thority if you will. I have said before how often the very people whom Jesus takes to task are religious authorities, and as a so-called religious authority, I know that I am in the hot seat. If service, humility, self-effacement are the hallmarks of true leadership (which I think Jesus makes more or less clear), then the fact that anyone could be intimidated about bringing his/her concern to a religious authority means that we have not done a good job of making clear that Christian authority is an anti-thority. Jesus repeatedly says that the healthy do not need a doctor, but the sick do, so to follow Jesus means to be aware of one's sickness, and the language of "perfection" that the Church uses for religious life is simply about the goal of learning to listen to the doctor's orders, not being free of the sickness.  To be a Christian anti-thority figure means that we should be the most open to criticism, the most able to acknowledge when we have done wrong, because we know how fallible we are, how far from being in a position of superiority. If people expect perfection from us because we have presented that image of ourselves, woe to us. I was certainly embarrassed by what my advisor brought to my attention, but I was just as certainly glad that she did so; Richard Rohr suggests he needs at least one good humiliation per day to keep his head on straight, and I think that’s about right. Of course, to the degree that I take myself seriously, that kind of shaking of the foundations can throw me into a tailspin, which is why regularity of humiliation is important: to never give myself time to take myself too seriously. In one of his books Tony DeMello reflects on the book I'm OK, You're OK and says that he should write a counter-text: I'm an Ass, You're an Ass.  That doesn't excuse the fact that I'm an ass, it just reminds me not to be surprised when I prove it.  I had just gotten an email from an old colleague this morning, telling me how much they miss me at SLU, and I was feeling pretty good about myself (I still do, I’m not neurotic or anything), but this afternoon’s meeting brought me back to attentiveness to myself – not everyone is reading me as wonderfully as this old colleague, and I better pay attention to why they think so, because they just might be seeing something in me that I don’t see in myself. I sometimes wonder if any of the Twelve read the manuscript of Mark’s Gospel before it got into circulation; I hope so, because as much as that gospel portrays the Twelve as a bunch of knuckleheads, for them to say, “Yeah, that’s about it, we’re knuckleheads,” would be an exercise in real Christian anti-thority. I’m certainly not one of the Twelve, but I’m a knucklehead, and to the degree that I try to paint a prettier picture of myself than my actual knuckleheadedness, I turn true anti-thority into authority as the world thinks of it, and the gospel of humility and mercy becomes a gospel of "unsaved unwelcome" and self-righteousness.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Habits of the Heart

Today I started reading Robert Bellah’s classic book Habits of the Heart for my sociology class; I was just a kid when it came out, and I “should” have read it somewhere along the line (see previous post), but for one reason or another I never did. Anyway, it deals with how Americans understand themselves and pursue what they understand to be worthwhile in life, and the first person interviewed, Brian, was a successful businessman who made it to the top at the expense of a relationship with his family, working sixty-five-plus hours per week. The collapse of what he thought his world actually was led him to a new attitude about work; as he puts it, “Now I just kind of flip the bird and walk out. My family life is more important than that, and the work will wait, I have learned.” My tendency has been to follow Brian’s pattern (without making big money, of course): “Perhaps it was success. Perhaps it was fear of failure, but I was extremely success-oriented, to the point where everything would be sacrificed for the job, the career, the company.”  Boy, does that hit close to home.  I always have a bad habit of breaking my neck trying to do work to the umpteenth degree; despite all the wise words I have about how my community is too workaholic, about how we don’t know what our identity is when we aren’t in active ministry, boy, have I felt that one this year. I’ve always been able to justify working like a fool by saying that one reason to be in religious life is to be able to work like crazy without depriving a wife and kids of their husband and father, but the treads have worn pretty thin on that line. One of my formation directors taught us in the novitiate, “The charism of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart is to work your ass off.” Period. In that, I am a true Brother of the Sacred Heart, and I’m tired of it. I want my life back. I don’t blame my work settings: no one has put this kind of expectation on me but me, but I just don't want that for my life anymore. In particular, prayer is an aspect of my life that usually suffers first, and I suspect that is common among members of apostolic orders. I have never considered myself a terribly good pray-er, so it has not taken much psychological energy to push off prayer because I had so much work to do. Grateful though I am for community prayer, it has become a sort of justification: no matter whether I pray at other times or not, I “have to” be in there at those scheduled times, so I can keep on telling myself that’s enough. That's all I've got for today; I won’t quite “flip the bird” to my work or this blog, but I can do so to the attitude that wants to throw a few shreds of real life in at the end of work.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints Day

I can't believe it's been two weeks since I have posted...ugh...Such is the pace of a doctoral program.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we form our sense of self, which should be no surprise to people who ever read this thing.  In particular I have been aware of how easily the university setting can prompt covetousness, and how hard it is to feel "at ease" even in a setting in which people are very friendly and that is not outwardly competitive.  In my program, people are working on dozens of areas of research that are so widespread, it can be quite difficult to figure out what common ground we have.  However, when I listen to other students talking about their areas of interest, discussing scholars and movements that I have never even heard of, much less read about, it is easy for me to get defensive in response to feeling like I'm on the dumb end of the department, or on the other hand to work myself into a frenzy of wanting to read all this stuff.  Now, there's something good about being motivated to read more, I suppose, but there is a certain abysmal character to such a desire.  There is physically no way to read everything I "should" read to be up on the sweep of my chosen fields (let alone all the other fields I "should" be keeping abreast of).  It is a bit like the Buddhist figure of the "hungry ghost," which is conceived of as having a huge stomach, but a tiny neck - it cannot be satisfied, no matter how much it eats, because its hunger is insatiable.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who spends part of the year living in a hermitage, says that when he gets settled into his retreat every year, he comes to the place where he feels like if he never read another book, it would be enough.  This is a very well-read guy, so he does not mean that reading is not important or that he has gotten it all figured out.  He knows the potential of study to liberate, but he wants to make clear that it can also become an insatiable desire.  Even though study is critical to bringing us to new understanding of ourselves and our world, it can also lead to a sense of self based in being able to "compete" with the other: I've read all those people, I am among the literati, I know all the theories out there.  The attempt to fill the chasm of who I am with anything, even anything good - books read or published, good works accomplished, income donated, degrees earned - is itself an indication of just how alienated from myself I have in fact become.  The measure of that for me is when I find myself in the company of different groups of people: around my students I could feel confident in my knowledge base, while among my classmates I feel somehow more ephemeral, like I am less real around people who know more than I.  That may be one way of reading "the Fall" in Genesis 3: the immediacy of my knowledge of my relationship and identity with God gets disrupted with the rise of self-consciousness, of shame and pride, so I feel the need to cover my nakedness with the fig leaves of what I can pat myself on the back for.
That may be one good thing about today: All Saints Day.  If today shows us anything, it is the absolute multiplicity of models that have been acknowledged as legitimate ways of living true humanity.  The call to holiness is not a blueprint or a script; there is no one way to be a saint.  Rather, sainthood is INCARNATED in the very tissue of who I am.  As much as I admire her, I am no Mother Teresa, which is ok - I'm not called to be her, but to be me, genuinely me, which is harder than it sounds.  This mimesis or creation of desires based on other people tells me what I am supposed to desire, what I am supposed to want to be, and it will jerk me around as long as I play the game of trying to produce a mask that is so real that I will forget that it is simply a mask.