Monday, September 13, 2010

Words I Do and Do Not Like

Inspired by my friend and fellow Elephant Journal contributor Joslyn Hamilton, here are some of my most, and least, favorite words. (You should read Joslyn’s blog; she’s younger and hipper and funnier than I am.)

Words I Like

Sanguine  Cheerfully optimistic.  I am not sanguine about the Democrats’ chances in the mid-term elections. Jane Austen uses this word a lot.

Cacao  [kuh-kah-oh]  It’s just fun to say.  Say it out loud:  “Seventy percent cacao.”  You’ll feel better.

Sanctimonious  This is what people usually mean when they say “pious.”  Not only is it more suited for the purpose–”pious” can simply mean “devout”–it also sounds a lot worse.

Imposed upon  This is another Jane Austen favorite, a happy alternative to “deceived” that has the advantage of laying the blame squarely on the deceiver. You have been most grievously imposed upon.

Niggardly  I am this word’s pity-friend. It doesn’t have anything to do with race, though the ill-educated and excessively PC persist in thinking it does. It means stingy.

Cataract  So much more satisfying than “waterfall.” Behold the awesome power of the cataract!

Piquant  I use this as a euphemism for bitchy or rude.  (Understatement makes you sound unflappable.) I pronounce it in English, with the accent on the first syllable. 

Candid  Less threatening than “frank” or “blunt.”  May I be candid with you?

Fraught  Past tense of the verb “freight”–same as “freighted,” but oh, so much more satisfying. The gesture seemed fraught with meaning.

Bounder  Meaning an ill-bred, unscrupulous man, this word is archaic and British enough that I have never yet had occasion to use it.  But I’m always on the lookout for an opportunity.  Josiah Bounderby, the “man perfectly devoid of sentiment” from Dickens’ Hard Times, is a good example.

Snarky  Sounding a lot like what it means, this word is like Doritos for your vocabulary–self-indulgent, but  tasty.

Schadenfreude Pleasure taken in the misfortunes of others. Every time President Bush screwed up, the liberal blogosphere lit up with Schadenfreude.

Obviate  Often used incorrectly to mean “make obvious,” this word actually means to prevent a problem or remove the need for something.  When you use correctly a word that other people use incorrectly, it makes you feel smart.

Egregious  One of my all-time favorite words.

Foofaraw  I love this word.  Whenever I use it, I feel like I have a big walrus mustache and a pocketwatch. Which I like, for some reason.

Imbroglio  A complicated, tangled, and usually embarrassing situation.  My life is too dull to warrant its use as often as I’d like.

Debacle It just sounds like one; even if you didn’t know what it meant, you would.

Quotidian  Meaning “everyday,” this word isn’t.

Monumental  Conveys hugeness as few other words do.  The Deepwater Horizon disaster was a monumental cock-up for BP.

Gravitas  Having the unusual property of lending the very quality it stands for to any sentence in which it is used, this word enables you to say “seriousness” without sounding like you’re in grade school.  

Words I Don’t Like

Policy  Inoffensive in itself, this word has been used so often to obviate the need for independent thought or initiative that I cannot bear to hear or use it.  I wish I could help you, but that’s just not our policy.

Flexible  There is not anything actually wrong with this word, either–it has simply been tainted by employers who use it to mean “roll over and play dead.”  When people want you to take on more work without an increase in pay, or work without a contract, they tell you to “be flexible.”  I now use “limber” or “supple” in its place.

Proactive  I don’t know why; I just hate it.

As of yet  You never, ever have to say this.  You can always just say “yet.”

At this time  Why not just say “now”? (See “As of yet” above.)

Presently (used to mean “at present”) People say this to mean “now”.  We are presently at work on the problem.  This is wrong, wrong, wrong.  It means “soon.”  Miss Dashwood will be down presently. What people usually mean when they say this is “at present”—but of course, why even say that?  (See “At this time” above.)

Itch (as a transitive verb)  If you have an itch, you scratch it; you do not “itch” it.  Hearing that makes my skin crawl. 

Epic (as an adjective) You know.

Fail (as a noun)  See “Epic” above.

