Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The challenge of being thankful

"There you go," the supermarket clerk said to me today, handing me my receipt after I spent $150 to stock up for the end of the year. Some clerks say, "Have a nice day," which, though trite, at least makes some sense, as "there you go" does not. Neither expression, however, is what the customer--at least this customer--expects, which is "thank you."

These clerks, who represent the supermarket chain, should, like all people in sales, have the courtesy to acknowledge my patronage on behalf of their employer, even if they are glad to move on to the next customer and have no personal reason to thank me.

But perhaps they are like some of my young guests recently at Christmas who, after opening their gifts, find it awkward to express any kind of gratitude. They mumble a generalized "thanks" at the end of the evening, which doesn't really do from my point of view--as one who has shopped for the right present, spent money, and wrapped the gift with the hope that it would please. I expect a bit of genuine gratitude. Genuine enthusiasm would be nice.

I think more than politeness is at stake here. Perhaps it involves humility. How else do I explain all the thousands of missed "thank you's" I've noticed over the years by friends, relatives, and strangers alike? To look at me and appreciate the thoughtfulness of my gift is such a seemingly simple social exchange, yet it is one of some complexity since it involves, I think, (consciously or not) a dependency. And many folks can't be properly grateful because they can't be indebted to me or anyone; to be grateful is to lose (however fleetingly) a sense of independence.

I don't fully understand the challenges of being thankful. I have read a bit about the importance of gratitude, which I see as a positive counterpart to all the things that can and do go wrong in a day; it's an affirmation of life, or in religious terms, an acknowledgement of the goodness of creation.

I don't want to say that my guests often disappoint because they are self-centered and arrogant or rude; it's that while saying "thank you" is not easy for young children since it feels awkward, many of us never quite learn to be grow out of this shyness and become comfortable with this basic type of verbal exchange. At least that's my way to understand this mystery.

For the store clerk, saying "thank you" should be a polite formality; for everyone else, it should come from the heart. And when it doesn't, I can only hope that they will one day learn to be less socially shy. And that I will overlook the sense of being taken for granted. Even when my e-mails go unacknowledged (bad form!).

As for me, I am grateful daily for many things: my life, my marriage, the endless opportunities I have for learning and sharing and giving to others. I am grateful, too, for little things--like the light as it comes in my study in the afternoon on winter days--and believe that nothing should be taken for granted. Gratitude as a type of simple prayer is a recognition of the good things in each day, a means of remaining optimistic despite the horrors of the world around me (see the daily news), a way of keeping my balance.

As this year ends, and I think of all I am grateful for, I must include this blog and those people in several countries who have read it or returned for a second helping now and then. I thank you all, and I hope that the new year is full of good things we can be grateful for.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Non-Dualist's Christmas

If you celebrate Christmas and try, as I do, to be mindful of Advent as well, you will appreciate what I have to say, I hope. But then, few people celebrate Christmas the way I do.

It comes largely from my German grandfather and father, who went over the top each year with decorations in St. Louis, where I grew up. In addition to Midnight Mass, and choir practice, and altar boy duties, and family parties that went on for three nights in a row, there were lights and trees (two wired together to make the fullest possible one) and gifts and cards. And music, popular and secular. My dad insisted that the tree stay up until late January.

I could not, and still cannot, get enough of all this, even though the warmth of Florida winters can present a challenge. Even the shopping for gifts for me is a pleasant reminder not only of my childhood but of the people I know. It's all about giving.

I get in touch through mail, phone or e-mail, with people I seldom see, except at holiday time. My wife and I entertain friends and light candles and play music and decorate indoors and out in a way that surprises many who visit us.

It's all done in a spirit of celebration, and it has to be a bit overdone since it comes from love. It is, of course, the birthday of the Prince of Love and Peace. And even the Santa-reindeer stuff is part of the great party the world is having.

So I am not a dualist who believes in dividing reality into separate, warring camps, such as secular vs. Christian: it is all one. Just as God is in and part of everything. I am tired of hearing about the over-commercialization of Christmas; it has always been commercialized, but for me most of this buying and selling is a necessary part of the celebration. After all, the Incarnation means that, in becoming man, God sanctifies all life, so all creation should sing and spend and give.

I love the lights, the bells and carols, I enjoy the packages and parties and decorated trees, and I don't want to hear the celebration to end: from early December to early January (the 6th preferably), the season is on. For the believer who practices a life of mindfulness and prayer, Christ is never forgotten in this great display, it seems to me, since he is the center of life itself. The lonely and needy are certainly not forgotten, either; how could they be?

In that spirit, I wish my readers happiness in the new year and Joy at Christmas! I thank those who make comments and return to read more of my reflections.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In Bad Company

Someone once said, "A man alone is in bad company."

Often during the year, and especially during this holiday time, I think not of "a man" so much as of women, mainly widows who live in my community, living in houses that are too big for them. Many, like my neighbor "Ann," are growing increasingly lonely, depressed, and confused as they advance into their late 80s.

Ann has the (annoying) habit of ringing our doorbell each evening as we are eating or preparing dinner. She wants to say something inconsequential to us but important to her. I try to be patient. Her house, which we see only rarely, is never cleaned or even dusted; nothing is thrown away. She lives almost like Miss Havisham in Dickens, surrounded by reminders of the past, hoping to join her husband, dead now 15 years, in heaven.

She rejects any intrusion into her increasingly isolated life; at least she gets to church for some social contact and talks to neighbors, but at Christmas, lacking any family, she will wait to be invited to join someone. The couple who have power of attorney rarely call. What family she has lives in other states and seldom bothers with her.

People should not be alone, especially at this time when family connections or community matter so much. My wife Lynn brings soup to Ann and other things she might eat; others also keep tabs on her, but it is hard to think of her and not wonder how her life will end.
Her memory is poor, her mind slipping; she is not easy to be with. Yet she must be loved.

It so happened this week that I located a blog by the Oxford historian Timothy Stanley (timothystanley.co.uk), who caught my attention by discussing his long visits to a Benedictine monastery. There he rests rather than prays. And he observes a sense of community and compassion missing in our secular society.

He concludes that the modern welfare state--impersonal and vast--could learn a few lessons from the monasteries, which historically offered help to the poor and sick and comfort to those who fled tyranny; the monks suffered along with the people in times of plague and famine. They offered a social net that was personal. It was compassionate.

I don't know how the vast numbers of elderly people living alone today could benefit in a practical way from the monastic ideal--except to say that ordinary lay people who try to live contemplatively and compassionately can create informal communities so that fewer people suffer the loneliness of winter, the emptiness of a Christmas with no one around, with no sense of being loved, at a time when the world is singing about love and joy.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Holiday Giving Ideas

What follows are a few ideas for gifts you can give yourself for Christmas while helping others as well.

1. Friends of Silence: I mentioned this group with its free e-newsletter not long ago. They are a community, founded by Nan Merrill nearly 25 years ago, and centered now in a 1500-acre wilderness preserve in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains of West Virginia called Rolling Ridge Study Retreat. To learn more and to get their newsletter, which allows me free membership in a community of people who believe that the contemplative life is possible without leaving this busy world, go to www.rollingridge.net.

2. Gratefulness: David Steindl-Rast, whose books have opened many spiritual doors for me and others, is a Benedictine monk responsible for the Network for Grateful Living. To learn more about restoring gratitude in a fast-paced world, see www.gratefulness.org. Just to know there is a website devoted to gratitude as a key element in prayer, as an exercise in mindfulness, is important.

3. The Hunger Site: Several years ago a friend put me onto Thehungersite.com. I learned that my daily click on this website will generate a cup of food for the needy of the world, thanks to the sponsors who adverstise their earth-friendly products on the site. It's totally free. In the second it takes for me to go to this site and click each day, I have been able to generate thousands of cups of rice and other food for the world's hungry.
If everyone reading this made a click on the Hunger Site every day and told their friends, many would benefit. It costs almost nothing.
For me, the daily click begins my involvement with the Internet; it is a way to slow down and become prayerful. It is a wonderful means of becoming mindful about needs other than my own. I recommend it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Never Enough Silence

I have just turned down a chance to take on another teaching assignment, a one-day workshop, because, as I explained to the university, I have three editing jobs with deadlines approaching, two lectures to prepare for January-February, and my own work, of course.

I didn't mention that I have Christmas cards to write, packages to wrap, shopping to complete, etc.--the usual pre-holiday rush--even here, in a house without kids or grandkids, where the quiet serenity of the literary life, supposedly, reigns.

And so it was good to see in the e-mail In-box a message from the Friends of Silence. When I see that name, I want to say, We should all be friends of silence.

The newsletter asks (quoting T. S. Eliot): Is there enough silence for the Word to be heard? The answer is "Never"! We don't listen well to each other much less to God, yet for Christians in this Advent season, slowing down and lying fallow, as the earth does, are essential for any kind of spirituality.

As the Friends state, we need "time to be fallow, time just to be, to listen and dream and wait for the wisdom at the center of our being to make itself known to us before we enter again into a busy season of doing."

Perfectly said. When I wish people peace at Christmas, this is essentially what I am wishing for them--and for myself. I wish everyone could develop the habit of silence, of taking time each day to return to the deep silence at the center of our being and wait there for the still small voice of God.

That is what Thomas Merton articulated. And Swami Amar Jyoti put it this way: "The silence within us is the source of all we are."

Friday, December 2, 2011

Beating My Breast

This post will probably interest mainly Catholics, at least those who attend Mass or have read about changes in the liturgy. I mean the recent effort to return to the Latin original after 40 years of using a serviceable English translation of the Missal.

