Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

Because the readings are long, this reflection is brief.  Plenty more I had in mind, but less, I hope, is more.

I know we had some long readings today, so I will make this quick, but first, an image to contemplate: we have all seen film or Power Point presentation projected onto a screen, right?  Speaking of the suffering and death of Jesus, the theologian Mark McIntosh gives the odd image of projecting a film, not onto a screen, but onto a garbage heap; the film is completely distorted, barely possible to make out.  He suggests that the suffering and death of Jesus, far from being the will of God, is the distorted outcome of the “film” of God’s self-giving life appearing in the wreckage of human history.  That’s why we read the Passion on Palm Sunday, a week ahead of time: to remind ourselves that the roots of Jesus’ suffering and death lie in his life and ministry, his confrontation with the distorted power structures of our world.
There were two processions going into Jerusalem that day: on one hand, Roman forces were massing in Jerusalem, fortifying their troop strength in town in preparation for the Passover, because there was typically trouble as people remembered and demonstrated for a freedom they did not enjoy.  On the other hand, Jesus and his little group enter from the other direction, not with an opposing army, but lampooning this show of overwhelming force, playing on the words of the prophet Zechariah: “See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, Meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.  He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem; The warrior's bow shall be banished, and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.” (Zech 9:9-10)  A very different kind of king from Caesar, but a king nonetheless.
This year Palm Sunday falls between two infamous days from our own time: this past Wednesday, March 24, marked the 30th anniversary of the anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed for his outspoken commitment to economic and social justice for the poor of El Salvador.  Next week, Easter Sunday, is April 4th, which of course is the anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the radicality of whose message we as a nation and as Christians have not yet begun to take seriously.  Shortly before his death, Romero said, “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”  If you’ve been to El Salvador, you know that is exactly what has happened, and that’s what we are here today to do: to remember, to strengthen one another for our common task.  True discipleship, following Jesus, means following him to the place of confrontation with every system of domination, even to death, believing that resurrection, new and transformed life, awaits.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hagia Sophia

Today is the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; "happy" anniversary is not quite the right word, except that he was born into the resurrection and into the communal imagination of the people of El Salvador on this day, as he said: "If they kill me, I will arise in the Salvadoran people."  When I was there a couple of years ago, I saw that he remains a powerful figure in the consciousness of the people of El Salvador.

For one of my classes, I wrote a little paper on a new book that just came out, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, by my old friend Chris Pramuk, now a professor of systematic theology at Xavier University in Cinncinnati.  We were in a class on Merton together years ago, when he was just starting his doctoral work and I was just starting my master's work.  He is writing about Merton's prose poem "Hagia Sophia," which draws on the image of Sophia, the Greek word for Wisdom, a figure who shows up in several of the late books of the Old Testament (e.g. Proverbs and Wisdom of Solomon).  So, here goes...

