Thursday, September 24, 2015

Listening to Pope Francis

The remarkable Pope Francis, on his first trip to the U.S. this week, is giving 18 speeches. I hope he also has time to listen to Americans and their needs.

Listening to his moving speech today before Congress, I can see that he knows what notes to strike, what tone to take in dealing, as only he can, with major issues that go beyond partisan politics.

I was almost as nervous, proud, and excited as Joe Biden, the VP, and Speaker John Boehner, who wept: a Catholic leader universally regarded as a wise prophet who doesn't shout to be heard, who speaks courageously, from the heart, saying tough things in soft tones.  His halting English became more confident and lively as he proceeded, and the audience sat in rapt attention to every word.  Quite a contrast to the anti-Catholic attitudes of past times in this country.

The greatest surprise of the speech was his inclusion of two of my favorite people from recent American Catholicism: two radical converts, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, both viewed with some alarm by bishops in the 1960s for their peace activities and their preference for social justice as the way to live out the Gospel message.

I have written a good bit about Merton and have given talks on Day and her Catholic Worker Movement (once considered a socialist-Communist operation) and so was thrilled to hear these two Americans singled out and honored in one of the major speeches in recent memory.    

"My duty is to build bridges," Francis said today, putting Merton and Day in the company of Lincoln and M. L. King as four heroic Americans concerned as the pope is with the common good, rejecting by implication the selfishness of ordinary political life and celebrity culture.  This is a pontiff who lives up to what that title implies: bridge builder.  Merton and Day also built bridges of action and prayer that live on.

I have often been dismayed that many people are unaware of Day and Merton. Now they will have a chance to learn, thanks to Pope Francis, the pontiff who does not pontificate.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Laughing at Pain

During the past year I have been wrestling with pain in two areas of my body: head (migraine headaches) and knee. Extensive walking is not easy, and I am easily discouraged, fearing that I will simply get worse and praying for an unlikely cure.

Luckily, I have been talking to a compassionate friend, a retired doctor, who has some similar health challenges, and we share the ups and downs of getting older. I quote to him ideas from Shakespeare (King Lear, especially) about the inevitability of pain as part of the human condition; and he, having seen great pain in his medical practice and having known spiritual pain from family members who underwent the horrors of the Holocaust, shares wisdom from the Jewish tradition. I tell myself each day, "this too shall pass," no pain is permanent.

And yet the fear is there, at least for me, that I am on a downward spiral. So it was of value that I ordered a copy of David Whyte's book of reflections, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.   Whyte, a marine biologist in the Pacific Northwest, was raised in Yorkshire, with Celtic ancestry (Irish and Welsh). Not surprisingly, he is a gifted poet, as his miniature essays on selected words reveal.

I first chose his entry on "Pain," and was reminded of several positive aspects of this problem: first, that it is "the doorway to the here and now."  Whyte sees pain as a "way in" to interior healing. And to a sense of humility: "In real pain we have no other choice than to ask for help. . . Pain tells us we belong and cannot live forever in isolation."

In connecting us to others who share pain as part of the price of being human, Whyte goes on to emphasize how pain can lead to "real compassion."  And as we undergo the limitations caused by pain, we also find that bodily pain calls for a broader view, whereby we step back and look at our lives from a detached perspective.  Such a perspective is essentially comic: we can laugh at our predicament, at the physical absurdity that limits us.  This is hard for me, but a point to return to.

Finally, Whyte says that although pain takes us on a lonely road that no one else can truly know, it also offers the possibility "of coming to know others as we have, with so much difficulty, come to know ourselves."

It took several readings of Whyte's concise reflections for them to sink in; when they did, I felt a relief that was less physical than emotional, a sense of solidarity with others who suffer. And I was reminded of the saying that "pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." We have some choice in how we respond to the body in need of healing, how we turn despair into some kind of hope.  I can experience physical pain, but I don't have to suffer and be miserable.