First, I have to say that change itself in such cases, when it is enforced on the faithful, is problematic: People do not like change any more than our cat welcomes any alteration in her space. The updating of the Mass in the 1960s was so traumatic for many traditionalists that they fled elsewhere.

Now the changes are less drastic but seemingly unnecessary, a huge expense of time and money when attention should be paid to bigger issues. But that is what bureaucrats in Rome do: divert our attention from the crisis in the priesthood by burdening the priests with learning a new translation that may be more "accurate" in some respects but which lacks lyrical grace and beauty.

As Eugene C. Kennedy writes, it is all a clerical trick to divert our attention from more serious matters: Rome burns and fiddles with words. He, like me, does not want to be taken back to 1950. We do not want a reform of the reforming Second Vatican Council, which emphasiszed the community; the new translation emphasizes the individual, as when we return to saying: "I believe" and "through my most grievous fault."

This latter (mea maxima culpa) requires a beating of the breast, actually a gentle tap on the chest to remind me of my sin and guilt, to recall that ascetic practice of the past called "taking the discipline," in which the penitent whips himself with a small corded rope, not to inflict pain but to remind him or her of the unmerited suffering of Christ.

If I want such a reminder of unmerited suffering, I can turn on the news and see the suffering of Christ in the faces of people in Africa and the Mideast or wherever torture, war, abuse, and injustice reign. As to mortifying my flesh, I can--and do--prefer to work out at the Y, where the disciplining of my body and its frail flesh is a quite adequate reminder of my physical weakness and laziness. That workout has its spiritual side.

So I do not intend to beat my breast. I am too progressive to move backward. As to the translation, I will probably, like most people, try to ignore the changes as best I can and say the old words quietly while continuing to pay to support a church that thinks such unnecessary and diversionary changes are just what we need.

Of course, if the liturgists had hired a few poets to help them give us a memorable translation, it would be different matter. In private, in my own language,I will pray for the priests, especially the brave ones who are advocating what Rome fears: the ordination of married men and women. That would be progressive, but I will not live to see it happen, if it ever does.

Monday, November 28, 2011

On Creative Non-fiction

I have been re-reading some classic pieces by Gay Talese, who has graced the pages of Esquire, The New York Times, the New Yorker, and other periodicals for 45 years with the art of creative non-fiction, which he helped invent.

The son of a tailor, Talese (named for his grandfather Gaetano Talese) writes perfectly tailored, seamless sentences that are elegant yet never call attention to themselves. No has written about New York City, its doormen and its cats, its bridges and taxis, the way he does.

No one has written about Frank Sinatra the way Talese did in his 1960 breakthrough piece, now a classic, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." He writes: "Sinatra with a cold is like Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel--only worse. For the cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence..."

About the George Washington Bridge: "The bridge is never completely still. It trembles with traffic. It moves in the wind....It is an almost restless structure of graceful beauty, which, like an irresistible seductress, withholds secrets from the romantics who gaze upon it, the escapists who jump off it, the chubby girl who lumbers across its 3,500-foot span trying to reduce, and the 100,000 motorists who each day cross it, smash into it, shortchange it, get jammed up on it." (Three short sentences, followed by a long one, rich in descriptive detail.)

What would I do to write such a sentence? As I tell my students in the prose style workshop, if they want to write non-fiction and turn it into an art, as Talese does, they should read carefully writers like him and then try their hand at sentences that are varied, poetic, flowing, or tense, as the occasion warrants. Good writing, as Katherine Anne Porter once said, cannot be taught; it can only be learned--by practice.

To read some of his best work, get The Gay Talese Reader and you will see how an ordinary topic can become extraordinary. If you are a writer, you will learn lessons from a master.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What Does Happiness Look Like?

If you want to see what a happy man looks like, see the documentary "Bill Cunningham New York" (2010), which we watched with great delight last night (courtesy of Netflix).

Bill, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, has bicycled around the streets of Manhattan for 40 years taking pictures of interestingly-dressed people, mainly women. His work is seen in the weekend editions of the Times. He also catches celebrities at the charity events covered by the Times.

He does all this, at age 80, with Franciscan simplicity. "Money," he says, "is cheap." He wants and has found something more importrant and hard to find: freedom. Freedom to search for beauty. He does this every day with great passion.

He has always found beauty and pleasure in the way people dress themselves. And although he hobnobs with the rich and famous, he lives in a tiny studio apartment, alone, with bath down the hall, without a TV and with files everywhere around him stuffed with pictures he has made recording New Yorkers on the streets in their finery. Bill himself dresses in a patched poncho and simple blue jacket. He eats sparingly and doesn't want honors. He says he is embarrassed by displays of wealth.

To live simply and honestly in such a world is a heroic endeavor, but Bill Cunningham, with his disarming charm, is the last person to see himself as special, much less heroic.

He laughs and talks a lot but when asked why he attends church weekly, and what his Catholic faith means to him, he is stymied. He is not one to explore the inner life. If anyone can be said to lack a private life, Bill is that person.

He has lived for his work, and in this--and the people he encounters--he has found life-long happiness.

I am reminded of what the Dalai Lama said: "In order to be happy, one must first possess inner contentment; and inner contentment cannot come from having all we want; rather it comes from having and appreciating all we have."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanking the Universe

Here in the U.S., as we celebrate Thanksgiving, various celebrities are invariably asked by the media what things they are most grateful for. Their responses usually avoid mentioning God. The question is, can we be grateful without acknowledging the existence of God? And: can life have meaning without a belief in God?

Although I am a theist, I believe the answer is Yes--in a sense. Each day as I acknowledge the little things around me or the events that have made my life more bearable, I am grateful--without explicitly thinking of or thanking God or recognizing a supernatural hand in my daily routine. Right now I am grateful to have this blog, and for those who read it in various parts of the world, and for the computer itself: none of this was part of my life 15 years ago. So I am grateful to the universe, I suppose, since I do not believe that God is necessarily involved in arranging the details of my days.

Chance plays an enormous role in the traffic flow that makes driving easy or hard, in the coincidences that make serendipidty happen. At the same time, I believe that gratitude in general is a spiritual as well as religious phenomenon; by this I mean, to be grateful for beauty, for a chance encounter with a friend, is to recognize and affirm the good. It is a recognition of the optimistic side of life and its many positive features.

The basic question is whether meaning can be found without belief. As a recent reader of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog said (11-15-11), it cannot be said that if there were no God, life would be without meaning: the lesson of the universe, from stars to atoms, is one of amazing life. Yet she goes on to say that all this--the 7 billion of us on this planet, the rumbles and earthquakes, the fleas as well as the planets--are all part of God. If the universe is vast and uncaring, there is a "constant explosion of love and sadess through the enormous sweep of the cosmos" (the correspondent writes).

We must rid ourselves of the stereotype of God as a bearded man up in the sky controlling everything. As Thomas Merton discovered in his reading of medieval philosophy, God is not a being but Being itself; God is the unknowable but loving presence that underlies all existence and is the ultimate source of all.

So for me, even when I am grateful for little things, this is an implicit recognition not merely that the world makes sense despite evil and suffering but also that God is present in the suffering as well as the joy. To be grateful is to implicitly recognize that reality.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Perfectionism and Steve Jobs

When I began to read about Walter Isaacson's biography of the late Steve Jobs, I laughed: he and his wife discussed furniture in theoretical terms for eight years before settling on anything to furnish their new home. And at the end of his life, Jobs ripped off the hospital mask he was wearing because he hated the design; he ordered five options from which to choose. If he had lived longer, would he have driven himself crazy?

Jobs also ran through 67 nurses before he found three he liked. And so it went with this compulsive, difficult man, who, just after his death, was praised, understandably, as a genius. But it seems that his drive for perfectionism was a maddening obsession that made his life and those of colleagues and family members difficult.

"He needed things to be perfect, and it took time to find out what perfect was," writes Malcolm Gladwell in the current New Yorker , commenting about the authorized Jobs bio.

Obviously, perfectionism can be a dangerous thing and far from a laughing matter.

So when the student I tutor told me this week he always aimed for perfection, I paused with mild alarm, knowing that my own striving for "perfection" can be frustrating and a recipe for disaster. I encouraged him to be the best he can be at school but reminded him that criticizing himself for not being perfect in every subject, at every test, is not a good idea. Where does such a compulsive desire come from?

I told him he has to allow himself to fail and to accept some failure, just as he has learned that he cannot win every game. Perhaps he has been intimidated by his teachers, who remind him regularly that every assignment must follow the guidelines perfectly, use Word Perfect, edit everything precisely, and submit it on time. God forbid any deviation from the rubric, which is enough to instill fear even in me as I read it before helping my young friend with his homework.

I can easily recall as a boy admiring the proverb "Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well," and decided by age 12 to make that my personal academic motto. Later I would come to apply it to my appearance and speech and would be impatient with myself for any lapses from the ideal. Then I learned, gradually, to be more realistic.

I remain grateful for my demanding teachers, and have tried myself to be demanding as a teacher, but I have also striven to remain human, since perfectionism is more a divine than human attribute.

Educators and parents, as well as athletes, have the difficult challenge of striking a balance between the extremes of laxity and perfectionism, which I associate with fear. Fear breeds more fear, terror and/or anger.

Obviously, learning cannot succeed in such a volatile emotional context nor can happiness hope to flourish, as Steve Jobs tragically found out.