Meme  I don’t really hate this word–it just reminds me of Beaker from the Muppet Show.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Creeping Death and the Hidden Life

If you've read my post Christmas 2009, you are already familiar with this passage from Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:
There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood…about the trees still unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached. There was a saying that if you waited until then, you wouldn’t have to buy a tree; that “they’d chuck ‘em at you.” This was literally true. 
…The kids gathered where there were unsold trees. The man threw each tree in turn, starting with the biggest. Kids volunteered to stand up against the throwing. If a boy didn’t fall down under the impact, the tree was his. If he fell, he forfeited his chance at winning a tree… 
On the Christmas Eve when Francie was ten and Neely nine, mama consented to let them go down and have their first try for a tree. Francie had picked out her tree earlier in the day…(and) to her joy it was still there at midnight. It was the biggest tree in the neighborhood and its price was so high that no one…could afford to buy it… 
The man took this tree out first…”Anybody…wanna take a chanct on it?” 
Francie stepped forward. “Me, Mister.”… 
“Aw g’wan. You’re too little,” the tree man objected. 
“Me and my brother—we’re not too little together.” 
She pulled Neely forward. The man looked at them—a thin girl of ten with starveling hollows in her cheeks but with the chin still baby-round… 
“These here kids is got nerve. Stand back, the rest of yous. These kids is goin’ to have a show at this tree.”…The man flexed his great arms to throw the great tree. He noticed how tiny the children looked…(and)…went through a kind of Gethsemane. 
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ‘em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ‘em go. What’s the tree to me? I can’t sell it no more this year and it won’t keep till next year…But then…if I did that…next year nobody a-tall would buy a tree off of me. They’d all wait to get ‘em handed to ‘em on a silver plate. I ain’t a big enough man to give this tree away for nothin’…I gotta think of myself and my own kids…Them two kids is gotta live is this world. They got to get used to it. They got to learn to give and take punishment. And by Jesus, it ain’t give but take, take, take all the time in this God-damned world.” As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, “It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!”
The writer of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, who is identified as "The Teacher," had a surprisingly similar take on life:  
Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.
How did an educated member of the elite ruling class of third or fourth century B.C. Israel, and a semi-literate Christmas tree salesman from turn-of-the-last-century Brooklyn reach such similar conclusions about life? What could they have possibly had in common that gave them such compatible worldviews?  While at first glance, the existential despair of the Teacher and the kitchen-table anxiety of the tree salesman seem worlds apart, I submit that the former’s Angst and the latter’s tight-fistedness have a common root. I think that each, in his own way, lacked the courage that makes generosity possible. I think it is courage, born of faith, and not an abundance of resources, that makes a person “big enough” to help when need arises.

The tree salesman wasn’t a “big enough man” to give away a tree to two underfed children. His fears of privation and lack were immediate and concrete.  But judging by how worked up the writer of Ecclesiastes was about leaving his wealth to his own children, it doesn’t seem like he was overflowing with liberality either, though he was certainly “big enough” to be open-handed.  Evidently, being a “have”--as opposed to a “have-not”—is not enough to stimulate generosity.  (Any restaurant server will tell you that the wealthy are the worst tippers.) 

While the tree salesman was unmanned by the struggle to provide for his family, the Teacher quailed in the face of his own inability to make himself feel fulfilled.  Both had tried to wrest happiness and security from life, failed, and withdrawn to avoid further pain.

So what stimulates the development of courage? I had an insight into that, I think, on a recent visit to my Dad. My father moved, several years ago, into the same planned community near Syracuse that my brother and his family live in.  Though he has made numerous social overtures to his neighbors, they have never reciprocated.  He told me during my latest visit that he has no connection to any of his neighbors—that he doesn’t, in fact, consider himself to have “neighbors” at all, but simply “people who live nearby.”

In the neighborhood I grew up in, my Dad’s liberality was generally known—the way he would tip, or stand people drinks, or mow every lawn, snowblow every driveway and fix every kid’s bicycle in the neighborhood.  Having grown up on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia during the Depression, my Dad learned early the importance of good neighbors.

“Out in the country,” he explained, “people needed their neighbors; you had to have good neighbors to survive.” In his current setting, everybody thinks themselves self-sufficient enough not to need neighbors.

It must have taken courage for my great-grandparents to build that house in the holler in which my Dad grew up, setting up in that rugged country knowing they would eventually depend on their neighbors for survival.  It must have taken courage to come to the aid of neighbors in need when one’s own resources were always precarious. Each time you primed the pump of neighborliness, it must have been an act of faith.  Having grown up making those acts, my father grew into a generous person.

Let me clarify the word “faith” as I’m using it.  My Dad never went to church with us when I was a kid.  Taken by one of his aunts to a Pentecostal mountain snake-handling church, he was sufficiently traumatized that he put off baptism until he was fifty-five.  So, by “faith,” I don’t mean intellectual assent to a list of creedal propositions, or even a regular discipline of devotion; I mean a basic belief that all, as Julian of Norwich famously put it, will be well, and the corollary belief that we can afford to be generous—that we cannot, in fact, afford not to be.  At very least, it is the belief that our duty is clear whether we can make sense of life or not.  God, C.S Lewis said, wants us to be concerned with what we do; the Devil wants us to be concerned with what will happen to us.  This is the understanding of faith the Teacher does not seem to have developed.

