Monday, February 28, 2011

The Moral Center

"I don't know where the moral center of the universe is any more," said the president of the Boston anti-poverty agency last week in a New York Times column by Bob Herbert. At issue: budget cuts that hurt the most vulnerable and neediest in our society as politicians make sure there are tax breaks for the rich while social services are slashed. Don't people matter?

Apparently not, at least in Florida, where our GOP governor, who proclaims his faith in Jesus but fails to live it, reduces the pay of teachers and other essential state employees with ruthless budget cuts.

Other examples of people living without moral standards:

1. Bernie Madoff, interviewed today for the first time, claims to be a victim of a corrupt system and suggests that the people he swindled knew perfectly well what was going on in his Ponzi scheme. Like the self-serving sinners in Dante's Hell, he remains deluded, locked both in prison and in his own ego. He belongs in the lowest circle of Inferno, in the icy realm where traitors continue to betray themselves and others.

2. John Boehner, asked if he should correct people in his party who claim that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Muslim, responded, "The American people have a right to think what they think." So much for moral leadership. True leaders confront lies and speak the truth. When Holocaust deniers make their absurd claims, they must be corrected. How else do we prevent racism and hatred? The Obama-haters take pleasure in, and get empowered by, seeing the president as an outsider; they need to be ignored, at best, or silenced. By refusing to condemn such hatred, the Speaker of the House revealed that he has no moral center; he is hollow at the core.

People matter; values matter. Enough said for now.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Magical Thinking--and Praying

In a recent blog, Frank Wilson talked about "magical thinking," which is not easily defined. I think the issue is related to prayer, so this post will be one of my reflections on prayer, in part a response to a friend's request, his interest in learning more about why and how people pray.

According to Wilson, the primal human engagement with the world was not logical, a matter of clear and distinct ideas, but more of a mystical encounter; not an objective, clinical observation. This is a valid way of apprehending reality, he says, and it "survives in quite a few of us" because magical thinking, involving how we feel as well as think, doesn't "radically detach the knower from the known." A purely rational approach to reality, by contrast, downplays imagination and emotion. It puts the other/Other "out there."

All of this seems to me relevant to prayer, a private experience not any easier to discuss than "magical thinking." It begins, usually, with words, as in a petition, then, ideally, proceeds to the non-verbal, to silence, the kind of silence Thomas Merton and others have talked extensively about wherein I can, on a good day, sense and feel the presence of God. I also feel a closeness to others.

So prayer is not really a narcissistic endeavor, any more than meditation is; it is not merely asking for favors but asking for God to make us aware of His presence within us. The contemplative prayer that is my goal when I pray leads to a resting in God.

It might begin with simple observation of the world around me, an appreciative sense of the present as a gift; it might use a word or scriptural phrase that is repeated until it is no longer needed.

It is quite possible, even desirable, to have this type of prayer as an ongoing activity throughout the day. That is what Merton presumably meant by having "an uninterrupted dialogue with God." Perhaps what we hear is our own voice coming back to us, but the knower is inseparable from the known, so what we hear can be called the voice of God whispering in the silence of our hearts.

Does prayer do any good? Can I change reality by praying for someone? I often doubt it. I remember C. S. Lewis writing to his brother and saying (paraphrased), "I don't known if my prayer does you any good, but it helps me." And that is not self-serving for reasons I just stated.

Why do I pray? To help myself deal with problems both external and internal: the daily fears we all have, the worries and decisions and choices that can't be made alone, that require "outside" help--help that is other than my inner self. I need the comfort that Someone is listening to my concerns, One who understands loneliness, pain, disappointment, and all that flesh is heir to.

Do I have the feeling of God's presence in church? Yes, at times, when the church is quiet and I am not distracted by the presence of others; but it happens mostly in those fought-for periods of silence when I am alone and my busy mind quiets down long enough to sense that I am not really alone. It can happen when I am in awe at the beauty of creation, absorbed in music or reading...all of which can be mystical experiences.

I know I need to say more, to define some of these indefinable terms, to say more about the mystery of an experience that is really beyond words. And I wish the process of praying was as easy for me as I have made it sound. Perhaps this rumination will lead to other reflections...

Saturday, February 26, 2011

How Lucky am I?

In the current issue of Commonweal, John Garvey writes a brief essay on a huge topic: Am I lucky or blessed?

