Friday, December 27, 2013

The Best of the Best

As the year ends, countless critics and journalists routinely formulate lists of the top ten this-or-that.

I have seldom followed this tradition, despite temptations to do so. This year, somehow, is different--except that, in compiling a list of the best books I have read, I do not limit myself to works published (or read) this year. (Such is the freedom of the blogger.) Rather I recall the reading I have done in the past few years, fiction and non-fiction, that has opened my eyes to new insights in memorable ways. One criterion for inclusion: an elegant prose style. 

I have looked at other fine books and many articles, but the following stand out; many were mentioned somewhere in this blog. They are not listed in any particular order.  I begin with two works of fiction.

1.  Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
2.  Tobias Woolf, Old School
3. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory
4. Philip Ball, Universe of Stone (on the Gothic cathedral)
5. Robert Edsel, Saving Italy
6. Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
7. James Finley, Merton's Palace of Nowhere
8. Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
9. Gay Talese, A Writer's Life
10.  Stephanie Saldana, The Bread of Angels

I wish everyone who reads this a wonderful new year of reading, enlightenment, and peace.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Love as Painful

Although falling in love is easy, loving is hard. As I face this Christmas season, I am struck by how painful love is.

I mean, of course, the time devoted to giving and caring for others in need as well as the patient listening, the reaching out to others when the comfortable thing is to satisfy the self.

My wife Lynn, who gives her time and attention, to a dozen or more friends, most of them in some form of distress, is the embodiment of such caring, and she is worn out from all the work. And our entertaining, and the arrival of Christmas, is yet to come. The season of joy and peace on earth is for most parents a  time of stress.

It may be a joy to give but the kind of giving Lynn does year-round, and millions like her, is not always a joy. Even my daily sessions with a high school boy preparing him for college are reminders of how difficult reaching out can be. Being patient with a restless adolescent whose moods change hourly is an exercise in painful love.

Often, the recipient of our caring expresses no gratitude, yet it is important to give anyway since it is the right thing to do.  Those familiar with the New Testament know what I mean: to love thy neighbor as thyself or to love thy enemies is tough, nearly impossible.

In this season of love, I am mindful of all those who volunteer their time to make Christmas happen not just for their families but for the homeless, the sick and disabled, the residents of nursing homes and those who are without love. And I hope all who read this can find happiness and inner peace beneath all the busyness of this wonderful season. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hunger, Prayer, and Merton

Today, Dec. 10, is not only the 45th anniversary of Thomas Merton's death but Human Rights Day and a day of prayer called by Pope Francis to end world hunger.  A happy coincidence of events overshadowed by the tributes to Nelson Mandela and his life of courage and faith.

Will prayer have an effect on world hunger? My rational self says no; my heart says that all the positive energy must have some effect.  I certainly have not given up prayers of petition, but I favor wordless, contemplative prayer--and, in the case of world hunger, some action: donating food to local food banks and churches, going to the Hunger Site on the internet and clicking: each click means more food donated by the sponsors to the needy. 

There is so much more to be done, but we must begin with the need for prayer. In this connection, I conclude with my third quotation from Merton (The Ascent to Truth):

   Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries. Why? Because it diverts us from the one thing that can help us to begin our ascent to truth. That one thing is the sense of our own emptiness, our poverty, our limitations, and of the inability of created things to satisfy our profound need for reality and truth.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Pain and Affliction

For the past few months, head and neck pain, the byproduct of too much writing at the computer, has re-surfaced, slowing me down, making my posts infrequent or brief.  I have re-learned certain things about pain: that it isolates, cuts me off from communicating as I wish; it is also hard to explain to people, that is, the exact quality of the pain, since I hope that their understanding would somehow alleviate it.

Pain tends to dominate my life, creating anxiety, telling me I am cursed to a life of suffering. I feel sorry for myself. I fear that it will grow progressively worse and my pain will take over my life. Then I realize that I supposedly believe that pain is not the same as suffering (pain is inevitable, suffering is optional). I tell myself that no pain lasts forever while realizing that reason has little effect on feelings like fear. I find myself too preoccupied by something that is not life-threatening but annoying, chronic, seemingly inescapable. I then tell myself that others are worse off, and as I pray for them, I gain some comfort, feeling myself part of a human community in which pain is part of life.

I try various therapies, some helpful, or distract myself with music or movies or anything that will get me away from my desk and computer.

I recently returned to a classic essay by Simone Weil, "The Love of God and Affliction" to see if her notion of affliction would return me to the context of prayer. To see, that is, if pain makes any sense.

Weil can be tough going, adding to my headaches, and I don't understand some of her dense, mystical statements nor do I agree with all of her assumptions. Yet this "secular saint," as she was called, this Jewish philosopher steeped in ancient Greek thought who was drawn to Christ and Catholicism but never could accept baptism, offers a deeply felt understanding of how affliction, when it is consented to in a spirit of love, is different from suffering.

When things go well for us, she says, we don't think of our "almost infinite fragility."  But we can be thankful for affliction because it tells us of the fragility of life since it can result in a state of mind "as acute as that of a man facing death at the guillotine."  And because our weakness can make possible a union with the crucified Christ, the universal emblem of self-denial.

Awareness of affliction, says Weil, is at the center of Christianity.
(I think of the compassion Pope Francis showed last month to a grossly disfigured man.) Love is the key:

"The man who sees someone in affliction and projects into him his own being brings to birth in him through love, at least for a moment, an existence apart from his affliction." What causes this process is the identity of human beings across times and cultures.

Affliction, like beauty, compels us to ask, Why? Why are things beautiful? Why does my pain, turned into affliction, transform me? He who is capable of listening to the answer to such questions, she says, will hear the answer: Silence. "He who is capable of listening but also of loving hears this silence as the word of God."

I don't know if this brief synopsis of a complex essay makes any sense; reading it again brought me some comfort from an un usual source: a  woman who died in 1943 of self-imposed starvation so she could be in solidarity with those in occupied France dying of hunger after a life of intense reflection on affliction and the love of God.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thomas Merton Remembered II

Dec. 10 is a key date in the life of Thomas Merton: he entered the Trappist monastery, Abbey of the Gethsemani, in Kentucky on that date in 1941, and on Dec. 10, 1968, he died in Bangkok after 27 years as a monk, peace activist, poet, and, above all, prolific spiritual writer.

In commemorating his 45th anniversary, I quote an excerpt from The Hidden Ground of Love, in which Merton outlines the dimensions of selfless compassion:

 Meditating on someone else's predicament and generating a strong feeling of compassion can lead us into visualizing that they find relief, comfort, joy, and a uplifted spirit.  When we continue to practice this we find ourselves desiring to alleviate the suffering of others. This exercise helps us remain in a state of unrestricted and objectless compassion all the time.