Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Talking about the Weather

I used to think that talking about the weather was a poor excuse for conversation and essentially a waste of time, part of the social chatter we feel expected to engage in.

With the passing of the years comes some wisdom--or at least insight: I now see that when my neighbor eagerly tells me about the amount of rain we've just had or even when friends complain about the heat, they are engaging in something important: an awareness of the present world. They're talking about what's happening now, about what's beyond their usual preoccupations, which are likely to involve worries about the future or frustration about the past.

To talk about the weather is to talk about the immediate life-world in which we all share. It is related to the awe and wonder we sometimes feel just looking at a blue sky or at a tranquil lake surrounded by trees, when time seems to stop and we are caught up in an awareness of something greater than ourselves.

G. K. Chesterton writes that before his religious conversion and a belief in God he felt a kind of gratitude for the natural pleasures of nature. He was referring to the inherent mystical tendency we all have but often don't know we have. He writes that even mere existence for him "was extraordinary enough to be exciting."

This reminds me of the poem by e.e.cummings, in which he thanks God for "most this amazing day...for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes." This poem captures some of the wonder and awe of ordinary mysticism that Chesterton felt as a young man and that most of us, if we're fortunate, can find every day.

The very fact that I can see and hear, that I can write on a quiet morning when the sun pours through my study window is not to be taken for granted: it is all amazing.

This primal sense of gratitude springs from an essential awareness that, in spite of everything awful happening around us, the world is essentially good. This type of affirmation is not always easy to feel, but it springs from an impulse that has to be called religious. To experience life as a gift freely given is a recognition of God.

So we are all mystics when we pay attention to the present, to the wonders of creation, and even to the weather.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Just One Sentence

I love the unexpected details that I discover in reading, in this case Margaret Visser's book on gratitude, which tells me, in one of her many interesting digressions, about Anaximander of Miletus, considered the father of cosmology, the "art of picturing the universe as a whole."

The old guy gave the first explanation, as far as we know, of why the cosmos both changes and continues; he saw the continuance of the world as a vicious cycle of justice responding to injustice.

This pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, who died in the 6th cent. B.C., wrote On the Nature of Things. The really fascinating thing is that only one sentence from that book has come down to us. But that one sentence seems to be enough.

Here it is, that single sentence: "all things come into being and pass away in accordance with Necessity; for they make reparation to one another for their injustice according to the ordinance of time."

Not bad as a contribution to the ages, but I can't help but think of all the other philosophers whose work has been entirely lost. What happens to their ideas? And what fragments of other ancient texts are there floating around tantalizingly, hinting at unknown universes of thought?

And I wonder what sentences of mine, or of my favorite authors, I would choose to survive into future millenia. If I had to choose just one sentence, what on earth would it be? Anaximander seems to have been lucky: his single sentence has given him immortality and plenty of material for philosophers to speculate about. Most of us would probably be less fortunate: either all that we've written would be annihilated, or some trivial comment about pop music or TV would survive.

And beyond that, beyond words and ideas, what part of me will survive indefinitely--on earth?

If nothing survives, since I am childless, does it matter? Isn't it my destiny to transcend this terrestrial globe?

One question only produces more questions, which are often more valuable than answers anyway.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Gratitude Revisited

I have written before about the importance of gratefulness and about how many people have difficulty saying "thank you."

I've now, thankfully, begun The Gift of Thanks by Margaret Visser. She helps me understand that saying thanks is not natural and must be learned. And it is not easy to learn, unlike the "hi" and "bye" that young kids pick up quickly. Being grateful involves the complexities of remembering and interacting with others.

Kids say thanks, she says, before they understand what it means to feel gratitude. There is a history of gratitude, which "creates and sustains memories" while driving our stories and myths. Giving thanks involves intentionality, relationship, understanding, and recognition as well as memory. Clearly, it involves us in history and philosophy as well as psychology and religion.

Visser is an excellent guide to such matters. A British classicist and Catholic who lives in Canada and France and who enjoys giving the Latin or Greek derivate of important words along with historical digressions, usually of great interest, she focuses her research and writing on a seemingly limited topic that ends up opening many new doors.

She showed this gift in a book of hers I have just completed, the study of an ancient Roman church, The Geometry of Love. This may not be an ideal title, but this is a book that has great appeal to people like me who appreciate the ability to use specifics from the material world to illuminate the spiritual. This book is for Christians who want to understand the symbolism of church architecture. Some readers may get overwhelmed by the details Visser provides, impressive though they are; but anyone reading it, and her more recent book on gratitude, will be struck by her thoroughness and originality.

