Tuesday, July 8, 2014

bread of life

Bread of Life

the body broken
placed in hand
incomprehensible gift

God as man
dark shame dispensed with
sin forgiven

blood ran slow to its fill
cup of grace
passed to the cosmos

as I kneel and pray
grace surrounds me
gently bathed in logos
and the light

G. Ricci

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

vox populi, Mahatma Gandhi, and violence

It is a bright Wednesday morning in Florida.  Have not had enough coffee yet, but the day is off to a good start.  I grabbed onto the following words from Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander yesterday evening, which draw heavily from Mahatma Gandhi's thoughts on violence.  And I have been thinking about the inverse of the lie of violence.  The truth that we might seek.
"The mother of all lies is the lie we persist in telling ourselves about ourselves.  And since we are not brazen enough liars to make ourselves believe our own lies individually, we pool all our lies together and believe them because they have become the big lie uttered by the vox populi, and this kind of lie we accept as ultimate truth.  "A truthful man cannot long remain violent. [Gandhi]"
I wonder what, if anything, might happen if the constitutional wrangling over reproductive rights were reframed not as a question of privacy, but that of "legal" violence.  The simple violence of the taking of life.  What if the near holy assumed "jurisdiction" over the unborn child who is physically inside the mother's body were rationally dispensed with as no more compelling than the reality that a born infant is comparably completely dependent upon caretakers for her life.  Akin to the idea that human rights should not change merely because of geopolitics or geographical location.  A poor African or Arab ought to have the same human rights as a Westerner, no?  Ought not then the unborn have rights regardless of whether they have departed the womb?  Don't we in many contexts prohibit violence with the obvious recognition that your right to self determination and privacy (beating your wife in the quiet confines of your home, for instance) does not carry greater weight than prohibiting illegal violence?  Life is not property.  The reproductive discussion has been so politically polarized and branded that fundamental questions cannot even be heard amidst the shouting.
And yet, the lie of violence has become so accepted, so much a part of our progressive vox populi, that we cannot see the travesty of it.  We worship violence and self and therefore cannot see that it is killing us.  Literally. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

B-52s, the 1960s, and fundamentals

I am holding down the fort as Jessica and the kids spend a few days in Atlanta.  Jessica reported that after a day of world class history and museums yesterday, the kids announced they were "done with the educational stuff."  So I understand they are all spending the day on a river.  Sounds like fun.  The dogs and I have managed to keep things under relative control.  And aside from microwave dinners and eerily quiet evenings, all is well.  Three thoughts on this bright, promising Thursday morning, as has become customary:
              1.  I read with great interest about a recently declassified report which tells the story of a United States Air Force B-52 bomber which broke up over North Carolina in 1961, carrying two nuclear bombs, one of which failed to detonate for mere technical reasons.  As I've been reading Thomas Merton's musings on the emerging cold war and nuclear proliferation around the same time, I have at times rolled my eyes with what seems like melodramatic theoretical concern for the dangers created by man's proclivity for catastrophic violence.  Timely reminder of this reality indeed.
             2.  Last night, I watched a short talk that Francis Schaeffer gave regarding the disillusionment of many young people with affluence and self-absorption in the 1960s.  It was very interesting to see him come to many of the same conclusions that I have reached on my own.  Particularly, that many of those young people were really seekers.  They just didn't find what they sought.  It seems that this is the reality of the current human condition as well.  Ever the need for poets and mystics increases.  For they endeavor to shine a light in the darkness which assists the wandering soul with finding his way back to God.
             3.  Listened to a remarkable interview with moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  He discusses the purification (polarization) of political ideology and what that means, identifying it as increasingly manifesting itself in the times post 1960.  Make me wonder more and more, what happened - what shifted at that point in time?  He also speaks of the need to seek out our commonalities.  Curiously, he sees the good in faith from a seeming purely utilitarian perspective.  Communal cohesion and empirical stability.  That is like appreciating that concert goers bring money to your downtown, but completely missing out on the poetry of the music they've come to listen to. 
I'll leave you with the third stanza from Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, which has spoken to me a great deal lately.  Peace be with you on this day.
O to grace how great a debtor
daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here's my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Merton, Barth, and Mozart

