Saturday, December 27, 2014

Good, evil, and a new year

As we end another year, I should have either a list of favorites or a profound insight that captures some of what I have learned in 2014.

Since neither is quite possible, I turn instead to a favorite quotation from Solzhenitzen's The Gulag Archipelago. 

The passage begins with a statement of what the Russian author learned from his prison years: how a human being becomes evil and how one becomes good. He says that the "line separating good from evil passes. . .right through every human heart. . . .And even in the best of hearts, there remains a small corner of evil."

"Since then," he continues, "I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: they struggle with the evil inside every human being. . .It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person."

Let us hope that more people in the coming year are able to constrict whatever selfishness, violence, and hatred live in their hearts.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fast and Furious: A reflection on time

Has any period in history felt that it has less time than ours?  That is one of the many significant questions raised in an article by the editors of the journal n+1. It's called "Too Fast, Too Furious."

The great paradox of the modern age (the past 200 years or so) is that, with the development of technology, time is felt as passing more and more quickly. This is what the German theorist Hartmut Rosa calls an "acceleration society."  Why do labor-saving devices that give us more free time also bring feelings of stress and lack of time?

The answer seems obvious: "The number of things you might be able to do becomes impossibly large and expands every day with implacable speed," Rosa says. The more "free" time we have, the more busy and enslaved to time we become. No wonder Thoreau remains enduringly popular.

At no time of year, when consumerism is in high gear, does this feeling tend of being overwhelmed by time become more apparent than the present holiday season, which involves doing innumerable things. One important point missing from the n+1 article is our ability to resist doing more things, by choosing to slow down, by not filling up leisure time with more and more apps, tweets, and other devices and gadgets and finding a space for silence.

In other words, it is certainly possible to be, as the article suggests, overly busy and stressed doing many things and feeling, like Tantalus, never satisfied, either intellectually or emotionally. But is it inevitable that we are trapped in this way?

Rosa speaks of a "frenetic standstill" in which "an eternal, unchanging sameness afflicts the age." Yet, with a minimum of imagination and training, one can enter the timeless present, which does not mean bleak affliction (as Rosa suggests) but a sense of constant presence beyond the rush of time. Meditation, whether Christian, Buddhist, or other, offers a way out of the dilemma Rosa sees as trapping us in an endless cycle of busyness.

Finding time for ourselves, for meditation and reflection, even for quiet reading, requires hard choices (turn off the media, avoid the telephone for a few hours) but seems essential for our inner life.  We can find moments of transcendent stillness and peace in which we are connected to the timeless reality of God.

The advice of Teilhard de Chardin is relevant: allow God "the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete."  Begin, that is, with the recognition that all life on earth is incomplete, that we are restless creatures, and that progress is any area take a very long time. But the goal is ultimately reached, if we "trust in the slow work of God."

There is, in the end, enough time. And if we make time for the timeless presence of God within us, we can, however briefly, step outside the mad rush of time and find the peace we all seek. That, at least, is my hope at this time of Christmas.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Holiday Literary News

We keep warm during the cold months, such as they are in Florida, by writing (among other things). My wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, is also warming herself in the glow of a first-prize award for fiction, from England; and an interview on her life's work, appearing in Sein und Werden, which is British despite the German name ( 

The interview, which appears on p. 22 of the journal, provides insight into the way a skillful poet moves from serious literary work to the more popular fare that she now specializes in: fairy tales for adults.
Her prize-winning story "Carlo's Christmas" is not yet up on Kindle, but I might recommend another winner, ideal for reading aloud to young kids:  "Gusty's Christmas" (99 cents), easily downloaded onto a smartphone, iPad, or Kindle through Gusty is a little, playful wind at the North Pole.

Now that I have shamelessly promoted my wife's work yet again, I can wish all who read this joy during the coming holidays and into the new year. May there be peace in our hearts, at least, if not in the world.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Being Dissatisfied is Good?

In a recent article, Eddie Siebert, S.J. tells the story of an 82-year-old doctor he knew, a man who had practiced medicine for over fifty years but confessed to never really liking medicine.  So why did he become a doctor?  His parents wanted it. He really wanted to write. Sound familiar?