When we are young and callow, we can be very generous; I used to pick up hitch-hikers, take in strays (actors, mostly,) and lend freely of what little I had, and my friends did the same for me.  When I lived largely on Ramen noodles, I was the kind of person who would bicycle thirty miles to attend a friend’s graduation party, then crash on the friend’s floor.  Now, in comfortable middle age, I’m more likely to say something like, “This is not the Stilton I like.”  So I cannot pretend that I don’t understand the impulse to tear down the barn and build a bigger one. I have thought a lot in my middle age about Garrison Keillor’s challenge “to be the person you set out when you were nineteen, instead of the dull, greedy old weasel, snarfing all the food on the plate who you turned into instead.”

Of course, the young do not generally believe that horrors are in store for them, and what middle age calls “prudence” is mostly beyond their imagining, so generosity may come more easily to the young.  But at the same time, it is not for nothing that Lewis called middle-aged prudence “the creeping death.”  It is what makes us store up treasures for ourselves and forget God; it can cause us, as we become more worldly, more established—and have more to lose—to become more fearful and less generous.  And even if the mature are more apt to name God than the young are, we often seem less apt than they to trust that all manner of thing will be well.  What we once did without, we come to regard as essential.  Tracy Chapman described this state in her song, “Mountains O’ Things”:
It's gonna take all my mountains o' things
To surround me
Keep all my enemies away
Keep my sadness and loneliness at bay…
I won't die lonely
I'll have it all prearranged
A grave that's deep and wide enough
For me and all my mountains o' things
Jesus also taught what the end was for those who believe we can barricade ourselves against life by amassing wealth: 
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.
The Teacher saw through the delusion of purchase-able happiness and security. Something obviously made him lose his nerve with respect to life being worthwhile, but he did see very clearly what the value was of the kind of earthly success the farmer in Jesus’ parable tried to achieve:
I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives…I built houses for myself and planted vineyards… I…owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces…I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure...Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind…
The Teacher learned that we cannot insulate ourselves from the vicissitudes and apparent meaninglessness of life by an abundance of earthly success.  But he does not seem to have translated that insight into an affirmative and faithful way forward.

So how do we, in a way that is faithful to the Gospel, move forward with the courage that begets generosity? I think Paul shows the way: 
…[I]f you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When I was younger, I used to interpret all that “things that are above” stuff as world-denying nonsense from an apocalyptically deluded evangelist who believed the world was coming to a speedy end. As I have grown older, I’ve come to realize the wisdom of knowing that our lives are hidden with Christ in God.

Martin Luther used to begin each day by making the Sign of the Cross and saying aloud, “I am a baptized Christian.”  What if we were to remind ourselves every day that our lives are hidden with Christ in God?  What if we were to repeat it morning and evening, meditate on it, post it on our walls, and season our successes and failures alike with the remembrance of it?  What if we recalled it with each rejection letter we read, and in the midst of every pleasure that we know will not last? When my daughters no longer want to hold my hand and sit in my lap, will I mourn that loss less, and enjoy more the gifts that the future brings, if I remind myself now that my life is hidden with Christ in God?  And when any tax is made on my generosity, will I find it easier if I really believe that all will be well, and that giving of myself will not diminish me?  Would the tree man have given Francie and Neely the tree, and would the Teacher have found a better use for all his wealth? And when my life is demanded of me, will I be able to smile, knowing where and with Whom it is already hidden?

Fear makes us stingy, grasping and deluded; despair—even if undeluded--leaves us with an ungenerous view of life. It is faithful courage that makes us able to live bravely and generously.  Maybe that’s why Jesus’ single most frequent recorded utterance is “Do not be afraid.”

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Home Version of Our Game

Looking at reviews on Amazon of a book I was considering buying, I came across this gem:

I keep waiting for the day when someone writes a version of Buddhism for the working mom. I think that person should herself be a mother with at least one ADHD child. She should be clinically depressed and have a couch potato for a husband. If she manages to help the child grow into someone with a good marriage and a real profession, I'll buy all of her books. Unfortunately what we keep getting are philosophies created by self-satisfied, introverted, childless, hermits like (Xxxxx.) There is nothing wrong with an introverted, childless, hermit being self-satisfied. What is wrong is suggesting that his way of being represents THE path to enlightenment for everyone.

I see the reviewer’s point: many writers on spiritual topics do seem to be either members of religious communities or unattached people who can order their days more as they wish than we in the married-with-children crowd can.

As I sit on my porch writing this, I can hear my five- and seven-year-old daughters playing inside the house. While they were in school, I was able to meditate twice a day. Now, while they are home for the summer, I read the Office of Morning Prayer and, if I’m lucky, doze off during meditation before bedtime. And vexingly enough, when I have the flexibility to do what I need to in order to present my best self to the world, I only see my children a few hours a day; when I scarcely have time for practice at all, I have them with me hour after hour. They are, I think, not the better for it.
—Hang on…
OK, here’s what I’m talking about: I just had to go change the bedclothes after one of my girls got so involved in an audiobook that she put off going to the bathroom until she wet herself—and because I am not yet the Worst Dad in the World, I did not say, “You did WHAT? How freaking old are you, child?”  But I thought it. I’m pretty sure that never happened to Thomas Merton.