I’ll just say it up front: I am in love with this book.  Apart from making me realize how much of Thomas Merton’s corpus I have NOT read, I didn’t want to put it down.  Pramuk uncovers the influences upon Merton’s “sophiology,” particularly the Russian Orthodox theologians for whom Sophia was a much more accepted category than in the Christian West, which has no real tradition of sophiology of which to speak, and the ramifications of this kind of theological thinking for the concerns of a world facing such moral and theological disintegration as did the world Merton inhabited, the world of the 20th century, particularly the world of Hiroshima and Auschwitz, Vietnam and Watts, the Cold War and the revolutions of the global south.  Where Thomas Merton has been dismissed as not a real theologian on the grounds that he is only writing spirituality or poetry, Pramuk argues that, far from being mere wordsmithing, the form of his writing is essentially linked to its content.  In a way very similar to Walter Brueggemann, for whom the primary category for understanding the prophet is as poet, Pramuk argues that poetry is a means of avoiding the “prosing” of the world.  That is, paradoxical though it sounds, the poet is not swept up in devout idolatry of language the way that “the businessman, the propagandist, the politician” (78) are; the prosing of the world makes for a single, unquestionable Procrustean narrative into which all people are to be stuffed, whereas the poet knows that the elusive, allusive power of language opens up possibilities for “otherwise.”  Rather than draw the ineffable down into fixed categories, the poet allows language to be unfixed by being drawn up into higher, more playful and unsettled meanings.  “Imagination, in other words, the realm of the symbol, is not separate from reason but enables us ‘to reason differently by enlarging and reordering our powers of perception.” (108)
While it is more or less inevitable, given the workings of language, that those who are condemned to speak about God make God an object, an “out there,” Merton sees this as a tragedy that ends both in the death of God and in the death of the true self, that which we seek but which will never be found “out there” without being simultaneously being tasted as one’s inmost self, what Hopkins would call one’s “inscape.”  Thus one angle on Merton’s understanding of mysticism as “the re-centering of subjectivity from the self to God.” (99)  He refers to this “God’s-eye view” with the Pauline category of “the mind of Christ,” a lens through which we see that seeing the world, other people, God as “others,” “objects” to be related to, is a falsehood, and a violent and alienating one at that.  In truth, we are already one, but we imagine that we are not, so the objectified world and other and God become instrumentalized products of exchange.  The problem, it seems (stepping a bit outside of Merton and Pramuk’s arguments for a moment) is that this lens, this atomizing mode of looking at the world is, in Merton’s terms, horrifically Promethean (a literary figure that, while never explicitly stated as such, would stand for Merton as the foil to his figure of Sophia): I must capture what I want from others and from God who are striving to keep it from me.  I can have only what I can take, because nothing will be given freely.  “War, of course, is the bitter harvest of Prometheanism on a global scale, a centrifugal struggle against life spinning tragically around the poles of ‘heroism and despair.’” (141)
“Peace, then, and healing, begins with poverty of spirit,” (198) with a view of the world that does not pit “us” against “them,” that does not depend on defending myself from the world that is endlessly seeking to take what is mine.  While nothing the theological influence that Russian Orthodoxy had on Merton, Pramuk connects Merton’s poetic/imaginative sensibilities with those of Abraham Heschel and Boris Pasternak, both of whom Merton admired and befriended: “‘In the face of our own almost hopeless alienation,’ Pasternak is proof that the poet can help us ‘get back to ourselves before it is too late.’  In him, poetry becomes one with prophecy.” (152)  Merton’s repeated theme of the urgency (but nigh-impossibility) of simply being human in an age of mass inhumanity echoes Pasternak’s theme in his writings, “‘the protest of life itself, of humanity itself, of love’ against the ‘reign of numbers,’ against the alienation and anonymity of mass society.” (207)