It is Friday.  I am grateful for that.  A grueling week filled with a great deal of life, which I don't always relish as much as I ought to.  I've had the good fortune of picking up Merton's, Conjecture's of a Guilty Bystander.  Was led there by Rowan Williams' lecture given to the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland (at St Cyprian's, Clarence Gate, London).  The occasion was the fortieth anniversary of Thomas Merton's passing in 1968.  The legendary theologian, Karl Barth, died on the same day as Merton. Conjectures comes at an apt time for this reader.
     Merton opens in Conjectures with a description of Karl Barth's dream of his own (Barth's) imagined examination of Mozart, an unrepentant Catholic.  Was there a deep wrestling match within Barth as to the ultimate value of his life's work - dogma?  We often approach our deepest fears with defensive skepticism or cross examination of those who poke us in the eye.  In Barth's case, was there a nagging suspicion that dogma is truly very limited in its value?  Did Mozart pose this searing question to Barth without even a single word?  Barth loved Mozart and yet Mozart is to have observed that protestantism is all in the head.  There is a deep sadness in Mozart's observation that protestants did not understand the meaning of the Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi.
     And yet, might Barth have observed of Merton that he was all in the spirit? 
Certainly, a danger exists in modern unmoored "spirituality."  Simply floating around looking for some sort of misunderstood enlightenment.  The most recent obvious example perhaps being the confused seekers (hippies) of the 1960s and the sea of self help seminars and books of today.  But we must give credit to seekers.  As Merton has observed elsewhere, most of us are more worried about what is in the icebox, how our sports teams are doing, and what gas mileage we are getting.  Christ said in the seeking we find. 
     I have come to again and again see excessive dogma as much as a threat to faith as the excessively dogmatic see "spirituality" and mysticism as a threat to the unity of those communities.  As Barth observed, I think correctly, 'It is a child, even a 'divine' child, who speaks in Mozart's music to us.' Meaning to me that even a child can recognize Christ.  Even a child can appreciate the theology of the aesthetic as opposed to the ascetic.  And children rightly have little use for dogma. Yet, I am no longer seeing dogma and mysticism as mutually exclusive.  I wonder if dogma is like a power tool and mysticism is the power.  Neither really very effective without the other.  Such being the reality when one can deeply drink from lectio divina or meditation (another really scary word for many Christians).  And that an appreciation of other traditions and faiths is not an indictment of nor threat to our own.  
     Merton wrote, "Fear not, Karl Barth. Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think: there is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation. (Conjectures, pp.3—4).  I say, fear not friends, trust in the revelation.  Though you have grown up to believe that you can fully understand it, the fact that it is of God means that you cannot.  That is nothing to be afraid of. Much in the Christian tradition is deeply mystical, i.e., the transfiguration, and the resurrection to name a few.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Kushner, Barth, and gratitude in the midst of suffering

It is a bright Tuesday morning here in Florida.  The rains seemed to have finally calmed down and we have dried out for the most part.  We spent several hours out at the beach on Sunday, perfect temperatures and calm waters.  A beautiful sailboat framed the scene with our children in the foreground.  Art.  I have been enjoying NPR's podcast, On Being.  I listened to a wonderful interview of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner yesterday morning on my run as the sun came out.  Three thoughts, as has become customary:

1.  Kushner has written, "This is a definition of a mystic": "A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness, contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity."  A powerful observation.  A recognition of both the chaos and order of this cosmos we exist as a part of.  I have come to accept the view that this life offers more questions than answers.  But that we have the great answer of revelation, upon which everything else - even in its mystery, must be framed.  As stated by St. Augustine, where we taste truth, God is there.

