Saturday, January 29, 2011

Humility and Humor

A financial analyst, who normally talks to me about money, recently opened up about his role as a parent. He used the word "humility" to describe what it was like for him to admit to his kids that he was sorry for having lost his temper.

I remembered this conversation since humility is a word not commonly heard in everyday discourse. It so happens that Christopher Jamison, in Finding Sanctuary, has a good discussion of monastic humility as a twelve-step ladder leading to perfect love in the Rule of St. Benedict.

I was intrigued to see "12-step" occur as early as the 6th century; just recently, a friend told me that the 12-step program of AA is indebted to Catholic spirituality.

That digression aside, I was more struck by the ancient words of Benedict: "We descend by exaltation and we ascend by humility." Drawing on the words of Jesus (The first shall the last and the last first), he is saying that putting ourselves first, delighting in our own desires, is not the way to climb to happiness or enlightenment. The path to perfection, rather, begins with being down to earth (humus in Latin = earth),honest, and truthful. To do your own thing and express your individuality may be seen, even in modern spiritual circles, as a great good, but putting ourselves first is never the way to peace.

Indirectly related to being humble (in etymology) is humor, an indispensable element in being grounded in everyday reality. If life is to be taken seriously, Jamison notes, humor is essential, but it must be directed at our own folly, not at life itself. "If life is deeply serious, then much of our superficial living is a joke."

This is in stark contrast to mindless living in which the pursuit of pleasure is elevated as the serious goal of life while life itself is seen as an absurd, meaningless joke.

We need not follow the Rule of St. Benedict or be a Christian in order to see the importance of the ladder of humility, to realize that the path to peace and happiness has much to do with letting go of the ego and its desires.

This is at the heart of contemplative prayer in which the individual empties himself so that God can take over. It takes wisdom, strength and discipline to say, with Christ, "Not my will but thine be done."

Friday, January 28, 2011

Language Matters

Today's headline in the sports section of my daily newspaper, The Orlando Sentinel, caught my eye: "Athletes are Twits when they Tweet without Thinking" by Mike Bianchi.

First, my linguistic radar picked up the British term "twit" for nitwit, now rendered more widespread by Twitter. And I began to think of the small incursion of British terms in current U.S. usage. At least in print I have seen a number of words seldom used by most Americans until recently: queue (as used by Netflix, for example); keen (as in eager); bespoke (tailor-made) suits; and the expression "gone missing" instead of "is missing," among newsfolk reporting on abductions.

The only point here is simple: that the great threat posed by Americanisms on the English language is sometimes reversed when movies, TV, and even old-fashioned print media import words and idioms from the UK, making us on both sides of the Atlantic aware of what G. B. Shaw (not, as often thought, Winston Churchill) famously said: We are two nations divided by a common language.

The other point about Twitter, the one made by Bianchi, is more substantial: that with every new invention, there comes responsibility. The new social media require guidelines so that offensive language and inaccurate information, along with ungrammatical embarrassments, are not imposed on hapless readers.

The athletic twits who think their texting comes with total freedom need to stop and think. Ideally, they should seek editorial help, as in the days when sports writers and managers made sure that professional players spoke at least somewhat coherently and professionally rather than make fools of themselves or, what is worse, unleash hate speech or abuse willy nilly.

This week's New Yorker has a cartoon somewhat related: people filing out of The Church of OMG all flip open their cell phones. I suspect some of this has to do with the need to have something to do with our hands in public now that smoking is verboten. So when I laugh at the current trend (obsession?) with hand-held electronic devices, I can be grateful that it's a lot more healthy and useful than lighting cigarettes. It may even be a way to be centered and quiet in the midst of an overly busy, noisy world.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cooking Mindfully

Some of my friends are surprised that I enjoy cooking, thinking of it as a chore, which it can easily be. But if I see it as a chance to be creative and, even more, fully present to the cutting, chopping, and stirring as well as the eventual eating, I find that cooking can be a spiritual experience.

Sharon Hunt, writing in a recent issue of Shambhala Sun, says that for her the preparation of food has become a meditation practice that clears her mind "of everything but the task at hand." That sums up a big part of the pleasure of being totally absorbed in the process of making anything.