We can learn valuable lessons from the lives of others, which keep reminding us of what success and happiness are and how being perfect is not part of the formula for either.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On memory and mysticism

Mysticism has gotten a bad press. Too many people associate it with something vaguely mystifying or occult. Although it is a term impossible to define, I am convinced that all of us have mystical moments in which we are able to step out of ourselves and feel a brief sense of union with something greater than ourselves. Often this happens when time seems to stand still and we are struck with wonder and awe at creation.

It seems that much great art and music, like contemplative silence, has this capacity to give us a sense of the timeless present, a taste of eternity in the here and now. Many writers have tried to describe such transcendent experiences. One was C. S. Lewis recalling a moment from childhood and overcome by a desire "from a depth not of years but of centuries."

In his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, Lewis says he tried to find words to convey the strength of his sensation, which was a feeling of desire so brief that it was gone "before I knew what I desired." Then the "world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing which had just ceased."

How many of us have had such moments "in and out of time," as Eliot calls them? In the first part of his Four Quartets ("Burnt Norton"), T. S. Eliot explores the relation between time and the timeless, specifically the way memory can give hints of transcendence, evoking half-forgotten childhood moments in what he called the rose garden, which represents both some memory of an unfulfilled desire and a place of spiritual fulfillment, a hint of eternity.

Recalling the "unheard music" of ghost-like presences hidden in the shubbery of a childhood garden, he describes, or tries to describe, a vision glittering like Dante's vision of heaven with its "heart of light." This is not an easy poem, as the poet recognizes when he mentions the struggle with language that all mysticism involves. The mystic wants to describe his or her vision yet words strain, "Crack and sometimes break."

Reading all this again, I was reminded of one or two moments in which time and place seemed to give way to a sense of something that could be called eternal--one in my childhood, one in my 20s, when I found myself enjoying a picture-perfect day in a park in St. Louis, looking at ordinary trees and grass and sky yet feeling, almost like Thomas Merton in his famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, a moment or two of longing that seemed to transport me briefly into an unknown part of my childhood. I felt safe and removed from the ordinary reality of my daily life, as if in a corner of the garden of Eden.

In somewhat the same way, an old song from the 1940s can pull me out of the present into an era I hardly knew, evoking scenes with couples dancing to such music in formal ballrooms somewhere. What's interesting is the way several levels of memory come together with imagination, since the music brings with it a visual sense, never experienced but only dreamed of or half-remembered from old films.

I find I am having the usual difficulty of trying to describe the ineffable, if that is not too grand a term for the rich sense we have of a reality beyond time, bits of which come to us when we're open to receiving them. It seems that we all have such mystical experiences. If we are lucky, we remember them; if we are talented, we can write them with enough clarity to make them memorable again.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Attention Deficit Disorder: There is Hope

For the past year or so, I've been thinking about the importance of attention as a spiritual discipline, an essential quality that keeps us focused on the reality of the present in a world of multiple distractions.

At the same time, I have been tutoring a high school boy, a family friend, who has ADHD, as attention deficit disorder is generally known. I knew the boy as a hyperactive child,so I was not surprised that he has been a restless, impatient student, sometimes impossible for me to work with.

Now, only after reading a few key sources, I understand how typical he is among those with attention deficit disorder (and how my original ideas about attention mean little to many people). I learned the challenges faced by about 10% of the world's population: talented, creative people with ADHD don't outgrow the brain dysfunction whereby focusing becomes difficult and attendant emotional distress inevitable.

Hyperactivity leads in adolescence to a restlessness in which forgetfulness and a lack of organizational skills are common. Parents and teachers need to understand what I have recently learned: that ADHD people can be helped. The two M.D.s who wrote the book Driven to Distraction--Edward Hollowell and John Ratey--discovered during their medical studies that they themselves had an attention deficit disorder, yet they not only graduated from Harvard but got through the ordeal of medical education. Now they have written books and are helping others in their medical practice.

In my own teaching, I had little awareness of this disorder, and assumed that most requests that students be given more time or help were due to dyslexia (or simply that the students were among those who didn't belong at the university). I now know how much patience a teacher and parent must exercise in repeating ideas, suggesting ways to structure reading and writing assignments, helping students prioritze their work so they don't feel crippled by the effects of a common problem. Because these students are generally gifted, not backward.

A topic like this involves the complexities of learning and problem solving. Things I take for granted--planning a schedule and writing an essay--require subtle skills that my high school friend lacks. He easily becomes impatient with himself, angry, and depressed when he runs into a blank wall. He knows that anxiety is often a part of attention deficit disorder, but we tell him that he is not mentally ill or damaged as a person.

He is getting help not just from me and from his parents, who are attending a workshop on this topic this week, but from medication and the patient guidance of his teachers. I remind him of the many gifted people in the past--Mozart among them--who are assumed to have had ADHD or at least trouble organizing the plethora of ideas they had; they were, like many great people, poor performers in the structured environment of formal schooling.

So it is important to remind students like mine that, along with the negative symptoms, they are likely to be creative, imaginative, warm and outgoing people with a great sense of humor and a great deal of spontaneous talent to share with the world.

I have been learning, again, how difficult learning is as a behavior and how our under-valued teachers have enormous opportunities to turn a challenge like ADHD into a channel for good. What we who educate need are patience and understanding.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why Rilke Matters

I am not about to convince you that reading Rainer Maria Rilke can change your life, though it might. Of course, you have to understand his poems, which can be quite a challenge because it really means understanding the German originals. Even in the various good English translations, I find complexities and would find teaching them impossible (in a way that teaching Dante is not).

Yet I have always sensed a mysterious power in his taut verse, which searches for the ineffable in a pre-modernist mode--he died in 1926--that speaks to the secular world of the early 20th century about matters of the spirit.

Although most people who read them admire his Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, I have a devotion, thanks to Robert Bly's translation, to his earlier Book of Hours, or, as Bly calls it, A Book for the Hours of Prayer. This was Rilke's first major book, written 1899-1903.

Here Rilke shows himself to be the poet of solitude and silence, the poet of darkness, the darkness of fertility and unknowing, as in the mystics of the medieval tradition. Although Rilke rejected the smothering piety of his mother's Catholicism, he was deeply affected by its traditions and by the value of prayer, especially the via negativa.

Rilke is the poet of inner spaces, as if interiorizing the desert image found in other writers. He is also the poet's poet, the careful craftsman who lived largely in isolation in various parts of Europe, waiting for the great outbursts of inspiration that produced both lyrical prose and incomparable verse. Although he can be faulted for seeming self-centered, Rilke speaks with a cosmic voice, as when he says (Bly's trans.), "I have faith in nights."

This poem begins by addressing God or the creative darkness: "You darkness that I come from,/I love you more than all the fires/ that fence in the world...it is possible a great energy/ is moving near me." You see what I mean: the English is uniquely direct, simple in style, yet subjective, elusive and untranslatable. He is like a modern John of the Cross. (I am reminded of T. S. Eliot's statement that we do not have to understand a poem in order to appreciate it.)

The holy in these poems is deep down within, dark and distant yet always close, too, beyond time and place. Bly says that Rilke's final sonnets are essentially poems of praise, so we have poetic prayers of appreciation and longing in verse that is religious despite its rejection of religion in the usual sense.

From his prose, I must quote some memorable lines from his "Letters to a Young Poet":
"Be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek answers which cannot be given to you now because you would not be able to live them now. And the point is to live everything, to live the question now."

And: "Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without ever having to step outside it."

Saturday, November 5, 2011


I don't think often about saints, but when I was asked to give a talk for All Saints Day, I said 'yes' with some hesitation and uncertainty; I finally decided to focus on the most obvious saint, everyone's favorite: Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), a tormented man of peace.

The 2009 book by Paul Moses, The Saint and the Sultan, gives me some fresh insight, both psychological and political, into the life of St. Francis, the young rich man's son who gave up everything for God. How explain his erratic behavior after he spent a year in prison (taken prisoner and contracting malaria)?

Many saints are tormented and afflicted, so much so that their stories are often enough to repel the reader. But Moses makes clear that Francis, in addition to suffering severe anxiety attacks, must have had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since his earliest biographer talks about his depression and self-loathing, even while he impulsively began to give generously to the poor.

His revulsion from combat--he had just sold his horse and armor--was one way to coping with his depression and trauma; along with this: a renunciation of wealth and power. Before he gathered a group of friars around him, the beginning of the Franciscans, he was reborn as a peacemaker.

One remarkable aspect of his peacemaking took him in 1219 to meet the Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade. He traveled to Damietta not with a desire to Christianize the Muslims but to intervene with the Cardinal who had refused the Sultan's offer to negotiate a peace. The weapons Francis used were simple: Gospel values. He preached that war was not God's will, a point lost on the Cardinal.

The mission was a failure in political terms, but the real miracle, greater than those recounted by later hagiographers, was that the nephew of Saladin and Francis of Assisi met on equal ground, in peace, for several days during the bloody battle. Throughout his life, Moses shows, the Sultan, without giving up his devout Sunni faith, respected Christians, guided in part by that part of the Koran which requires Muslims to recognize their affinity with Christian monks.

There must be a lesson here: that mortal enemies can respect each other as individuals and tolerate their differences, even working toward a resolution of their conflict. I don't know if the Islamaphobia of many Americans has lessened during these past ten years, as I would hope it has. But the more we learn about people like Malik al-Kamil, and the damage done by the Crusades, we more we can understand the roots of this hatred. We fear less what we understand.