In a strange way, this capacity for non-duplicity, for simplicity, for humanness, is Sophia, but less as a “thing” and more as a trajectory, a reality already present in each person but so buried under falsehood as to be invisible, that into which we are invited (quietly) to grow.  The symbol itself for Merton jumps around, both in the poem and in his other sophianic writings: Sophia as Mary, as Logos, as the ousia of God, as the linkage of Logos and Spirit, who are together the presence of the Father (Mother) God in the world, as the “pivot” of nature playing alongside God from the beginning of creation.  “Perhaps most of all, Merton’s Sophia is our ‘true self,’ when we allow Christ to be birthed in us, and so realize the hidden ground of mercy, creativity, and presence in our very selves, the mystical Body of Christ.” (207)  This mysterious, “empty” placeholder, marked only by humility and kenosis, is obviously also connected to “le point vierge,” a phrase Merton borrowed from the French Islamicist Louis Massignon to refer to that meeting place of the divine reality with our own, endlessly humble and with nothing to hold on to by way of naming oneself, and hence both absolutely vulnerable and absolutely beyond insult and injury: there is nothing there to insult, since the only “thing” there is the non-object, the Absolute Subject, God, or better, Sophia, who is closer to me than I am to myself, who in the final accounting is my self.
Lest this seem to float off into the ether, Pramuk asks what good it does to bring Sophia-language into the discourse of Western theology and especially the discourse of the post-Christian era.  “[W]ith deepest respect for the theodicy question, it is at the point where the analogical imagination ruptures, as in Auschwitz, or present-day Darfur – where all analogy between God and the world is rendered horrific and absurd – that the irony of Christ and Christ crucified intervenes from within, as it were, to mediate and intensify (I do not say ‘answer’) faith’s most difficult question: whether we have eyes to see, the faith to shoulder, the contradictions of hope in a sinful, though still hallowed, world.” (268)  This is not simply another theodicy, arguing that the unspeakable realities of our times disappear in the light of the gloriously risen Christ: instead, rather than answering prose with prose, certitude with certitude and power with power, “Merton sets the poverty and humility of Christ, from nativity to the cross, against the Promethean climate of the times.” (262)  This takes shape in what some would call “weak” categories: memory, imagination, hope, poetry, but as Merton says in the poem, “She [Sophia] crowns Him not with what is glorious, but with what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty.” (305)
Does this Sophia as dark ousia of God, as the weakness of God, the unpolluted self of humanity, work?  Does it end up inscribing weakness into femininity, reinforcing artificial and harmful gender roles?  That remains as yet for me an open question, but I suspect there is more to it than that: Sophia opens up imaginings of God that transcend the associations of power and masculinity that usually accompany Western God-images.  Merton argues, “The ‘desecration’ of man begins when symbols are emptied of meaning and are allowed to survive precisely insofar as they are patronizingly admitted to be misleading but still ‘necessary for the ignorant.’” (275)  There is still something within us, however, that has not been corrupted by the need to defend itself (like the “Uncarved Block” of The Tao of Pooh, perhaps), and the form of subversive imagery (God as Sophia) and subversive rhetoric (poetry, in this case) has the capacity to convey the mystical in a new key: the renewal of imagination, the un-prosing of the world.  Such allegedly “weak” categories put theology where it ought to be: in touch with the weak, “intensifying our awareness of the critical present moment for those who have no name, no presence, no value whatsoever on the world stage.” (290)  The very hiddenness of this sophianic vision is its power – it is too weak to be brought to the center of a system of control, even a theological system, so it remains on the edge where it belongs, pushed out of the world, uncompromised by abstractions that lose sight of the real people who are chewed up by the machinery of power.  This is the Christ (and, one can hope, the Christianity) of today: “Christ is Lord of history in the manner ‘of His entry into Jerusalem: in a concealed, kenotic matter (behind a veil of humility), which is imperceptible to the senses, but more than visible, and absolutely evident to faith’…the Christ of our times is ‘the Christ of the bombed city and of the concentration camp.’” (215)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