To cook in this way is to be removed from words and ideas, from people and noise, from past and future, and to attend to the most humble of tasks: cleaning a carrot, feeling its texture and the flow of cool water on its surface, admiring its color as it is cut into pieces--and being grateful, perhaps unconsciously, to have the chance to do all this--and of being aware of all this.

In this sense, when gratitude becomes possible, I see that minful cooking can become more than meditation: it can be prayerful, going beyond inner peace to feeling a connetedness with God and others that is a form of love. As Brother Lawrence wisely realized, one doesn't have to be on his knees or in church to feel the presence of God. It is felt in the ordinary, in what has been called the sacrament of the present moment.

Bro. Lawrence was born Nicholas Herman around 1614 and became a lay brother who worked in the kitchen of a monastery in Paris. Because many were aware of his inner peace, he became a spiritual advisor; after his death in 1691, his maxims were collected in a book admired by many, including John Wesley: The Practice of the Presence of God.

The basic insight of this simple, obscure man with no formal education was this: why turn to elaborate prayers and rituals when we can do ordinary things for the love of God--just by being aware of God in the most mundane tasks? Lawrence found that even amid the noise and bustle of the monastery kitchen, he could do "little things for God."

He is remembered today as a model of all that is humble, of all those unsung and unknown people who serve others quietly, lovingly, especially those who in their daily tasks feel in their work connected to the presence of something greater than themselves: they give good attention to the work they do in the now, where God can be found.

If there isn't a cookbook out there called "Mindfulness (or Prayerfulness) in the Kitchen," there should be.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Slowing Down

I woke up today feeling below par and decided not to go out but to do the unthinkable: take a mid-morning nap.

As a result of pampering myself on a chilly morning and doing as little as possible, I now feel much better. I savor the words I read this morning from Finding Sanctuary by Christopher Jamison: People don't have to be as busy as they are.

We choose to buy into the consumer society that tells us to hurry up and earn more money so we can exhaust ourselves in time to take in other consumer products: sports, games, package tours, spas and other ways of relaxing that are really only temporary escapes from the rat race and provided by the very consumer culture that drives us to overwork.

Coincidentally, today is the feast of one of my favorite saints, Francis de Sales (died 1622), who wrote: "Never be in a hurry. Do everything quietly and in a calm manner. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset."

Francis lived in turbulent times and was caught up in the post-Reformation turmoil. He would have understood the pressures of our society Yet he had the disposition, the spirituality, and the good sense to know that being busy and rushing are not healthy to the body or the soul.

As for people who thrive on being busy and on multi-tasking, I can only say they are probably unhappy at some deep level: bored, anxious, more restless than the rest of us, eager to fill their time with activities so they don't reflect too deeply on their true selves and their relation to God in prayer.

Silence and solitude frighten such people. One day, they might be required to slow down and be quiet before it's too late.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Silence and Sanctuary

I continue to stumble upon interesting takes on silence both as a respite from an overly noisy, busy world and as a contemplative experience.

Tim Muldoon, writing in, writes: "Silence is a gateway to the soul, and the soul is a gateway to God."

Actually, he is quoting Christopher Jamison, author of Finding Sanctuary, and abbot of Worth Abbey. His statement sums up in one memorable sentence what I tried to say in a long article on silence as Christian mindfulness in last year's Cithara, a journal of St. Bonaventure University. There, as in several shorter articles, my focus was on the contribution of Thomas Merton to the literature of silence.

Muldoon cites St. Benedict's Rule: Be silent and listen. So, of course, does Jamison, who quotes a Buddhist monk as saying pretty much what Benedict and Christian contemplatives have taught: "The silence will teach you everything."

Yet, as T. S. Eliot famously wrote, there is not enough silence; as a result, the word cannot be heard. The truth can rarely penetrate our busy, noisy minds, which today need the stimulation of the internet and other media even while they yearn for quiet.

Thus we remain divided, fighting each day for some time away from voices and noises that distract us from what can be the frightening realities encountered in silence.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

On greed and gluttony

Somehow I keep coming back, with a mixture of horror and fascination, to the corpulent tyrant famous for his six wives: Henry VIII, of whom Dickens said: he is "a disgrace to human nature, a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England."