People of faith generally prefer or are expected to be blessed when good things happen rather than merely lucky, merely the recipient of the whims of Lady Luck. But what if a tree falls on, and kills, my neighbor and not me, is God responsible?

Garvey is more comfortable being lucky than blessed, he confesses, opening up an issue that demands fuller treatment than he or I can give it. I think first of Boethius, the 6th century Roman thinker whose work greatly influenced the Christian Middle Ages. He contended that God is superior to fortune, which exists in time, whereas God is outside time. Fortune or luck operates in human time beyond acts of the will, including God's. The divine mind, then, cannot be held responsible for everyday events, despite some fundamentalist claims to the contrary.

I cannot, as a guy in the movies might, shout to the heavens, "Thank you, God!" for making the traffic light change just in time for a driver to make it to the nearest Starbucks to meet the girl of his dreams before she runs off....

Yet if we see God as Being itself (not a being who controls us, much less micro-manages our lives), God may be ultimately responsible for everthing that exists but only indirectly for what happens. His presence and reality in and with us do not preclude the existence of chance and accidents, which have nothing to do with the divine will, nor do they affect human free will.

So God has nothing to do with making the tree fall on my neighbor and not on me. Nothing to do with awful choices I might make. Bad things happen to good people, many of whom are unlucky and often stupid.

To be blessed implies, says Garvey, a relationship with someone who can bestow or withhold favors. This would seem to imply a fairly primitive, simplistic idea of God as a heavenly Santa Claus. My God is beyond all such random acts, yet I thank God for the people who perform random acts of kindness. I am grateful to God for the reflections of his love in our world.

So I, too, am mainly lucky; as a person of faith, however, there are times when I want to believe that God's will and my needs coincide, when God does indeed answer my prayers and cause good things to happen. How else could I be grateful?

I can't be grateful to Lady Luck. So I guess, in some things at least, I am blessed.

How Lucky am I?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reader's Block?

When I check out Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog, I am invariably introduced to articles I would not otherwise discover. Most recently, comments by the British writer Geoff Dyer, who, while shaped by his wide reading, has, for whatever reason, begun to suffer, not from the usual writer's block, but from an aversion to reading.

Perhaps, as he confesses, he is overdisciminating, maybe even lazy. He feels guilty, apparently, in not being motivated to read as he did twenty years earlier. He is right in saying that much fiction being published is a waste of time. Perhaps he is impatient and thus affected by the immediate gratification we all quickly learn from the media.

There are so many options out there for anyone intellectually curious, as Dyer obviously is. It is hard to concentrate on reading because, I think, we have learned from the computerized world of messaging that speed counts; the result is a scattering of our attention. Some would say that too much reliance on the web makes our thinking shallower.

Adam Gopnik, quoting Nicholas Carr in the current New Yorker, makes this
point. I suspect that Dyer has much in common with Sven Birkerts (author of "The Gutenberg Elegies"), who laments the loss of inner life that has long been made possible by the leisurely reading of fiction.

The way the social media and even the web make being unavailable a sin has clear implications for any serious reader, who needs uninterrupted time and attention, which are all too rare given the extensive competition.

Dyer no doubt would nod in agreement at the words of Rumi (the 13th cent. Sufi mystic): "I have lived too long where I can be reached."

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Thing of Beauty

Suddenly, here in central Florida, what passes for winter seems to be over and spring with its flowering trees and shrubs has arrived. Azaleas, the most showy, are emerging along with the dazzling yellow trees called tabebouia.

It so happens we received an orchid last week: 12 white blossoms clustered on two stalks, a phalaenopsis, with butterfly-like blooms, each with a pink center. I hope this thing of beauty will be a joy until Easter.

I had been ignoring our garden until today, when the lure of the outdoors, the desire to plant and weed and enjoy the sunshine asserted itself. When the hot summer weather arrives, all this enthusiasm will melt; for now, life and renewal are here. Now is what matters.

I remember Thomas Moore, in his popular book from the 1990s, Care of the Soul, saying that we all need beauty in our lives. The soul, which he never tried to define, seeks out beauty. Perhaps one way to explain this is to say how easy it is to become dispirited when we have nothing natural or beautiful around us.

The spiritual challenge for me is to look at the familiar with fresh eyes, to de-familiarize my surroundings so that, like Montaigne, I can see things from new perspectives. Having lived in the same house for more than 30 years, it is easy for us to take it for granted. Mindfulness allows me to go from room to room and imagine I am photographing everything or seeing it as a visitor would. I begin to admire the wallpaper, the framed prints, even the familiar furniture, rather than looking at the tasks that need to be done.