At the very least, we can see in the heroic mission of Francis to the Sultan a much-needed human gesture of good will, a concrete demonstration of the seemingly trite conclusion from the peace prayer attributed to St. Francis: "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Understanding the Dead

The Day of the Dead, or All Souls' Day in my tradition, has always had great resonance for me. It reminds me of my connection with that undiscovered realm beyond the natural world and also with remembering, which sometimes means re-membering.

Some years ago I read a book by Frederick Buechner, an eloquent spiritual writer. In it he says that memory is more than a nostalgic look back at a time past. It is, he says, "a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and to change with the life that is in it still."

The implications of this powerful statement is that, in remembering and re-connecting with deceased loved ones in our families and with favorite authors and saints, we come to understand the dead in new ways; perhaps they come to understand us, and through them we come to understand ourselves.

This sounds mysterious because it is, because time and the timeless are mysteriously connected, as great art can sometimes remind us. I am reminded of my own last post, with that statement by Faulkner about the past as ever-present. I tend to apply this to prayer, which bridges the gap between the two realms. Today especially I join with others still living as we pray for the dead, not as they were on earth merely, but as they are now--and for ourselves and what we might become.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How Past is the Past?

"The past is never dead," William Faulkner famously wrote. "It's not even past."

You don't have to know anything about Faulkner's fiction, steeped in the history of the American South, or about T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," to appreciate the presence of the past in and around us.* What is true of writing and language, where our most innovative fiction is determined by literary precedents going back many centuries, is more concretely evident from the perspective of science.

Some of this was brought home in a memorable documentary from Chile, "Nostalgia for the Light," by Patricio Guzman, who is concerned with two discrete but related activities in the Atacama Desert: archeologists and concerned relatives searching for human remains while astronomers using this unique, humid-free lunar-like landscape to study distant stars.

The result is not always as coherent or clear as it might be, but this film about remembering is totally original and provocative. I recommend it--despite subtitles that should be yellow instead of white for greater legibility.

Not only are people looking for pre-Columbian artifacts in the Chilean desert, but women, whose men disappeared during the 1973 regime of Pinochet search--seemingly in vain--for shards of their bones. They gain some comfort from the presence of astronomers, who are able to put the pain of loss in the cosmic context of the life cycle: the calcium in our bones was there from the beginning, from the Big Bang; and we learn, too, that the same calcium the stars are made of is in us--and of course in the bones being dug up by the grieving women.

The astronomers are searching for the ultimate past, the origin of the universe. And their search finds a perfect home in this desert, where the women and others are searching for the more immediate past, whose energy in terms of light years affects all life on earth.

(If only Shakespeare knew this he could have written: "we are such stuff as stars are made on.")

What emerges in this film is a meditation on time and the unity of creation. The present, we are reminded,is only a construct of the mind; the mind gives us the only absolute present we know. Even the image we see now before us is delayed by the speed of light reaching the earth and so we live "behind the times."

If all this sounds confusing, it can be, but I am grateful that Guzman has made this important film. It reminds me of the impossibility of separating the past from the present, or from the future, which is just the past getting younger (as my wife, Lynn, likes to say).

*I cited Eliot's essay because I remembered him making a memorable remark about culture in the "bones," and this is now, thanks to Guzman's film, apparent to me on the genetic level: The poet must live in the "present moment of the past" and write "not merely with his own generation in his bones but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe" is present, in a historical sense, whereby the "timeless and the temporal" together make a writer traditional. (I never thought I could capture the main idea that essay in one sentence, if I have.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Vatican Gets One Right

After missing the mark for years on many aspects of sexual morality, after disgracefully mishandling the sexual abuse crisis in the church, the Vatican has spoken on the right side of history on the current Occupy Wall Street issue in a statement yesterday that got less attention in the mainstream media than it deserved.

In keeping with statements by modern popes going back to Leo XIII, the Catholic Church sided with the protesters around the world demanding more economic equality. It advocated an overhaul of the world's economic system in the context of the universal common good rather than the individualized greed that has dominated Wall Street and its counterparts elsewhere.

In a powerful statement attacking what it calls the "idolotry of the market," the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace sent the world's leaders a much-needed message insisting that prudent regulation of the financial system is a moral priority.

I hope the various Catholic Republican leaders in the U.S. Congress, who are happy when the church takes stances on life issues in keeping with the conservative agenda, pay attention to this statement and realize that the issue of justice involved in this movement transcends politics. If they are to remain Catholics, they have to do more than defend the life of the unborn. What about justice for those who are born into an unjust society?

To those in the media who seem surprised that the Vatican would be on the progressive/liberal side, I can only say, look at what the popes from 1880 or so on have said about social justice and the rights of individuals. Their critique of uncontrolled capitalism has now been articulated in stronger language than before. And it is most welcome.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Loving those we dislike

"Love thy neighbor as thyself." When I reflected on these words today, after hearing them read in church for the millionth time, I began to think how impossible the whole idea is: how can I love others (except in general) when I dislike so many of them?

I hate to admit it, but I am a highly critical person who must work hard to overcome a tendency to find fault in others and not accept them as they are. I have truly loved only a handful of people in my life.

Yet the word "love" in English is inadequate to express the meaning of "love thy neighbor." Jesus probably means--unless he was using hyperbole to challenge his audience, knowing full well that it's nearly impossible to have the same feelings for people we hardly know as we do for ourselves--to care for those who need help. In other words, agape or selfless, spiritual love.

Love is essentially an act of the will, not a surge of happy feelings. That's eros or romantic love, which is different from the love for friends, to mention the more obvious types of loving.

Countless books have been written on all this, of course. Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving always seemed one of the best and clearest. Rollo May's Love and Will makes some good basic distinctions between romance and selfless love, which is what the Gospel message is all about. Both books are classics, for good reason.

Selfless love involves choosing to put aside my own comforts and help someone in need, or simply care enough about them to be compassionate, to pray for them. Even if I don't want to spend more than five minutes in their company.

Since I do some of this routinely, I guess I am not as self-centered as I thought; and I think I understand more of what "love thy neighbor" means, even if it seems at times like an impossible challenge.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What is Style?

Listening to Tony Bennett, singing with various luminaries on his "Duets" album this week, I am not aware that I am listening to an 80-year-old legend (now 85 or so) who outshines most of his singing partners. I hear only the familiar voice of a master vocalist, and I appreciate him now more than I did 40-plus years ago.

He's a master stylist, especially in the way he, k.d.lang and a great jazz trumpeter turn the old song "Because of You" into something memorable. In part because it is slow and you savor every word, every note. Something ordinary is turned into the extraordinary. Bennett expresses great feeling, an intelligent, mellow feeling and a sound that's ageless.

That's, I suppose, what style is: something indefinable, something to do with feelings truly felt and expressed artfully, perfectly, uniquely. It's not something you can learn.

I heard it again this week in one of Don McLean's old songs, "Crying," a Ray Orbison classic that McLean turns into an unforgettable aria.

As I think about style in general, about writing style, which I aim to teach each year, I realize again how impossible it is to explain; it is there to be experienced. Some analysis of sentence structure and word choice are important in any discussion of prose style, but the overall tone is unique to each individual who writes. Some have a keen ear for language and rhythm, just as some develop an ear for music; with practice, they can display their own style. A few will become masters.

Tony Bennett and Don McLean are masters. I am grateful to have re-discovered their art and their ability to slow down the pace of my life with their songs.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Death of the Footnote

A recent NYTimes piece by Alexandra Horowitz on the lowly, often-derided footnote is really an essay about change: from the printed book, where scholars can wage a war--or at least a battle or two with opponents--at the bottom of the page, to the e-book, set up without conventional pages. If e-books are not killing ordinary books, they are apparently killing the page as we know it, i.e., a unit of text with a top and a bottom.

I lament the death of the page, and of the book (which I believe will survive) but not the footnote.

As a teacher, I generally required endnotes rather than footnotes from my students in their research papers and theses. As a student, I hated doing footnotes because I had to leave adequate space at the bottom of the page while typing; but such, I learned, was the life of a beginning scholar, who establishes his or her reputation by citing authorities. I came to enjoy reading many a long footnote for the role it played in academic skirmishes but never tried to emulate this use of the note.

The reality is that both footnotes and endnotes tend to go unread by most readers, even in academic work, and they are routinely dismissed as a nuisance, an interruption, by general readers. It's possible that the scholarly footnote might be seen as a sign of insecurity on the part of the young scholar, eager to establish his or her authority. And it can be tempting to put controversial ideas in the footnote rather than in the text of a chapter or article, where they would have to be fully developed. I have seen a few footnotes that were misleading in this way, like throw-away lines that call for more explanation. So footnotes will not be missed.

But Anthony Grafton in his History of the Footnote insists that the footnote is essential; it offers the needed proof that the scholar has consulted the appropriate archives; thus the footnote, much preferable to the easily overlooked endnote, is a badge of legitimacy. There is nothing anachronistic about the footnote, says he, concerned as he is with professional historians like himself.

"Like the high whine of the dentist's drill, the low rumble of the footnote on the historian's page reassures: the tedium it inflicts, like the pain inflicted by the drill, is not random but directed, part of the cost that the benefits of modern science and technology exact."

I quote this sentence in part because I admire its elegance; Grafton is a fine stylist. And because it shows, as does the whole discussion, that any topic, however lowly or dull, can be turned into something interesting, even witty, in the right hands. Such is good writing.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Being Ayn Rand

I could never understand the appeal of Ayn Rand or see why otherwise intelligent folk, even big shots like Alan Greenspan, were/are devoted fans.