2.  Listened to a remarkable sermon by Wesley Wachob two days ago.  Especially interested in his discussion of Karl Barth's comments regarding Buddhists during his only visit to the United States.  Deeply examining Christ as the way,  even in the midst of my stumbling.  Somewhat intimidated when it comes to diving into Barth.  And not even sure that I want to.  Do I reject dogmatics, or am I intimidated?  Or both?

3.  A friend's son took his life in the ravages of alcoholism recently.  Another good friend, elderly and blind, suffered a debilitating stroke.  I could not help but think about Job as I looked at his broken body and sensed his nearly broken spirit.  I have a hard time understanding how these things happen and what they mean.  Kushner's observation was helpful and I am reflecting upon it a great deal.  I am grateful for the many writers and teachers who walk with me through their writing and thinking.

Peace be with you on this day.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

grumpy traveler, prodigals, and survival

I woke up grumpy this morning.  I hadn't slept particularly well.  Somehow,  I'd mixed up my flight schedule last night and missed my plane.  I was fortunate enough to get a later flight, which meant a late night arrival, closed restaurants, and Lean Cuisine at the hotel and an HGTV home renovation show before bed.  I made my way to the hotel restaurant for breakfast this morning, where I admit I was not feeling particularly grateful.  Then a smiling boy walked up to me and introduced himself as I absently scooped eggs onto my plate.  He asked me what my name was and shook my hand and looked me in the eye.  We talked about his upcoming fourth birthday party and he told me that he'd invited a lot of people.  I was grateful that we met.  It sent me in a different direction than I might have otherwise been headed today.  Some thoughts on this warm Tampa morning.

I have been excitedly reading through Henri Nouwen's book on Rembrandt's painting, The Prodigal Son.  Many of the gospel parables offer enigmatic complexity, and the Prodigal is no exception.  Nouwen writes of his own changing roles as the varying characters in the painting over the years (wayward son, the judgmental Boy Scout brother, and even the father with hands of both masculine and feminine balance).  Nouwen also does a remarkable job of describing the ambiguous return of the prodigal, and his desire to return as a hired hand rather than asking to again assume the role of a full son, with all the obligations that come with it:

"The prodigal's return is full of ambiguities.  He is traveling in the right direction, but what confusion!  ... He knows that he is still the son, but tells himself that he has lost the dignity to be called "son," and he prepares himself to accept the status of a "hired man" so that he will at least survive.  There is repentance ... It is a self serving repentance that offers the possibility of survival."

I have been thinking about this is conjunction with my recent reading of pieces of Thomas Merton's last work before his death in 1968, Contemplative Prayer, and his observation that:

"...it is true that religion on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and to God, easily comes to serve as the "opium of the people."  And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with him.  When religion becomes a mere artificial fa├žade to justify a social or economic system - when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandist, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program - then religion does tend to become an opiate.  It deadens the spirit enough to permit the substitution of a superficial fiction and mythology for this truth of life."

There is this curious relationship between the prodigal's resignation to the return of the father in the interest of survival and a more deep repentance.  I give up not because you are the Father, but because I need physical provision.  A coming to the Father in resignation and humility (not necessarily organic humility).  Certainly, this is the power of many conversion experiences.  I'd dare say even my own.  And perhaps sanctification at that point is one which hopefully departs from the merely pragmatic return to the Father to one of releasing our inordinate attachments to this world.  Merton observes the phenomenon of survival on the wider scale, the danger of religion being shrewdly manipulated for the means of the politician or the businessman.  Can we be sons and daughters who seek not only a safe station assured by the return to the Father.  And can we avoid the sirens of socio-politically expedient faith.  Can we as Bonhoeffer asked, answer the call to come and die.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

sunshine, babies, and friends for the journey

The sun in shining here in Pensacola and I am grateful for that.  The weather lately has felt an awful like the overcast year I spent in Pennsylvania almost a decade and a half ago.  It is incredible how fast time flies.  Jessica and I got a run in this morning before we both ran off to tackle the day.  I have come to appreciate those incredibly small pieces of valuable time.  Three thoughts this morning, as has become customary.

