Sunday, March 29, 2015

A special occasion: an Easter reflection

I called a restaurant near us to make a reservation for Easter brunch. I was asked, "Is there a special occasion?"  I laughed and said, "Well, it's Easter Sunday!"  I wanted to say, "Yes, it is rather special: we're celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ."

But I didn't say that, of course. The occasion is really much more significant, in the big scheme of things, than my birthday or anniversary, but how to explain that to anyone is a problem.  Even my emphasis on the big scheme of things requires some explanation.

Despite all the countless books and movies, sermons and courses, just during the past fifty years or so, devoted to understanding the person of Jesus Christ, he remains essentially a mystery. Who was this unique man?

I was reminded of this question by an article in America magazine by the theologian Elizabeth Johnson a few months ago.  She writes: "the mystery of his person was never totally expressed. .  .until the time of his death, when he transcends this world and is raised from the dead. Then his ultimate identity burst upon him in all clarity."

I think she means that, with the Resurrection, Jesus became Christ as the material confronted, and was transformed by, the supernatural; or as T. S. Eliot put it, at the intersection of the timeless with time.  Presumably, according to Johnson, Jesus saw as in a blinding flash the full meaning of his divine nature, which is love through whom each of his followers is united with him---not just those living but all those who have lived and those who will ever live.  He saw his identity as the cosmic Christ.

The cosmic Christ is the source of nothing less than creation and life; through him the entire cosmos is redeemed and enlightened by love. Wow.

Such a mystical insight goes beyond the rational and borrows from poetry (Eliot, Dante) as well as from Teilhard de Chardin and Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote that the person of Jesus Christ is to be understood only in the context of man's entire history and in the context of the whole created cosmos.  Why?  Because the historical Jesus was not born for himself but "for us and for our salvation," as Christians attest.

Through Christ, we who are Christians are one with humanity past, present, and future: we are the body of Christ.  Yet that, too, remains a mystery. Just as the climax of his life, coming after a week of rejection and suffering, is a mystery that transcends the capacity of language to express it.

So Easter, being celebrated this year on April 5, celebrates the ultimate mystery and, like all mysteries, it should be approached with wonder.

What to study in college

I was glad to hear Fareed Zakaria defend the importance of the liberal arts and sciences on his CNN interview today with Anderson Cooper.  Zakaria is the author of a forthcoming book,  In Defense of a Liberal Education.

He mentioned Mark Zuckerberg, who mastered languages, including Latin and Greek, then studied psychology along with computer science at Harvard (before dropping out).  The young Facebook mega-billionaire agrees with Jeff Bezos of Amazon that a grounding in the basics--thinking, writing, understanding behavior--along with technical skills is essential for young people going to college.

Bezos requires his Amazon employees to have strong verbal skills. They must, according to Zakaria, write a polished six-page memo to indicate their ability to handle critical thinking and language.  He doesn't want just computer nerds.

The liberal arts are not a waste of time, Cooper added. Often high school graduates, having had required math, history and English courses for 12 years, understandably want to pursue something practical, something they believe will produce income. But that is not the purpose of a college education, as I have said many times in print and in person over the years.

It is good to see that highly successful people today concur in defending the liberal arts tradition, which does not train the student to do something but educates the whole person. I often quoted Justice John Paul Stevens of the Supreme Court, one of many English majors to pursue the law, who recommended the study of poetry as the best preparation for law school.  Why?  Because of the close reading of texts, the analysis and interpretation of a piece of work, resulting in a carefully crafted essay.

There is still an important place for the English or history and certainly the psychology major in college. Don't major in marketing, Zakaria said on his show, just because it sounds business-like; rather, learn to think. Read widely.  Combine technical subjects with the classic liberal arts curriculum--writing, philosophy, language, mathematics, science, psychology, etc.--to become a thinking adult who can communicate: that is what most employers want.

So if you're a high school student heading for college, or know one, you might mention the new book by Zakaria along with the advice not to dismiss the core liberal arts tradition in higher education.

P.S.  Since writing this, I came across a website listing prominent people, many in business, who majored in English. They include  Conan O'Brien, Sting, Mitt Romney, ex-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Michael Eisner, ex-Disney CEO, Steven Spielberg, Barbara Walters and Diana Sawyer and Andrea Mitchell and John Dickerson (network journalists), Garrison Keillor, Bob Woodward, Mario Cuomo, Paul Simon, Emma Watson, Sally Ride, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rollo May and B. F. Skinner, as well as Supreme Court Justices Stevens and Thomas. Not to mention ex-CEOs of Xerox, NBC, Avon, MTV and Xerox.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

English, Please!