But here’s my point: while hermits and free spirits may have it easier than householders in some ways, I think there is an Absolute Value of Practice in everybody’s life, and that practice can be neither created nor destroyed. The big difference is this: what we all do—householders, hermits and the unattached—on the black mat is mere scrimmage; the game is what happens everywhere else. The difference between “them” and “us” is that we don’t get as much dedicated scrimmage time, and so must do more of our practice “in game.”
—Shit, hang on…
OK—and I am not making this up—my wife is being admitted to the hospital because an injury she received last week (an upholstery nail clean through her thumb) has become infected, and the infection has become systemic, so they’re going to put her on IV antibiotics and possibly operate, so I’ll be taking the children to grandma’s house by myself tonight, I guess.
Ima finish this later.


I’m told that Tibetan Buddhist monks meditate in the charnel pits; I’ve read that Swamis meditate in the cremation grounds.  My life isn’t set up for me to do either of those things right now.  I have to settle for taking Communion to elderly people in nursing homes—which is great practice, too, when I am paying attention, and has the added benefit of giving comfort and a sense of connectedness to a living person while I contemplate mortality and the dissolution of form.

I drove my children to Hershey, where we had planned a weekend with my wife’s family, then drove back to Philadelphia to be near the patient.

There was a certain amount of medical drama the relation of which would compromise my quality of life at home, but though she would have been dead by now had this happened in our grandparents’ time, she is just fine now. As I watched her sleeping on the hospital bed, her bandaged hand suspended from the IV pole, her drawn face pale above the tangle of thin blankets and her gown askew on shoulders that looked frail in the weird hospital half-light, I reached into my pocket for my rosary. Then I changed my mind. I sat down and, for a long time, simply looked mindfully at my wife and the mother of my children, breathed in and out and let go of all thoughts. I cannot describe the experience in words, but I can say that I was present, that the frailty and freakish blessedness of human life was contemplated, and that practice happened.

Of course, every life has drama and exigency; it isn’t the press of events that makes a householders’ life challenging, but the press of non-events, the minutiae of day-to-day life.  Here’s a recent update from one of my Facebook friends:

_______is totally overwhelmed by all the little details of her life: buy stuff for Xxxx’s camps, reschedule orthodonist, find few last props for (the play,) clean house and look for new car. I need a personal manager.

This is what Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th-century Bengali saint whom many consider an Incarnation of God, meant when he praised the householder who also managed to be a bhakta, or devotee:

A devotee who can call upon God while living a householder's life is a hero indeed. God thinks, 'He who has renounced the world for My sake will surely pray to Me…But he is blessed indeed who prays to Me in the midst of his worldly duties…Such a man is a real hero."[i]

The real challenge for us sheet-changers/dog-poop-scoopers/grocery-shoppers/pediatrician-appointment-makers is to find the practice in the game that sometimes leaves us little time or energy for scrimmage. 

Swami Vivekananda told of a young hermit who, after several years of ascetic spiritual exercises in the forest, one day felt a shower of twigs fall on his head as he meditated under a tree. Looking up, he saw a crane and a crow fighting in the tree, and as he inwardly cursed them for disturbing him, fire shot forth from his head and consumed the birds. Elated at his new power, he went as usual into the village to beg his food. At the first house he approached, a woman’s voice within bade him wait.  “How dare she make me wait?” the hermit thought. “She does not yet know my power.”

Again he heard the woman’s voice from within: “Boy, do not be thinking too highly of yourself; here is neither crane nor crow!”

When the woman finally received him, the chastened hermit asked how she had known his thoughts.

"My boy, I do not know your Yoga or your practices. I am a common everyday woman. I made you wait because my husband is ill, and I was nursing him. All my life I have struggled to do my duty. When I was unmarried, I did my duty to my parents; now that I am married, I do my duty to my husband; that is all the Yoga I practice. But by doing my duty I have become illumined; thus I could read your thoughts and know what you had done in the forest.[ii]

I cannot yet say that I match this woman’s zeal—but it’s surely a worthy goal.  I’m going to bed.  I will not be meditating tonight.

