Friday, December 27, 2013

The Best of the Best

As the year ends, countless critics and journalists routinely formulate lists of the top ten this-or-that.

I have seldom followed this tradition, despite temptations to do so. This year, somehow, is different--except that, in compiling a list of the best books I have read, I do not limit myself to works published (or read) this year. (Such is the freedom of the blogger.) Rather I recall the reading I have done in the past few years, fiction and non-fiction, that has opened my eyes to new insights in memorable ways. One criterion for inclusion: an elegant prose style. 

I have looked at other fine books and many articles, but the following stand out; many were mentioned somewhere in this blog. They are not listed in any particular order.  I begin with two works of fiction.

1.  Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
2.  Tobias Woolf, Old School
3. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory
4. Philip Ball, Universe of Stone (on the Gothic cathedral)
5. Robert Edsel, Saving Italy
6. Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
7. James Finley, Merton's Palace of Nowhere
8. Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
9. Gay Talese, A Writer's Life
10.  Stephanie Saldana, The Bread of Angels

I wish everyone who reads this a wonderful new year of reading, enlightenment, and peace.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Love as Painful

Although falling in love is easy, loving is hard. As I face this Christmas season, I am struck by how painful love is.

I mean, of course, the time devoted to giving and caring for others in need as well as the patient listening, the reaching out to others when the comfortable thing is to satisfy the self.

My wife Lynn, who gives her time and attention, to a dozen or more friends, most of them in some form of distress, is the embodiment of such caring, and she is worn out from all the work. And our entertaining, and the arrival of Christmas, is yet to come. The season of joy and peace on earth is for most parents a  time of stress.

It may be a joy to give but the kind of giving Lynn does year-round, and millions like her, is not always a joy. Even my daily sessions with a high school boy preparing him for college are reminders of how difficult reaching out can be. Being patient with a restless adolescent whose moods change hourly is an exercise in painful love.

Often, the recipient of our caring expresses no gratitude, yet it is important to give anyway since it is the right thing to do.  Those familiar with the New Testament know what I mean: to love thy neighbor as thyself or to love thy enemies is tough, nearly impossible.

In this season of love, I am mindful of all those who volunteer their time to make Christmas happen not just for their families but for the homeless, the sick and disabled, the residents of nursing homes and those who are without love. And I hope all who read this can find happiness and inner peace beneath all the busyness of this wonderful season. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hunger, Prayer, and Merton

Today, Dec. 10, is not only the 45th anniversary of Thomas Merton's death but Human Rights Day and a day of prayer called by Pope Francis to end world hunger.  A happy coincidence of events overshadowed by the tributes to Nelson Mandela and his life of courage and faith.

Will prayer have an effect on world hunger? My rational self says no; my heart says that all the positive energy must have some effect.  I certainly have not given up prayers of petition, but I favor wordless, contemplative prayer--and, in the case of world hunger, some action: donating food to local food banks and churches, going to the Hunger Site on the internet and clicking: each click means more food donated by the sponsors to the needy. 

There is so much more to be done, but we must begin with the need for prayer. In this connection, I conclude with my third quotation from Merton (The Ascent to Truth):

   Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries. Why? Because it diverts us from the one thing that can help us to begin our ascent to truth. That one thing is the sense of our own emptiness, our poverty, our limitations, and of the inability of created things to satisfy our profound need for reality and truth.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Pain and Affliction

For the past few months, head and neck pain, the byproduct of too much writing at the computer, has re-surfaced, slowing me down, making my posts infrequent or brief.  I have re-learned certain things about pain: that it isolates, cuts me off from communicating as I wish; it is also hard to explain to people, that is, the exact quality of the pain, since I hope that their understanding would somehow alleviate it.

Pain tends to dominate my life, creating anxiety, telling me I am cursed to a life of suffering. I feel sorry for myself. I fear that it will grow progressively worse and my pain will take over my life. Then I realize that I supposedly believe that pain is not the same as suffering (pain is inevitable, suffering is optional). I tell myself that no pain lasts forever while realizing that reason has little effect on feelings like fear. I find myself too preoccupied by something that is not life-threatening but annoying, chronic, seemingly inescapable. I then tell myself that others are worse off, and as I pray for them, I gain some comfort, feeling myself part of a human community in which pain is part of life.

I try various therapies, some helpful, or distract myself with music or movies or anything that will get me away from my desk and computer.

I recently returned to a classic essay by Simone Weil, "The Love of God and Affliction" to see if her notion of affliction would return me to the context of prayer. To see, that is, if pain makes any sense.

Weil can be tough going, adding to my headaches, and I don't understand some of her dense, mystical statements nor do I agree with all of her assumptions. Yet this "secular saint," as she was called, this Jewish philosopher steeped in ancient Greek thought who was drawn to Christ and Catholicism but never could accept baptism, offers a deeply felt understanding of how affliction, when it is consented to in a spirit of love, is different from suffering.

When things go well for us, she says, we don't think of our "almost infinite fragility."  But we can be thankful for affliction because it tells us of the fragility of life since it can result in a state of mind "as acute as that of a man facing death at the guillotine."  And because our weakness can make possible a union with the crucified Christ, the universal emblem of self-denial.

Awareness of affliction, says Weil, is at the center of Christianity.
(I think of the compassion Pope Francis showed last month to a grossly disfigured man.) Love is the key:

"The man who sees someone in affliction and projects into him his own being brings to birth in him through love, at least for a moment, an existence apart from his affliction." What causes this process is the identity of human beings across times and cultures.

Affliction, like beauty, compels us to ask, Why? Why are things beautiful? Why does my pain, turned into affliction, transform me? He who is capable of listening to the answer to such questions, she says, will hear the answer: Silence. "He who is capable of listening but also of loving hears this silence as the word of God."

I don't know if this brief synopsis of a complex essay makes any sense; reading it again brought me some comfort from an un usual source: a  woman who died in 1943 of self-imposed starvation so she could be in solidarity with those in occupied France dying of hunger after a life of intense reflection on affliction and the love of God.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thomas Merton Remembered II

Dec. 10 is a key date in the life of Thomas Merton: he entered the Trappist monastery, Abbey of the Gethsemani, in Kentucky on that date in 1941, and on Dec. 10, 1968, he died in Bangkok after 27 years as a monk, peace activist, poet, and, above all, prolific spiritual writer.

In commemorating his 45th anniversary, I quote an excerpt from The Hidden Ground of Love, in which Merton outlines the dimensions of selfless compassion:

 Meditating on someone else's predicament and generating a strong feeling of compassion can lead us into visualizing that they find relief, comfort, joy, and a uplifted spirit.  When we continue to practice this we find ourselves desiring to alleviate the suffering of others. This exercise helps us remain in a state of unrestricted and objectless compassion all the time.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thomas Merton Remembered

In anticipating the 45th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, I plan to cite a few brief quotations from his writings, this one from Disputed Questions:

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Small is Beautiful

  Recently, a neighbor, with a house about the same size as ours, asked me how many television sets we had. "One," I replied.
 "Only one?!  We have five!"
 "Why?" I wanted to know. "Do you have multiple wives? I know your family is long grown and flown away...."

  He laughed, then asked how many computers we had, and when I said "one," he was floored, as if I had just emerged from a cave.

  Why do two married adults living in one house need 5 TVs? Has the quality of programming improved since I last checked in with the major networks?  I can see the usefulness of having 2 TVs, and I know how hard it can be to find time to use the computer since my wife, Lynn, is also a writer...But we work around each other.  We make do. We share.

  I am not a miser and I don't think of our lifestyle is especially frugal, but we are not big on gadgets or on having the latest and fastest tech devices: our lives have always moved more slowly.

  I wanted to ask my friend if he knew the book by E. F. Schumacher, "Small is Beautiful" or any of the many other more recent books and articles that advocate simplifying our lives and saving both money and the planet.  I wanted to mention the needs of the world, where many people make do with no electronic equipment and where sharing is a given.

  But then I would sound sanctimonious, and I probably do in what I have just written.  My neighbor's questions and reactions amused me at first, then led me to think about the temptation to isolate oneself behind a TV or computer screen, foregoing conversation and communal living.  What we do in microcosm, multiplied by millions, has to have some effect on the macrocosm of society and the world. 

  And it satisfies something in my soul to say No to the consumerist culture, which values people's lives by the money, cars, and things they have.  No wonder some people hate Christmas.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A dream that became a nightmare

The murder of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this month is probably the most traumatic event of my life, in part because I was young and impressionable when I heard the news. Kennedy was the embodiment of all I wanted to be at the age of 21: smart, successful, glamorous, witty, cool.

The news of his death came to me in my first year of teaching as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, and the voice of Walter Cronkite on that occasion still sends chills down my spine: "The President died today at 1 p.m."  I cannot watch videos of his Dallas trip, even now.

Death had never entered my life until then, and it was unthinkable that violence could take out the President of the United States, especially a man of such promise. I had heard his brother, Robert, campaign for then-Senator Kennedy in 1960 at St. Louis University, but was too young to vote for him. I was always proud that the first Catholic president was so classy.