Along with this mindfulness comes gratitude for the items we have acquired for our home as well as for the green and growing things outside. I am grateful for the mirrors that bring part of the garden indoors, and on a radiant day like today, it is possible to imagine I live in a grand mansion.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pulling the Plug

Some time ago, I wrote about our habit, inspired by my wife's insistence on having quiet Sundays, of disconnecting from the world for about 24 hours a week, from Saturday evening to Sunday evening. Why? Because we write and need uninterrupted time.

Just recently I encountered what seems like an entertaining book by Susan Maushart, "The Winter of our Discontent," about her decision, despite (and because of) having three teen-age kids, to pull the plug on all media and technology. For six months. Cold turkey.

She felt that the girls were becoming "accessories to their non-stop social networking," as if real life were "a dress rehearsal for the next status update." It was a life dominated by the artifice of computers and personal media.

Using Thoreau as her guide, Maushart, a divorced mom, was apparently able to restore some broken family ties and to discover what she calls the surprising pleasures of boredom. I like that. The joy of doing nothing but being. The main thing: the kids began to stop and listen; they slowed down. Bravo!

No doubt the family ate dinner together and shared their lives with each other. The question, of course, is Now what? After the six months, will they return to their own disconnected ways, like the characters in the Italian film of yesteryear, "L'Aventurra," who occupy separate islands? Or will, as I hope, they have learned an enduring lesson about the need to unplug, slown down, and re-connect with each other?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Wanted: an elderly, relaxed sloth

The main character in the 1983 German novel The Discovery of Slowness is described as an elderly sloth after a long massage and a pipe of opium--a wonderful image from Sarah Bakewell's book on Montaigne.

Montaigne, the 16th century French writer, retired at 37 to a tower in his chateau to write, to observe, to slow down and look. He found a much-needed kind of wisdom and moderation that contrasted with the turmoil of his times; he did so by writing his essays.

Bakewell suggests that Montaigne would be a good model for today's Slowness Movement, inspired by the 1983 German novel and centered in Italy, found today in many places, in many publications, not just as a reaction against fast food but as a reminder to live fully in the present. This is a type of spirituality for our times, though not often called such, a needed response to the hectic pace of lives measured by megabytes and iPods, where the slow pace of a massaged sloth is the last thing anyone would admire.

One key result of slowing down, or perhaps a concomitant part of it, is the ability to pay attention to each aspect of daily life, something that Montaigne mastered. Nothing escaped his gaze or his pen. He writes in a memorable passage taken from Bakewell's biography, How to Live:

"If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves,
as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Getting rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off--though I don't know."

Note the typical note of skepticism at the end and the humility as the author honestly examines his life. What results are not quick and glib insights, as we are likely to find on blogs (not this one!) today but a mellow kind of wisdom.

As Virigina Woolf, one of Montaigne's many admirers, said, he attained happiness by analyzing the details of his life and gave coherence to all that make up the soul.

So Montaigne is a model of what so many seekers are talking about now, as they have in the centuries past: mindfulness. Paying attention to the fullness of the present moment before it is gone, savoring it slowly--even though the human impulse is to hurry. And finding a bit of happiness in the process.

I can envision signs on the highway: Slow down and live: the life you save may be your own. But Flannery O'Connor already thought of that.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

For whom the siren wails

Since I live not far from a hospital, I often hear the siren of a rescue vehicle, and I always stop to listen for a moment, thinking of the emergency professionals rushing to the ER. I think of them and especially of the injured patient, and I think of myself (it could be me). I like to think this brief moment of attention is a prayer; sometimes, I use words, but generally no words are needed, just an awarness that, as John Donne memorably wrote in one of his prose meditations, we are all involved: "ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

We are, he went on, all involved in mankind. So when I translate his words into my own context (ask not for whom the siren wails), I know at some level that whoever is in need of emergency care is one of us, part of the whole community of which we, in our separate worlds, are inescapably involved. We must be mindful of suffering.

I recall the reminder from Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart that the American tradition of radical individualism often goes too far: we too easily forget our place in the community. We overlook the greater good, the basic fact that we are all in this together, a point Obama makes in various subtle or overt ways in his speeches.