I am reminded as I read Margaret Visser of a remark by Aby Warburg, the art historian: "Truth lies buried in the detail."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Is the Pope a Liar?

In his blog today, the Catholic scholar and public intellectual Garry Wills writes, "Pope Benedict XVI is the best-dressed liar in the world." This is quite a statement.

Wills, with whom I usually agree and who knows his history, may have gone overboard here. At issue is the beatification this weekend of Cardinal Newman, the 19th century English convert from Anglicanism who did so much to defend the right of the laity to dissent from infallible doctrines, based on a notion of conscience at variance with that of B-16, who tends to look at reality with what Hawthorne called one-eyed vision.

It seems from what I know that B-16 has, as cardinal and now pope, re-defined Newman's position to suit his own understanding of conscience; does this make him a liar?

Lying might be more aptly applied to the papal handling of the sexual abuse scandal--or at least dissimulation--and to various other papal pronouncements that Wills has analyzed in his book Papal Sin.

Benedict, who seems more and more to be the wrong man to have succeeded John Paul II, has ignored Newman's important treatise on listening to the laity and has distorted his record, emphasizing other aspects of his long and remarkable life. Benedict has long admired Newman, but he has misinterpreted or perhaps misrepresented his work in an effort to canonize a fellow intellectual.

Why the pope would personally beatify Newman on English soil is another of the maladroit mysteries of this pontiff. Does he want to turn back ecumenical relations with Anglicans the way he seems determined to set back the reforms of the second Vatican Council? To progressives like Wills, and myself, who watch with horror as the Vatican stumbles into the 21st century, I can only hope and pray, as Newman did with Pius IX, that the end of this pope's reign comes sooner than later.

But I still doubt if B-16, although over-dressed much of the time, is really a deliberate liar.

A more interesting issue for me is how informed Catholics can criticize the institutional church and its flawed leaders, as they have in the past, while remaining faithful to the core of beliefs that are authentically Catholic. Clearly, there are two Catholic churches: the hierarchical one seen most often in the media coverage from Rome, and the community of believers rarely seen in the media but present in countless parishes, monasteries, and other sites around the world.

The tension between these two ideas of church, like the dissension among theologians that Newman wisely defended, has kept Catholicism alive over the centuries.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Importance of Being Silly

As I reflect on the extreme, often ugly nature of the current political scene, with Tea Party candidates coming out of the woodwork, I turn with relief to Mark Twain, Will Rogers, et al., whose comments remain politically timely, and to the comfort of laughter, which is a daily necessity if I am to cope with what life brings.

I am thinking of Rogers' wisecrack in the 1930s: "There's no trick in being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you." I would add "the whole political scene." Twain wrote that all Congresses and Parliaments "have a kindly feeling for idiots, and a compassion for them, on account of personal experience and heredity."

These old-time humorists are on my mind because I've been preparing a future presentation on Historical Humor, the third part of a program with my friend David Jordan. We never seem to run out of material. As someone said, "Political jokes are common; some of them get elected."

On the private level, too, silliness and laughter are indispensable in any marriage or relationship. My wife and I, subscribing to the philosophy that it's never too late to have a happy childhood, use silly names for each other, lines from movies and books, and bits of nonsense throughout the day to ward off any possible tension.

Comedy gives us a necessary detachment and distance from the horror of the news and the violence of our fellow citizens; as a result, we can see step back and appreciate the Big Picture, smiling at folly, stupidity, greed, and all the other vices that keep re-surfacing in our lives.

By smiling, we relax our tense facial muscles; by laughing, we relax the all-important stomach muscles. Even if there's nothing to laugh at, we can always benefit from a belly laugh since our stomach doesn't know what is or is not funny.

So I am grateful to the perennially funny writers of the past and to people like Andy Borowitz and Steven Colbert whose wit helps rescue us from despair.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

My Fascist Fantasy

In all that is being said about the Gainesville pastor who claims that the Gospel says "hate thy neighbor" and "hate your enemies," I haven't seen anyone seriously suggest that he should be legally prevented from burning Korans on Saturday because of the obvious harm to American troops and America itself.

Oh, to be a Fascist and not to be bothered with Constitutional niceties...but even the first amendment does not allow, as the courts have historically declared, someone to shout "fire" in a crowded theater. And when the freedom to practice one's religion involves committing a hate crime, it seems to me that the greater good (security) must come ahead of the rights of the individual.

Of course, I subscribe to the venerable Christian notion, alluded to in some of Obama's remarks as he sought the presidency, that we must balance individual liberties with respect for the common good, however that is defined.