Of course, he could have done both, as William Carlos Williams did, as Walker Percy did, among others in a line going back to Sir Thomas Browne in the 17th century. But that is not the point.

The point of the article is to look at our basic human restlessness and dissatisfaction and see what value they might have. No matter how great a job or home or family or whatever we have, we invariably find something to complain about, some fault to find. We find a certain pleasure, even happiness, in being dissatisfied, knowing that "it could be better" somewhere else or with someone else. The striving is all.

The Boston College theologian Michael Himes, quoted by Siebert, says that dissatisfaction is a good thing. Why?  Well, it "moves us forward, makes us try new things, and deepens our perceptions about the world and ourselves. . . .That restlessness we all feel is a good thing and gets us closer to becoming the person we've always been."

So we realize our full selfhood or potential or identity as persons in striving for joy, even while unconsciously realizing how elusive joy is.

I was reminded of a recent biography I have been reading of Winston Churchill. I was struck by the anxious drive of the young Winston, his burning ambition to fulfill what he saw, grandly, as his destiny. And although he made many enemies in the process of achieving greatness as a leader, he certainly fulfilled his earthly destiny as a leading statesman of the 20th century. His life story reminded me of Teddy Roosevelt's, among many others: men driven by dissatisfaction to overcome handicaps and become the person they have always been.

The great tragedy in many people's lives is that they realize, too late, that they have lived the wrong life, never achieving much happiness.  When Ivan Ilych, in Tolstoi's great story, has such a realization on his death bed, he also comes to an enlightened insight that it is still not too late to make a change: he feels a sense of love, which gives his life purpose and meaning.  Until then, Ivan Ilych had lived a smugly satisfied life; he finally found the wisdom in being dissatisfied at the end, as his soul comes alive.

Happy are those who find joy in their dissatisfaction before it's too late.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Riding Life's Mystery

At this time of the year, when life becomes busy with everyone preparing for the holidays, I have to remind myself that it is also Advent. The weather, the early darkness also remind me to go inward, reflect, and pray. Christmas requires more than decorating and shopping.

This week, in my reflective mode, I ran into several statements by Richard Rohr, a favorite spiritual writer and speaker, whose topic is love in its most transcendent form.

He quotes the Jesuit scientist and mystic Teilhard de Chardin: "love is the very physical structure of the universe." By that he means, I think, that everything in creation (from the cellular level on) desires union with everything else in one sense or another.

This is in keeping, believe it or not, with the medieval vision of Dante, who says at the end of his "Paradiso," that love moves the sun and the other stars. He is not speaking of romantic love but that the life force of the universe is divine energy, which is called love. His idea of God, like that of many contemporary mystics and some scientists, is vast enough to include the idea that everything that exists in part of one whole. Life, being, and love are all parts of what we call God. So we and our fellow creatures and planet are parts of God.  Goodness is built into all that is.

What Thomas Merton and Rohr call my "true self" is who I am in God, and this union is made possible by love. Love is who I am and who I am becoming.

As Rohr says, God is a flow more than a substance, and we are inside that flow. We are allowed "to ride life and love's wonderful mystery for a few years--until life and love reveal themselves as the same thing." This, he says, is the message of the risen Christ: life morphing into a love that is beyond space and time.  We on earth are allowed to add our own energy to the cosmic energy, to "add our breath to the Great Breath."  This is a wonderfully positive insight, reflecting the optimism that informs mystical theology.

I find this a striking and memorable way of looking at life, including death, as a whole. Like God, they are the ultimate mysteries. As a result, if we choose to talk about God, we can't do so as if God were a Being separate from us and from creation--an autonomous Supreme Being. Rather, as Rohr says so well, God is Being itself ("I am who AM"), that is, an energy that moves within itself (Father), beyond itself (Christ), drawing us into itself (Holy Spirit).

In this rich and beautiful formulation, the Christian idea of the Trinity takes on fresh meaning, even though I know too well that all such language is hopelessly inadequate. These are mysteries meant to be contemplated and savored, never understood.

I realize that all of this may make no sense, that it requires volumes of further commentary, with references to the mystics who, in various traditions, have had similar insights over the centuries.  I am grateful to have encountered some of them, like the Franciscan Richard Rohr, and to be lost in the mysteries they present.