This is definitely not the lean, mean and sexy image projected by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the TV series The Tudors. Or the charmer protrayed by Richard Burton in Anne of a Thousand Days. The real Henry was repulsive, a selfish tyrant not too far removed from the worst dictators of the 20th century (except that those guys were not born to power: they fought for it).

What interests me is Henry's destruction of monastic culture, politely called the Dissolution of the Monasteries, carried out with ruthless skill by his chief henchman Thomas Cromwell from 1534-40.

It so happens that G.J. Meyer, now of Oxfordshire, England, whom I remember from our undergrad days at St. Louis University, has turned his skills as a writer to the ambitious project of portraying not only Henry but his father and the rest of the family. His recent, and very readable popular history, is called The Tudors (Delacorte Press, 2010).

There Meyer gives a good overview of what he rightly sees as the destruction of the monasteries: Henry VIII made England bankrupt to satisfy his own swollen ego after making himself and his barons rich by taking over some 800 abbeys and shrines, destroying priceless libraries, hospitals, almshouses, and other centers that cared for the needy. It's hard to imagine a more colossal social and economic dislocation: 16% of English land was involved and some 480 million pounds just from the sale of the property (that's $700 million, roughly) was gained by the Crown. At least 10,000 people's lives were upended.

I am reading a more detailed view, by Geoffrey Moorhouse, who, like most modern historians, has little good to say about Henry and his regime.

The big picture (I always come back to that!) here for me is the fascination that readers have with the way human nature can go terribly wrong. Witness the man who contacted me this week wanting to study Dante. I assume he is open to a discussion of virtue and vice, of the morality that is seldom talked about in public discourse these days. I assume he's ready to face unpopular words like sin, social injustice, and punishment because Dante does not hesitate to deal with such conventional realities.

Watching a CNN program this week about China, I heard Christine Romans discussing the way the American middle class has long been eager to buy cheap goods from China to the great advantage of that Asian giant so that now America's economy is threatened. When the interviewer mentioned the "greed and gluttony" of American consumers, Romans laughed an embarrassed laugh, as if to say, such words are shocking and inappropriate: we're not in church here, guys.

My thoughts went back to Dante and his Aristotelian catalog of vices and virtues, to his discussion of the importance of the will in making moral choices (which are now called "inappropriate" in public discourse, not "wrong."). I didn't think of old Henry VIII--until I turned off the TV and picked up my reading about those endlessly interesting Tudors.

Greed and gluttony are perhaps easier to deal with from the distance of 500 years.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Boredom Revisited

Last night: a dinner for 12 in celebration of a friend's birthday. After the meal, before the cake, nearly everyone whipped out his or her smart phone, ipod or cell phone to check their messages, report the latest NFL score, and, I suppose, show off their tech with-itry. My wife and I were among those who merely watched this cultural phenomenon.

I took the electronic display as a sign of social awkwardness, of filling in the lagging conversation, probably a sign of restlessness. Most of us are lonely, even in a crowded room, and bored, no matter how busy our lives are.

Writer-blogger Sam Rocha recently wrote about his take on politics as "a palliative cure for boredom." I think he means we read blogs and become politically active or socially engaged because we are somehow unhappy in our ordinary lives and yearn to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Hence politics and the internet.

What,he asks, is boredom but "loneliness, alienation, lovelessness and the desire for something to occupy the time...?" It is "not quite feeling at home in the place you are." In an earlier post, I referred to boredom as the fear of running out of things to do and connected it with acedia.

Rocha goes so far as to suggest that time spent doing scholarly work, ministry, advocacy, and certainly the virtual reality of reading or writing blogs is just a way to kill time when we could be (should be?) spending time with real people in real communities.

Is he serious? I see much of the writing I do, and that of the spiritual masters I read, as prayerful work. Our words reach real people, eventually, even though we are isolated while writing. We writers are engaged with readers, even if we have to imagine them. The contemplative life, as it used to be called, is surely as valid as the active life in that busy world out there.