I didn't know, of course, of the dark side. What I have learned over the years of this complex character still cannot erase the promise of idealism that he presented to the world and to my generation. His brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, director of the Peace Corps, was our commencement speaker in St. Louis in 1962. It was the best of times. How could it all go so wrong?

We will never know what was taken from us: that is the tragedy that still gnaws at those who loved Kennedy, even if we had questions about his decisions and inexperience, his lies and affairs.

It seems from what I have read that he grew from a cold warrior to a peacemaker in the last year of his life. As James K. Galbraith of the Univ. of Texas writes in the NYTimes, JFK moved in Oct. 1963 to end the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which, I am convinced, would not have been escalated if he had lived. His 1963 speech at American University, which led to the nuclear test ban treaty, his beginning work on civil rights, and his handling of the Cuban missile crisis showed the emergence of a real leader.

I don't understand his infidelities, his recklessness and selfishness except for the context of the constant pain he endured--without complaining. He had a lifelong sense, I think, that his health problems would not give him a full life. Much--too much--has been written about the Kennedy family and Greek tragedy. Much that followed his administration in the decades after his death has always seemed to me a downward spiral into more and more violence.

Suffice it to say that he was not shallow, as often perceived, but a serious student of history who mastered the art of language. And he was becoming a true leader who could have changed the history of the late 20th century. For those of us who loved him as the embodiment of our youthful ideals, he remains unique and forever young.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Preparing for College

Each week I help a high school junior study for his SAT verbal test that will be an essential part in his being accepted to a college or university next year. His parents, like most American parents, think it's essential that he get a college degree.

Having taught at universities for many years, I tell him that what happens in college involves words and their meanings and that the more reading he does, the better. He looks at me blankly, then shows me his weekly list of vocabulary words.

Forty words a week are given to him by his English teacher to memorize, as if they were part of a foreign language.  The words are not put in any context, such as sentence or paragraph, and they are unrelated to any assigned reading given to the class. This strikes me as an odd way to teach.

So I do my best to create a context for each word, and by repetition and rote memory, he does pretty well on his weekly vocabulary tests.

What I don't say to him is that many of the words he has to learn are commonly used in the media and should be used in the home. If I had one     bit of advice for parents of high school students, it would be to pay attention to vocabulary development, noting words used on television and using some of these in everyday conversation, along with definitions.

I am not, for the most part, talking about erudite or learned words but ones like the following from recent SAT word lists:



It seems to me that a 17-year-old American, born of American parents, one of whom was a science teacher with advanced degrees, should know such words by having heard and used them. They should not be new to him.

It sounds simplistic to say so, but education begins at home, and so does college preparation.  Students must do more reading, less video watching; they must play word games and have fun learning a new English word every day throughout the primary years and into high school. Parents can make this happen in positive ways.

If they did, there would be no need for my young friend (and millions like him) to be worried about studying such words each week: he should know them!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Saints and Halloween

The children keep getting younger, I thought last night as I greeted tick-or-treaters in strollers and in the arms of their parents, who were reliving their own Halloween experiences as kids.  A one-year-old, dressed as a bumble bee, had to be restrained from grabbing a seemingly endless helping of candy.

I doubt if many of the many folks who celebrated Halloween (not Holloween) last night had any clue about the ancient origins of the festival or even the meaning of word: All Hallows' Eve, the night (evening=eve) before Nov. 1, the feast of All Saints (or Hallows in early English) in the Catholic tradition going back to the 8th century.  It is only "hollow"--and limited to silliness and candy--to those unfamiliar with what is "hallowed" (holy).

Even before that, in the folklore of pre-Christian Ireland, this time of the year was sacred, a time to celebrate the dark forces of life, to sense in the changing of the seasons that a dying of the year is taking place.  So in Mexico we have the Day of the Dead, or what we in English call All Souls' Day tomorrow, honoring deceased friends and family, especially of the past year, just as today we honor those who are with God.

So Halloween, which has spread in its modern incarnation around the world, is not an American "plot" designed to sell candy or promote tooth decay or encourage children to become beggars. Its folklore origins, like its Christian heritage, remind us of our debt to the untold millions of people who have gone before us. Its solemnity is heightened by an evening festival that precedes the occasion in a light-hearted way, as we laugh at devils and ghosts.  Then we are ready to be serious in honoring the saints.

Calling them saints does not mean they are officially declared to be so by the church. Robert Ellsberg's classic book, All Saints, is a wonderful collection of short pieces honoring men and women from many religious traditions who have made a difference in the world.  He includes, in addition to St. Francis and the usual array of canonized notables, such people as Gandhi, M. L. King, Chief Seattle, Anne Frank, J. S. Bach, Cesar Chavez and Oskar Schindler, writers Donne and Dostoyevksy, Rabbi Heschel and Martin Buber and a few more surprising choices, like Van Gogh and Galileo.

Many people have their own favorites among the distinguished dead. But we think, too, on these "days of the dead" of all the others whose names are lost or known only to our families, including those who have been martyred or eliminated by unjust governments and lie in unmarked graves.

This, for me, is a powerful time because I remember that I am surrounded by the dead and connected to them, as the darkening days of autumn lead to winter, a kind of annual memento mori.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fear of Change and Public Policy

Speaking of the Tea Party extremists who succeeded in shutting down the government and threatening the world economy recently, Fareed Zakaria today (on his CNN program) made a striking statement:  One cannot love the idea of America while also hating America.

Yet that is what those on the far right have long done: they love the idea of America as it was while hating the America of the past fifty years, the country of diversity in which minorities have become more and more powerful. Zakaria is a clear-eyed realist, not an ideologue.

The latest ideologue to cause havoc in the cause of self-promotion is Ted Cruz of Texas, who warns of disaster and the coming of American "oblivion" unless the federal government becomes less "socialistic."

This is the argument to fear that Ronald Reagan used in 1961 to warn of the coming horror of Medicare, something that most Republicans today who honor Reagan's memory greatly value, even though he warned that it would take away our freedom. Whose freedom is lost by the Medicare program?

The same argument is made today about Obamacare, with ominous warning glances at European nations that have chosen social welfare programs, which to the right-wing extremists, mean the coming of "socialism," a term GOP ideologues seldom define or understand.

The rhetoric based on people's fear of change is clear, from Reagan to Cruz, with each decade seeing more extreme and shrill scare tactics being used in the public policy debate.  These pessimists give true conservatism a bad name by seeing the inevitable changes in demographics and world economy as a loss of freedom, with America becoming second rate. They rarely take in the prosperity, creativity, and innovation that still make the U.S. the envy of the world, much of it due to immigrants like Fareed Zakaria.

Like many astute outsiders, he can see the bigger picture than what the daily news presents to us. He can appreciate the positive side of America as it is today, not as it was in the 1950s; he has also become a leading critic of our fear-based policies and the dangerous polarization that will again threaten the federal government.

The very thing the Tea Party types like Cruz say they want to prevent is what they are achieving by their extremist tactics: the decline of America.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hyped Language, Bad Writing

As a teacher of writing, I usually show students examples of good prose style in the hope that they will learn from the masters what makes a memorable sentence.  I rarely exhibit examples of awful writing.

This week, however, in editing a thesis on the education of nurses, I once again encountered an example of the worst kind of academic prose, the kind of pompous, inflated, jargon-filled sentences that seem designed to impress one's colleagues.  Even English professors, alas, resort to such writing to be current. And their work needs to be exposed as dangerous and fraudulent.

The thesis in question exhibits the type of deadly language that George Orwell memorably deplored in 1946 (his classic essay "Politics and the English Language"). There he noted the linguistic fog that tends to obscure clarity and fresh thinking because writers tend to rely on ready-made phrases, not just in political discourse but in most fields. If only he were still around to see how educators themselves pass on bad writing habits to their students!

How else explain my nursing student's reliance on articles and books that are filled with passive verbs and sentences that seem designed to deaden the brain. Consider:  "A database must be created though the use of multiple sources of evidence by preceptors in their perceptions...."  Can you imagine 112 pages of this?

This piece is all about the perceptions of preceptors (a repeated phrase) and the preparedness of student nurses: simple ideas dressed up in the most tacky style imaginable, a style in which simple verbs (measure) are converted into windy verb phrases (perform a measurement). Why? Because that is the way the experts write, and my poor student is afraid to deviate from the style advocated by her professors and the scholars admired by those professors.

This is the Read, Write, and Regurgitate School of Writing, just as widespread today, if not more so, than when Orwell criticized it. It led me to a dramatic decision today: I will edit no more theses or dissertations.  I do so not for the money, which is negligible, but to be helpful to students, many foreign-born, who need guidance in their use of idioms and grammar.

The type of jargon-filled prose I so strongly oppose has little to do with grammar. It has to do with an inflated type of writing so far removed from the way English is spoken as to constitute a foreign language, a dialect spoken by many--too many--who consider themselves elite. 
What can I do besides refusing to read such stuff? Like chemical pollution, it will always be with us; it won't go away, and any effort to rewrite awful sentences more effectively is met with resistance.