1.  My best friend John called last night to announce a new addition to their family, a beautiful little girl.  Which was timely in light of some reading I have done this week on the declining population in Japan and the commoditization of anything relating to relational interaction.  The rejection of God and family in favor of narcissism.  An interesting juxtaposition.

2.  Lent has been personally meaningful this year, and I have made more progress in the area of recognizing my inordinate attachments than I've been able to muster in years past.  Fr. Robert Barron wrote this morning about the interesting stories of several athletes who have trashed their careers and reputations (often at their pinnacles) with steroid use.  Barron writes of our addiction to honor, recognition, and what amounts to the desire for immortality. 

3.  We have company in town this weekend.  Bob and Monika Brown will travel up from Sarasota to see us and watch the kids play soccer on Saturday.  I cannot imagine what life would be like without really great people to walk with. 

I'll leave you with the words from Cicero's essay "On Friendship," that chill me to the bone lately:

Esse quam videri
Be, not seem.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

insomnia, bagpipes, and big questions

Woke up at midnight and stumbled to the fridge for orange juice.  Reminded me of the time as an undergraduate when I did the same thing, only to look over and see my good friend Cliff standing at my window peering into my dorm room.  Opened the window to ask whether it was really the middle of the night and whether he was really standing there, as I do tend to have odd dreams from time to time.  He was looking for a plunger.  Sublime.  Life seems to happen that way.  Laid back in bed tonight and couldn't fall asleep.  So I decided to get up, set up camp in the dining room and do a little reading and writing.  If I am still wide awake at 4:00, I may go get my run knocked out.  Three thoughts on this very quiet evening, as has become customary:

1.  Jessica and the kids traveled with me to Tampa this week.  I had a half day mediation in a case that settled on Wednesday, and we got to eat a few meals together and generally enjoy ourselves.  Jessica and I celebrated our anniversary on Tuesday night and had dinner at the Columbia with Flamenco dancers in the background.  A lot of fun.  They took in a museum and we all lounged at the pool.  We took turns picking Pandora stations while we were in the car.  Bryton is into bagpipes of all things, so we cruised around with the windows rolled down listening to bagpipes and smiling as people looked at us like we were crazy.  The kids roared and I found myself giving thanks.  I lead a pretty charmed life.

2.  I read somewhere that Lent is a time to kindle our fire for God.  I like that description.  It seems better than a time of self-flagellation and bizarre dietary adventures.  I have elected for both abstention, as well as an affirmative obligation.  Both of which I am holding to.  I will work myself entirely through the Psalter before Easter.  Thankful for the awareness that there is still much work to be done. 

3.  A good friend and I are slowly working our way through Henri Nouwen's Spiritual Direction.  He asks light questions like, who am I?  Prompting me to think a great deal about identity and the measuring sticks that I use.  Nouwen is teaching me to embrace the big questions.  Investigate.  Wrestle with God and to speak with Him both reverently and openly.

Gratitude Share launched last week, George Brookhart did an amazing job putting the platform together.  I'll leave you with a piece from Spiritual Direction:

" ... [I]n the the words of Ranier Maria Rilke's advice to a young poet, 'what is going on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love.'

Frequently, we are restlessly looking for answers, going from door to door, from book to book, or from church to church, without having really listened carefully and attentively to the questions within."

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

tuesday post in five minutes or less ....

I have been slow on writing lately, so a quick break to jot something down.  Three thoughts on this bright, cool Tuesday afternoon, as has become customary:

1.  I am slowly working through Thomas Merton's Contemplative Prayer.  I cannot help but wonder to some degree if it reflects a tendency to complicate the very simple.  Perhaps my roots still cause me to bristle against too much formality (or form, for that matter) in the realm of prayer.  And it seems that there is some tension between this writing and Merton's personal observations that there is a seeming preference for the deeply personal, non-communal, and non-liturgical.  Or perhaps I have simply read this tension into his writing for my own reasons.