(I discovered some of my readers, it so happens, yesterday when I saw to my great surprise five responses to my recent post on goodness and a film about the Holocaust. My imagined readers were real.)

So it seems to me that substantive writing, like the careful reading in which we lose ourselves, is a spiritual activity. It is soul work. The virtual reality of the internet is only one medium of expression: the words and ideas we generate, unless they are trivial and deal with political gossip, come from one interior to another.

If restlessness is the ultimate source of all the words being generated every day, I am grateful that we were born restless, full of energy and creativity. As a result, we are able to generate new brain cells every day and thus remain fully alive.

I don't think valuable writing comes from bored, lonely, loveless people or that our daily routines and the time spent with real people are all that boring. Perhaps Rocha doesn't think so, either, really.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Love and Justice

Listening to President Obama's eloquent and moving speech night in Tucson this past week, I jotted down a line that struck me as important: When (I paraphrase) our brief lives on this earth come to an end, we will be judged not on our fame or money or success, but we will be judged on how we have loved."

This strikingly Christian theme, which is shared with other religious traditions, connects very simply two profound themes: love and justice. A just society, based on the values of the community and the common good, must entail compassion. And in practical terms, compassion and love for one's fellow man should mean a reduction in violent, emotional political language and actions.

The theme is one I shared with my students in a Dante class, which ended on the day after the speech. Dante would have applauded the line, and the speech. Obama has read enough theology (Niebuhr, et al.) and thought deeply enough about the politics of reconciliation that he was able to connect major ideas from the Judaeo-Christian tradition with his own feelings about the senseless tragedy that took place last week in Arizona.

Whether his words will have any effect is open to discussion. But it seems to me that the very discussion his speech is having is important. He has defined, most dramatically in his career, a tone of civil speech that can effect changes more subtle than what we are likely to see in Congress or the political arena.

If just a few websites can drop their cross-hairs and just a few leaders examine gun laws in their districts and fewer speeches include the language of death and hatred, that will be a beginning.

By coincidence (or was it?) I happened upon a new book by the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, "You are Here." Respect your anger as you respect yourself, he writes; treat your emotions the way all life is to be treated: tenderly. And keep breathing mindfully, knowing that each breath can bring us inner peace.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why does goodness happen?

The title of this post will seem strange the day after a mass shooting in Arizona that killed at least six people. The question should be, Why does evil happen?

Having wrestled with that one in various classes and readings, I found myself last night thinking of the obverse question, equally mysterious: why do some people step forth in times of crisis or danger and help others while many are apathetic or simply afraid? (And, of course, what would I do...?)

Such questions were posed by a Holocaust film, a documentary about a Polish Catholic woman who rescued 15 Jews by hiding them; we saw it last night. "No. 4 Street of Our Lady," despite its title, offers no religious reason why the woman, Francisca Halamajowa, took considerable risks to do what she did when it would have been easier and safer to act as her neighbors did and do as little as possible.

In addition to hiding and feeding 12 people, crowded into a hayloft over the pigsty of her farm, Halamajowa also cared for three others hidden in the cellar; this family only learned about the other twelve 63 years later, when the film was made, when the amazing rescuer's carefully kept secret was revealed long after her death.

Neighbors were suspicious in 1942-44, but Halamajowa was clever as well as courageous: she pretended to be a German sympathizer and so people were wary of her. She had no sense, apparently, that, in working for two years to cook and care for these people, she was saving not only 15 lives but those of their many descendents.

As the family members in the film go back to Sokal, the town where this unprecedented bit of heroism took place, they can only cry and ask, Why did she do it? She even lost her home and her son after the 1944 liberation of eastern Poland. No one, in either the Halamajowa family or in the two Jewish families, can understand why she chose to save these lives.

Like most others in Europe who hid Jews, this courageous Polish woman told no one about what she did: was it fear or shame in front of her neighbors that prevented her from talking about what she did?

In any case, her long-forgotten story reminds us how essentially good it seems to me people are--or want to be--and how some are able to summon up great courage in the face of peril to help others. Sociobiologists might say we humans are genetically altruistic and socially cooperative; yet the record of wars, hatred, racism and other violence in human history hardly points in that direction. Rather it suggests that we are a mixture of good and evil and that our inherent self-interest dictates how we behave in most cases.