After seeing an excellent Showtime movie starring Helen Mirren, "The Passion of Ayn Rand," the appeal becomes more understandable. The movie reveals the emptiness of this Russian-born novelist's ideas and her own absurdity. An opening scene reveals much: she has died, and cult-like followers are lined up to see the corpse, which is situated beneath a gold statue of the dollar sign.

So it's capitalism, ruthless individualism, and selfishness presented with impressive-sounding jargon like "social metaphysics" that would appeal to some right-wing types even today, 29 years after her death. This movie, which deals chiefly with Rand's unorthodox sex life, also reveals the truth of her "philosophy," which has duped many readers for the past fifty years. It is wonderful to see Rand contradict herself in scene after scene. Extolling the virtue of reason, she is, in the deft hands of Mirren, a passionate advocate of herself at all cost.

Who cares if others are hurt badly by her actions? Who cares if she laughs at altruism ("the cowardice of self-sacrifice") and claims that every emotion can be controlled by logic and reason, even when the story of her life as a adulteress reveals just the opposite?
Everyone else, as she says, is a "lesser person" incapable of understanding her genius. She is portrayed as a person tragically incapable of love.

The life of Ayn Rand, it seems, is a study in the dubious appeal of self-interest, which is at the root of most evil and as appealing as evil can be. It demonstrates how easily many people are taken in by simple answers to complex issues.

Just before viewing this movie, I read several articles on evil as seen by neuroscientists, who are claiming these days to have the key to all wisdom. One promiment neuroscientist, Steven Pinker, uses data to support his dubious contention that people are becoming less violent, with each passing century. Others ask whether science has finally destroyed evil, or disproved it, as they claim to disprove free will.

As Will Wilkinson points out in a recent blog, the existence of evil can't be proved or disproved by looking at human brains since evil is not a neurological reality. Anyone who doubts the existence of evil is "just confused." And what about people who are apparently normal (not lacking empathy, not being psychopathological) and still do awful things?

I would send anyone interested in exploring evil today, not to neuroscience but to Terry Eagleton's recent book On Evil. He may be a Marxist, but his view of the subject is essentially in keeping with the mainstream Christian tradition going back to Augustine.

As one who used to teach courses in evil, I am glad to see the topic re-surface regularly in the secular sphere. As for the possibility that there is less violence, hatred, and attendant evils than in the past, I can only think of otherwise intelligent people like Ayn Rand, who scoffed at the very things the world needs more of if it is to "overcome" evil: empathy and altruism and love.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Managing Pain

Lately, while dealing with my own minor muscular pains, I have been mindful of three friends with much more serious, chronic pain. One of the women is dying of cancer; the other two have tried various treatments with no success. I hope my prayers for them do some good.

I am reminded of the saying: Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. Viktor Frankl in his classic book, Man's Search for Meaning, is emphatic in saying that is that our ultimate freedom is to "choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances." He believes, based on his experience as a young man dealing with the Holocaust, that a positive attitude toward pain can circumvent suffering. If we have a reason to live, if we choose to focus on love or a positive goal, we can overcome any temporary pain.

But so much depends on the individual's sensitivity and tolerance for physical pain. As Joan Halifax points out in an important chapter in her book Being with Dying, suffering is the story we tell ourselves about the pain we feel. If suffering is an attitude we choose, can we rise above it, putting even the pain in its place?

As an experienced caregiver, Halifax has some valuable insights. While believing that pain medication is often necessary, she suggests that pain can teach us various lessons (about compassion, patience) if we don't let our fear overwhelm us.

Why do we fear pain? Do we fear that we will become its victim as it grows worse and worse? We become afraid it will devour us. "But when the pain is really great, we might feel so desperate to deal with it that our desperation generates the courage we need to meet it."

I am reminded of Tolstoi's great classic, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," in which the dying man, after great agony, finally--at the very end of his suffering--lets go and is somehow able to distance himself from his body and its pain. His soul comes alive, as his body dies, and he begins to ask the ultimate question, What is it all about? Why have I not lived the right kind of life? Somehow, Tolstoi has convincingly dramatized the reality of suffering giving way to release, taking us closer to this fictional character than we are ever likely to get to a real person.

Halifax says that some patients are able to focus their attention away from the pain to something pleasant or healing; distraction can be helpful. Sometimes, being fully present to our own pain can decrease its negative experience.

Each person's experience in dealing with pain, as Halifax wisely shows, tends to be different. But it's clear that the tendency many of us have to obsess about our condition, to allow our fears to build, makes matters worse and can be changed. Having the caring presence of another is very helpful, but even when we are alone, as we ultimately are in such cases, we need not despair. Pain does not last forever. "Even great pain is impermanent. More importantly, it is not who we really are." Thank you, Joan Halifax, for this and for helping me think about the fear associated with pain.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Why do we love to hate?

Andy Borowitz, in his frequent borowitzreport.com, sends out faux news bulletins that are often fine (and funny) examples of satire, in contrast to much of the cynical humor that passes for satire in the media. I recommend him to anyone unfamiliar with his work.

In his post for Oct. 8, Borowitz announces a "poll" showing that the possibility of a race between a black man and a Mormon for president in 2012 poses a dilemma for that part of the voting public who hate both groups. Their only source of relief: no woman is in the race, or so it seems at this still early date.

We may smile or laugh at such a bit of "news," but the truth is that hatred, which usually goes by some other name, comes naturally to many people. Perhaps that's why the Christian principle of "love thy neighbor" is often impossible for many to follow.

Early on, we learn to put others down in an effort to mask our own insecurities and feel (however briefly) more powerful. There is always some group--those different from us--who can be condescendingly accepted or rather--because more fun--castigated as inferior, unworthy, etc. In short, we love to hate, and history is replete with examples of one group hating others enough to kill them.

I recall the chilling short story by Shirley Jackson, "The Lottery," which seems to suggest that traditions in general are to blame, though the story is open to many and varied interpretations. Her fable takes place in a small, all-American town where the annual custom is for the townsfolk to select a lottery "winner" to be stoned to death by everyone else. The elders warn that breaking this ancient custom is wrong, but the younger generations do not protest; they carry on this horrifying ritual, perhaps because they need an outlet for their fears.

I see fear as the greatest threat to everyday happiness and civilization. Fear (of the stranger) can quickly turn to anger, which turns to hate and often to violence: this is the pattern found in racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hatred, each of which gives the hater a reason for living. The white supremacist has learned that hatred can be a kind of energy, a source of fufillment.

At least such racists tend to be open about their feelings, unlike so many in the voting population today, who are full of a resentment that they cloak in patriotic or Christian garb. They end up hating in the name of religion or ideology and as such end up repeating some of the worst lessons, which they never learned, from the past.

The study of hatred shows how much harder loving is than hating. Hating others, as any schoolboy bully knows, requires little effort. Teaching one another how to respect, accept, and love one another more fully is what education and religion should be about.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Searching for God

In a new book, The Quest for God and the Good, which I have only read excerpts of, Diana Lobel uses the word "God" to mean the ultimate principle of the universe, the source of all existence, knowledge and value. She says (in an interview) that the divine or absolute is what's at the heart of reality, is what assures our existence and gives life meaning.

So far so good: a possible response to the spate of new atheists with best-sellers in recent years (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris)?

I'm not sure. The philosophical God searched for here is closer to Plato's idea of the Good. There is no personal divinity with a will who creates and sustains life. There is no "personhood" involved, as theologians would say.

Still, it's important that a contemporary thinker and academic would put God in the title of a book and consider the name coterminous with the mystery of life and existence. It's refreshing to find a serious secular writer today claim that when we look at the world, we see significance, that if anything in the world has value it is "because there is an ultimate source or principle of worth." Does this make Lobel a theist?

If not, she is at least moving in a positive direction. But I still want to hear something a little warmer, some definition that includes love as the divine energy propelling the universe. When contemplatives like Thomas Merton confronted an unknown God in the solitude and silence of their hearts, did they find a principle?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Our Interconnections

Two events recently converged to remind me of the way people, often isolated, are really related. The first has to do with the often-neglected practice of expressing gratitude to those who have influenced us: teachers and writers, among others.

A perfect "stranger" wrote to my wife Lynn, author of a book of poetry, Planting the Voice, published 22 years ago and, while not forgotten,has been mainly overlooked as she has moved on to other types of writing. A fellow-poet, who has admired Lynn's poems for years, somehow found our e-mail address and expressed with elegance and sincerity his appreciation of her work and its influence on him over the years. Wow.

Such things are rare. In publishing a few articles last year, one or two "fans" contacted me, and once in a while a former student will write to say how much my classes meant to him or her. Mostly, however, people are too busy or too shy. Or they just don't realize how important expressions of gratitude are, how much every one of my readers, every one of my students, has acquired some insight from me, just as I continue to reflect gratefully on my teachers in St. Louis and elsewhere who introduced me to the study of language and literature--and all I have learned from reading, which is not an isolating activity.

We don't need Harold Bloom to remind us (in The Anxiety of Influence)that writers cannot exist in a vacuum but are constantly indebted to the web of the sources they have stepped into. What is true for writers is also true in other areas.

I was reminded of this yesterday in reading some of Joan Halifax's Being with Dying, where she talks with honesty and eloquence about suffering and the importance of being a companion to those who are ill or near death.

"Life connects us to one another," she writes, "as do suffering, joy, death and enlightenment." She goes on to say she cannot separate herself from a dying person, even if she must struggle to understand his or her needs and the mystery of dying.