This past weekend my community's New York Province celebrated the 50th anniversary of their foundation, so they had a Mass and a reception in New York City.  I was coming back from my spring break in Washington, DC (coming soon), so I was able to be there for the celebration.  Got to see a lot of guys I had not seen in a long time.  Two in particular:

Br. Paul Montero is not only a current member of our general administration, living in Rome between his travels all over the world.  He is also my former high school principal and a long-time friend.  Because he is such a globe-trotter, I had not seen him in a few years, but as always, seeing him was a great grace of Brotherhood.  Even as a little kid, Paul made a big impression on me - he knew my name, knew my family, and was not just concerned about running the school: he loved us students.
Br. Gaston Lavoie is another old friend, but from my novitiate days, rather than from high school.  When I was a novice, Gaston was a new member of the general council, and he came to live with us for a couple of months to work on his English.  Every evening after dinner we would take a walk around the block, and he would let me work on the French with him, so we got to be friends, and my French got a lot better (or maybe, less bad) because of his congeniality.

Both of these guys are just Brothers' Brothers - no baloney, just men who love the Institute and have given their lives to making it work better.  Ametur Cor Jesu, Brothers, and happy anniversary.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Spring Break in DC

Spending a few days in Washington, DC for spring break, visiting some former co-workers.  Passed through York, PA on the way and saw the York Barbell Company right on the side of the interstate.  The sign said they had free tours of the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame, and their Olympic lifting equipment is the stuff of legends, so of course I had to stop.  I know that sounds pretty pathetic, but I love York gear, and seriously, how often am I going to pass through York, PA?

Anyway, got in to DC last evening, and it was my friend’s husband’s birthday.  He is serious about his Irishness, so we to a Gaelic Mass in honor of his birthday and St. Patrick’s Day.  Had never heard any significant amount of Gaelic spoken before, but it was most impressive.  The priest even took out his mandolin and serenaded us in Gaelic after the Mass ended!  This morning my friend and I did an hour of yoga, which I was completely not ready for, so I have been dragging myself around all day.  She had to go to work, so I went into town and met another old friend, and we spent the day running around town: National Zoo, Holocaust Museum, Washington Monument.  The zoo has an “O Line,” ( a series of towers with ropes attached running from the orangutan home to a research station, allowing the orangutans to be out of their pens without danger of them getting away (there are electrified platforms below the ropes to keep them from climbing down from the towers).  How cool an idea is that?

The last time I was in DC (about 8 years ago), the Holocaust Museum ( was the one thing that stayed with me above all else, so I knew I wanted to get back, and it did not disappoint.  We spent about three hours there, but of course I could have stayed for days.  It was encouraging that the place was jammed to the rafters with visitors the whole time we were there – the power of that place is palpable, and it seems like people are really drawn into the presentation.

Finally, dinner with both friends and their spouses at an unbelievable tapas restaurant – how had I gone 32 years without ever having tapas?!

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, of course, and even though I’m not Irish at all, I feel like an honorary Irishman for the day, and if tomorrow's hour of yoga or whatever other torture my friend can come up is like today's was, I think I’ll be looking for a wee drop...So, to all lads and lassies, genuinely Irish and Irish for the day, a happy day.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A pizza my mind...

For a while there we were ordering pizza or cooking frozen pizzas almost every weekend, so for the past few weeks, I've been making pizza dough on Friday and having it available for Sunday evening - I roll out the dough, and the Brothers can add whatever they want to it.  As I type we are just finishing cleaning up from our latest effort, and for my money, our best so far.  Today one of the volunteers who lives down the street came over to talk about graduate theology programs and get some advice about baking bread, so I got her to help, which may be why it turned out so well.  I inadvertently cooked one longer than I intended, but it ended up being really good - very crisp! - so I may have to repeat that 'happy accident' again next time!  The first picture is Br. Bill's very fine mushroom-and-ricotta pizza, then mine (mushroom and pineapple, my favorite!), then the guys at the table, then Br. Mike's pepperoni and mushroom.  Coming to know Him in the breaking of the bread, indeed...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