So I must try my best to keep writing clearly and honestly, to read only the best writers, and to encourage those I know to do the same.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dealing with Hate

It's easy to deal with annoying emails: they get deleted or put into spam.  When a troubling message from someone I know arrives, as it did this week--a message of bias and bigotry, I am nonplussed.
After I delete it, I am still affected by its contents.

The message was about David Irving, the once respectable British historian who was found guilty of denying the Holocaust in a libel case in 2000. He is known as a Holocaust denier, racist, and anti-Semite. Now he has re-surfaced, giving talks to fellow travelers at carefully selected and secure locations where the press and opponents can be denied access.

A local historian, teacher, and friend, a man with a Ph.D., was excited about the prospect of hearing Irving speak somewhere in Florida and so sent me an email invitation. The topic of the talk was Rudolf Hess, whose case interests me. And it's possible that Irving might say interesting things about Hess that I don't know. But he would probably use the occasion to spread his own biased version of modern events.

I don't know how reliable Irving would be on any topic when he has been discredited as an objective historian, who calls mainstream writers and biographers "conformist historians" since he sees himself as a crusader for "truth," writing (he said) "what I call history."  I would call it hate.

I can't imagine paying money to hear David Irving.  And what is especially troubling is that the man I know and thought I respected believes that, because of "free speech," Irving should be heard; that my friend wants to hear his twisted version of events is very disturbing. I begin to wonder what my friend's students have been hearing about modern history, about minorities in general and Jews in particular.

Irving, you see, is quoted in the British press as perpetuating the old stereotypes of fear and hatred of "Jewish power."  He says that the Jews in America control all the media and banks.  He seems indifferent to what happened in Germany in 1933 when Jews were blamed for the economic woes of the time, as if unaware of the consequences: 6 million perished.

Does he admit this?  Begrudgingly now, after years of questioning the gas chambers--but adds: The Jews were advised by a PR firm to give what happened to them a name--the Holocaust--and the result is a billion-dollar enterprise.  Auschwitz is "hugely inflated and hyped up. It's like Disney.  It has no part in history." (This from an August 13 article by Simon Usborne).

My historian friend is eager to hear such a man? Can I still call him a friend? I am horrified.

I spent several years teaching a course The Faces of Evil, all about hatred and racism. I included a section about Holocaust denial, using David Irving and his trial as evidence that anti-Semitism is alive and well, even among articulate, educated and widely published authors.

As I read about Irving today, at the age of 75, I can see a man to be pitied and shunned: he has become paranoid about the press and criticism (for good reason), and his own narcissism and prejudices have made him blind to facts, logic, and objective reality.  He is deluded, and somehow I have to tell my friend that I for one want nothing to do with David Irving and people like him.   Free speech does not allow a forum for disseminating bias and hatred.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The power of fear

Fear is so pervasive that it is often not discussed.  Many writers, it seems to me, fail to address its insidious power, which can so quickly lead to anger and hatred and even violence. I am always on the lookout for writers who use fear as a motivating force in fiction or as a theme in non-fiction.

Having lived with a heavy dose of fear for most of my life, I know, too, that it can have it positive side, making us more sensitive and empathic to others who are worried, anxious, nervous--and who isn't?

The heart without fear would be less tender, writes Edna O'Brien. And anxiety can stir the imagination like little else. I have a summary of a comment she made some years ago in a journal I keep.

In general, O'Brien says that fear is a dreadful drawback in our lives because it stops us from living in the moment; it forces us to focus on an imagined future horror.  Fear happens, she says, when we don't really meet one another: one part of us meets a part of another person, but somehow we make it difficult to be our real selves with other people and so we become false, diminished, or somehow artificial.

Another perspective is from Ernesto Cardinal: The universe is expanding, but we often are not; our souls or selves are contracting. Thomas Aquinas said that where there is fear, contraction takes over. "To allow fear to take over our ways of living or our hearts or our institutions is to avoid a cosmic law: the need to expand through love and courage."

The contrast between institutional fear and a love that has no limits is captured today in the critical stance of some on the extreme right in the Catholic Church toward Pope Francis, who does not seem to fear meeting people as his real self.  He confronts others with the open, human face of pastoral love and compassion; yet his "liberal" openness is seen as a threat to some of the hardliners, making them fearful of meaningful change. They want the old institutional rigidity to remain since change is dangerous.

A final perspective on fear is from Nelson Mandela's 1994 inaugural speech: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that
most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be so brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?"  He goes on to say that each of us is shining with the glory of God, so we must let our light be seen.

If we do so, if we are liberated from our fears, we give others permission to do the same. And the world becomes a better place. (It sounds so simple--yet what is harder to achieve?)

Our instinctive fears serve a purpose and must be wisely monitored: when they become too extreme, we can be crippled; when they are turned into trust and love, they can help us do amazing things for the world.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Routine or Ritual?

Most of my days as a stay-at-home writer have a predictable pattern, with most activities done at the same time: breakfast, meditation, reading, feeding the cat, checking email, exercising at the gym, etc....a boring routine, or so it sometimes seems.

Yet when I reflect on my completed day as I go to bed at night, I see that each has its own shape, depending on the people I have encountered, the material I have read, the music and news I have heard and, of course, the work I have done. I welcome most of the interruptions (phone calls, household duties) as part of the variety of the day, and I try to make even the most mind-numbing duties like brushing my teeth an opportunity for being in the present. I want to be fully aware of the uniqueness of each hour, even if what I am doing for much of that hour is a chore.

I would like to think, as Castiglione said in the Courtier (his 16th cent. book of advice for gentlemen), that our lives can become works of art.  This can be possible, depending on the attitude we have toward the seemingly endless duties that constitute a day.

I mean the structure and form--the very things that constitute beauty and art--which are built into every day; each day is unique and also a step toward an ordered existence, controlled as much as possible by me. And there is variation within the overall pattern that I have established for each day, enough variation so that each day becomes unique and does not lead to boredom, restlessness, and depression.

I want each day to count since I am always aware, at some level, of how few days there are. I must resist living for the future or dwelling in the past, as I did yesterday for a few hours as I looked at plans for my high school reunion and the faces of my fellow students from years ago.

It takes an effort of the will. And also a self-reminder that routine can be seen as ritual. I was reminded of this by a short piece by the novelist Jamie Quatro, who says, "there is joy in the rehearsal of the known, the familiar."

She's right: we need our rituals, public and private repetitions of the familiar. We live in a world that operates according to a ritual of sunrise and sunset, of seasons and hours, of work and rest and play.  Children, she says, love routine and tradition; it is a source of stability in a world of rapid change.

"And without ritual there can be no mystery--how can the unexpected enter into a life that is devoid of expectation? Ritual opens the door for revelation. We move through ritual and performance to access the Divine."

Quatro mentions the liturgy, presumably the Christian ritual that becomes so familiar that one can, ideally, move from the words and ceremony into something beyond the physical.

And it seems to me I can make each quiet, ordinary day in my writing life stand out not only as special but, because of its familiar pattern, a secure basis for creativity and beauty as I strive to bring some order to what might seem like a random series of boring duties.

Whether my life will become a true work of art remains to be seen, but each day can be seen as an effort to find order and beauty.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A remarkable man

Even if he were not known to the world as Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio would be a remarkable man.

Having read the lengthy interview he gave recently to Jesuit publications, I am struck by a man who is, above all, a "people person," full of love and wisdom; an honest, humble man, whose pastoral experience shines through in what he says, which is thoughtful and wide ranging.

Of course, he thinks like a Jesuit, with a broad view of the church as the people of God in need of compassion, not proclamations, as a thinker who values questions: "If one has the answers to all questions--that is the proof God is not with him."  What does this say about his infallible predecessors?

"The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking," says Papa Francesco elsewhere in the interview.

About his immediate predecessor, he expresses great affection yet offers a completely opposite philosophy: the church "is the home of all, not a small chapel that can only hold a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity."

His refreshing candor about an institution that has "sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules" has caught the imagination of many, especially the largest religious group in America: the non-practicing Catholics turned off by the hierarchy of the past 45 years or by the hypocrisy of many clergy. These are people, like me, who have been waiting for the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, with its openness and breadth of vision, to be realized. At last, a new beginning is being made by a caring, thinking, compassionate man who knows that the church he presides over resembles what he calls a "field hospital."

But he knows the way to heal. His most remarkable statement has to do, I think, with his view of the church in the modern world, one that is subject to change and fresh thinking: "the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today it seems that the opposite order is prevailing."

He is taking aim at bishops who, in their ideological singleness of vision, attack gay marriage or call for more official attacks on abortion, giving the Catholic church a reputation for negativity and absolutism.  This pope will have none of that: "it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time." Why? Because "the church's pastoral mission cannot be obsessed with a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."

People want pastors who display the love of God, not ones who act like bureaucrats, he says bluntly.  They want priests to bring the love of God to the people where they are, not to lock themselves into a hermetic institution of incense and lace. Having taught psychology and literature, he knows this type of clericalism is unhealthy (he calls it paranoid).

This is not a pope who provides "disciplinarian solutions" to people who "long for an exaggerated doctrinal security." He is not a hard-liner, thank God, because he knows that faith presented only in terms of the catechism becomes an ideology. "The view of the church's teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong." So is a church that does not change.