Today I opened a recent book on Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell: "The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves." This is the opening line of her engaging biography of the 16th century author of the Essays. She refers to bloggers and all the rest of us who seem preoccupied with their own selves, writing or texting about the details of their lives, enjoying life in what Bakewell calls "a shared festival of the self."

Yet, as Thomas Merton and many others have noted, to be alone, in silence, to pray, and to write about one's inner life is to be part of a spiritual community. Bloggers and other writers today, in sharing their personal stories, are helping (I like to think) foster trust and cooperation among peoples. This assumes that the readers of the blogs and articles take time to reflect and respond. It's not all self-indulgence.

As Christopher Jamison writes in Finding Sanctuary, the old meaning of "conversation" is to live with someone, to speak to them based on shared things we all have in common. He is writing about the monastic ideal where a community of monks can express individuality rather than individualism.

What's the difference? Individualism is the problematic me-first attitude that gave rise to Bellah's study years ago and that we see daily in self-preoccupation of many people. It is doing your own thing irrespective of other people. Individuality, Jamison explains, is quite different: it means bringing one's own unique contribution and talent to bear on the life of a community (even if that contribution might be to criticize it in an effort to improve it).

Individualism apart from involvement in a community (whether of church members or politically active organizers or members of a book club) is isolating and ultimately negative. Its ultimate image is found in Dante's hell where the souls are eternally alone, apart from any community (any love). Its real-life manifestation appears too often in our news when we learn of the loner-psychopath (usually a young man alienated from family and friends) who acts out his fear and hatred with violence, shooting a Congresswoman in Arizona, for example.

Are people tuned in to their electronic gadgets totally isolated from one another? To the extent that young people tend not to vote regularly or join churches or political parties, it would seem, as Jamison says, that the global village is fading. But if many, young and older, are willing to work to engage with each other in conversation, using the various media, they can build some kind of community. The blogosphere, in which I play an infinitesimal part, can foster a type of community.

As a result, when they hear the siren, many people may not think of prayer in the usual sense, but they will be mindful of their common link with human suffering. One day, God willing, they may act on this awareness.

Friday, February 4, 2011

This and That

A great way to wake up each day, as a writer, is to use the computer. I remember Julia Cameron saying something about doing e-mail as a limbering-up exercise in her fine book, The Right to Write. For me, the blog serves this purpose--but then becomes even more than an warm-up exercise. It becomes a place to test ideas and(Montaigne having reminded us that essayer in French means to test and question) to write mini-essays that might one day be expanded. Or prompt responses from readers.

But today I have several unrelated short items, more factual and philosophical. Maybe they will do more than stimulate my own little gray cells.

1. My wife Lynn has been reading a biography of Lincoln, who, I was glad to learn, had trouble with spelling most of his life. This makes me more sympathetic to writers who make errors. He consistently used it's (which means it is) when he meant the possessive its (the government issued its latest report). So when I encountered a website last week and found the author consistently referring to the Obamas as "the Obama's," I reminded myself to calm down, stop being so pedantic, and know that bright people make simple errors. Of course, when friends send us Christmas cards addressed to "the Schiffhorst's," I at first want to return them to the sender with a red edit; but I try to smile instead. The same occurs as I'm driving and see a sign: "Orange's for sale." No! It's just a plural! I have graded papers too long, edited too many articles to take this lightly.

2. My interest in Henry VIII led me to see the 1933 classic by Alexander Korda,
The Private Life of Henry VIII, with Charles Laughton as the big, boisterous, belching glutton who throws turkey legs over his shoulder. The Tudor tyrant has become a comic figure in a movie that makes wife no. 4, Anne of Cleves, into a comedienne resembling Fanny Brice. There is no mention of church-state relations, the major issue of the time! Still, Laughton is worth seeing. Few subsequent actors look the part quite as well. And these 1930s movies are usually wonderful as period pieces.

3. A more recent film with Viggo Mortenson, "Good," was absorbing but puzzling. I don't understand the title--or why so many reviewers praised the acting. The main character became a passive tool of the Nazi machine in Germany and gradually realized the horror around him. The title and the conclusion left me scratching my head. I guess I wanted to see a major transformation in him, a clearer sense of conscience.

4. The story of Etty Hillesum, who remains a Holocaust victim and writer largely unknown, might make a good film--in the right hands since her story is intimate and interior. I did an article on her ten years ago since I was fascinated by her diary references to silence in "An Interrupted Life." Her final words, tossed out the window of a train as she went off to join her family at Auschwitz, always stay with me: "We left the camp singing."