[i] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, abridged edition.  RamakrishnaiVivekananda Center, 1988.
[ii] Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1982.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Teresa's Way

We may take a whole hour over saying (the “Our Father”) once, if we can realize that we are with Him, and what it is we are asking Him, and how willing He is, like any father, to grant it to us, and how He loves to be with us, and comfort us.  –St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection
I decided to try the Lord’s Prayer in Teresa’s way, taking an hour to pray it once.  Because typing takes longer than praying, I gave myself eighty minutes.  I then went back and edited it just enough to be understandable—no sense publishing something that only makes any sense to me and God.  I have omitted my usual endnote citations, so there are a number of Scripture and Prayerbook references that will have to stand on their own.  Also, this is considerably more raw than my more polished entries—not enough to get the an Adult Content warning on the blog as a whole, but something to be aware of.  I didn’t think it would be honest to gussy it up.  I have used the contemporary language version from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which is the version I pray in the context of the Daily Office.

Our Father

I am so angry with Clare!  She and Sophie were each trying to tell me a story, and they remembered one key detail differently, and Clare’s version was probably right, it made more sense, but she was absolutely determined to shout Sophie down, and I told her over and over to let Sophie tell the story her way, and then Clare could tell it in hers, but she just defied me and would not stop interrupting Sophie, just insisting on shouting her down; why can’t Clare let someone disagree, why does she do that?  I remember when I was about 10, my cousin and I had been fishing in the morning and found a little back-eddy where we caught 14 fish within a half hour or so, boom, boom, boom one right after another, and you know how on summer days when you’re a kid and every moment is so full, and by the time the evening comes, the morning can seem like the day before?  And my cousin was absolutely convinced that we had been fishing the day before, but he was wrong, I know he was wrong, but my big fat coarse redneck uncle said he was right and he didn’t want to hear any more about it, and good God, thirty-five years later I still get angry thinking about that, what the hell is the matter with me?  And I swore I would never ever do that, that everybody gets to talk and everybody gets to say it their way and nobody has the right to stifle anybody, but of course if I had defied my parents like that, I’d have gotten hit, which I will also never do, so I piped down like I was told to, but God it burns me to this day, but I wasn’t telling Clare not to talk, just to let Sophie finish, why couldn’t she understand that, why wouldn’t she stop, why did she defy me like that, and why does it make me so angry, and what should I have done besides get mad and shout her down in turn, and why is it so important to her to be right, she’s only six?  What have I done to deserve someone so much like myself, and how can I keep her from becoming as fucked up as I have become?  My parents were always nagging me, nagging me, and I was a good kid—there were always so many bad things that other kids were doing and I wasn’t and I never seemed to get credit for that, only nagging for the ways in which I somehow failed to measure up; dear God, please please please don’t let me do that to my children!  I was bitching about how Clare keeps grabbing food off the counter while I am cooking, and Allison said, “Don’t worry, she’ll grow up and leave home pretty soon;” God, I don’t appreciate her enough, either.

My college roommate lost his three-year-old son to cancer, remember?  (Of course You do, that’s stupid.)  My God--the last time I thought about that was before my own children were born; now, it’s beyond my capacity to imagine, she can steal all the grated cheese she wants to;  my baby is already gone, someone stole her and replaced her with a kid, and when she was three she still yelled “Daddy!” and ran into my arms when I picked her up at daycare, and good God, if that little Daddy-adoring toddler had died, I think I’d have died with her, I’d have died for her, I’d have torn down the universe to keep it from happening, and now there’s this willowy six-year-old who pisses me off so much sometimes, where did the baby I used to make laugh in the bathtub by dribbling warm water onto her belly go?  Dear God, do you love me like that?  Half so much? 

in heaven,

What does this mean?  If the Kingdom of Heaven is within me, am I praying to Our Father Within Me?  What is Heaven?  If we are born again, are we there?  Wait, there is in here.  Or do we really “go to heaven” after we die?  Go inside ourselves? This whole “heavenly” thing is such a red herring; Aristotle said that we do not praise men for being happy, yet it seems like we are called upon to admire your heavenliness, and if there is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven, and no place where earth’s failings are such kindly judgment given, what does that mean about eternal bliss, how can You be blissful and feel our pain, too?  You said you dwell in the high and lofty place and inhabit eternity, but are also with the contrite and  humble of heart; why don’t we pray Our Father Who is With the Humble of Heart?  I read somewhere that most of this prayer was cobbled together from bits and pieces of the Temple liturgy, that Jesus was telling His disciples, “Look, you’re over-thinking this prayer thing; here, just say this;” or maybe if I pray to Our Father Within Me, maybe it would be too much like Wonder Twin Powers, Activate! or Green Lantern twisting his ring, or something.