Although I consider myself progressive/liberal in many areas, when it comes to language and culture, I suppose I side with the conservative view. It has nothing to do with opposing immigration to the U.S. to say, in this country, we need English as our lingua franca, our common tongue, since it is a major means of making "one from many" (e pluribus unum).  The community, the common good, becomes paramount when we leave out homes, and the society as a community is enabled by a shared language.

I know that, here in Florida, and elsewhere, Spanish speakers may think I am opposed to their use of their language; I am not. In many ways, having a bi-lingual culture is a great advantage, especially for children growing up with both languages.  I have no objection to hearing Spanish spoken around me in stores.

But I do believe that anyone who comes to this country to live should make the effort to learn English, which is the predominant language of our law and culture. I could not imagine living in France and refusing to learn French. If I were a resident of Paris, I would never give up my use of English with friends and family, but I would know that, to function in French, society, I need to know the language. I would not expect to vote in a French election with an English ballot. Or be given an Arabic ballot.

I say all this because, recently in New York state, a school celebrate National Foreign Language Week by having students recite the Pledge of Allegiance (to the flag and to the nation for which it stands) in various languages, including Arabic.  A better method of inculcating kids' awareness of other languages would have been to say something simple and anodyne--such as "good morning"--in Arabic and the other languages.

The U.S. media seized, of course, on the Arabic Pledge of Allegiance as a potentially treasonable offense; in fact, it was an unfortunate academic exercise. But it was a reminder for me that, for many legally and historically-based customs, including reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, only English will do.

My parental grandparents, immigrants from Germany, spoke some German to their children in St. Louis, a heavily German city, where at the turn of the last century, some churches and local newspapers were published in German. But the children knew that the expected language of public discourse, outside the family, was English. I could not imagine anyone in St. Louis, circa 1917, reciting the pledge of allegiance in German, given the anti-German sentiment of the time.

Today's culture is different; the patterns of assimilation over the past fifty years have taken a different turn. To find an employee in a public place who speaks only Spanish or Portuguese or whatever is objectionable; he or she should be bi-lingual, able to function in a society where the majority of people have always written and spoken in the English language, which is the de facto official language of the United States and a source of what unity we have amid all our rich diversity.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Overlooked prose stylists

As I read Laura Snyder's recent book, Eye of the Beholder, today, I saw what I am always on the lookout for: a lucid prose style that doesn't call attention to itself but indicates not only careful thought and word choice but the kind of revision I admire. The language is precisely chosen and the sentence patterns varied.

Her non-fiction book, a study of Vermeer, the painter, and van Leewenhoek, his scientific friend in Delft who invented the microscope, explains, from the very first page, details of 17th century life in Holland clearly, with a mastery of information that is presented without pretension.

Even if the subject had not interested me, I would have read on and perhaps purchased the book--except that our house has too many books.  Snyder is one of those historians who can explain complex issues in an interesting way, dropping little tidbits of information along with way, such as the origin of the word lens (it comes, she says, from the shape of the lentil!).

On the way home from the bookstore, I thought of several non-fiction writers who have the gift she shares with David McCullough and others: I think of the lesser known Peter Brown, historian of late antiquity, and R. W. Southern, who wrote about the Middle Ages with elegance.

My wife, Lynn, mentioned several writers of the recent past she loves who are overlooked today but are masters of style. One is James Herriott, the Yorkshire veterinarian who wrote several books on animals; another of her favorites is the detective writer Dorothy L. Sayers, who created Lord Peter Wimsey.  The list could go on. Neither writer is fashionable these days.

In fiction, I admire (among the Brits) David Lodge's often comic style, Pat Barker and  the late Anthony Burgess, not because of A Clockwork Orange, which is inventive, but his lesser known fictions. Among U.S. writers, there is Tobias Wolff, who, along with Mary Gordon, Julia Cameron, and Tim Parks, is always worth reading.

Why? Is preferring a certain prose style a matter of taste? Perhaps. Any writer who follows the advice of Harold Ross, founding editor of the New Yorker, can't go wrong: "If you can't be amusing, be interesting."   For me, this means being aware of the reader at all times and making what is complex or arcane clear--as good teachers do. And it helps to entertain a bit, too, to write with a light, or at least human, touch.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Fear: Is there a Cure?

