Friday, November 11, 2016

"practical" thinking men and women

From my good friend this morning, Thomas Merton, in his writing on "Promethean Theology," in one of his less well known works, New Man.

"The right thinking man is like the poor: we have him always with us.  He is the unbelieving believer: that is to say the religious man who lives, in practice, without a god.  He is the one who pretends to believe, who acts as if he believes, who seems to be moral because he has a set of rigid principles.  He clings to a certain number of fixed moral essences but at the same time he takes very good care never to ask himself whether or not they may be real.  He will rob you and enslave you and murder you and give you a plausible reason for doing so. He always has a reason, even though his reasons may cancel one another out by a series of contradictions.  That does not matter at all, since he does not need the truth, nor justice, nor mercy, least of all God: all he needs is "to be a right thinking man."

And yet, we are hopeful and ever determined.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

cliffs, sentry, and the Atlantic
















sentry

a crude arena
overlooks the entire scene
a sole craggy sentry
stands watch, defiant

the Master of the Atlantic
hurling swells of sea
with increasing determination

blue to white
endless ranks dance against
endless rock

fog slips past my face
over the edge before me
with no fear

unlike my small, measured steps
not too close, yet I must

and I become blindingly aware
that all great stories
flow in one form or another
from holy places such as this

the cliffs below my feet
give way slowly
but they will not yield today

Ireland
2016

Monday, November 7, 2016

unions, moose, and statesmanship



One of the joys of parenting is watching with wonder the developing personalities of the children placed in your charge.  My nine year old daughter’s uncanny ability to notice the smallest of nuances inspires me to routinely ask myself if I am wandering through life in a mechanical fog.  All too often, I find that I am.

I traveled to Washington DC recently.  There is something magical about the place, the diversity of those living and working there, and the tangible yet ephemeral mist of the many incredible characters who have colored our democratic experiment.  After a meeting with labor union representatives and management, I took notice when one of the lawyers lamented the waning influence of unions.  After all, their offices had for many years been on Connecticut Avenue, he observed.  Now, they’d been relegated to the lowly situs of the Washington suburbs.

Finding myself only minutes from the Jefferson Memorial, it would be my sole tourist stop before squeaking onto my return flight.  I’ve read quite a number of Jefferson’s letters over the years, having scooped up a collection of them at a Fairhope antique shop one lazy Saturday.  His opinions on just about everything are remarkably wide ranging, and sometimes overly confident.  One of my favorite exchanges is between Jefferson and Frenchman, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.  It is a veritable mine is bigger than yours discourse, centered on a discussion as to which continent had more impressive animal specimens.  To make his point, Jefferson literally mailed a moose to Buffon.  Yet Jefferson’s thinking, even in his private correspondence, undeniably displays a stately dedication to ideals that have served as timeless pillars in our nation’s political evolution. 

The Memorial to Jefferson is itself remarkable.  The 10,000 pound bronze statue of Jefferson is flanked by four pieces of his writing, as if to quietly and cautiously (and perhaps most importantly) point beyond the tangible statue to the ideas behind the man.  Largely ignored signs leading into the space urge quiet reverence, and tourists from near and far efficiently circulate in and out of the Memorial area.  I was struck with the observation that, at least while I was there, the most important task of those visiting seemed to be the desire to get a picture taken in front of the statue with the subject striking the same pose as Jefferson.  There is, of course, nothing wrong with this.  But the picture taking rarely seemed to be followed (or preceded) by a study of Jefferson’s writing on the walls.  It is possible that visitors had been saturated with Jefferson’s thinking prior to their arrival, but it seems unlikely. 

Precise quotes aside, there is little dispute that Jefferson viewed an informed electorate as essential to good governance.  The following words are inscribed in a frieze below the Memorial’s dome, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  And one wonders if we face an evolving tyranny which is more difficult to name.  A malaise and indifference of a dangerous sort. 