In a talk I gave this past week, I was a bit taken aback by a Jesuit-educated gentleman who complained that the "Jesuits have sold out" in higher education; he seemed angry by my presentation of the progressive heritage of Jesuit education. I hope he is paying attention to this Jesuit pope, who follows the discernment taught to all Jesuits.  This means, in effect, that one size does not fit all, that how one lives his or her faith with an informed conscience is what matters, not merely adhering to orthodoxy.

Jesuits know that human experience in the real world matters; it affects our moral decisions and our growing understanding of doctrine. Pope Francis has begun a much-needed reform of an old institution that has become out of touch with many people today.  He has lived what he preaches: a Christianity that is not about official doctrine or about certainty; it is about love, mercy, and compassion. It includes the humility of doubt; it does not see the world in unchanging categories. It is not about following the clear and safe beliefs of the past; it is a faith to be lived in the here and now.

Thank God we have a man who has a big heart open to God, one who embodies the best thinking of a vast church in need of ongoing reform.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fear and the Big Sleep

The fear of dying, which seems to be hard-wired into our human psyches, is as mystifying as it is universal. It is the ultimate terror.

Do we fear the end of our consciousness, the end of our singular identity, the loss of the world and our loved ones; or it is the how and the when of dying that we really fear?  This latter issue is a big part of my own fear, which underlies all other anxieties and worries.

In thinking about the self, what part of me will remain when the rest has turned to dust?  Is my true self the same as my soul?  Such questions are rarely productive except in stimulating an increased sense of mystery.

Stephen Cave, author of Immortality, says in an interview that there are ways to manage the great fear of our own death:  Think less about yourself and more about other people, he says; in other words, love thy neighbor. How else can our death come to seem less significant to us, less an indignity to be dreaded and more of a welcome release into a new dimension or at least a peaceful sleep without end?

I suppose realizing that sleep, a very long sleep, might not be unpleasant; it might even be something devoutly to be wished (the language of Hamlet, Shakespeare's great meditation on death, keeps coming back to me).  One line in that play has meant a lot to me, even though the melancholy prince of Denmark is not consoled when he hears that "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity."

My wife loves to walk in cemeteries, including our own "future address," as she calls the place we will be buried. She is quite happy communing with the dead; I do so at home, through reading and prayer, thinking about writers and saints who are still as alive as my loved ones.

So, if we are persons with a developed spirituality, a philosophy of life that includes death as a necessary component, we can look to an unknown new dimension that awaits us as we "pass on."  By the end of the play, Hamlet is less tormented as he comes to accept the reality of Providence and of mortality, not just as the end of the "slings and arrows" of life's misery but as a necessary part of creation, a window into a new world beyond this one.

No one knows what this other world will be like: it is the "undiscovered country from whose bourn [region] no traveler returns," Hamlet says, even though he has just had a visitor from beyond the grave: the ghost of his father.

So, like Hamlet, we remain ambivalent about what might lie ahead. It seems essential for sound health not to obsess about the afterlife (or lack thereof) but to live fully in the present, to break down the walls of the self, as Bertrand Russell said, and to think less of ourselves and more of others.

At the same time, it might be good to follow the Buddhist practice of reminding ourselves every day that death awaits in order to minimize the fear of our mortality.  This can be done without putting a skull on our desk or hanging up a skeleton in the house--unless it is Halloween and we are allowed, for once, to laugh at the ultimate dread and exorcize some of its power over us.

As a Christian, I value the words of St. John of the Cross: "I do not know what lies ahead for me on the other side; I only know that a great love awaits me."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Friendship, Presence and Absence

Friendships in my life--real friendships--have been rare. Many of the people I call my friends are social friends who know, like, and respect me and would help me if I asked for assistance.  But most of them are not really friends who know me inside out, who see the real me, the way my wife does.

Every man must have a male friend to share his fears and worries with, the kind of man who knows the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the other and whose love--though they may not use that word--is unbreakable.  In fact, I believe that the unconsummated love between heterosexual men can be as powerful as that between a man and woman--and maybe more so.

Clearly I am talking about a deep bond, the kind women also need with at least one other person and are generally better able to negotiate since men tend to shy away from expressing feelings.

The Greeks distinguished several different kinds of love, with different words for the bond between friends, the affection  between two lovers, the love of God or humankind, etc.  English, despite its usually rich treasury of synonyms, has to make to with the overused single word, love: "I love my new Volvo, I love pizza, I love my wife, I love my dog," etc.....

My loving friendship with John began when we were part of a small men's group about 15 years ago, sharing our fears and concerns about relationships and careers.  Since then, John and I have grown even closer than we were in those days. Despite the differences in our backgrounds and vocations, we have much in common at a deep level, at the level where some friends do not go. The problem is that he, as a construction supervisor, is often miles away on projects that consume months of his time so that he is virtually inaccessible by phone, even to most of his family.

When these projects end, and he has time off, we meet fairly regularly to catch up and in between try to communicate via email. But I am rarely satisfied with the time we have together, and during his work periods, I can feel John's absence keenly. At times I grow resentful of the type of all-absorbing job that demands that a man work seven days a week, with no breaks; I find it unhealthy for him and for his relationships.

In one recent email, I wrote to John something I had seen quoted from the philosopher Maurice Blanchot. I paraphrase:

Great friendships, he wrote, are grounded only superficially in  proximity; their real element is distance, a kind of separation that becomes relation. This distance foreshadows death. In this way, true friendship encompasses and anticipates loss.

Being a perceptive reader and intelligent writer, John, despite the pressures of having no time for himself, wrote back a brief message:

Why do you doubt that distance is opposed to closeness?  My conversations with you abound when you are not near, almost as if you hear me and respond.  I find that absence or distance does not diminish my attention but multiplies it. Is not God both absent and fully present at the same time?

Wow, I thought: he's right. He has captured an element of true friendship that does not depend on physical presence. And he has managed, in that final question, to touch on a key element of Christian mysticism: that God, who is everywhere present, can also be perceived as absent and unknowable.

Theological considerations aside, I was glad that I brought up the topic of absence and friendship since his response was reassuring.  I don't know if I really share the same ability to converse with him and feel that he is with me when he is miles away.  I think of him often and pray for his well being, as I await the possibility of a message, brief and sometimes hurried. But I think my friendship needs the sound of our voices together talking and laughing.  I cannot give attention to someone who is not physically present with me, here and now.

Of course, if I apply what I just said to my prayer life, do I not sometimes feel close to God in my isolation?     Perhaps my Catholic background demands some physical presence--the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist or in the faces of other people.  The presence of God in silence is a spiritual facsimile of this presence, a yearning or longing based mainly on a feeling of absence and separation.

I don't know anything about M. Blanchot, or if he is right that the separation between two people who love each other is ultimately foreshadowing loss and death. But the idea is intriguing. I know that, as Maslow once stated, love and death are always related and that we could not truly love if we knew we would never die.

In any case, instead of bemoaning the long absences of my friend, I should be grateful for him and for the verbal bonds that keep us together.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

More Quiet Rhymes: a note of thanks

This is in part a belated--and totally unconventional--note of thanks to one of my faithful readers, Chris Parmentier, who has taken the time on several occasions to comment on my posts. Since I have no other way of thanking her, I begin with this acknowledgement: that every writer longs for a few perceptive and appreciative readers; even one (like Chris) will more than suffice. Ned is another, but I know how to thank him personally; so, too, Kurt. The others are nameless but also appreciated.

Since Chris commented two months ago concerned my listing of Lynn Schiffhorst's newly-published Kindle book of poems for children, I thought I would mention here that Lynn, who happens to be my wife, has published a second volume of "quiet rhymes for quiet times," entitled Spoons on the Moon, intended for younger kids (6-9) but, of course, also directed to their storytellers.  So this post is also an unabashed advert, as the Brits say. (Butu at least it is not a fund-raising request!)

Lynn has had a difficult time finding a conventional publisher. Few editors seem interested in her old-fashioned, literary pieces that would have easily found a wide audience in print thirty years ago or so.  So we have turned to Amazon, where anyone can peek at her books, and those with Kindles can download them for $2.99.

This week, Lynn Schiffhorst is launching two works on fiction (novels for young readers) on Kindle; the first of them, set in Denmark, is called Cats, Dogs, and Miracles. It will soon appear on the site and I hope will attract readers.  Even if she reaches only one or two readers, that might suffice.

I remain grateful to all the readers who find something of value in what I write and would welcome comments at

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Disruptive Language

Just when we think we know what English words mean, they change. Take "disruptive," for example, which used to be a bad thing, as when kids disrupted classes with various disturbances.

Now--but for how long?--it can mean "innovative," thanks to a Harvard Business professor, Clayton Christiansen, whose 1997 book The Innovator's Dilemma gave the word a positive thrust, a new bit of jargon that the business world has picked up on: the idea of a disruptive innovation in the status quo.

For a critique of the social and implications of this usage, see the piece by Judith Shulevitz in the New Republic (Aug. 15), who says that "disruptive" has replaced "empowering" and "transformational" as buzz-words.