Thomas Merton has written about how he feels connected to unseen people in the midst of his solitude and silence: it is a community of prayer. "No man is an island." Yet, for anyone who works alone, it is easy to feel isolated, neglected, unaware of the debt we owe to many, both living and dead, who have made possible the human community that sustains us all. On the political level, this is a lesson many have long forgotten, especially given the tradition of American individualism.

I am grateful to Lynn's poet-friend for not taking this for granted (and to the Internet for making such communion possible in new ways).

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Hatred and Ignorance

Some things, like hatred of others and ignorance, never change. Just a few well-known examples from the recent news:

1. At the last GOP debate among the various contenders for the presidential nomination, a serviceman serving in Iraq, Stephen Hill, identified himself as gay; the audience booed. None of the contenders condemned the booing or recognized the dedication and service of this soldier.

2. At a previous GOP convocation, Gov. Rick Perry was asked about his record number of death sentences--234--in Texas, and this time the audience applauded. Again, none of the contenders condemned the applause or even commented on it. They knew Perry was proud of his record as a tough law-and-order guy.

3. Thirty percent of Republicans polled last week indicated that they still believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, and 36% believe he is foreign born. No amount of media attention to the truth seems to change this type of belief, based, presumably, on the deep-seated feeling that Obama is "not one of us" and never will be.

4. A teenager, Jamey Rodemayer, 14, committed suicide after being bullied foir being gay. Even after his death, many kids chanted, "We're glad you're dead." Again, the origins of this hatred run very deep. And I wonder, having taught courses in hatred and evil, whether education is really the answer to reducing this type of evil since many people have closed minds.

When the ideology of ignorance, combined with self-righteous anger, triumphs over truth, we are in trouble. More and more, this country seems to be divided into two warring camps of the enlightened and the ignorant. My main remedy: turn off cable news and other news media as much as possible. Read alternative sources of information and keep thinking.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Listening to Silence: Arvo Part

I am grateful for the people at YouTube for posting some beautiful videos to accompany the music of Arvo Part (the "a" should be umlauted; he's Estonian), which had been vaguely familiar to me from past radio broadcasts. Now I am a fan.

The music is transcendent, not only the famous "Spiegel im Spiegel," with its hypnotic piano music sounding like raindrops but the choral works "De Profundis," "Magnificant," "Nunc Dimittis," etc.

This music is radiant minimalism: experimentally modern in a sense yet traditional enough to move me. It evokes silence, which I've tried in several print articles to define as presence (not at all the absence of sound).

I have found the silence of the timeless present in paintings, in reading and in certain slow films, and in music, too, music that leads to reflection, quieting down like the Mahler "adagietto" movement from the Fifth Symphony. It is virtually impossible to listen to such music with a busy mind.

Silence, wherever it is found, produces a mindfulness to the present moment that David Steindl-Rast has called "the now dimension of time," by which he means an idea of time not running out but "rising like water in a well, rising to that fullness of time that is now."

If this sounds too mysterious, I would respond that mystery is exactly what we need. Aren't all the really major issues--God and the existence of evil, the meaning of happiness and love and life itself--essentially mysteries? The mystic is one who embraces the mysteries of the seen and unseeen worlds and is grateful for them.

So today I am grateful for Arvo Part. I know almost nothing about him except that he has a deeply felt spirituality, perhaps a religious fervor, that manifests itself in music marked by simplicity. For me, this simplicity evokes silence.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Never lonely

One advantage of visiting doctors' offices is the chance to read magazines I don't otherwise see. This week I found myself perusing the current issue of National Geographic.

There I found stunning photographs by the Australian Murray Fredericks of the remote, vast (3,700 square miles) and salty Lake Eyre. His aim: to take photographs of infinite space.

In what he calls the bleakest, most featureless place on Earth, Fredericks never grew lonely, even though he camped out there for five weeks. Only when he got back to civilization and sat at a quiet bar did he feel lonely.

Many monks in the desert or in the ordinary remoteness of the monastery do not feel loneliness because, I suppose, they have learned to cultivate a solitude through prayer so that they can feel connected to others and to God. So it is possible for the solitary person, alone with his or her thoughts and prayers, to feel content, even happy. Never lonely, like the people looking for connections without success in countless bars around the world.

This brings me back to the topic raised for me by Merton--of solitude as something very different from emotional emptiness, sadness, or despair. Aloneness need not be loneliness. Many people are single either by choice or circumstances but are not leading drab, empty lives like Eleanor Rigby.

This topic is relevant to writers, who spend considerable amounts of time alone. Perhaps for this reason, beginning writers are reluctant to face the blank paper or screen because of some conscious or unconscious fear of isolation. Although lonely feelings can easily intrude when one is alone, the writer's engagement with his or her material (as well as with readers) generally prevents this feeling, just as the person in a truly centered type of prayer can be as alone as the photographer out in the middle of a silent but beautiful nowhere--yet feel fulfilled.

I understand what Merton meant by writing as a form of prayer, even though both of us know that not all writing will be prayerful, just as all solitude will not be rewarding. It all depends on the attitude we choose.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Right to Life--and Truth

I was saddened last night to learn that Troy Davis was executed in Georgia (and apparently two other men since then in other states, who received less publicity). What does capital punishment in these cases solve? Do those involved feel closure? Are the victims' families truly happy that the state has taken a life, as in "an eye for an eye"?

If protests today occurred because of Davis's execution, some good will have come out of the evil of taking life--in the form of reflction on the uselessness of the thirst for blood, and of the fact that capital punishment, as is well known, does not deter future criminals from acting.

Will Gov. Perry, now the leading GOP contender for the presidential nomination, continue to be applauded as he defends the rights of the unborn but gladly signs more death warrants in Texas? He likes to brag about the tough way he has handled death sentences, and when he does, many applaud.

Where were the Catholic bishops and other pro-lifers last night to protest the killing of Davis? Are the rights of the unborn more important than the life of a man who might have deserved a second trial or a reprieve so that unanswered questions could be addressed?

How does the death of anyone, even the most heinous criminal, solve anything in the criminal system?

Perry probably does not know, given his dismal academic record and shoot-from-the-hip style, that studies show that capital punishment fails to deter crime and for a Christian, as he claims to be, is morally wrong. But he is the same type of know-nothing who sees evolution, as presented by Darwin in 1859, as avant-garde, whose attitude toward global warming is equally primitive and alarming.

Perry, like Bachmann and Palin, seem quite proud of all they don't know and quite ready to propose ideas they don't know how to think through. The results should alarm the electorate more than the economic downturn because ignorance, as Socrates claimed, can be the greatest evil.

I want to read the new book by the noted environmentalist Bill McKibben, Eaarth. A reviewer has noted the unprecedented facts he cites about depleted oil storehouses, dying forests, melting glaciers, threatened water supplies, endangered rain forests and other results of global warming that are already producing extreme weather problems. Yet the climate change deniers continue to ignore reality, pointing to falsified data, corporate-sponsored research, and historical and Biblical tales that supposedly deny the evidence presented by McKibben and so many others.

Serious students of ecology are not preparing for the end of time, like some Christian extremists, but offering realistic suggestions for acting to help civilization prevent the end of planet earth. Will our future political leaders read such books, heed such warnings? Will they reflect on the complexity of the moral issues we all face or continue to offer slogans that will appeal to their political base? The answer, sadly, is obvious.

We have become a country divided into separate spheres of reality, where truth is daily sacrificed, along with life, in the self-interested business of getting elected.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why are people bored?

In reading a review of Lost in Transition by the sociologist of religion (at Notre Dame) Christian Smith, I encounter again the question faced by David Foster Wallace about the rootless, restless, disspirited nature of so many people's lives. The focus on Smith's book is on adolescent Americans, who are in crisis: they now remain students longer than in the past, just as they depend on their parents longer, and resist marriage as long as possible; they dread the world of work since it has changed: it offers little in the way of long-term stability.

As a result, these young people (by and large) have a certain amount of freedom--including freedom from commitments; and moral boundaries are less clear than in their parents' generation. They might agree that murder, rape, and robbery are wrong, but doubt that cheating on exams (or one one's partner) is always wrong. As I discovered among my own students, their main concern in cheating is whether they will be caught. As to the behavior of others, well, it is up to each person to decide for himself.

"Very few seem to think that right and wrong are rooted in anything outside personal experience," says the Spectator review of Smith's book.

They are into consumerism, drinking, and sex because of peer pressure, in part, but also because of sheer boredom. Why, with all the choices they have, all the opportunities for learning and enjoying life, would anyone be bored? Could it be that they have too many options, too many consumer goods, like the child who is flooded with toys on Christmas morning and turns with relief to playing hide-and-seek?

Might it be that boredom is, in my favorite definition, a fear of running out of things to do? If happiness consists only of entertaining activities, it is not hard for an imaginative, intelligent person to anticipate a life without the gratification of more stimulation. We are all essentially restless, in part because we do not find a place for contemplation, solitude, and silence.

Few people have articulated the importance of these three things as memorably as the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton. I began today to look through my "Merton files," clippings of readings sent to me from the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living and other e-mail newsletters, and I find that the two ideas of solitude and silence recur in this extensive body of work more than any other; they are the keys to inner happiness and peace.

Both before and after becoming a monk, Merton, a restless soul, knew the dark side of boredom as a kind of depression. Yet he sought out what to many would seem like the least likely answer: a remote monastery. Once there, he sought out the solitude of his own hermitage in the woods. After being persistent, he was finally (c. 1965) allowed to move to a shed that became "a delight," as he writes in one of his journals: "I can imagine no other joy on earth than to have such a place and to be at peace in it, to live in silence, to think and write, to listen to the wind and all the voices of the wood, to prepare for my own death, to love my brothers and all people, to pray for the world and for peace and good sense among men."