The high rhetoric of the current political environment, despite all appearances to the contrary, is nothing new.  And frankly, not in and of itself to be feared.  Yet we cannot expect the elevation of the political process without an elevation of the electorate’s studied engagement in the history of this great nation.  One needn’t ascribe to an idea of American exceptionalism to find the American experience to be truly extraordinary and in need of great care by those wrapped in its embrace.  Present day American political activism is all too often intellectually and historically malnourished.

I was recently in Ireland, and as is often my practice, I tried to listen.  As I made the last leg of a drive along the southwest coast of that beautiful country, I found myself seated at a table in a small restaurant overlooking a still harbor.  And I overheard two women rattling off their thoughts on the spectacle of American politics.  It was clear, at least as far as those two women were concerned, that the American body politic had ceased to take itself seriously. Sometimes we are too close to something to see it for what it is. Flash back to the observational prowess of my young daughter, whereas I’m all too often lost on what may be much more practical in that moment – but broadly inconsequential.  We stop noticing the obvious. 

It seemed to me that Jefferson himself stood in that Memorial quietly attempting to draw the attention of visitors to the powerful ideology that anchors the American experience.  Ideology which is greater than Jefferson or any singular political character.  An inclusive ideology, with a core faith in the ability and necessity of free and educated people to govern themselves, and of the duty to do well so that we can collectively do good.  These are ideas which require more than passing recognition, but demand the sometimes uncomfortable task of action and activism for the good of all people.  The issues facing our country are considerable and not easily reckoned.  They never have been.  These larger than life figures of the American story beg us to study our storied political heritage and to then strive mightily for our best.  This is a powerful first step in demanding a return to statesmanship both by the elected, and those who consent to be governed.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

festivals, bike rides, and trepassing

The weather is just beginning to cool off in Pensacola, and the annual Greek Festival signals a new season.  It is one of my favorite times of year on the Gulf Coast.  I returned from Ireland last Friday, it was one of the best trips of my life and I'll post some thoughts in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, a piece from my retreat last month at Manresa, in Convent, Louisiana. 


trespass


South Louisiana is largely a landscape of endless sugar cane fields.  Solomon Northup's harrowing account of slavery in similar fields will forever color my view of them.  Somehow, land can carry the scent of many years past.  Every September, I find myself on a long run along the banks of the mighty Mississippi.  The Jesuits were the first spiritual teachers to suggest to me that imaginative powers could be used for good!  My imagination has historically gotten me into trouble.  Many of these runs have found me accompanied by my favorite writer, Thomas Merton, and fully colored by divinity.  


But on one particular rainy Saturday during my retreat, I decided to take my bike out as far as I could stand it.  And after more than a few miles, I found myself bored and hot.  One or the other may be tolerable.  Combined, they beg for change.  I spied a road down off the levee which seemed like it might hold something interesting.  So off I went.


The Manresa House of Retreats is arguably the flagship of American Jesuit retreat houses.  It is truly a magnificent spot.  Greek revival architecture gives a timeless feel to the place and the otherworldly and grand St. Mary's Hall was constructed with the aid of slaves in 1842.  Everything is impeccably well done.  So to go from such a stately scene into rural Louisiana poverty is particularly striking.  But the thing that hit me the most was an old run down mobile home with a prominently displayed "NO TRESPASSING" sign.  I have always found the thought of a trespasser finding such a sign compelling to be comical.  As if one might say, yes I intended to trespass until I saw that sign!


And it seems that those who have the least objectively desirable (or available) property to be stolen are somehow the most protective of it.  I think of one desperately poor client of mine who once took out his wallet to get his driver's license.  It was literally chained to his pants.  He was, of course, consulting our firm about the possibility of filing for bankruptcy.

But the no trespassing sign had the affect of bringing to mind the all too often election of another kind of poverty.  Not a poverty of geopolitical or economic circumstance.  Or even a poverty of indifference of some sort.  But a jealously guarded spiritual poverty. 


One of the most oft reproduced paintings in the Christian tradition is that of the third chapter of the book of Revelations.  Aside from that text as a whole being nearly completely lost on me, the artist's image is that of the Christ knocking on a door that all too clearly has no outside door handle.  The occupants must make the affirmative steps of opening the door from the inside.