hallowed be your Name,

Wow, wow, wow, do our girls’ friends, and their friends’ parents say “Oh, my God!” a lot!  I remember once when Clare was very small, three or so, she was in her car seat and I was driving and she said, “Oh, my God” apropos of nothing in her kid-pushing-the-envelope voice, and I ignored her, and she did it again, and I pretended not to hear, and finally she said, “Daddy, I say oh my God!” and I said something noncommittal, like, “hmm, so you did,” and that was that for a while, but now she says it whenever there are other kids around, and I catch her eye and shake my head, or murmer “not so much,” and she stops until the next time;  she wants so badly to fit in, she is so awfully self-conscious, and doesn’t want to stand out;  she begged me not to take my Anglican rosary to Meeting at school any more, because she didn’t want her friends asking her “what is that?’, and I pointed our that half her friends are Roman Catholic and surely know what prayer beads are already, but to no avail.  But why do people abuse Your name like that?  They profess unbelief, or some kind of wifty “spiritual-not-religious” malarkey, yet toss the mention of You around so promiscuously, and I know the commandment means not to use Your name in a curse, “may-God-strike-you-dead” fashion, but still, people want to have it both ways—they want You gone, or trivialized to the point where you could be hosting The View, or something, yet invoke you whenever they want to express strong, or even middling strong emotion.

your kingdom come,

This I can picture, though I struggle with my tendency to imagine that it means that all the people who piss me off will just stop it, already; but I can imagine what it means for the unmanifested kingdom within to become manifested, for everyone to realize You and seek and serve You in all persons, loving their neighbors as themselves, though I remember what Evelyn Underhill (whose feast day is today, by the way, I don’t know whether You pay attention to that sort of thing or not) said about how there is no use in our praying “thy kingdom come” every day if we are not prepared to do anything about it ourselves--got to love those no-nonsense stiff-upper-lip Greatest Generation Brits—and I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing;  I don’t think it means FedEx us your kingdom packed in bubble wrap, but at the same time, what does this petition imply?  The Lubovicher Hasidim believe that Messiah is ready to come now, and that while we believe we are waiting for Him, He is in fact waiting for us, but can we really possibly do that on our own, get our act together enough to deserve Your coming?  I cannot believe in the Immaculate Conception of Mary—that Mary was conceived without original sin—because if You would only be born to a sinless woman, is that really a human birth?  Can we ever get our house in order enough?

your will be done, on earth as in heaven.

This one, too, is relatively easy to imagine, though also difficult to divorce from my own agenda, like what Screwtape said about other people’s “sins” meaning any of their actions which are annoying or inconvenient to ourselves.  But I can see a world where the rich do not pick up the grapes or grain that fall to the ground, but leave them for the poor to glean, or some post-agrarian equivalent—if only all those people on the Gulf Coast could glean all that oil, I think it’s a crime for BP to be selling what they reclaim, they ought to give it away.  I can imagine a world without Lady Gaga in a latex nun’s habit fellating a rosary, a world in which every baby is wanted from the moment of conception, a world in which no one emails Jim Wallace saying “I never realized that I could be a Christian and also care about the poor,” because they are taught that from the very beginning.  I remember when Clare and Sophie were playing in that gazebo in the rose garden at Hershey Gardens, pretending it was their castle and the garden its grounds, and Clare said, “I’m going to give some gold to the beggars at the gate,” God, I love that kid, we must be doing something right!  (I love Sophie, too, of course, though her response was “I’m off to meet my boyfriend!”, oh God, I am so screwed.)  Maybe that’s where the Heaven thing comes in—when we all do Your will on the manifested plane as we all have it within us to do in unmanifested form, that will be on-earth-as-it-is-in-Heaven, Heaven being where You are, heaven-within-us now, but then us-within-heaven later, for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face, right?

Give us today our daily bread

The hardest thing in the world for me—OK, one of the many hardest things in the world for me—is to trust, to consider the lilies.  Oh me of little faith.  What was it that Marianne Williamson said—“if a train doesn’t stop at your station, it’s not your train!”  But what do I do?  Chase down trains, flag them, force them to stop and take me on, then wonder why I don’t enjoy the ride, why I don’t get where I want to go.  I just have to go out and get, do, make;  I have no faith at all that anything good will happen unless I am breathing down the neck of life.  And yet, every single thing that has come to me that I wanted came when I was looking the other way, when I wasn’t chasing after it at all.  When I met Allison, I was on the point of giving up on that kind of love and looking into becoming a monk.  Maybe this is why everybody in every tradition emphasizes renunciation—because only by giving up everything can we be “as those owning nothing, yet possessing everything.”  And I don’t really understand the idea of Providence; why should You give me my daily bread while others starve?  What does it mean that I have some weight to lose while others don’t have enough to eat?  “Lord, forgive us that we feast while others starve.”  I suppose it probably doesn’t “mean” anything except that we who have are not sharing with those who have not—because we have no faith, we think we have to grab all we can and hold on, and if those people are starving it’s because of their bad choices; we make good choices, let God give them today their daily bread.  That You might do that by our hands doesn’t seem to occur to us. 

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

I think I can do this;  I think I can finally do this. 