As he wrote elsewhere, all of us need to seek peace within ourselves "because we do not naturally find rest even in our own being. We have to learn to commune with ourselves before with can communicate with other men and with God. A man who is not at peace with himself necessarily projects his interior fighting into the society of those he lives with, and spreads a contagion of conflict all around him." (This is from
No Man is an Island, 1955.)

As Merton makes clear repeatedly, solitude is a true refuge from the depression and restlessness implied in boredom; it is not a negative relationship--the absence of people, any more than silence is the absence of sound. "True solitude is a partcipation in the true solitariness of God, Who is in all things....It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers."

There's much more: Solitude is not, says Merton, something to hope for in the future; "it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present, you will not find it." For Merton as writer, as for all writers, solitude is essential, and the writing does not isolate the one who writes but connects him or her to all the unseen readers he imagines, just as in silence he can feel connected to all those who are at a given moment being contemplative(fully present to the present moment) rather than busy.

Writing, prayer, contemplation, solitude--all of these involve a sense of creative aloneness in which one does not feel loneliness but a sense of connection with the self, with others, and with God. As the contemporary monk Peter-Damian Belisle says, "One is never alone in true solitude. There is the powerful experience of presence that arises out of solitude's depths."
Honest aloneness makes us not alone but awake to God's presence.

The same type of presence rises from the depths of silence, whenever we give ourselves permission to find the freedom that comes in silence. That is one of the paradoxes Merton loves to explore: We are truly free when we "encounter God in our hearts...the truth that makes us free is...the presence in us of a divine person." True religion is a liberating force that helps us find ourselves in God.

Is there a scriptural basis for any of this? St. Paul: "The Spirit pleads for us in our inmost being, beyond words, beyond thoughts, beyond images." The peace and even joy that can come from contemplation, says the mystical tradition of Christianity, is the antidote to boredom and restlessness which afflict our anxious age.

"There is not enough silence," T. S. Eliot wrote. To free ourselves from the noise of too many words, too many thoughts, too much stuff, we need solitude and silence, challenging though these can become.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Modern Secularism and the Renaissance

This is in part a response to the forthcoming book by Stephen Greenblatt , Swerve: How the World Became Modern as previewed by Laura Miller of Salon.com. I'm grateful to Salon and Miller for reviewing the book more fully than Kirkus and for being skeptical of the liberties Greenblatt takes, not for the first time, with historical events and figures.

Greenblatt, like many critics who follow the New Historicism that he helped establish, is very selective in what he does with Shakespeare, his main scholarly subject, and now with the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius, the ancient Roman author of a text, On the nature of things, that was unearthed one day in 1417 in a monastic library by one Poggio Bracciolini. The result of this discovery, of course, was that the world was forever changed, at least according to Greenblatt and his publisher.

Greenblatt tries to show, according the advanced looks at his book we have been getting in the media, how this forgotten old text, with its materialist emphasis on atomism, denial of the afterlife, critique of religion as cruel, and view of life's goal as the pursuit of pleasure, ushered in the modern secular world view, according to which 21st century readers, expected to be equally skeptical of religion and the supernatural, will gratefully applaud if they are sensible secular humanists themselves (not humanists in the way Thomas More or John Milton were, of course, in the Renaissance).

Laura Miller sums up the value of Lucretius's materialist philosophy by stating that no longer was there a need for "a supernatural enforcer" threatening to condemn the bad guys to eternal torment. That is, no need for God: the good life in the Epicurean view is a matter of living justly, honorably, prudently and in way that celebrates life in this world, not the next.

This begs an important question or two: does the Christian world view condemn life in this world (something called the Incarnation would contract this and would be known to anyone theologically literate)? Has celebrating the next world has been the consistent focus of the church (Catholic, of course) since we are talking about the course of Western civilization? Of course not.

The other major flaw in Miller's brief review of Greenblatt's new book is her assertion that she and her generation were raised to think of the Renaissance as bursting forth after the darkness of the Middle Ages, as Kenneth Clark had proclaimed in his book and TV series of 40 years ago, Civilization.

A quick check of my copy of Clark's survey of Western art and culture indicates that, although he does glorify the achievement of the Florentine Renaissance, he has devoted three solid chapters to appreciating the medieval, including detailed commentary on Dante, Giotto, and St. Francis of Assisi while explaining the wonders of Chartres and the Gothic--all of which are absent, apparently, from Greenblatt's contention that the discovery of the Lucretius text in 1417 (after Dante, after Chaucer, after Petrarch and Boccaccio and the flowering of the 12th and 13th centuries) made all the difference since it "changed the world" (something every historian must claim, however accurate).

Clark even contends (p. 35) and repeatedly shows that "Western civilization was basically the creation of the Church," meaning the Church of Rome which, from the 12th century on, was the center of power, education, and culture that shaped the intellectual and emotional lives of people for centuries. Miller remembers being taught that medieval culture was an "inert cultural wasteland," especially as depicted by Kenneth Clark.

It seems that in my 33 years of university teaching I spent countless hours trying to counter this view, showing how the culture that produced Dante and Chaucer, not to mention the Gothic cathedrals, was dynamic, daring, and sophisticated in its thinking and that what we call the Renaissance was a continuation of the humanism (including the science) that began in the 11th and 12th centuries.

But scholars wedded to a secular humanism that is antagonistic to religion, and to Catholic Western values in particular, are quick to stereotype the vast and complex period of the European Middle Ages as backward, just as they are quick to convey to students that the Renaissance was a sudden flowering of the individual, with the supernatural finally swept aside before being buried in the so-called Enlightenment. The result is a skewed view of the emergence of the modern age.

It is easier to maintain this reductive view than to keep an open mind about the real role of religion in the development of the modern world. It is bad enough to find know-nothings on the political right today (Perry, Palin and Bachmann seem quite proud not to know very much); to find blindness in the academy can be downright depressing.

Perhaps Laura Miller, with her other errors, has misstated Greenblatt's thesis. But I doubt it. I plan to read the book very carefully.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

God revisited

I usually enjoy the comic news dispatches from Andy Borowitz. This week he included a description of God as "the bearded King of the Universe, dressed in his trademark flowing white robe and carrying a lightning bolt."

This image, derived from a combination of Zeus, Hollywood and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, is probably close to the popular stereotype of God as an old man "up there," messing around with human lives. It's understandable that most people need a specific image rather than an abstraction they can't visualize. It's convenient to look up to the sky and imagine there a God you can blame for storms or illness or bad luck.

We might smile at such images of "God," yet at the same time, most of us who think about matters of faith know that such anthromorphism is ludicrous and even dangerous. It reduces the infinite and unknowable to the dimensions of a cartoon. Even those who know the Bible often forget the revelation of the divine to Moses as "I am who am." I am Being itself, not a being: this is the ancient and medieval notion of God that respects the mystery and daring of the revelation.

For the Christian, God is unknowable except through his Son and indirectly through his creatures, especially the human kind, or I should say, especially through human love as it is reflected in creation. If I need a non-human image of this ultimate mystery, I rely on an ancient one: light.

I say all this because I have recently read All Things Shining, a book that promises to find meaning and the sacred in the secular world by reading the classics. The authors' conclusion about David Foster Wallace, who emerges as a key player in their humanistic search, is that, for Wallace, we humans are the ones responsible for creating out of nothing "whatever idea of the sacred there can ever be."

Such is the modern dilemma: from Matthew Arnold on, many writers in the West have lost the traditional notion of a permanent, unchanging reality beyond our mutable world; thus God as the ultimate source of meaning is "dead," and each of us is left to find what the heart yearns for--the holy--elsewhere or nowhere.

As a result, any discussion of presence, even capitalized, is vague; and the mystical is reduced (or expanded) to include the spiritually strange; mystery is not included in the "search for the sacred," which (as in the book I just referenced) is never defined. We are left with a series of intellectual abstractions.

Poems like Dante's "Divine Comedy" and The Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot, however, can remind us that the love that moves the universe, like prayer, is still valid, even in a world of ever-growing diversity and complexity. The traditional spirituality of Thomas Merton, like that of Thomas Keating today and many others, is a reminder that gratitude and the presence of God in silence are real and not merely the product of our selves.

The God who lives within us as a loving presence is not an old man in a flowing robe.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

David Foster Wallace, part II

Wallace (to follow up my earlier post) could apparently not live up to his own high ideals, especially in finding a way to a sense of the sacred and meaningful in a world filled with sadness and lostness, a world without the sense of God's presence.

His work, as Dreyfus and Kelly show in their new book, shows that to live in a secular age--even for a religious believer like myself--means that you face existential questions about how to live your life in ways that people in medieval times did not. You are often being tested to see if the moral and religious world view you grew up with is helpful in coping with a life full of pain, disappointment, anxiety, and distraction.

Wallace, in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, had some important things to say about dealing with the frustrations and misery of daily living. He says we can choose how to respond to these problems and even experience these annoyances as meaningful and happy.

"If you really learn how to pay attention," he said, you can find the experience of life in a modern hell not only meaningful "but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of things deep down." I wonder if the graduates at Kenyon knew what he meant.

Wow, I thought when I read this paragraph: this is Dante for the modern age. The question is: did Wallace realize what was involved in Dante's vision--and did he share it? The authors of All Things Shining insist that the answer is No: the sacred in Wallace is something we impose from within ourselves upon what we experience, not a given part of tradition, as in Dante's Christianity. In other words, anything can be made sacred if I choose to make it so.