Whenever I see a book with fear in its title or subtitle, I go for it, often skimming, as with the many self-help books out there, such as Dr. Lissa Rankin's The Fear Cure, a new book I found at Barnes and Noble.

Why this preoccupation with fear on my part?  Because it has been such a persistent part of my life and because they more I examine the lives of others, past and present, the more I see fear as the underlying motive in jealousy, greed, power, racism, and hatred, to mention the most obvious obstacles to happiness.  And because the boy I tutor has been, for various reasons, frozen by fear--of failure, of criticism--so that he needs a daily reminder that he can do various things--exercise, meditate, simply breathe deeply--to help reduce the panic and terror that seize him.

Hence my attraction to Dr. Rankin's book, the work of a physician, not a psychologist, who has seen the effects of fear on her patients and has come up with a formula that suggests a cure for the negative, crippling kinds of intense fear that damages us.

Rather than be at the mercy of fear, she says, let courage take the lead in your life. This is easier said than done.   To replace fear with trust is a goal of much of my prayer life, and it must take place every day.  Still, I have some doubts if this book, or any book, can offer a sure-fire cure.

Yet Rankin offers some valuable spiritual advice, worth sharing with my student.

The first thing, she says, is to see that there is something bigger than me: I am not alone guiding the course of my life.  If I trust only myself, and cut myself off from God (as I will call the higher power), I will invariably be trapped by fears and worries.

Learning to trust the inner light within each of us seems to be the heart of Rankin's formula: Whether we call it the soul or the hand of God, this light has the power to transform everything that can pull us down into healing, as fears gradually lessen and we learn to trust the space between fearful thoughts.

In this way, peace can take the place of fear. Many other secular writers, of course, have said similar things, and many of the spiritual masters in the Christian tradition whom I have read over the years remind us how essential some form of contemplation and prayer are to developing whatever inner peace we can find in the presence of God.

So I am glad to see Dr. Rankin returning to a basic form of an ancient wisdom tradition. I hope her book helps many people.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

To review or not to review (online)

On a recent weekend trip to a writers' conference, my wife and I stayed in a hotel whose shabby furnishings and mediocre food were disappointing, especially after what the website promised.  We paid $200 for a room with 1920s plumbing, a laughably tiny bathroom, and TV that didn't work properly, followed by a dinner ($53) inferior to most of the meals I prepare at home.

So my first thought was to write a review on Trip Advisor. (I did so once, saying favorable things, since I know the effects of negative criticism.)  Then, upon reflection, I decided that telling the truth about the hotel and its food would be spiritually incorrect for me.  Let me explain.

It might make me feel temporarily better to vent my frustration, yet I know that writing a brutally honest negative review can only make matters worse for me, giving rise to new anger and reviving memories best ignored. It would be an exercise in ego.

I have learned from several emails I've sent that dashing off critical comments can sound hostile and harsh. Is that how I want to sound?  Email, which is a speedy mode of communication, seems to invite the off-the-cuff tirade; I find myself writing things I would never say in person. At least it can bring out the worst in me. Better to think the topic over carefully first, I have learned, rather than offend someone, as I have done.

My wife, Lynn, reminded me that she and her mother often said that inept restaurant service and poor food can provide its own entertainment value. That helped me lighten up. I saw that the various things the server forgot--butter for the rolls, plates to  put the rolls on, etc.--were amusing and too trivial to take seriously.

The waiter at breakfast, who identified himself as Floyd, had dyed black hair and a silly laugh. When I indicated I was finished with my juice, he said, "Oh, good!"  Lynn and I called him Pink Floyd, and he was one of several colorful characters we encountered at this historic (and nameless) Florida hotel who convinced me that being negative was not worth the energy or time.

I do not want to emulate the behavior of Lynn's friend M., who invariably re-hashes unpleasant minor incidents from his family, re-living them and sharing them with us. Any slight is remembered and repeated; the result is not amusing. He fails to think of anyone but himself.

I believe the only minor episodes from daily life worth sharing are humorous ones. And although I believe Trip Advisor and Yelp and the rest of such services have a useful purpose, it is not for me to add to the negativity of the world by going online and sharing, for all the world to see, how insulted, infuriated, shocked and disappointed I was by a mediocre meal or an overpriced and outdated hotel room.

I will use Trip Advisor for positive comments, just as a teacher, I want to give positive comments to emerging writers.  They have been wounded enough by critical teachers.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Sexuality, the Priesthood, and Celibacy

I found two pieces about the Catholic priesthood revealing, especially in light of my recent article on the topic of mandatory celibacy (in the Latin rite, which affects most people but often overlooked are the several million Eastern rite Catholics (Byzantine, Ukrainian, etc.) whose priests are allowed to marry.