A more serious linguistic problem, it seems, is posed when words are thought to mean what we all have agreed they mean and begin to be used--like hoi polloi--to signify the opposite of what the dictionary records.

Consider "literally," which quite often no longer means literally but its opposite, figuratively, rather than exactly.  Martha Gill in The Guardian has a recent piece on this. She suggests that the word is best avoided at present. Soon, like tattoo craze, it will fade.

She is referring to such popular usage as "I could literally eat an entire cow," when you want emphasis and don't really mean literally at all. Dictionaries, ever vigilant, have begun to record the newer usage, one of them stating that "literally can be used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling."

In other words, language doesn't necessarily mean it did until recently; and English, like the vines in my yard, is growing out of control. But before we panic, remember that at issue is conversational, colloquial English, not the written word. What is colloquial can rapidly change. The issue is not serious.

Writers, we must hope, will be more conservative and traditional in using "literally" to mean literally, not that disruptive newer usage.

Monday, August 19, 2013

College for All?

Having spent most of my adult life in universities, many of them teaching undergraduates, I have some definite ideas about the cultural trend in America that leads young people to see a four-year college or university degree as the only passport to economic success.

I was sorry to see Mr. Obama say that every young American should pledge to attend one year of college. What, Mr. President, if they are not academically interested or prepared?  Or do you mean the trade and technical schools that too often get sidelined by the middle-class emphasis on a degree?

In a recent article in the Wilson Quarterly, Sarah Carr brings such issues to the fore once again in her focus on minority students in New Orleans and elsewhere who, like American students in public schools generally, are "brain-washed" into thinking that college (four-year university study) is their ultimate goal. The teachers' mantra, as early as kindergarten, often is "get knowledge for college."

This one-size-fits-all view of education is not new, but Carr says that in recent years educators have been increasingly calling on low-income students to pursue a college education as America's anti-poverty strategy.
What about the programs in two-year colleges and technical schools that train people in fields ranging from plumbing to culinary arts that do not require SAT preparation and other academic skills?

These programs are seen as outdated, yet in my own area, the two-year state colleges provide some valuable "trade" programs, even though they lack the prestige that their parents often want.  The middle-class ethos of a college education for all remains alive and as unrealistic as ever.

I am an elitist, I suppose, who wants to give every talented student the chance to excel; but I see the university as a place for those who want to study and learn and have the ability and motivation to do so. I have seen far too many incoming freshmen bored with their academic studies. Many drop out, some take three years to find a major that suits them, then complain that there are no jobs for them when they graduate; so they come back for an M.A. or become depressed in a dead-end job.

If only their grade school and high school teachers had do more to promote what Europeans have long developed: a two-track system, one for the academically motivated, one for the career-motivated, without any stigma attached to the latter. Many people do not belong in universities and find this out the hard way, after taking out expensive loans to fund an education they do not want, that our society does not need. 

I know that having "college" as a goal can motivate kids and give them a structure for their studies in math, science, and language, but it can also intimidate them and limit them by forcing them into an academic mold that, whatever their socio-economic class, does not fit their talents. Carr writes: in cities "where more than half of students fail tests of basic academic skills," imposing purely academic aspirations is a fool's errand.

Carr talks about the dismal state of our technical and career programs in the post-secondary world of education.Why are they so dismal? These need a major boost among the community colleges so that "going to college" in this country does not mean simply pursuing an academic, four-year degree and having the "college experience" (including, of course, those spring breaks and other forms of partying).

Too many young people are being guided toward unrealistic goals.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Yearning for Silence

Tim Parks, an Englishman living in Italy, is an interesting writer whose books about Italian culture I have enjoyed.  A recent piece of his in Aeon magazine, however, struck me as missing the mark a bit, although, being about his personal spiritual quest, Who am I to judge? (as someone else recently asked)

His topic is the yearning for silence, a topic of great importance to me. He says we fear silence and long for it at the same time because it involves the end of the self. Huh?

Well, Parks, having no religious experience with prayer and with only a 10-day Buddhist retreat under his belt, finds that a discussion of silence involves consciousness and selfhood, with which I agree; but it also involves, he says, "the desire to invest in the self and the desire for the end of the self." But it's more than Self!

His Vipassana experience taught him that "our excessive interest in our own wordy thoughts" can dissolve as language melts away during the meditative breathing but that meditative "techniques" return us to the noisy self, the busy mind, something most people understandably long to escape from. And he learned what most beginners know: that silence and stillness are related.

Parks does not seem aware that he is on the edge of the ancient mystical tradition of contemplative prayer, the practice of the presence of God in silence.  Whether or not this is a technique or not, it is lifelong pursuit (for monastics and laypeople alike) of the union of the self with God in which the self falls away; but this is not a loss but a fullness of experience.

The experience of God-with-us-now in the present moment is a loss of the self-conscious self but also a discovery, according to Thomas Merton, of the true self, the one known by God, who dwells within at the center of our being.

I hope Parks looks more deeply into silence and practices it regularly, that he reads Merton and Thomas Keating, John Main, and others like him in the Christian tradition. Their work is richer than the essentially secular and limited approach he has outlined in which the fear of death and the loss of the self becomes the result of silent meditation.

I want to tell him: What seems to be lost in the darkness of silence is the self, but that is only the first step on the mystical path that can't be clearly explained, even by great poets like John of the Cross or T. S. Eliot, except to say it involves finding the true self in the love of God. 

That may not make any sense to some readers, and I am not sure I understand it myself. That's why we call it a mystery, the kind without a solution or answer.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

On Terrence Malick

I admire the creativity of Terrence Malick and find his theological concerns fascinating, but his films are not always easy to admire.

In his most recent movie, To the Wonder, goes even further than in his luminous The Tree of Life, going beyond conventional plot structure, character development, and dialogue with visuals and music to create a mood that can be beautiful at times, confusing at others, as when the camera jumps erratically from one character or scene to another.

It must have been hard for Ben Affleck, with so little to say, to perform his nameless role as an American who moves from Paris and, too briefly, to Mont St.-Michel and then to the American heartland (Oklahoma), where he brings his French lover. Unfortunately, her narrative in French is hard to follow in the pale little subtitles that are provided.

She mentions "the love that loves us" (God) and years to return to the sacraments when she encounters a priest, who is unhappy and searching for meaning; so we again have, as in the last film, the interesting overlay of Catholicism with Protestant America--clearly a fascination for the filmmaker. Richard Brody (the New Yorker blog 4-17-13) offers a fuller appreciation of this topic, including Malick's critique of religion as doctrine and the light that floods the movie, stemming from the place of wonder, the Catholic shrine of Mont St.-Michel that gives the film its title.

Roger Ebert, in his final movie review, praised Malick's search for beauty everywhere and his interest in isolating souls in need. His swirling dances, wheatfields, water and other symbols give the scenes a cosmic perspective, as if life is seen from eternity; and it is up to the viewer to piece all this imagery and silence together.

Even without the subtitles, you can tell that the big themes are here: faith, love, God, happiness, meaning...and beauty; and Malick gives us at times a feast of light and sound. Yet his effort fails to be coherent and interesting enough for me, at least, to avoid tedium.

As the priest asks God, "how long will you hide yourself?" part of  me applauds a filmmaker daring enough to deal with religious issues in a serious way while the other part of me wants to ask, "how long will this movie go on?"

I am sorry to say, with Ebert, that if The Tree of Life was awesome, this latest experiment is puzzling and pretentious.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

What is a Marriage?

The question about the true nature of marriage is not new, despite the current discussion of same-sex unions. Most people opposed to such unions argue that marriage "has always been" about creating a family. But has it?

When I taught the work of Milton and the 17th century, I often surprised my students by telling them how "radical" the poet of Paradise Lost was when, in 1644, he advocated divorce when a man and woman were incompatible; and he defined the early modern attitude toward marriage: that it was a union of souls, not merely a means of producing offspring.

I was taught a narrow view of marriage in my Catholic education: that procreation was the ultimate end of marriage. Luckily, the Church has shifted a bit on this simplistic view, putting pastoral emphasis on love on an equal footing with or ahead of procreation. There is still more work to be done on this before Catholic practice catches up with reality.

A recent article, found on the internet, by Thomas M. Finn, a religion professor at William and Mary, puts the issue of marriage in a fuller, historical light. He shows that Augustine in the 4th century changed his earlier view after the pastoral experience he gained as a bishop of Hippo: what made marriage marriage, he said, was mutual consent to a life together by two people (one of each sex, presumably) who were committed to love, support and respect each other.  The importance of offspring took second place in his mind, says Finn, as he encountered countless childless marriages that he considered true marriages.

Since he was the only early Church father to write extensively on the topic, Augustine remains a key figure in the Western idea of sex and marriage. Medieval arguments among scholars at the early universities ended up, says Finn, following Peter Lombard's text which said that consent, given in the present, to live together as partners, with mutual affection and respect--the very idea advocated by Milton--was the essence of marriage.

So, for 1,600 years, the definition of marriage hinged on consent, from which its secondary benefits, including children, flowed. Whether a couple could have children was not what made marriage marriage.

