Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Routine or Ritual?

Most of my days as a stay-at-home writer have a predictable pattern, with most activities done at the same time: breakfast, meditation, reading, feeding the cat, checking email, exercising at the gym, etc....a boring routine, or so it sometimes seems.

Yet when I reflect on my completed day as I go to bed at night, I see that each has its own shape, depending on the people I have encountered, the material I have read, the music and news I have heard and, of course, the work I have done. I welcome most of the interruptions (phone calls, household duties) as part of the variety of the day, and I try to make even the most mind-numbing duties like brushing my teeth an opportunity for being in the present. I want to be fully aware of the uniqueness of each hour, even if what I am doing for much of that hour is a chore.

I would like to think, as Castiglione said in the Courtier (his 16th cent. book of advice for gentlemen), that our lives can become works of art.  This can be possible, depending on the attitude we have toward the seemingly endless duties that constitute a day.

I mean the structure and form--the very things that constitute beauty and art--which are built into every day; each day is unique and also a step toward an ordered existence, controlled as much as possible by me. And there is variation within the overall pattern that I have established for each day, enough variation so that each day becomes unique and does not lead to boredom, restlessness, and depression.

I want each day to count since I am always aware, at some level, of how few days there are. I must resist living for the future or dwelling in the past, as I did yesterday for a few hours as I looked at plans for my high school reunion and the faces of my fellow students from years ago.

It takes an effort of the will. And also a self-reminder that routine can be seen as ritual. I was reminded of this by a short piece by the novelist Jamie Quatro, who says, "there is joy in the rehearsal of the known, the familiar."

She's right: we need our rituals, public and private repetitions of the familiar. We live in a world that operates according to a ritual of sunrise and sunset, of seasons and hours, of work and rest and play.  Children, she says, love routine and tradition; it is a source of stability in a world of rapid change.

"And without ritual there can be no mystery--how can the unexpected enter into a life that is devoid of expectation? Ritual opens the door for revelation. We move through ritual and performance to access the Divine."

Quatro mentions the liturgy, presumably the Christian ritual that becomes so familiar that one can, ideally, move from the words and ceremony into something beyond the physical.

And it seems to me I can make each quiet, ordinary day in my writing life stand out not only as special but, because of its familiar pattern, a secure basis for creativity and beauty as I strive to bring some order to what might seem like a random series of boring duties.

Whether my life will become a true work of art remains to be seen, but each day can be seen as an effort to find order and beauty.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A remarkable man

Even if he were not known to the world as Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio would be a remarkable man.

Having read the lengthy interview he gave recently to Jesuit publications, I am struck by a man who is, above all, a "people person," full of love and wisdom; an honest, humble man, whose pastoral experience shines through in what he says, which is thoughtful and wide ranging.

Of course, he thinks like a Jesuit, with a broad view of the church as the people of God in need of compassion, not proclamations, as a thinker who values questions: "If one has the answers to all questions--that is the proof God is not with him."  What does this say about his infallible predecessors?

"The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking," says Papa Francesco elsewhere in the interview.

About his immediate predecessor, he expresses great affection yet offers a completely opposite philosophy: the church "is the home of all, not a small chapel that can only hold a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity."

His refreshing candor about an institution that has "sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules" has caught the imagination of many, especially the largest religious group in America: the non-practicing Catholics turned off by the hierarchy of the past 45 years or by the hypocrisy of many clergy. These are people, like me, who have been waiting for the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, with its openness and breadth of vision, to be realized. At last, a new beginning is being made by a caring, thinking, compassionate man who knows that the church he presides over resembles what he calls a "field hospital."

But he knows the way to heal. His most remarkable statement has to do, I think, with his view of the church in the modern world, one that is subject to change and fresh thinking: "the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today it seems that the opposite order is prevailing."