The first is a statement by a man (Paul Blaschko in Commonweal last month) who left the seminary in 2012, disillusioned by what he called the inadequate sexual formation of men being prepared for the priesthood.   Given the "overly spiritualized conception of sexuality we were offered, it's no wonder abuse spreads as it does."

He points to the emphasis on moral theology rather than psychological reality: if a man commits a sin, the church offers forgiveness, but grossly inappropriate activities are not so simple, he reminds us.  "If my experience is any guide, we are still failing to provide our clergy with the concepts and tools relevant for identifying and addressing sexual abuse."

His observations from his experience in St. Paul: Authority is not to be questioned, even if it is misguided; obedience and humility rather than critical inquiry and self-reflection are valued; silence and secrecy prevail in dealing with homosexuality along with a fear among seminarians of being thought gay and dismissed.  How, Blaschko asks, can you hold people accountable in such a culture?

The other article that caught my attention (from the National Catholic Reporter) by Christine Schenk, a sister of St. Joseph, who has degrees in theology as well as nursing.  She is bothered by the idea that celibacy is seen as a sort of inside track to the mystery of God, elevating priests over laypeople;  consider, she says, what the Gospels say about the greatest is the one who loves most and serves best.

She asks some important questions: if we believe celibacy is a gift of the Holy Spirit, why are we afraid to allow the Spirit to act, allowing candidates to choose celibacy in the diocesan priesthood?  Why don't we trust God?

What kind of gift is it if it isn't freely given and freely accepted?  "True gifts do not coerce. . . .It is a distortion of the gift of celibacy to demand it of those called to the priesthood but not to celibacy."

As a celibate woman, the author knows that celibacy is a chosen way of life. She knows, as many of us in the lay world know, that many men are called to be priests but not to live (and sleep) alone for the rest of their lives.

How many more years of discussion must there be before changes are made whereby celibacy can be seen as a gift and be made optional?  How many more parishes must close or remain priestless?

I remain saddened by the state of the Catholic priesthood and doubt if I will see meaningful change in my lifetime. I can only pray that seminaries are overhauled so that idealized views of human sexuality do not remain the norm in the preparation of priests.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Thoughts in Solitude

Two Lenten reflections:

1. The most important thing our cat does not know, of all the millions of things she is unaware, is that she is dying. Lizzie, perhaps 19, is a quiet tabby we  have had for the past 15 years as an indoor cat; she once enjoyed being outdoors on our porch and at night she would play with me before licking my wife's face in bed.

Now Lizzie sleeps curled up in a corner, half-hidden by a curtain, as if trying to retreat from us. She emerges only to eat and use her box, where she seems slightly disoriented. She has no interest in being playful or being petted. Yet she is spared, as I am not, the keen awareness of age, infirmity, and the coming of death.

I think of this daily now since I am aware of my 93-year-old neighbor who is near death in a nursing home wondering, as he tells me, why he is being kept alive. I have no answer.  He must know it would be a great relief for his wife and family if he passed, yet it is not God's will--yet.

My own aging process fills me at times with great dread as I think of being sent to a nursing home to die or picture myself hobbling around my home half-crippled with arthritis.  All I can do is find time each day to be grateful for all that is good in my life and to be productive, even when surrounded by reminders of mortality.

None of this is as depressing as it may sound since I am glad to be aware of what is going on since it forces me into prayer and reflection.

2.  A shared insight from Richard Rohr, the Franciscan writer:  Most of the untold millions of people who have lived on this planet have been poor and powerless, often oppressed.  Their history is seldom told. A major exception is the Bible, which uniquely legitimizes those on the bottom while criticizing those with wealth and power. Is it any wonder that the Bible and the faith it records remain alive for countless people?

An important topic for Lenten reflection is being mindful of the poor and marginalized, who are so often unseen in our affluent society. I think of Pope Francis' call for a poor church, "a church for the poor."  He does more than speak. This week, a homeless man was buried in a special part of the Vatican cemetery reserved for German priests.

Francis doesn't worry about setting a precedent--if we do this for one, how many more will expect to be buried there?  Such is the likely fear of many in powerful places in Rome and elsewhere.  And I doubt if the German priests will mind sharing space with a no-body who lived on the streets.

It is good to see the Vatican moving in some surprising new ways to pay attention to the poor, who are the image of Christ among us.