The historical lesson is always important in illuminating the present, and Finn sums up clearly what is at stake in today's debate about same-sex couples getting married even though they can produce no offspring.  Some 60% of Americans, he reports, including Catholics, agree with the historical consensus about what constitutes marriage: the consent of two people to live together in mutual respect and affection. It all comes down to love.

All too often, people of my generation, especially Catholics, tend to think of marriage as monolithic, unchanged since the Garden of Eden, rather than an evolved understanding of a commitment to love.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The death of darkness

I remember vividly my first encounter with pitch-black night. I was about 10 years old, and my family was visiting my aunt's summer home "out in the country," as we said, far away from the lights of St. Louis.  My mother's alarm at the total lack of light is probably what makes me recall those few nights. I came to see night as a time of fear and danger. In more recent years, I have been aware that the night sky of our cities and sprawling suburbs is not really dark in that natural way it once was.

I thought of this as I skimmed an interesting new book with a fascinating topic, the gradual loss of darkness on Earth: The End of Night by Paul Bogard, whose interests are primarily ecological, though he ranges widely from an opening visit to the Nevada desert, some of the darkest geography left in the U.S.  Two-thirds of Americans and Europeans no longer experience real night, real darkness, he says.

We live in a semi-twilight glow of artificial light, a world marked by light pollution. Finding natural darkness in our world, as Bogart shows, can be a challenge. His book is well-written and documented, a collection of revealing facts and insights from various perspectives.

Included, very briefly, is the religious, with two pages or so devoted to darkness in Christian tradition, and with nothing really about the mystical tradition such as John of the Cross's dark night of the soul or Rilke's "I am in love with night."

This spiritual dimension of night is a major part of what interests me about the topic, the parallel between darkness and silence: Just as silence is not the mere absence of sound but a kind of presence or reality in its own right, so it seems that darkness is not the absence of light but, as in so much myth and literature, a creative source of life. The feminine aspect of darkness (the womb) as something quite other than frightening or evil has often been discussed and is beyond Bogard's scope here.

He comes closest to treating such material, in what I have read, in quoting from members of the Native American tradition, who see darkness as a time of healing, as the earth rests. It is a time of rituals and ceremonies when spirits can wander across space and time. At night, says a Cherokee who is interviewed, one should be able to cross into other worlds and other eras, as in ancient times.

One of the striking features easily overlooked about earlier periods in the West, such as the Middle Ages, was the dramatic contrast between the dying of the day and the onset of night, when it was really dark, when people could look up into a velvet-black sky alive with stars and planets, as night's shadow extended into space.

The author does cite the Bible, both the story of Samuel and Christ in the agony of the garden, among many key events that occur in the spiritually alive darkness when the ultimate mystery of God is felt.  If religion tends to "illuminate" and study such things, the stories themselves remind us that darkness has to do with the mystery of being, what the mystics call the "negative way"--that ultimate meaning, or God, is unknowable, obscure.

I am glad to have come across Bogard's book and share his need to celebrate the few dark spots we have left on this artificially illuminated planet and to lament their loss elsewhere. I would welcome more discussion of the creative power and mystery of darkness--as well as the power of light.


Friday, July 26, 2013

The actor as author

I rarely read books by celebrities, and the ones I've looked at are not well written.  Just recently, a few days after watching an old movie by Mel Brooks, The Twelve Chairs, I saw a book by the star of the movie, Frank Langella, who has had a long career on the stage and in some movies. I could tell right away it was not a book of mere gossip but something of quality.

The book, published last year, is called Dropped Names, a collection of perhaps two dozen vignettes in which Langella recalls some of the famous people he has known or met.  Some, like an amusing encounter with the Queen Mother at the Ascot Derby in 1972, are memories brought to life with deft dialogue and description. And like nearly all of the chapters, this one is concise.

The portraits are rarely flattering; in fact, Langella has devastating insights into some of the 20th century's most notable narcissists, from Yul Brynner and Bette Davis, whom he meets in her old age, to Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor, and Brooke Astor.  His encounters with Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier are memorable and witty; his appreciation of Alan Bates and Jackie Kennedy are moving.

Especially memorable is one of his early memories as an unknown actor being invited to an afternoon party attended by President Kennedy and Jackie in 1961, where the romance and glamor of the day (at the Mellon estate on Cape Cod) is remembered with beauty, where the reader can share his picture of Jackie radiantly happy to see her husband totally relaxed, laughing until tears ran down his cheeks.  There is an elegiac quality to this gem of an essay.

So, you might ask, is this book another example of a noted actor dropping names and little more? No, it is an example of excellent writing that has something to teach would-be authors. Actors, if they are good, are sensitive, intelligent, and keenly observant. They make carefully planned entrances and exits. So do good writers.

Langella is a sensitive observer of behavior, and he obviously has written a lot over the years.  He knows how to bring a scene alive with details, then end it gracefully.

Langella shows himself to be a man who has lived a very full life. His portrait of his close friend Raul Julia is beautiful. He is typically honest in saying that he, a very healthy and active heterosexual, fell in love with Raul (also a married man with kids), calling him playfully his "boyfriend." He was devastated when Raul died young. At the end Langella writes:

 "Unconsummated love between men can be as powerful as any love between a man and a woman, and equally if not more powerful than physical love with either."  There is great wisdom and courage in this statement and the insight of a man who has experienced life fully.

This chapter alone might make Dropped Names memorable; but all the portraits, in their searing honesty, offer skillful models of the writer's craft, which may have more in common with acting than I ever realized.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Doing Nothing

Summer is the ideal time to do nothing. Italians and other Europeans seem to be able to enjoy their beaches at this time of year with that effortless ease and freedom from guilt that I and many other Americans lack.

Doing nothing is hard, unless you are a cat (cats seem to have been created to do nothing with great poise and skill).

Even though many would say I have a life of leisure as a retired academic and writer, my days are busy, and this generally makes me happy. I am restless and anxious with nothing to do. Is it my German ancestry that tells me a busy person is a happy person, or is the speeded-up, productivity-oriented American culture in which I was raised?

Today, for example, should have been a quiet day for reading and writing, yet, after numerous household duties, including the care and feeding of three cats, I spent an hour on e-mail, not including the revision of a chapter of my forthcoming textbook, The Practical Handbook for Writers, 7th ed.  Luckily, my co-author, Donald Pharr, does the heavy lifting on this revision and relies for me as back-up.

I know I have a graduate student waiting in the wings to send me her second chapter of a dissertation that needs editing.  I also have been working on two forthcoming talks and week-long courses for next winter that require extensive preparation. Then, as "publicity director" for my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, I spend time promoting her new Kindle book, The Green Road to the Stars.  Some days, it seems, there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish all I want to do.

None of this is a complaint; I am grateful to have these projects. They, along with my reading, are stimulating, a constant source of the growth we all need. Without them, I might be bored, fearing that I will run out of something to do--as if doing is my only reason for being.

What about my spiritual life, about which I have written and spoken?  What about meditation time? I squeeze it in but am eager to return to being busy, even though I realize my level of busy-ness is nothing like most people's in the "real world."

The poet Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books writes of always being a daydreamer and living like the ancient Greeks who had no clocks and so, knowing nothing about hours and minutes, could philosophize all day long. Not unlike cats.

For humans in the 21st century to do nothing well, calmly, requires both practice and patience. To savor the moment and be grateful for each happening in a day: that I can do. Yet, while enjoying being busy, I yearn for more summer daydreaming, more freedom (which I alone can bestow) to do nothing.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Fear and the Zimmerman case

The topic missing from most of the discussions I have heard of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman trial has been basic fear.

It was captured eloquently yesterday in President Obama's personal remarks about how he sees his younger self in Trayvon Martin. And in an important article I read yesterday and will return to.

What prompted Zimmerman to shoot the 17-year-old boy? Fear, the age-old fear of the outsider, which in America has historically meant the black man in a white world. In saying this, I realize I risk simplifying a complicated legal case. But it seems important to look at the bigger picture.

Fear, which protects us, leading to the instinct to flee, can also lead us to fight because this primal feeling can provoke anger and hatred in a matter of seconds, as any study of racism or homophobia reveals.  Fear prompts Florida to allow the Stand Your Ground law on the books; it prompts white supremacy groups and other extremists to fight against sensible gun laws or immigration reform.

The antidote to fear is love, as Patrick Fleming eloquently says in an article in the current issue of America. (Note: I read the article before realizing that the author, a St. Louis-area psychotherapist and author, is a cousin of mine.)

Fleming does not discuss the Zimmerman case but the mass shootings in Boston and elsewhere which cause what he calls spiritual trauma. These events, he says, inflict "psychological wounds but spiritual injury and trauma as well." Referring to his own anxiety, heightened by the Newton massacre, he writes: "Fear becomes a soul sickness when it becomes our basic stance in and against life."

This is the kind of systemic fear that sees danger everywhere, that tells us to trust no one, change no gun laws, and build a fortress whereas, he says, the soul tells us to trust.