Whether I can laugh at my infirmities is a greater challenge, one that another author, Kelly Carlin, the daughter of the comedian George Carlin, notes in her new book, A Carlin Home Companion, a memoir detailing her progress from substance abuse and family dysfunction to healing.  She, too, notes the need for detachment, the ability to step back from self-absorption, and look at the bigger picture:

"When you can learn to laugh at your pain, then you have a chance of finally moving on from it."  She is able to do this through writing her life story: in organizing her life story into a narrative, she is able to shift her relationship to trauma and pain.  They become "an object outside yourself."

For Kelly Carlin, as for David Whyte and millions of others, the art of writing becomes the means of detachment, a kind of therapy of healing the soul, if not the body.  I am grateful to have come across both of them at the same time.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Learning from Buddhism

What can Christians and other non-Buddhists learn from Buddhist meditative practice?
Many things, as Thomas Merton showed fifty years ago in his writings about Zen, as Richard Rohr and others suggest today--without becoming Buddhists.

I remain very much a beginner in Buddhist practice and derive most of my insights here from the recent (Sept. 7) post by Richard Rohr, who says our "deepest, truest reality" is our oneness with God.

Although he didn't use the term 'mindfulness,' Merton brought the ancient Christian contemplative tradition into the 20th century by emphasizing inner silence, solitude, and attention to the sacrament of the present moment, or what has been called the power of now.  His work and those who have followed him (John Main, Thomas Keating, James Finley, et al.) remind us that the goals of Buddhists are different from those of Christians, but they have much in common.

Being mindful and living mindfully, with full attention to the presence of God in the present moment, is the key mystical element that links the two traditions, Western and Eastern.  It is a unitive, non-dualistic approach that replaces dualism--body vs. soul, man vs. the planet, good vs. evil, and God "up there" vs. people "down here"--with an awareness that all things are one.  To live and move and have our being in God is to know that we are not separate from God.

Romano Guardini (cited by Finley and others) articulated in a memorable way the non-dualistic, unitive nature of this mystical experience. "Although I am not God, I am not other than God either, " Guardini wrote.  From this we can say, although I am not you, I am not other than you; although I am not the earth, I am not other than the earth.

The implications of this way of unitive thinking are enormous: we are all connected to one another, to creation, and to God, however alone we might feel.   Without losing our individuality, we exist also in relation to and with others. How then can we hate our neighbors?

In Catholic thinking, the human person is not just an individual, with freedom and rights; he or she does not find complete fulfillment until he or she lives in relationship with others. In other words, we live in relation to others in pursuit of the common good, that which benefits all, not just the isolated individual.

So, simplifying a complex topic, I would say Buddhist practice and Christian contemplation share the goal of seeking unity with God in the present moment. The effect of such a spirituality not only benefits me but reminds me of my connection with others.  I am unique yet also united with the suffering of my fellow man.

So the way I relate to myself affects how I relate to others and the world we share and, ultimately, how I relate to God.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Out-Trumping Trump

Although I've tried to steer clear of politics on this blog, sometimes I can't help myself.  The emergence of Donald Trump as a possible Republican presidential candidate in the U.S. is irresistible: in addition to being entertaining, he is alarming.

Two recent articles on the Trump phenomenon struck me as important. One, by George Packer in the current issue of The New Yorker, places the New York real estate mogul in the context of American populism.  He explains how this sometimes  volatile posture is dangerous in its oversimplification, pitting good against evil, demanding simple answers to complex problems.

He cites the demagogue Thomas E. Watson, who wrote in 1910: "The scum of creation has been dumped upon us. Some of our principal cities are more foreign than American."  He goes on to talk in alarmist, apocalyptic terms about the dangers of crime and vice following the "corrupting hordes of the Old World descending on us."

I can't help but think of the crisis in Europe today, with migrants from Syria and north Africa landing in Europe and hardly being welcomed. Or of the fear-mongering one hears today in this country on talk radio about foreigners--in a country made up of foreigners.