Everybody is so scared, Lord;  we hurt and reject and devour each other because we are so afraid.  When I used to go to academic conferences, I should have realized that I wasn’t meant for that world, because I was detached enough to look around and see how scared people are—everybody wants to seem smart, competent, good enough.  We praise the emperor’s clothes so much that after a while, we really see them.  Forgive us.  How can I cherish hatred against people who are so afraid?  Thank You, thank You for allowing me to see this.  My Dad said to me that he’s about given up on things ever getting back to normal, but I think that things have always been a mess; maybe it’s the apparatus through which we experience the world that falls apart as we get older; maybe it becomes harder to believe that we know what’s right and we have the right to judge.  Please, God—don’t let things get back to normal; I don’t want to be again that person who used to be so right while so many others were wrong.   So many of the Psalms pray for a firm ground under our feet, for the Rock that is higher than I; does that prayer recur so often because You in Your mercy withhold that firm footing from which we, standing secure, are able to believe we have “arrived”?  I’d rather be in transit my whole life than believe that.  Never let me believe again that You created the things in others that hurt me;  I know now that those things are those peoples’ defences which they have erected out of fear.  Hecubah was right, wailing beneath the ruined walls of Troy:  “Here lies a little child, slaughtered by the Greeks because they were afraid.”  Forgive them; forgive me; forgive us all.

Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.

Sri Ramakrishna said that if we pour milk into water, it cannot be retrieved, while butter will float in water without being lost in it; he said that if our minds are like milk, they will be lost in the world like milk in water, whereas if they are like butter, they can float over the world without being merged in it.  When I read that, I finally, this late in the day, began to understand why we bother to continue asking You to deliver us from evil, because You plainly don’t, at least in the way we expect.  Churn us, Lord, until we are rich enough to weather the world with integrity, until we can remain uncontaminated by it without being aloof from it, until we can be in it but not of it.  You got down in the mud and breathed life into us; Jesus was born and lived an earthly life, tempted in every way as we are yet without sin.  I know that we cannot escape evil, trial, temptation, testing; I no longer believe that You “deliver” us from those things by placing us in some kind of spiritual Smurf Village, with Gargamel prowling outside seeking whom he may devour.  If we are not in the world, we cannot reach out the hand of love to those who are.  Deliver us from forgetting who and Whose we are; let us walk through the evil of the world like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Troubling Grace

Religious people want there to be meaning in everything.  Randomness is hard on us:  that things happen for no reason sometimes brings us closer than we want to be to the possibility that we’re not central to much of anything, and most of us are still too wedded to our ancient anthropocentrism to give that up.  –Barbara Crafton, Jesus Wept:  When Faith and Depression Meet[i]

Some time around the second grade I was traumatized by an educational movie about Beethoven.  I remember sitting in the music classroom at my elementary school, hearing the cinematic re-creation of the humming in the composer’s ears as his deafness advanced, and his anguished voice asking God why He would give the gift of music to one destined not to hear it.  Believing that his gifts as a composer meant something, and that his hearing loss was equally fraught with meaning, the irreconcilability of meanings tortured him, perhaps even more than the deafness itself.

His unanswerable question nourished in me a terror that would plague me into middle age:  the terror of the possibility that things don’t have any meaning.  The notion that neither Beethoven’s ability nor his disability meant a cotton-pickin’ thing is so deeply unsettling as to render it well-nigh inadmissible, yet the opposing position—that either or both did have meaning--raises the specter of Divine indifference, negligence or downright cruelty.

Though I am experiencing more presbyaudia than I like, I do not appear to be in immediate danger of going deaf--but I did struggle for years with vocation and meaning in my career.  The facts of the matter are these:  1) I can write worthwhile music, and 2) I cannot get it performed.  Because I believed there was meaning in Fact #1—that I was “called” to be a composer—I spent years in fruitless agony over Fact #2:  why would God bestow the gift of music on someone who was destined to go unheard?  Yet both are just facts, and the question of what they mean is a non-starter because they don’t mean a blessed thing.  So it is up to me, the facts being what they are, to decide what to do with the bundle of desires and predilections I blithely call “myself”; trying to derive meaning from the meaningless and wanting things to be other than they are just eats up your life. 

So when I see people in danger of inflicting the same injuries on themselves as I did, I want to stop them, warn them off their self-destructive course.  Earlier this year, I read this Facebook status update posted by a friend and former student who is a talented writer and sci-fi/fantasy ├╝bergeek:

(Xxxx Xxxxx) got rejected by ( for a position writing about Star Wars. WRITING. About STAR WARS. If I can't get that job, I really don't think I have much chance in this world...

Oh no, I thought; she thinks it means something that she didn’t get the job.  And her friends’ comments, trying to make sense of the slight--explain it away--aren’t helping.  Not wanting to see this smart, talented, creative young woman become bogged down in bootless speculation about meaning, I decided it was time to put in my own unsolicited oar.  I wasn’t about to tell her that hard work and talent are inevitably rewarded and she must surely succeed some day, that everything happens for a reason, that America is the Land of Opportunity and God Has a Plan For Your Life, because that’s all bullshit.  The truth, as I see it, is actually far simpler than all that.