hidden Christ, unhidden small self

Realization tonight, of the sinister reach of my superficial self. Had a brilliant session today on mysticism, proud of myself for my mastery of the material, good synthesis of ideas and insightful turns of phrase, then came home and snapped at the Brothers during dinner because I was tired and the conversation was boring. Had to apologize for being cranky. Again. All of the morning’s snappy knowledge still hasn’t sunk past my thinking brain. Need for a return to the apocalyptic Christ: not the scholars’ eschatological prophet announcing the end of the world, but the Christ who leaves my plans for my life in splinters, in whose wake my life cannot but be shaken to its foundations. No more taking pride in being clever, like the prisoner taking pride in his large cell. Inauthenticity of justifying my alienated life with work - always more work to do, never enough time, feel continually drawn toward doing more, reading more, writing more, proving more, but then wonder where my religious life, my life, has gone. Need to get from the irreligious religious life of my life at present, not back to “religious life” (whatever that means), but to real life. The attempt to live a more human life is at times inhuman – making bread from scratch (which I love), wanting to avoid processed crap foods, but demands so much more than the two seconds in the bread aisle at the supermarket. Want to connect with what I eat – holiness of food – not just use food as fuel. But hard to spend (justify?) the time when I could be/should be ACCOMPLISHING – plowing through more books, writing some brilliant (!) thing, updating my blog more often. Like the Big Bad Wolf of my unsettled resentful self hiding in Granny’s contented nightgown (the better to edify you with). Merton, as usual, but for me, more than for you: “The Christ we seek is within us, in our inmost self, is our inmost self, and yet infinitely transcends ourselves.” Easy to say, hard to get.  Not there yet, haven't even started.  But the shy Christ breaks through, despite myself.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

a bit more on debt...

Ever since I went to that lecture last week, I have been thinking about debt and its relationship to theology.  I know frightfully little about economics, and only slightly more about theology, but it sure seems like so many theological types have not had to worry about debt that I fear we too easily spiritualize the Biblical language of debt.  Of course, I'm in the same boat - just because I've taken a vow of poverty does not at all mean I have any idea of what poverty or debt actually feels like - but I fear that we can theologize debt, real financial debt, into sinfulness, like we now owe God for all the things we have done wrong.  I'm not trying to nullify talking about sin, but I do want to avoid reading the gospel like it is just talking about our souls - the salvation of which Jesus speaks is integral, not just getting souls to heaven, but overcoming the crushing forces that warp the human situation.  Debt may not be the only one, but it is certainly a real one, and reading Torah, the prophetic tradition, the gospels makes clear that it is near and dear to the heart of the Biblical God.  An entire chapter of Leviticus (25) is about the jubilee year, when all debts were to be forgiven and land restored to families, and other institutionalized means of preventing debt from consuming the people.  Isaiah, Amos and Micah among other prophets rail against practices that condemn people to fall into debt (see, e.g., Amos 2:2; 3:11; 6:10-11.  Speaking about the crushing system of debts in the Palestine of Jesus' time, Walter Wink says, "It is no accident that the first act of the Jewish revolutionaries in 66 C.E. was to burn the Temple treasury, where the record of debts was kept." [Incidentally, if you want to read the article from which I got this quote, go here:  He reads the injunctions to turn the other cheek, give one's coat with one's tunic, and go the second mile in the context of Roman occupation - a very different view from our usual spiritualized thinking about those "impossible" injunctions!]  A number of theologians talk about Jesus' turning over tables in the temple in the context of the economic control that the necessity of making very expensive sacrifices would impose over the poor.  We tend to read parables like the unforgiving servant (MT 18:23-35) or the workers in the vineyard (MT 20:1-16) as if they are really about God forgiving sin or being merciful with us - and yes, that's true, but why would that extend only to the interior life, as opposed to also entailing the surface reading of economic debt, which is so common in the time of Jesus and in our own time?  What would have happened those people that Dr. Yunus lent the $27 to if they had borrowed money from loan sharks?  How long would that debt have dogged them?  Why in poor areas are there so many paycheck advance places that charge unbelievable interest rates?  Why when I was in Zimbabwe did I so often see endless fields of flowers for sale abroad all while so many people were hungry?  [Foreign debt, in case I was unclear there.]  The Church, talking about economic justice, makes clear that we are not isolated monads or self-made men and women - we are inherently communal beings, and our lives impact one another.  There is a social nature to our lives - we don't become the body of Christ by sitting together for an hour on Sundays, we become it by behaving communally, and that means that there is a social reality in every aspect of our existence: economic, political, familial.  Debt is not just a ready symbol for sin or a story to be allegorized, but a real and enduring source of human suffering that the gospel demands be alleviated.