In a passage that seems inspired in part by Thomas Merton, Fleming writes that at the deep part of us that we call soul, at the core of our being, "there is a wellspring of energy, hope and purpose."  The soul can provide us, he goes on, with the spiritual vision to see with the light of love, which is always present, even when we feel threatened or fearful. 

Ordinary moments of "soul resilience," the result of reaching out to others in love, happen every day, often without our realizing it: they are "much more common than moments of trauma, darkness and evil.  They are so common that we fail to see them." He refers to simple gestures of aid we give the elderly or disabled, the encouraging remarks we give to nervous students. We need to be reminded of the fact that we are surrounded by little acts of love.

In this short article, Patrick Fleming has captured the spiritual dimension of human psychology.  By focusing so clearly on the basic elements of fear and love, and relating them, he provides me, and I hope others, with ideal reading this weekend, as many Americans ask why the Trayvon case continues to gnaw at our collective psyche.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Open to Love

What does religious faith mean in a secular age, when many people have no religious affiliation or belief, when atheism and agnosticism are commonplace among thinkers?

An important answer comes in the first official statement by Pope Francis, "The Light of Faith."  Unlike his many remarkable and refreshing impromptu remarks, this is an encyclical, thoughtfully begun by his predecessor, the pope emeritus, and completed by the new bishop of Rome.

Although I have not read the entire document, the excerpts published this month, and the many published reactions, give me a good sense of its importance. It is (in the words of an anonymous reader) an "open, searching document" designed to "reach out to those who are searching and doubting."
An existential, Kierkegaardian encyclical?

Well, perhaps not. But this work "by four hands," as Francis says, sees faith as more than assent to fixed doctrines or arguments about the existence of God.  The papal text moves beyond secular vs. religious, science vs. apologetics and all forms of fundamentalism and literal-mindedness whereby God becomes an object to be argued about.

"Lumen Fidei" (to give the encyclical its proper title) indicates that faith is not rigid but an expansive stance toward the goodness and love basic to the spiritual life. In other words, faith becomes a trust: that beneath and beyond the horror of the daily suffering and pain there is meaning, there is compassion. When we love, as Dante knew, we move in harmony with the energy that drives the universe.

As Charles Taylor has written, even in a secular age of religious choice, most people are not capable of being indifferent to the transcendent, which they may find in the beauty of art or nature.  This philosopher's work is relevant to what the two popes have written.

Faith is a journey, they write, which deals with "the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek. To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path to faith." 

So we are given here an expansive, hopeful view of faith that does not deal with abstract truths or theological propositions but a path of trust that is "open to love."   This seems to me a solid foundation for what is becoming a papacy significantly concerned with social justice.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Overlooked Homeless

This week I attended a talk by two friends who have been active in helping parents, like them, who have gay children.

Much of their story was familiar since I know the book by Enid Jackowitz, The Rest of the Way, recounting the struggle she and her husband, Syd, had more than twenty years ago to overcome shame, fear, and grief over the revelation that their older son was gay.  As they said, when he came out of the closet, they went in, telling no one for seven years.

When she saw that her fear was keeping her from loving and supporting her son, Enid began to read and explore, eventually asking her husband if he would like to attend a local PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).  He responded, "I wouldn't be caught dead at such a meeting."

A few years later, he became the president of the local chapter and, with Enid, a speaker and columnist on the problems faced by gays and lesbians in their families. What a turnaround!

What I learned this week was that, after all the progress that has been made in recent years on greater acceptance of this minority, 25 per cent of young people who come out to their parents are still thrown out of the house. They become the overlooked homeless. Who cares for them?

In central Florida, a place called The Zebra Coalition helps kids on the streets get food, clothing, and counseling. But the number of parents who still believe, as Syd and Enid once did, that being homosexual is a choice--and a great evil--remains high. They react in terror and their love turns to hate.

Among young people 14 and above who have "come out" to their friends, fifty percent still have not come out to their parents. So they live in the kind of denial that can cause great anguish, but at least they have a home.

I was startled at these statistics just as I was impressed by the courage of my friends, Mr. and Mrs. Jackowitz. They took seven years to make the journey from deep fear to advocacy.  Their talks and book have helped many parents around the world cope with the shock that comes when they learn that one of their children is gay.

Enid's book is also helpful for the young people themselves who are unsure how their sexual orientation will affect their relationship with their parents. I recommend The Rest of the Way to those interested in the hope that, as the years go by, love will more and more replace fear among parents of gay kids.

Love, as Flannery O'Connor said, is the effort to understand.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Is Anyone Listening?

My wife and I had dinner recently with a couple who talked non-stop, barely stopping to eat, much less to pay attention to us unless we forced our way into the "conversation."

This happens a lot to me. A shared meal should be a relaxed opportunity to be present to one another.  The daily pressure of living should be put aside so that each person can give attention to what is happening in the present, to the person as person who is with us. Otherwise, the get-together, like our recent dinner, is like a therapy session in which the others vent their unconscious anxieties.

Such people are good and loving people who are, for the most part, not arrogant or as self-centered as they seem.  Why have they not learned the basic art of conversation?  I guess because there is so little of it around.

The violence in our society never surprises me, given the pressure and the speed with which most people live.  Even when they sit down to eat, they remain wound-up, unable to put their own agendas aside for ten minutes to take in fully who they are with.

What does it feel like to be listened to fully?  Kay Lindahl asks this question in her book The Sacred Art of Listening.  Her answer: when I am listened to, I am taken seriously, given a chance for my creative inner self to emerge, and so I recall who I really am. It is an empowering experience in a society that does not listen well.

I have used the famous example before of Joshua Bell playing his Stradivarius in the Washington, D.C. Metro some years ago, an experiment to see how many commuters would stop and listen.  Very few did.

I have stopped getting upset at lunch or dinner companions who engage in monologues. I know it is bad for my digestion and blood pressure to want to scream, "But what about me?"  I try to understand how fear governs our lives and that the best-intentioned people often will never be good listeners.

To be fully present to another is a gift of love; how seldom, in the excited rush of daily life, do we realize this?  Slowly down might be a good start toward making us a more listening people.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Amazing Men

I have something in common with a diverse group of people, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock, Fidel Castro, James Joyce, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Descartes, Voltaire, Charles de Gaulle and many other heads of state, including 17 popes: we all had a Jesuit education.

Now that the world has the first Jesuit pope, many people ask me, knowing my ten years of Jesuit schooling, What exactly is a Jesuit?

In researching the answer, I discovered many things I never knew, especially the key role that these priest-educators made to science in the 17th century. In  addition to their many schools and colleges around the world, members of the Society of Jesus, founded by the Spanish-Basque nobleman Ignatius of Loyola in 1534, have been artists, scholars, sheep farmers, lawyers, wine growers, diplomats and missionaries.

I knew all about their tradition of learning, their long seminary training, their independence, and their reputation for being open-minded men who are anything but cloistered yet who are also set apart by their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and by their commitment to social justice. The work of Pope Francis in the barrios of his native Buenos Aries is a key example.   What I did not know was their contribution to astronomy and other sciences.

I did not know that 35 craters on the moon are named for Jesuits, who were among the first to map the moon's surface. G. B. Riccioli's lunar map is in the Smithsonian. They did pioneering work in astronomy, map making, mathematics, and geophysics. They contributed to the development of barometers, microscopes, pendulum clocks, and reflecting telescopes. They were the first to discover the colored bands on the surface of Jupiter.

The German Jesuit Clavius, the first to use the decimal point, designed the calendar (Gregorian) we use today and was the teacher of Matteo Ricci, who translated his work, and the geometry of Euclid, into Chinese and paved the way for other scientific Jesuit missionaries to introduce Western maps, clocks, and astronomy to the Ming court before his death in Beijing in 1610.  He is honored there today as the wise sage "Dr. Li," who mastered the Chinese language and classic literature since he knew that, if he was to impress the elite of China, he had to respect their culture by knowing it.

So he and his men dressed as Confucian scholars and, after years of struggle, became not only accepted but welcomed by the Emperor, whose eunuchs consulted Ricci about a host of practical matters since at that time, European science and technology had made advances whereas China's had not. Ricci and his companions had only modest success spreading Christianity, but as cultural ambassadors, they were unrivalled.

With great patience and persistence in the face of attacks, floods, and other horrors, Ricci succeeded in showing China in the early 17th century
that its civilization was not the only one in the world. (I have enjoyed reading The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence.)

I could also mention the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, the subject of several books, as is Ricci; or the mathematician from Dubrovnik,
Roger Boscovich (d. 1787), who, in addition to writing poetry and writing treatises on mathematics and astronomy, served as a diplomat and consulting engineer; his major work on atoms and forces is still consulted.

The Jesuits sometimes got on the "wrong side" of the church hierarchy, as when they sided with grass-roots movements instead of monarchs, but their work today goes on after 450 years.  There are 90 Jesuit colleges or universities in 27 countries as well as 530 high schools in 55 countries; many of them, like my own school in St. Louis, are staffed largely by laymen educated, as I was fortunate to be, by these enlightened men of God.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Living with Same-Sex Marriage

This weekend our pastor, a much-loved Irish priest in his late sixties, a bit nervously addressed the congregation of our church on a topic that I am sure made him feel uncomfortable: What to do in the light of the recent Supreme Court's decisions on gay marriage.

