Sunday, November 22, 2015

Letting the light in

This wonderful line from Leonard Cohen, new to me, has to be shared:
"There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."  Similarly, the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich spoke of wounds as "holes in the soul" where light--and life--can get through.

As I wrestled this week with pain and the body's various aches, I turned to this bit of wisdom, reminding me of life's imperfections and the positive lessons to be learned from contemplating a  global community that shares pain, fear (over the terrorism in Paris and elsewhere), and suffering.

What can pain teach us?  David Whyte has posed that question to himself many times, I would think, as his little book of reflections, Consolations, shows; and often there is an undercurrent of the positive breaking through the reality of suffering.

Although sometimes his sentences lose me by their level of abstraction so that he becomes opaque rather than lucid, Whyte has things to say about loneliness that illustrate what I mean.  Loneliness allows us to pay attention to others, he says, to find "the healing power in the other" even in the midst of our sadness.

In the silence of solitude, as Thomas Merton found, we can feel spiritually connected to other souls; and we can listen to our inner selves and the voices of authors we read before we emerge in the world again, ready to listen to those around us with real attention.

Without pain, would there be empathy?  For the Christian, of course, the crucified Christ embodies the world-suffering of humanity in such a totally unselfish way that the believer can feel saved, enlightened by the light that comes through the cracks.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Truthiness and Fundamentalism

The emergence of Ben Carson, a surgeon, as a leading presidential candidate in the U.S. is alarming.  Some find his calm manner of speaking very appealing and refreshing, and they overlook some serious problems with many of his statements.

One involves what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness": feeling something is true even if it isn't, as when right-wing folk like to think President Obama is a Muslim born in Africa.  Carson doesn't go that far, but his biblical fundamentalism and his personal view of facts is either a sign of intellectual laziness or willful blindness.

Because he sees the Genesis story as literally true, Carson believes that Joseph, who was sold into slavery in ancient Egypt, built the pyramids to store grain. Even when presented with the facts of history and archaeology, he continues to insist on his fundamental belief, which amounts to an ignorance dismissal of science, seen, too, in the refusal of many on the political right to accept global warming as a humanly created reality.

A literal reading of the Bible, as St. Augustine showed in the 4th century, is only one means of interpreting Scripture or other literary texts.  Those in the mainstream of Christianity know that there is also the allegorical, the typological, and the anagogical levels, not to mention the historical context out of which these biblical stories emerged, unless we are to have a limited understanding of what we read.

To insist on a literary reading of the Bible is one's personal right; for a public figure like Carson to do so in the media, contradicting facts and history, is to denigrate other Christians as backward and simplistic.

And for Carson to publish books that have not been fact-checked (as when he wrote that he had received a full scholarship to West Point) is a poor reflection both on the world of publishing (careless editing) and on himself and his collaborators.  Again, truthiness prevails. His view is what matters, not reality.

As Charles Blow wrote in the NYTimes this week, Carson's candidacy for the highest office in the country and world leadership seems to be part of his business operation, a means of gaining publicity for some of his health supplements. It's good for his ego and his business. His campaign is run by his business manager.

I know several people who find Carson's pleasant, laid-back manner a welcome change from the usual high-charged political scene. They like him, even though he has no real policy positions, no apparent knowledge of economic or national security issues. To me, he comes across on TV as either over-medicated or seriously under-educated.

Santayana was right: Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.  If the Republican Party continues to allow know-nothings like Ben Carson and Donald Trump to campaign for the presidency, they should remind these men that facts matter; they cannot choose the science they believe in and at the same time try to represent the United States.

What must the world think of us, to see such candidates substitute private beliefs for public positions--and be applauded for doing so? 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Silence Revisited

For nearly twenty years, I have been investigating the power of silence, a topic that first struck me when teaching the later poetry of T. S. Eliot.  I then discovered all the many things Thomas Merton had to say about silence as contemplative prayer.  In several articles on Merton and silence, I tried to define the broader implications of silence as something more than the absence of sound.

Many other writers, I found, have explored this topic, suggesting that genuine silence is not about emptiness or negativity but presence. What kind of presence is not always easy to define, but it became clear to me that true silence has its own positive, independent existence: it is the enduring reality that sound interrupts. Or we can say it is the permanent reality that supports sound, a bit like the way the white space on a printed page exists in dialogue with the words, which come out of silence.

Silence lasts while words do not. And while such insights come from my literary background, they also come from my search for prayer, the kind that goes beyond words to an interior reality known to mystics in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions.  Christians might find in contemplation and meditation an awareness of the kingdom of God within.  This attention to spiritual reality through stillness and silence has been called the sacrament of the present moment.

Recently, I have profited from listening to Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and author, who sees silence as an alternative consciousness, a way of way of knowing beyond rational analysis.  The ego, he says (drawing on Jung), needs words to make points and to get what it wants; the ego is uncomfortable with silence since part of us wants to argue.

But the soul, so to speak, sees that silence is more important than words. Silence for Rohr is the wholeness of being with nothing to argue about. It gives us moments in the timeless present but also something more:  a sense of the eternal since time increases ("grows into a fullness") in silence, which is more significant than words.

Rohr's great spiritual model is St. Francis, who said, "Pray always and sometimes use words," referring to actions (good deeds) and silence as more expressive of love than language. If our words begin with, and come out, of silence, our words will be carefully chosen.  Words not surrounded by silence (but blurted out in a great rush) can be hurtful, critical, sarcastic, hardly spiritual.

Rohr also suggests that a focus on silence as a spiritual practice prepares us for death, the Great Silence. And the other manifestations of silence in art--the stillness of paintings, for example, or the eloquent absence of sound in certain films--are also worth studying.

I remain grateful to Merton for reviving the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer and seeing its parallel in Buddhist practice, something he was exploring in Bangkok at the time of his death in 1968.  I am happy to see that what he and many others have done, in both poetry and prose, continues the exploration of silence as a source of ultimate meaning as well as the source of language and music.

As T. S. Eliot wrote (in "Ash Wednesday"), the word cannot be heard here, in ordinary time: "there is not enough silence."