Monday, April 26, 2010

Catching the Spirit

A wise friend, who knows that I enjoy spiritual reading, has given me a beautifiul book by Stephanie Saldana called The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith. I have also been given the chance to review this beautiful memoir in America magazine.

After writing my review, I checked the Internet to see what other reviewers, including those in the mainstream media, had to say. I was dismayed by much of what I found: a nearly total lack of understanding of Saldana's essential meaning.

The book recounts the year the author, an American scholar from Texas, spent in Damascus studying Arabic and the Quran in order to get closer to her faith. She arrives, an American woman alone, in the midst of the Iraq war, with anti-American sentiment running at fever pitch. She also wants to heal a heart broken by family tragedy and by various unhappy love affairs.

Saldana's lyrical memoir, which is surprisingly suspensful and often funny, deals in large measure with the desert experience. I do not mean this merely because the author goes out to a desert monastery to endure a life-changing 30-day retreat, but that her inner struggle--her confrontation with pain and loss and her eventual recovery of faith--is part of the ancient tradition in Western spirituality wherein the desert represents a profound experience of distance from God until transformation occurs. And this struggle is what the book is mainly about, what makes it remarkable.

The book is remarkable, actually, for several reasons, including the author's postive encounter with Islam. But Saldana deals above all with what one of her Damascus neighbors, a carpet seller, calls "a jihad of the soul," that daily struggle we all undergo to find meaning in our lives.

So I was surprised that so many reviewers missed this or failed to mention it: they focused instead on her sometimes improbable love for a French novice monk and her "self-preoccupations."

I suspect that many reviewers read (or skim) quickly, write even more quickly, and thus miss the deeper meaning in a memoir such as this. Perhaps they are not used to looking for spirituality in a book about an Amrican living in Syria in the midst of war.

But what does it take for a reader to catch the spirit of a book called "The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith"?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Trumpets for Easter

The trumpet, or tabebuia, tree in our front yard, after a winter of bare branches, suddenly burst forth in a blaze of brilliant yellow blooms in time for Easter. Now the fallen blossoms carpet the lawn in a circle around the small tree, and the leaves are popping out. Soon the tabebuia will return to its normal mode, fading into the landscape of green.

This little tree always surprises us. Just when I think it is dead (in part because I have neglected to fertilize or even water it), the branches put on their April show of dazzling yellow, made even more glorious by the afternoon sun. The clusters of flowers on this topical tree are made up of tubular blooms resembling trumpets that appear before the leaves bud.

It is impossible not to notice and be grateful for this annual display of beauty and new life, a reminder that resurrection is a natural phenonmenon, too. I think of all the less spectacular things around me that I should be mindful of, grateful for, and present to: each is an opportunity for prayer.

I think of Hopkins: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The faces of ignorance

When I taught at the Univ.of Central Florida, my most popular course was called The Faces of Evil. I led the students through a variety of readings dealing with racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other types of hate. We also looked at the "problem of evil" in philosophy and asked unanswerable questions about the nature of evil.

I remember an exam question: Do you agree with the ancient Greek thinkers who said that ignorance is the greatest evil? Many of the better students questioned whether any one aspect of evil can be singled out as the greatest; many argued that extreme selfishness lies at the heart of nearly all evil actions; many others explored fear.

Now, as I watch the faces of the so-called Tea Party critics of the current administration on the TV news, I am reminded of that question. The tendency to oversimplify the complex issues of the day and to ignore facts in favor of demagoguery follows a familiar pattern: fear, based on ignorance, leads to anger, anger to hatred, and hatred to violence. Hitler used this tactic effectively in the 1930s.

Critics of the health care reform law do not seem to want to know that it is not a government takeover nor do they know what socialism really means when they use that term. The grotesquely ignorant Sarah Palin questions Obama's nuclear START treaty as if she knew what she was talking about. Of course, the media report more of her know-nothing speeches than the facts, based on the belief that most people find it much easier to remain uninformed and opinionated, relying on Fox News for a daily dose of biased reporting. Consider the recent statement by Glenn Beck, the ultimate yahoo, that his news network really exists for entertainment. If only the alarming levels of fear and hatred in this country could be so easily dismissed as entertainment.

If today some politicians are retreating from the public stage, horrified at the vicious attacks levelled at them, how far are we from seeing our leaders assassinated? Isn't violence the logical next step for some of today's yahoos, with their not-so-subtle racism?

In this dangerous climate, I see the face of evil as essentially one of ignorance.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Is suffering optional?

A psycholgist-friend of ours used to say, "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional."

I think she meant that we as human beings have to undergo a certain amount of pain in this 'vale of tears' we call life on earth, but that we don't necessarily have to undergo the mental anguish of suffering, which has to do with worry and the fear that the pain I have today will only get worse, that my life is coming to a sorry end and is probably not worth living (since I can't imagine life without pain.)

As I think of the many people I know who undergo chronic pain greater than mine along with discomfort of the worst sort, such as crippling arthritis with no hope of remedy, I wonder if they have a choice about whether or not to suffer. Isn't some suffering inevitable? Isn't that why the great religions preach compassion (suffering with)?

For Christians, the passion (suffering) of Christ recently commemorated on Good Friday is a central feature of the faith. Even he cried out to God, "Why have you abandoned me?" That is the mental and emotional anguish of suffering.

Yet, as Teresa of Avila wrote in the midst of one of her great headaches, no pain lasts forever. If I think of this, can I prevent the negativity of suffering to take over my life? Can I really choose to avoid suffering?

If we are conscious of some element of hope, some sense that the pain will cease and that life will be worth living again, we are not fated to suffer the mental torment that seems quite other than physical pain.

This takes great courage and will power, to deflect attention from ourselves as an object of pity and to focus on something greater, as Samson does in Milton's poem, and thus to endure pain but not suffer. Whether we can do this alone, without external aid, is another question.