The sacred is the product, apparently, if Dreyfus and Kelly are right in their interpretation of Wallace, of the individual will--a far cry from Dante's mystical union with the divine at the end of Paradiso. We are closer here to Nietzsche than to Dante.

It was Nietzsche who proclaimed that "God is dead" in the modern world of thought (i.e, the idea of God); but he added that "there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown." Indeed.

Does God cast a shadow in the fiction of David Foster Wallace as He certainly did in his life of brilliant creativity? A question to return to. Maybe, as the authors contend in this intriguing book All Things Shining,
the sacred fire has not abandoned those of us who search for what is meaningful in our earthly existence; the problem is that too many of us have abandoned the sacred. That is the spiritual challenge of the postmodern age.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, three years after his suicide, continues to provoke comment and controversy. I suppose one reason is that few writers deal so openly with moral values, or the absence thereof, in the complex world of what is called postmodern fiction.

In a recent book, which promises more than it delivers, All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, offers some attempts to find meaning in a secular age by returning to the classics.

To my surprise, one of the best parts of this book is a study of Wallace in contrast to Dante, who is used as a model of having "a grand hierarchy of meaning." The medieval poet can easily assume that there is a God and therefore a source of order and meaning in the universe. Our age, says Wallace, fails to give us a coherent story about the meaning in our lives. "We have inherited no real moral values."

In an interview, Wallace said that Americans need to grow up, put away childish things "and comfortable stuff about spirituality and values." He finds a certain sadness in the lives of intelligent, successful Americans of his generation (he was 46 at his untimely death) because of a lack of morality and meaning. Too much comfortable stuff.

Whether Wallace's novels--huge and rambling, with footnotes and famously long sentences that show off his skills in grammar, if nothing else--present a coherent world view that can even be mentioned in the same breath as Dante remains to be seen. So far, I have yet to finish any of his self-consciously literary stream of consciousness works of fiction to know anything more than that Wallace was a prolific, observant, challenging writer with a cult-like following.

I also know that Kelly and Dreyfus have given me a helpful introduction to Wallace so that, in trying now to re-read him, I know what to look for: a search for the sacred, maybe even the selfless, in the welter of a diverse, ever-changing culture. In what sense can we call Wallace religious? I hope to find out.

In an essay that Wallace might have enjoyed if depression had not overcome him, Roger Scruton, the British academic, writing recently in Prospect magazine, talks about the power of the sacred image and how easy it is for what is consecrated to be desecrated. We often don't think of the sacred thing--the icon, for example--as potentially dangerous, until we think of iconoclasm, perhaps. The way fear and suspicion has influenced the development of religion may be one way writers today, whether they are call themselves postmodern or not, have been reluctant to entertain religion questions. That, and the sad reality that so many readers have given up on religion in the usual (comforting) sense.

Yet, unless writers and artists raise uncomfortable questions about God, meaning and ethical choices, readers like me will be endlessly dissatisfied.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Endangered Words

I have decided to form the Society for Endangered Words (assuming that there is no such group in existence) to protect certain rarely used English words from extinction. The idea of endangered words and the need to protect them was mentioned in a recent article by Robert Fulford.

He mentions "eurocommunism" as a dated word that the Oxford English Dictionary excludes from its Concise edition (keeping it for the multi-volume complete edition and the online version of the world's most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary). This raises the question: words may be labeled "obsolete," but they never really die. The OED has dropped "threequal" (third book in a series) since it is rarely used, but you can still find it in the big edition.

Fulford makes a good case for keeping "pusillanimous," which is clearly superior to cowardice. It has overtones reaching "deep into the sources of timidity," he says, with its hints of fear and censorious childrearing. He finds that the New York Times used "pusillanimous" or its noun version ten times in the past two years.

I would argue that we hold onto--hence my new Society--"discombobulate," an American word from the 19th century too colorful and full of bluster to exclude. It's a fanciful variant on "confuse" or "disorient." And I would retain in my list of endangered words "superannuated," which sounds infinitely superior to "too old to work"; it's a better word than "obsolete" or "antiquated" unless you are describing ideas or things and not people.

I might drop a word I never use and always stumble on: "jejune," which can signify an immature person, an insignificant book (I would use "insipid"), or an inadequate diet. I would like to hear other opinions on this one. I would definitely drop "jerry-built" (shoddy) since my own name is Jerry and I always cringe when I encounter this old-fashioned word.

So that is how words die: they are so rarely used that they cease to circulate and the OED lexicographers and other experts move them into storage. In the meantime, we who subscribe to SEW (Society for Endangered Words) will fight to retain most of the colorful ones. So it goes. (Pun intended)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

In the Fast Lane

An 83-year-old lady was recently stopped by a traffic cop. "Do you realize you're speeding?" She replied, "Yes, officer, but I had to get there before I forgot where the hell I was going." She got off lightly. (Apparently, if the Internet is to be believed, a true story.)

Most of us, even retirees, seem to be in a hurry. When I was invited to join the Friends of Silence, I immeditately did so. The price was right (free), and the obligations for participating in this online movement non-existent. Even though I have written a lot about silence in the work of Thomas Merton and led retreats on the topic, I find myself preoccupied with busy tasks and need to take time alone to slow down and be silent.

I've written about the Slow Movement, which began in Italy and has spread to areas other than eating, before, and about my love for adagios in music and slowly unfolding movies and novels, and for savoring the present the way our cat, Lizzie, does: with total attention to even the most routine things.

For example, today, as I opened the door for her to go onto the porch, she studied the doorstop with wonderment, as if she had never seen it before. This was, of course, instinctive caution overruling whatever memory she might have had of seeing me, over the past twelve years, do this identical thing. She was concerned that she might not have a way back into the house; the doorstop was her guarantee of an opening.

But what struck me was the way she approaches many of the totally familiar and routine things of her life, as if they are new and amazing. It's like what mystics aim for in their very different searches but what all of us can do if we stop, slow down, and really look at the ordinary things of our lives.

How easy it is to be carried off in memories or daydreams while driving, cooking, or showering instead of consciously noticing the water, the smell of the soap, the feel of the experience, as if for the first time. Mindfulness of this type takes a bit of concentration, but it is rewarding.

I recently glanced at several books at Barnes and Noble, all of them advocating some aspect of mindfulness for stressed people. One by Jan Bays, MD says we can turn the humdrum tasks of our lives into mindful moments that give us a pleasing awareness of an awakened life. You don't have to be a Buddhist to follow this practice, which can easily be applied to Christian or other forms of prayer (Centering prayer, e.g.). To recognize that the kingdom of God is in and around us now requires mindfulness. It has to do with being present to ourselves without criticism, judgment, or analysis--and of our bodies and the world around us so that we feel the presence of God in the present moment.

It usually begins with simply slowly down.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Religion and the Movies

I am not alone in observing that, over the past 40 years and more, movies and other popular media have done a poor job of portraying religion in the lives of their characters. In a country where vast numbers of people still attend some church or temple or mosque, where religion and politics remain a hot topic, the films produced in Hollywood (and elsewhere) are often silent on the topic of faith. If the story includes a clergyman, it is invariably in a perfunctory role at a wedding or funeral service; and if this clergy person is allowed to speak, he is likely to sound harsh, negative, or foolish.

It's as if the filmmakers are embarrassed to bring up anything to do with the genuine role Christianity (the usual faith) plays in people's lives, as if it is too private, whereas scenes of sexual intimacy can be shown in graphic detail.

Productions from the U.K. tend to be worse, of course, reflecting that country's abandonment of a great deal of traditional belief. Consider a recent PBS Masterpiece Mystery production of "Inspector Lewis" in which a young Jesuit priest was seen flagellating himself, then lying prostrate on the floor of a chapel on the grounds of a stately home. We learn that he was there "on retreat." This is laughable and not what Jesuit priests do on retreats. It's as if the screenwriter has no way to portray this character except by sensationalizing him.

In the next episode of the same series, which is otherwise well done, a young man wears a rosary over his Sacred Heart of Mary t-shirt, as if to say, "I'm one of those fanatic Catholics." Everyone was shocked to learn that the dead man, an Oxford don, had secretly been active at the local St. Ann's Church; but, then, he had a brain tumor and was a bit deranged. That would explain it. Faith and science just don't mix in most Oxford circles.

So the message here is that to be a Catholic or openly religious is a bizarre thing to be in a thoroughly secularized, Hobbesian universe, where material values are the only rational option. The Anglican preachers in these programs tend to be gloomy, trite, twisted, or piously irrelevant.

I have been trying to recall a film in which a priest or other clergyman was important, taken seriously, and not mocked. The list is very short.

"You Can Count on Me" (2000) includes a key scene in which the priest (played by the writer-director Kenneth Lonergan) asks the Mark Ruffalo character if he sees his life as important--in the big scheme of things. This, for me, became the major question of the movie and the most memorable scene.

"Tree of Wooden Clogs," a 1978 film we saw on video last year, is an Italian gem in which a sensible village priest is part of the quiet village life somewhere in Lombardy, where families pray together at night and where happiness comes from simple songs and stories. There religion is not a big deal, just a central part of life.

It is so easy to stereotype priests and other clergy as out of touch with ordinary life. Perhaps it's better to leave them out altogether from the movies (I don't watch enough TV to comment) since the temptation to ridicule by going over the top (and offending some viewers) is just too great. It is a pity since the type of comfort, love, and meaning people get in their practice of their faith is enormous.