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.