I regret that the religious title of this film was left unexplored. I would like to think that it was Mrs. Halamajowa's faith or Christian upbringing that contributed to her determination to do what seemed impossible. Yet perhaps it's best for the viewer to be left with the questions, and the mystery, since no one can really explain evil or goodness.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

An Enthusiasm for Boredom

A Wall Street Journal article online caught my eye: "Boredom Enthusiasts Discover the Pleasures of Understimulation." I knew this had to come from England, where witty people typically look at unlikely, even dull, topics from wacky angles.

Participants in the London conference, "Boring 2010," gave talks on such mind-numbing topics as the 415 colors listed in a paint catalog, electrical plugs, paper clips, garage roofs, gum flavors and, of course, cereal boxes.

But there was a note of seriousness amid the silliness: several experts noted the relation between boredom and emotional illness, boredom being a risk factor for depression. "Some people can be bored to death," an expert quoted in the article says.

The relation between depression and acedia, or what medieval monks used to call the noonday devil, is explored, with mixed results, by Kathleen Norris in her personal memoir of her marriage and her life as a writer, "Acedia and Me." Acedia is often defined as sloth but she sees it as a kind of despair, a soul-wearying indifference, and she tries to distinguish it from depression. Norris finds social implications for her analysis in society, with many people feeling powerless to make changes in the face of the world's overwhelming problems.

I am reminded of an earlier study that saw boredom as the fear of running out of things to do: that made sense to me. Many people probably share what I experienced during more than one long hot summer in Florida, a sense of endless dullness with nothing to look forward to: a mild depression. The more intelligent and creative we are, the more likely we are to become easily bored. After all, people generally tend to be restless creatures, as Augustine said 1500 years ago, long before the culture was filled with the overstimulating diversions available today.

Yet I am rarely really bored: I enjoy my own company and made sure that my retirement would be filled with interesting new things to learn and do. This has often required effort on my part, but I staved off the fear of running out of things to do. Logically, of course, I know that I cannot run out of music to hear or books to read or movies to see or people to talk with, and yet....Fear is powerful. Retirement can be a challenge.

"When we learn to tolerate boredom, we find out who we really are," says Naomi Alderman, an author cited in the WSJ article. This would bring me, along with Norris, to the monastic tradition, to the contemplative life, including that of the writer, whose time spent alone can easily become emotionally difficult in complex ways that transcend the usual ideas of boredom.

I conclude that boredom is much more fascinating an idea, and more important, than the whimsical London conference that prompted the article.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

On Smiling

"The Brief History of the Smile" is one of those books that I find irresistible because of their titles. I have on my shelves a history of God, of heaven, of happiness, of reading, and I've seen advertised a history of nakedness. Then there's a brief history of time. Is there anything that lacks a history?

Ideas large and small have histories, so it should not come as such a surprise that gratitude, boredom, and smiling (to mention only three) have a recorded past. In the case of the smile, it is to the visual arts that the author, Angus Trumble, turns. An art historian, he was once asked to address a conference of dentists interested in the face and beauty, professionals who make money on smiles.

So the topic opened up for him a vast treasury of information on facial expressions and what they mean in various cultures. In Indonesia, for example, smiling is mainly a courtesy, not a sign of friendliness; elsewhere it can be erotically inviting or, in life as well as in art, a sign of contemplation, wisdom, politeness, lechery, reason, deception, among other things. The presence--or more likely absence--of toothy grins in painting intrigues Trumble, who suggests that smiling is a powerful form of communication, even if it is involuntary.

Trumble's information, useless but fascinating, includes the uniformly serious faces of the U.S. 19th century presidents, Lord Chesterfield's admonition in 1754 to avoid vulgar laughter ("well bred people often smile but seldom laugh"), and of course the smile of the Mona Lisa and the Cheshire Cat.

I had hoped to see a connection between smiling and happiness, this being a day to wish everyone Happy New Year, but it's clear even from the opening of this book that there's no necessary correlation between the two. Oh, well. The idea, and the book, are wonderful anyway.