He is taking aim at bishops who, in their ideological singleness of vision, attack gay marriage or call for more official attacks on abortion, giving the Catholic church a reputation for negativity and absolutism.  This pope will have none of that: "it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time." Why? Because "the church's pastoral mission cannot be obsessed with a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."

People want pastors who display the love of God, not ones who act like bureaucrats, he says bluntly.  They want priests to bring the love of God to the people where they are, not to lock themselves into a hermetic institution of incense and lace. Having taught psychology and literature, he knows this type of clericalism is unhealthy (he calls it paranoid).

This is not a pope who provides "disciplinarian solutions" to people who "long for an exaggerated doctrinal security." He is not a hard-liner, thank God, because he knows that faith presented only in terms of the catechism becomes an ideology. "The view of the church's teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong." So is a church that does not change.

In a talk I gave this past week, I was a bit taken aback by a Jesuit-educated gentleman who complained that the "Jesuits have sold out" in higher education; he seemed angry by my presentation of the progressive heritage of Jesuit education. I hope he is paying attention to this Jesuit pope, who follows the discernment taught to all Jesuits.  This means, in effect, that one size does not fit all, that how one lives his or her faith with an informed conscience is what matters, not merely adhering to orthodoxy.

Jesuits know that human experience in the real world matters; it affects our moral decisions and our growing understanding of doctrine. Pope Francis has begun a much-needed reform of an old institution that has become out of touch with many people today.  He has lived what he preaches: a Christianity that is not about official doctrine or about certainty; it is about love, mercy, and compassion. It includes the humility of doubt; it does not see the world in unchanging categories. It is not about following the clear and safe beliefs of the past; it is a faith to be lived in the here and now.

Thank God we have a man who has a big heart open to God, one who embodies the best thinking of a vast church in need of ongoing reform.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fear and the Big Sleep

The fear of dying, which seems to be hard-wired into our human psyches, is as mystifying as it is universal. It is the ultimate terror.

Do we fear the end of our consciousness, the end of our singular identity, the loss of the world and our loved ones; or it is the how and the when of dying that we really fear?  This latter issue is a big part of my own fear, which underlies all other anxieties and worries.

In thinking about the self, what part of me will remain when the rest has turned to dust?  Is my true self the same as my soul?  Such questions are rarely productive except in stimulating an increased sense of mystery.

Stephen Cave, author of Immortality, says in an interview that there are ways to manage the great fear of our own death:  Think less about yourself and more about other people, he says; in other words, love thy neighbor. How else can our death come to seem less significant to us, less an indignity to be dreaded and more of a welcome release into a new dimension or at least a peaceful sleep without end?

I suppose realizing that sleep, a very long sleep, might not be unpleasant; it might even be something devoutly to be wished (the language of Hamlet, Shakespeare's great meditation on death, keeps coming back to me).  One line in that play has meant a lot to me, even though the melancholy prince of Denmark is not consoled when he hears that "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity."

My wife loves to walk in cemeteries, including our own "future address," as she calls the place we will be buried. She is quite happy communing with the dead; I do so at home, through reading and prayer, thinking about writers and saints who are still as alive as my loved ones.

So, if we are persons with a developed spirituality, a philosophy of life that includes death as a necessary component, we can look to an unknown new dimension that awaits us as we "pass on."  By the end of the play, Hamlet is less tormented as he comes to accept the reality of Providence and of mortality, not just as the end of the "slings and arrows" of life's misery but as a necessary part of creation, a window into a new world beyond this one.

No one knows what this other world will be like: it is the "undiscovered country from whose bourn [region] no traveler returns," Hamlet says, even though he has just had a visitor from beyond the grave: the ghost of his father.

So, like Hamlet, we remain ambivalent about what might lie ahead. It seems essential for sound health not to obsess about the afterlife (or lack thereof) but to live fully in the present, to break down the walls of the self, as Bertrand Russell said, and to think less of ourselves and more of others.