For many years I had equated bad religion with the need to keep spiritual doors closed.  I had a canned stump speech that I could rattle off without much thought.  Exhibit A almost always invoked the lunacy of the Spanish Inquisition and the insanity of the Crusaders evangelizing by death and conquest.  For more recent evidence, parasitic televangelists made for easy targets - plundering the slender means of hapless widows and the weak minded.  These narratives were embedded in my psyche as veritable no trespassing signs.

One of the staple tort cases for law students involves a spring gun that was rigged by a property owner to indiscriminately kill trespassers.  We can do this in our own way, even if we are not foreclosed to the idea of faith and spirituality.  We rig intellectual and spiritual spring guns to ensure there are no unwelcome trespassers which may challenge us.  As much as this is a legal error, it is also a grave spiritual error.


Many of us resultantly live spiritually impoverished lives.  There may be little appreciation for the absolute mystery that constitutes the Master Painter.  A deeply vibrant spirituality is often the product of a lifelong exploration rooted in curiosity.  In our own ways, we elect to hold onto spiritual poverty.  Sometimes out of a lack of awareness and often due to something of a spiritual anemia.  We need to leave the doors wide open in what may feel like a scary spiritual neighborhood.  This may be accomplished by the comparative study of another faith or tradition and practices which are foreign to us.  Or by looking to God in the text of great literature and poetry, or contemplating the rising of the sun on a pilgrimage.  Whatever it is, the Divine calls us to fling the doors open and invite trespassers of a different kind.


When I'd had all I could handle of the outward leg of my bike ride, it was time to turn home.  And as I did, I crossed Highway 44 and made a stop at St. Michael's.  It is a small church, but unlike so many today, its doors are open and unlocked.  As I left my Cannondale by the front door, it occurred to me that maybe it was crazy for a church to be wide open in the middle of the day.  Or for someone like me to leave my bike there where it could be easily stolen.  But I was all but overwhelmed with this sense that if someone needed my bike that bad, they could take it.  Hadn't the priest in Les Miserables offered all of the church's silver to the thief?  Perhaps we've had trespassing all wrong.



Tuesday, August 23, 2016

swim, retreat, and beauty

It has been a busy several weeks!  We relocated home base and spent the weekend unpacking endless boxes and more accumulated junk than I realized that we had.  I might keep moving regularly if only to necessitate the purge that comes with that change.  Transitions are a test in gracefulness.  Not exactly my strength.  Three thoughts on this sunny August day, as has become customary:


1.  I had the opportunity to swim in the Gulf a couple of weeks ago along a deserted stretch of beach.  Ominous storm clouds were out in the distance and I could see dolphins not far from where I was.  As I stood in the surf and looked around me, it occurred to me that I could have just as easily stood there a million years ago just as I was.  There was nothing artificial about the moment, nothing man made.  No electronics.  No schedule.  Time stopped.  It was a baptism of sorts, an immersion in the present.

2.  I depart for Manresa on Thursday.  I am already imagining the last couple of miles before St. Mary's Hall comes into view.  It is a homecoming every time I go.  There is my Saturday night walk to the chapel and my Sunday morning vigil in a private area.  My walking meditation between an alley of oaks done only once a year.  And a couple of runs along the banks of the Mississippi, where someone usually runs with me courtesy of imagination.  I am grateful to get to be there in that space again this year.

3. I am slowly working my way through John O'Donohue's writing on beauty. It is incredibly rich.  Beauty has always seemed an unnecessary luxury.  I am starting to see that it is at the essence of the spiritual life. I am making my belated trip to Ireland next month and I am excited to see the wild countryside he has written and spoken of. 


A small piece from O'Donohue:


"Beauty dwells at the heart of life.  If we can free ourselves from our robot-like habits of predictability, repetition and function, we begin to walk differently on the earth. We come to dwell more in the truth of beauty."