Have we made no progress since 1910?  The hatred of Jews, Catholics, and other undesirables arriving in the U. S. a century ago is now directed to Mexicans, by Mr. Trump and others, or to any of the immigrants seeking a new life in America. He calls them criminals and losers.

As Packer shows, the populist outsider as an anti-political force includes not only Ross Perot and George Wallace but Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.  But Trump is distinctive in his crude, shoot-from-the-hip style that makes some "ordinary folks" happy because he sounds authentic even if he is really a showman.

Trump, with his jutting chin and curled lip accentuating his arrogance, reminds me of Mussolini--and for good reason.  Packer notes several comments by Trump that should alarm anyone who takes this candidate seriously, such as his speculation that representative government may not be necessary. Why, he once asked his audience, do we need an election?   Does he seek a coronation?

And why bother, he implied yesterday in a radio interview on foreign policy, to know the leaders of the world, such as the men involved in ISIS, since by the time Trump is elected, a new cast of characters will appear on the world stage.  So the Know-Nothing ignorance of past decades lives on. Is it surprising that the orangutan-haired populist-demagogue has been praised by ex-Klansman David Duke and by at least one neo-Nazi website?

The other article, by Timothy Egan (Aug. 28) in the New York Times, was a revealing contrast between Trump and the ultimate anti-Trump:  Pope Francis, the humble celebrity soon to visit this country.  Egan quotes Trump:  "Show me someone without an ego, and I'll show you a loser."  So I suppose if he meets the pope in New York, Trump, who values winners, will see the pontiff, with his echoes of St. Francis of Assisi, as the ultimate loser.  What a sad spectacle.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

You are the music

The longer I live, the more I realize how indispensable music is in my life. I can't imagine a day without at least thirty minutes of something classical or popular, whether on Youtube or the radio or the CD player in the car or the usually enjoyable TV station, Classic Arts Showcase (produced free of charge and free of commercials!).

Music can take me out of myself, help me become centered in the present, detached from the usual anxieties and realities. This week it was a bit of Dixieland jazz, songs of Lerner and Lowe, Puccini in the brilliant tenor voice of Jonas Kaufmann, Gilbert and Sullivan with their comic rhymes, Chopin's nocturnes, and so much more.

The effect of music on the brain was rarely so well expressed as by a noted scientist and gifted writer who just died: Oliver Sacks.

This week, in reading about Sacks I found (thanks to Maria Popova's "Brain Pickings") excerpts from his 1984 memoir, A Leg to Stand On. There Sacks describes in often lyrical detail how he was terrified on a mountain in Norway in 1974, threatened by a bull and an injured leg, feeling totally alone and abandoned, facing death.

What came to his aid?  Rhythm, melody, music: he began to chant over and over as he hobbled along in the middle of nowhere until "the musical beat was generated within me, and all my muscles responded deliberately." 

After chanting the song for some time, he began to feel, deep within, that he had no room for fear because he was filled with music, including the "silent music of the body."  Sacks quotes T. S. Eliot: "you are the music, while the music lasts." And he becomes a creature of motion, muscle and music, all inseparable and in union with one another.

The result: a feeling of gratitude, what I would call a prayerful experience.  As in his later book, Musicophilia, Sacks reflects on how amazing it was that a remembered melody should have such a profound effect on him, that music would be so passionately alive for him, conveying to him "a sweet feeling of life. .  .As if the animating and creative principle of the whole world was revealed, that life itself was music, or consubstantial with music, that our living moving flesh, itself, was 'solid' music. . .  ."

Facing his own death in recent years, Sacks kept writing up to the very end, brim full of life.  Now I am inspired to want to read more by this brilliant writer who found what many others have felt but seldom expressed: the power of music at the cellular level, something that is part of our being and that connects us to the cosmos.