The Tea Party lady quoted at the recent Glenn Beck rally who declared that "I shouldn't be forced to buy medical care..." was one of those radical individualists who populate the American landscape, past and present.

To them, freedom means doing what they want. The Gainesville pastor, who fears Islam less than he fears loss of media attention and therefore power of himself more than the Bible or the common good.

The government, as upholder of the common good, should prevent him from proceeding with his incendiary action.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Slowing Down

I accidentally deleted an email from Andy Borowitz today, an amusing "news story" about a dog being mistaken for a Tea Party candidate. So I had to go to his website, find the article, send it to myself, forward it to three friends, and then print it out. I could have saved some of these steps if had not acted in such a rush.

Email seems to encourage haste (and the inevitable errors that result). People send emails without proper editing or respond emotionally without really thinking. We are all connected to a communications system that values speed and expects us to move quickly.

I have read a bit about the Slow Movement, begun some 25 years ago in Italy to counter fast food and all that is so fast-paced that it disconnects us from each other and from living fully in the present. Carlo Petrini, the founder, says that the aim is to live "a connected life."

This type of living is not possible eletronically; it does not require speed. It means a return to the land and to simple things, to savoring the food we grow and eat.

It also means doing other things slowly, like reading. As I tutored a middle-schooler this week, I reminded him that the purpose of doing homework is not to rush through it to get it over with but to understand the material. Read for understanding, I told him. I have written an article on reading slowly as a spiritual activity. But often I forget to practice what I preach.

I am guilty of eating too fast, talking too fast, rushing through tasks as if a deadline is fast approaching, as if the teeth of the hound of the Baskervilles are on my heels. Why do I hurry when the results are so often frustrating and when I know better?

It's no wonder I turn to meditation and prayer to slow down what is supposed to be a retired life of writing and reading. Or seek out slow music (adagios, Chopin's nocturnes, Satie) or slowly unfolding films in which I can lose myself--that self that is restless and keyed up.

Now I must hurry up and finish this: the day is slipping away! Time's winged chariot hurries near.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Time Doesn't Vanish

I like to save interesting quotations and use them as the basis for reflection or writing. I think of them as seedlings, some of which will take root somewhere. My journal contains hundreds of these, including this statement by Isaac Bashevis Singer:

"What happens to a day once it is gone? To the storyteller, yesterday is still
here, as are the years and the decades gone by. In stories, time does not
vanish. For the writer and his readers, all creatures go on living forever.
What happened long ago is still present."

This statement is full of suggestiveness: I think about characters in Shakespeare, for example, who remain eternally young or old or witty or evil. I think about the act of reading as kind of remembering, just as writing is remembering. Or about reading as a spiritual activity because it gives us access to "time out of time." Such transcendent literary moments come not only in reading someone like Proust but in any work of fiction, or absorbing non-fiction, in which we lose our awareness of ourselves so that "time" (our daily routine) seems to stop and we are able to enter another, imagined or remembered world.

The presence of the past in the present is a theme in T. S. Eliot, and I suppose I have been most influenced by his poetic thinking on the eternal present, or what in religious circles is called the sacrament of the present moment.

When I close my eyes and shut out all the inner voices, refusing to think about the future or the past but become aware only of my breathing, I am able to enter fully into the present, which alone is real, which alone gives me access to God, who is present to me in the present moment. I cannot find God in what is past and surely not in what has not yet come to be.

So for me Singer's statement goes beyond the literary into the contemplative. And it reminds me of the liturgy of the church in which past events, such as the Crucifixion, are re-presented throughout the year as we give attention to them individually and communally. Long-dead saints, too, like figures from the Bible, remain alive to us.

To live, as animals do, in a continual present seems to me a great blessing. I have often thought about this in relation to our cat's inner life as she stares into space for hours in a life that seems to have little purpose. I see her as fortunate in not being tormented by past events or preoccupied by worries: she does not know there is a future and lives every day as if it were part of one, continual stream of timelessness. She dwells in the timeless present without knowing it.

For the neurobiologist, however, such a permanent state of being in the present seems like a prison in contrast to the capacity of the human brain. Our frontal lobe allows us to do what our pets cannot: vacate the present and experience the future before it happens; from the scientific perspective, then, evolution has given us a frontal lobe that was designed to think (hopefully, one presumes) of the future. (This is what I garnered from a recent book by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert.)

Yet for me the future is mainly a source of worry and anxiety. Rather than thinking of it as the past getting younger, as my wife, Lynn, once said, I see my own future as one of progressive deterioration and decline. So I envy our cat Lizzie and all other animals who can live in the timeless present, which is available to me in reading and in prayerful contemplation.