5. Each day I click on The Hunger Site ( This one-second free click generates a cup of food for the world's hungry (since the site's sponsors donate according to the website's hits). It may not be much for me to do, but it seems like an act of mindfulness, a prayerful awareness of the greater community. If everyone I know took a second a day to click here, it would make a difference.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Readin' & Writin'

Last night, at a literary salon I listened as members of a large reading club announced the names of the books they had recently completed.  Being a guest, I did not participate but wondered to myself what book(s) I would talk about if given a chance.

I have mentioned quite a few books on this blog, some that I never finished, others than intrigued me or raised interesting questions. I tend toward non-fiction, but I have over the past year encountered several novels worth mentioning: 

Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall --a consistently absorbing story by a master stylist and major American writer

T. C. Boyle's The Women--entertaining not only because of the women in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright but because of the author's lively, hilarious writing

And Deaf Sentence by David Lodge, a comic master from Britain.
I tend to stay with novels with interesting prose style. I copy sentences I admire and share them with my students. I remind them (ad nauseam, I'm sure) that they can't possibly write if they don't read, read, read good stuff.

The other books I have enjoyed include A Brief History of the Smile by the art historian Angus Trumble (fascinating microhistory of painting, done with brio)
  Christopher Jamison's Finding Sanctuary--a monastic guide to everyday living (for those who are spiritual and prayerful)
  Two books on the Dissolution of the monasteries in 16th cent. England under Henry VIII--one by Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Last Divine Office, the other The King's Reformation by Bernard (more information than most readers need).

I would strongly recommend Happiness: A History by McMahon as an important, clear study of the way our Western ideas of happiness have changed over the centuries.

Tim Parks has a fine book on the origins of modern banking, Medici Money, which reminds me of the arguable truism (by Carlyle?) that history is essentially biography. He handles the topic with the flair that Brits pull off well.

I see Descartes' Bones on my shelf, but since I didn't finish it and can't remember anything about it, I won't mention it--except to say it has a great title. (The philosopher's bones did get carted around Europe a bit, but that's not the point of the book; still,it gives me a great idea for another book on the way famous artists' and authors' remains have been dug up, fought over, moved, and re-buried.)

I did a review for America of the remarkable memoir by Stephanie Saldana, The Bread of Angels--her story of going alone to Syria in 2004 to learn Arabic and all that she discovered about herself.

As I was last night, I am impressed by how many avid readers there are in my community and an equal number of writers, busy people who find it essential to make time for that silent, solitary act of encountering words (and themselves) on a page, an act that is both private and public, spiritual and pleasurable. It's the work of the soul.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mind and Body

Do our emotions affect disease? Based on my own experience with myself and others, the answer would clearly be "Certainly!"

A recent New York Times article by Richard P. Sloan cites a study that shows that emotions play no role in disease. He goes further: "positive characteristics like optimism, spirituality and being a compassionate person" have no enhancing effects on health and longevity. What??

I was glad to see scientists, including Dr. Dean Ornish of the UC-San Francisco medical school, write letters to "correct the record." He writes (1-30-11): There's a lot of evidence to show that emotions often play a role in illness: chronic anger, depression, and hostility significantly increase the risk of heart disease. "Chronic stress shortens telomeres, the ends of our chromosomes that control how long we live."

So, Ornish concludes, it's not all in the genes. Even "meditation beneficially changes gene expression." This statement comes as a relief since I have long read that regular meditation reduces blood pressure, among other health benefits, and that basic breathing techniques can reduce stress and anxiety. Inner peace, coupled with compassionate therapy and simple love, can alter the distressed/diseased body.

It's easy for me as a non-scientist to oversimplify enormously complex issues like the mind-body connection, but apparently some scientists, too, are guilty of oversimplifying.

The role of the emotions in behavior and physical functioning is beautifully dramatized in a film most people I know are raving about: The King's Speech.
When I saw it in December, I went expecting another superbly acted British period piece; I found something more, something many people have remarked on: the emotional bond between the two men, one king of England, the other a self-proclaimed speech therapist.

The fact that George VI and Lionel Logue developed a real-life friendship is only part of the reason the film has such appeal. We identify with the way fear, usually instilled in childhood, can cripple a man and with the way Logue, with his honesty and humility, helps the man who happens to be a king deal with this--and the way this loving relationship, and that of his wife, provides healing. The result is an emotionally satisfying movie quite deserving of all its coming Oscars.