At the same time, it might be good to follow the Buddhist practice of reminding ourselves every day that death awaits in order to minimize the fear of our mortality.  This can be done without putting a skull on our desk or hanging up a skeleton in the house--unless it is Halloween and we are allowed, for once, to laugh at the ultimate dread and exorcize some of its power over us.

As a Christian, I value the words of St. John of the Cross: "I do not know what lies ahead for me on the other side; I only know that a great love awaits me."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Friendship, Presence and Absence

Friendships in my life--real friendships--have been rare. Many of the people I call my friends are social friends who know, like, and respect me and would help me if I asked for assistance.  But most of them are not really friends who know me inside out, who see the real me, the way my wife does.

Every man must have a male friend to share his fears and worries with, the kind of man who knows the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the other and whose love--though they may not use that word--is unbreakable.  In fact, I believe that the unconsummated love between heterosexual men can be as powerful as that between a man and woman--and maybe more so.

Clearly I am talking about a deep bond, the kind women also need with at least one other person and are generally better able to negotiate since men tend to shy away from expressing feelings.

The Greeks distinguished several different kinds of love, with different words for the bond between friends, the affection  between two lovers, the love of God or humankind, etc.  English, despite its usually rich treasury of synonyms, has to make to with the overused single word, love: "I love my new Volvo, I love pizza, I love my wife, I love my dog," etc.....

My loving friendship with John began when we were part of a small men's group about 15 years ago, sharing our fears and concerns about relationships and careers.  Since then, John and I have grown even closer than we were in those days. Despite the differences in our backgrounds and vocations, we have much in common at a deep level, at the level where some friends do not go. The problem is that he, as a construction supervisor, is often miles away on projects that consume months of his time so that he is virtually inaccessible by phone, even to most of his family.

When these projects end, and he has time off, we meet fairly regularly to catch up and in between try to communicate via email. But I am rarely satisfied with the time we have together, and during his work periods, I can feel John's absence keenly. At times I grow resentful of the type of all-absorbing job that demands that a man work seven days a week, with no breaks; I find it unhealthy for him and for his relationships.

In one recent email, I wrote to John something I had seen quoted from the philosopher Maurice Blanchot. I paraphrase:

Great friendships, he wrote, are grounded only superficially in  proximity; their real element is distance, a kind of separation that becomes relation. This distance foreshadows death. In this way, true friendship encompasses and anticipates loss.

Being a perceptive reader and intelligent writer, John, despite the pressures of having no time for himself, wrote back a brief message:

Why do you doubt that distance is opposed to closeness?  My conversations with you abound when you are not near, almost as if you hear me and respond.  I find that absence or distance does not diminish my attention but multiplies it. Is not God both absent and fully present at the same time?

Wow, I thought: he's right. He has captured an element of true friendship that does not depend on physical presence. And he has managed, in that final question, to touch on a key element of Christian mysticism: that God, who is everywhere present, can also be perceived as absent and unknowable.

Theological considerations aside, I was glad that I brought up the topic of absence and friendship since his response was reassuring.  I don't know if I really share the same ability to converse with him and feel that he is with me when he is miles away.  I think of him often and pray for his well being, as I await the possibility of a message, brief and sometimes hurried. But I think my friendship needs the sound of our voices together talking and laughing.  I cannot give attention to someone who is not physically present with me, here and now.

Of course, if I apply what I just said to my prayer life, do I not sometimes feel close to God in my isolation?     Perhaps my Catholic background demands some physical presence--the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist or in the faces of other people.  The presence of God in silence is a spiritual facsimile of this presence, a yearning or longing based mainly on a feeling of absence and separation.

I don't know anything about M. Blanchot, or if he is right that the separation between two people who love each other is ultimately foreshadowing loss and death. But the idea is intriguing. I know that, as Maslow once stated, love and death are always related and that we could not truly love if we knew we would never die.

In any case, instead of bemoaning the long absences of my friend, I should be grateful for him and for the verbal bonds that keep us together.