I wrote to thank him for his honesty and courage, knowing that he was doing his best to follow the bishops' stance that only a marriage between a man and a woman can provide a stable home for the rearing of children.

I began by saying that I, too, have wrestled in recent years with the use of the term 'marriage' to refer to two persons of the same sex. I have come to realize that the only legal way to make equal opportunity happen for the minority who wish to commit themselves for life is through marriage.

Since I had noticed that our priest, always a very human and non-judgmental man, had openly worried about two things: where would this lead the country? and what was he to do with invitation he had received to the gay wedding of a young man he knew.

On the latter issue, I said that those who sent this priest the invitation were brave and would hope for the kind of loving response that Jesus would give: wishing these two young men happiness and success in being faithful to each other, even though the church's blessing cannot be extended.  What I didn't say is the obvious fact that at issue is civil marriage, not marriage as a sacrament in the Catholic Church, so in a sense the hierarchy's concerns seem overblown. 

Heterosexual marriage in this country, I went on, is in deep trouble, which has nothing to do with gays being married to each other.

I went on to say what has been said by many before me: that both sexes are capable of love and nurturing in families and there is every reason to be more optimistic about the future than our priest is.  Legalizing same-sex unions "will expand the possibility of more adoptions and allow same-sex people to being nurturing and love to any children they choose to adopt and to each other, in a more stable form."

So I see a future marked by an increase in love, a decrease in promiscuity among gay men, and an expansion of the idea of marriage.  "I can understand why the church's blessing cannot be given to these unions, yet I remain glad and hopeful that in the secular sphere, the gay people I know can become a bit more accepted in this land of opportunity."

Facing radical change of this kind, especially to those of us of a certain age is tough to do.  It is easy to see some of these same-sex unions as trendy and to worry that they will not last.  But when I think of all the single moms and some dads running households and raising kids, I am not worried that two men together or two women, with the security of marriage, will, overall, do an equally good job.  Society will be better off.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Quiet rhymes for quiet times

Getting published has long been a challenge for many emerging writers, a sad situation made worse by the recent economy.  Even before 2008, the re-trenchment in the world of publishing houses has been prompted by the surge in electronic book production and the supposed decline in printed book sales.

And so Lynn Schiffhorst, my wife, has struggled to get her stories and poems published--until this week, when she was able to launch her collection of 50 poems "for children 8-12" on Kindle.

She calls these poems "quiet rhymes for quiet times."  They are whimsical and old-fashioned and will appeal to readers of any age who have a taste for English villages and whimsy.

As her chief publicist, I take pleasure in recommending them to my readers. The book is The Green Road to the Stars, available at $2.99 on Amazon as a download.  Those without Kindle can still peek inside the book by visiting and typing in the title of the book.

In this world where speed seems to rule, it is refreshing to find writing like Lynn's that takes us back to simpler, quieter times.  She sees this new Kindle book as the first in a series of her work, which has been going nowhere for some years in terms of reaching readers.  Amazon makes publishing easy. So I welcome the new technology even though I wish the book were available in print as well.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The addiction of bad language

Great novels, it is often said, produce bad movies whereas weak novels can result in great films.

So it is with reviews of movies, as I can attest from my part-time experience many years ago as a film critic (the first one) for the Orlando Sentinel. I suffered through quite a number of mind-numbing movies but invariably found that I had fun in creating critical reviews of these duds. 

As I reader, I enjoy the work of Anthony Lane in the New Yorker in whose hands a piece of tripe can be skewered with wit and style.  In the most recent issue, in reviewing This is the End, he gives the usual extended coverage to a movie I would not ordinarily want to read about (or certainly to see) except that an expert writer is at work.

One remark in particular stood out (not witty but insightful) in Lane's discussing of the young people in this movie who deal in drugs, alcohol, and "more addictive still, a heap of dirty words."  He is too tasteful to specify what these words are--the ones singled out years ago by George Carlin--but he puts his finger, in that phrase, on a cultural issue that bothers me: the obligatory ugliness in language that fills so many screenplays.

This type of unimaginative verbal trash comes irrespective of what the viewer may want to hear for ninety minutes. Hollywood and its various tributaries, catering to the tastes of teenage boys, feel that it is essential in nearly every movie they make to create a masculinity defined both by violent action and violent, ugly speech.

I know that men, young ones especially, when they are out having fun together, use a certain amount of street language and should not be expected to sound like seminarians or Victorian scholars. But it's the addictive nature of vulgar and obscene words that Lane points to that is worth considering. Once you start, you keep finding more ways to place F-words in various grammatical positions in every sentence as you keep trying, desperately, to demonstrate your manhood (or so the assumption seems to be).

If one guy goes profane, the others follow with re-doubled effort.  It reminds me of the type of masculinity Frank Pittman analyzes in his book, Man Enough: some men never stop trying to prove they are tough and manly in an effort that never ends; often one guy never feels man enough in the eyes of other men.

If masculinity can be addictive, so can language, especially in movies.
That's why when one comes along with opportunities for heaping up dirty words that are not taken, as is the case with Two Brothers and a Bride, I rejoice.  There is not even an obligatory sex scene or nude scene in this off-beat comedy about the search of two U.S. farm boys for a bride in Russia.
How amazing. And original.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Brain and Mind: Beyond Science

A recent (6-17-13) piece by David Brooks in the NYTimes captures some of the reductive thinking among leading scientists as well as the reservations many observers have about the prominence of neuroscience.

Here's the rub: laypeople like me (and Brooks) find something disturbing in what we pick up in our reading: the belief of many scientists that understanding the brain is the key to all wisdom about who we are as people.  Exciting and important as neuroscience is, it, too, has its limits.

Extremism pops up in every field.  In the world of neuroscience, apparently, it is commonplace to conclude that human beings are nothing but neurons and that, once we understand the brain fully, we will see that all behaviors like addictions are merely brain diseases. We will, as Brooks says, deny that human beings have free will: our actions are caused by material processes, and so neurobiology will replace psychology and philosophy. (He is reacting to a recent book by Satel and Lilienfeld, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, a title that suggests its own agenda.)

The key point, as Brooks wisely responds, is that the brain is not the mind. Can we understand our desires, hopes, dreams and feelings by studying brain activity?  I don't think so.  The mind, according to my dictionary, is hard to define: it is a combination of "cognitive faculties," i.e., consciousness, perception, reason, memory, and judgment; it is what allows us to have self-awareness. Its depths are immeasurable, as anyone who has explored poetry, art or music knows.  The brain is the physical driving force of something that involves the non-material, and the connection between mind and body may never be fully understood.

This indeterminacy makes many nervous, but it need not if you have a broad, spiritual perspective that is open, as Einstein ways, to mystery.

Brooks objects, rightly, to those scientists who reduce the complexity of human existence to measurable, quantifiable elements.  No wonder there have been books by Richard Dawkins and others attacking the idea of God as idiotic since, as the Victorians thought they had discovered, science has all the answers.  Freedom is an illusion; everything has a material explanation.

This is an old battle that was fought throughout the 20th century; yet many battles, like civil wars, never really end.

I recall a statement by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner more than thirty years ago: "The goal of science is the destruction of mystery."  How sad, I thought, to want to destroy the mystery and wonder of nature and the cosmos. The point that Teilhard de Chardin and others since his time have tried to do is reconcile the mystical and the scientific while holding on to the essential mystery in creation.

This brings me back to God.  Mark O'Connell in Slate (6-7-13) goes after  Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and the approach of other New Atheists in having the narrowest understanding of religious experience, as if they never read William James, much less Thomas Aquinas; they have such a mindset because they follow an ideology that says that science is the only legitimate approach to the truth.

O'Connell discusses the work of Curtis White, not a theist, but a thinker opposed to "scientism."  He believes that the demotion of the humanities (now less and less popular in many universities) is a demotion of humanity. Students can bypass philosophy, poetry, fiction, art--all those "soft" fields that can't produce quantifiable data.

White is correct is being concerned by the approach of neuroscience, which sees personhood and consciousness as things that can be mapped, explained in terms of "wiring."  The mind is not a computer. It will always be, in the words of Hopkins, "no-man-fathomed."  This is not to say that we have no more to learn from neuroscience or any other science, only that extremism in intellectual circles is as dangerous as fundamentalism in religion.

And to those who say, simplistically, that religion has been the cause of more harm in history than good, White counters by reminding readers not to ignore the role that rationality has played in human suffering.

It does not seem that the New Atheists have anything new to say except that religion and spirituality are for dummies since science has all the answers. It sad to see in the academic world that this kind of fundamentalism in science, or scientism, has taken the place of philosophy, theology, and the humanities.

(I have noted with pleasure in recent weeks, in reading the biographies of several prominent younger judges and government officials, how many of them majored in English, which remains at the core of a liberal education.)

Let us hope that some of our liberal arts colleges live up to their mission and feed the souls of their students as well as their minds, reminding them of the limits of scientific facts and the role of wonder at the mystery of life.