2.  I am mindful that peace comes as direct result of obedience.  Circumstances may change, but that a peace that surpasses all understanding, even in the midst of chaos, can accompany willingness to remain obedient.  I have been thinking a great deal about Mother Theresa's directive to Henri Nouwen, that all of his complicated bedevilments would be resolved if he would only spend an hour a day honoring God, and not intentionally do anything he knew to be wrong.  Simple.  Not easy, even for Nouwen, a "spiritually accomplished" Yale divinity professor.

3.  George Brookhart and I are working together to launch the platform for the "Gratitude Project."  The goal is to develop a forum for the public to post and read stories of gratitude.  I can hardly imagine a more appropriate way to remain mindful of the grace we are shown.

I'll leave you with a powerful reminder from Contemplative Prayer:

"We do not want to be beginners.  But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!"

Thursday, December 12, 2013

spiritual illusions, childlike foolishness, and snarky letters

It is a cool north Florida morning!  Not as cold as Massachusetts.  But colder than this Florida boy is used to.  Three thoughts on this bright Thursday morning as has become customary:

1.  Attended Lectionary lunch yesterday, where a great conversation was had on the awe that we encounter in Advent.  How it helps us develop the capacity to turn everything on its head.  I was reminded again how our perceptions can so often be dulled by this world and that we are frequently incorrect about the things that we are so sure of.  I am mindful of the fact that we often cannot see the things that are right in front of us.  Slate put out a great optical illusion this week (see below).  Look at the photo.  Which square is darker?  Block the white middle part with your finger.  Crazy, isn't it?  Makes me wonder how many things I am sure of because I can "see them" are wrong.  And the inverse, am I wrong about many things I cannot see?

2.  I heard a parent tell the story recently that her young daughter had announced she didn't believe in God because "He'd never done anything for her."  Amazing how we adults use the same arguments as children for things we are certain of, i.e., God has never done anything for us (See point 1).

3.  Reading through a small book on the Prayer of Jabez.  My prayer today is that my territory (circle of influence) would be an effective and fertile ground for God to work through me.  I ask for relief from my obsession with security and any lingering intimations in my prayers that in the end, that is the only thing I really seek.

Finally, I read last night a letter Karl Barth sent to Karl Rahner in 1968.  Talk about making one feel stupid.  I wasn't ever sure what Barth was saying (it was in English, so I have no good excuse).  Remarkable to watch great minds work from afar.  On occasion, that is enough for me.  I'll leave you with the aforementioned Prayer:

"Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!"  1 Chronicles 4 9-10

optical illusion

Monday, December 9, 2013

not all smoke and mirrors

Small excerpt from latest project.  Peace be with you on this day!

The scene in the sixth chapter of Isaiah is rich and powerful.  God is surrounded by smoke and angels and we can imagine the smell of incense and the sheer holy weight of the air.  “Holy, holy, holy,” as we come into the overwhelming presence of the Divine.  The Proverbs tell us over and over again that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.  And in that smoke filled temple, Isaiah recognizes the overwhelming awe of the Master who has called him, crying out, “Woe to me, I am ruined!”  He is a broken man amongst a broken people.  And I love the image of Isaiah standing there as God asks whom shall He send.  I see Isaiah looking around with a dopey furrowed brow and saying to himself, “yeah, who can He send?”  Then realizing suddenly that maybe, just maybe – he can be an instrument for this incredible, smoky, perplexing God.  He changes in that moment.  He becomes a theology of conversion, a faith that rises out of the ashes of his humanness and brokenness.  By the very nature of this Holiness and our conversion, at that very moment, we are called to repentance.  The cost of grace is none other than our thereafter unceasing conversion.  With an awareness of our unworthiness we come to see that only because of Christ’s legal intercession – we are worthy of The Call.  Here I am, consume, change, and send me.  Father, accept our small offerings of metanoia.[1]
The Spanish Jesuit, Baltasar Gracian, opens his pensees in the Art of Worldly Wisdom as follows:

Everything is at its peak of perfection.  This is especially true of the art of making one’s way in the world.  There is more required nowadays to make a single wise person than formerly to make the Seven Sages of ancient Greece, and more is needed nowadays to deal with a single person than was required with a whole people in former times.   

This is not the musing of a modern social critique.  Gracian wrote in the 1600s.  Four hundred years ago and again today the flood of information presents old challenges in the makings of the wise.  Perhaps humanity has spent too much time trying to get God to explain himself. However you slice it, there are plenty of cutting agnostic apologetics.  As Gracian and perhaps even the shrewdest of clerics might observe, there is some risk in the proliferation of knowledge.  It goes back to the garden.  And yet, we find ourselves today in a state which is at the peak of its perfection.  I submit to you that we have a better opportunity today to know God than has existed throughout mankind.  We needn’t fear questions of progress and relevance.  Our current condition need not be interpreted as the inevitable and irreversible rejection of faith.  I submit to you that we are sitting on a powder keg of Divinity.   

[1] The classical Greek Translation is “repentance” or “new mind.”

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

daughters, adventures, and college Presidents

Kids are fed and entertaining themselves for a few minutes.  I am not sure where the dogs are, which is not always a good thing.  Jessica meeting with friends this evening.  I get a few minutes to jot something down.  A few sublime moments which will serve as a safety valve to bleed some swirling thoughts from this soul.  We ship off for Massachusetts on Friday.  Is it insane that I am even looking forward to two days in the car to watch patient miles go by, read, nap, and maybe listen to podcasts?  It may be that my journeying romanticism will fade by mile (92).  Only the asphalt will tell.  Three thoughts on this grace filled Tuesday night, as has become customary.

1.  I am ill prepared to raise a teenage daughter.  God, help.  Enough said.

2.  When I got home this evening, I flopped onto our bed and looked through the "Adventure Book" my wife made for me a few years ago.  It is stuffed with silly emails, love letters, and pictures from the first years of our relationship.  We have put miles behind us.  My daughter asked me tonight, "Do you still have a crush on mom?"  I smiled and told the truth.  Then she asked questions about marriage and love.  Jessica and I laid in bed last night and read some poems, the opening pages of Seven Storey Mountain (among my favorite writing out there) and ate a snack in the kitchen before bed.  It was a simple piece of time, but very memorable in its extraordinary ordinariness.  I've striven for better awareness as to where I end and others begin and maybe in getting to that place I am actually learning how to love someone.  And I suspect God being in His role rather than that Divine role being imposed on those close to me helps. 

3.  Heard a remarkable talk by Gen. Charles Krulak last week (past Commandant of the United States Marine Corps), who now serves as President of Birmingham-Southern College.  He gave a similar talk at the Naval Academy several years ago which is out on Youtube.  Listening to guys like Krulak  can get me feeling inadequate.  But his talk inspired me to think about the importance of sacrificing for others, the centrality of integrity, and the need to maintain "courage under fire" in both combat and daily life.

Tom Merton introduced me to Rainer Maria Rilke last night.  I'll leave you with Day in Autumn, as we enter these cooling days and the death and birth of seasons:

After the summer's yield, Lord, it is time
to let your shadow lengthen on the sundials
and in the pastures let the rough winds fly.

As for the final fruits, coax them to roundness.
Direct on them two days of warmer light
to hale them golden toward their term, and harry
the last few drops of sweetness through the wine.

Whoever's homeless now, will build no shelter;
who lives alone will live indefinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,
and, along with the city's avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.