Don't look too hard for meaning; there is a lot less of it than we think, and the search for it burdens us. Sometimes things just suck.

Her response followed quickly.

It's rather amazing how that comment was depressing and encouraging at the same time...

Except that it isn’t amazing, really.  “Joy and woe,” as Blake knew, “are woven fine, / A clothing for the soul divine.” The older you get, the more you realize that both are always present.  They are inextricable warp and weft; we put them on like garments and they take our shape for a while, then they fall away. They, too, do not mean anything. 

Which is not to say they have nothing to teach us; woe in particular has a hefty teaching docket, as Aeschylus affirmed:
He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget

Falls drop by drop upon the heart,

And in our own despite, against our will,

Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

Loathe as I am to retard anyone’s learning by sparing them instructive suffering, I recount here a few of my own drops of meaning-related pain, in more or less chronological order, for whatever vicarious teaching value they may have.

Churchy People

At my high school, like most high schools, the graduating seniors wrote “senior wills” in which they “bequeathed” various items to the classmates they were leaving behind.  Evidently there was some kind of minor scandal during my junior year, in which some student or group made hurtful bequests resulting in tears and outraged phone calls.  As a result, members of the faculty made so many black-marker redactions in the issue of the school paper in which my class’s senior wills appeared that it looked like it had been wrested from the Defense Department using the Freedom of Information Act.  The teachers simply blacked out anything they didn’t understand (including, for instance, all references to LAX, a common abbreviation for “lacrosse.”) 

That is how many churchy people read the world:  like a suspect document whose author is trying to put something over on them.  For people who profess to worship Jesus Christ as both fully divine and fully human, a lot of churchfolk are intensely uncomfortable with ambiguity and paradox. If a painting, poem, story or piece of music leaves them at all mystified, out it goes. Perhaps Archibald MacLeish had them in mind when he wrote that “a poem should not mean, / But be,” because churchy people want to know what everything “means.”  By the time they’re done, the world is a mass of redactions.

What, then, becomes of the Sacred Mysteries of the Christian faith—the Holy Trinity, the divine nature of Jesus, the Sacraments—those bafflingly beautiful and beautifully baffling signs that are the hallmarks of the Gospel way of life?  They are treated like the kid who owns the kickball:  we have to let him play if we’re ever going to get on with it, but we don’t generally invite him to the picnic afterward. A mystery, said Cambridge musician-theologian Jeremy Begbie, is not “a problem to be solved, but a reality to be enjoyed.”  Yet for many churchy people, to “take something on faith” means to profess belief in it while steadfastly avoiding thinking about it. 

No doubt, the spiritual stinginess of some churchy people is motivated by a genuine concern for doctrinal purity and the safeguarding of souls.  Much of it is doubtless the result of low intellectual wattage masquerading as zeal for orthodoxy.  Most of it is probably a combination of the two.  While still a teenager I found myself arguing with an elderly Baptist lady who asserted that, because I had not undergone full-immersion baptism, I had not really been baptized at all, but “sprinkled.”  As the argument approached the point where her position must soon become untenable, she ended the conversation by saying, “I think you read too much.”  Her heart may have been in the right place in some twisted way, but that encounter set back my Christian formation by years.

Where is the wise man?” asked Paul in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth. “Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”[ii]  And the answer of course is yes, God has.  But Paul, himself a learned man steeped in the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew scriptures, would have either told me why my baptism was not valid, or admitted that it was.  Human beings in the pre-modern world, Screwtape told his nephew Wormwood in C. S. Lewis’s novel, “still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it.  They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning.”  Perhaps this is why so many churchy people are uncomfortable with reason, even as they demand meaning:  their real object of worship—their accustomed way of life—is the last thing they want to risk altering.

I had a churchy private music theory student who came to my home for lessons for a short time--a very short time, as it turned out.  Catching sight of my tabla on the first day, she asked me what they were, and when I told her they were North Indian hand drums and that I played them, she went all strange on me.  Eventually she asked, in a weird, squirrelly, not-making-eye-contact sort of way, if I were “interested in Indian philosophy as well.”  Not having yet studied Yoga or Vedanta philosophy, I replied that, while-I- found-the-Indian-cyclical-conception-of-time-to-be-a-useful-counterweight-to-our-Western-linear-model-of-time-which-we-assume-to-be-Biblical-but-is-I-believe-largely-cultural, on the whole, no, I’m a Christian.  That evidently wasn’t reassuring enough, because I never saw her again.  The fact that I played those foreign drums must, in her mind, mean something, and it couldn’t be anything wholesome.

There’s a scene in the movie Peter and Paul in which we briefly see Paul (brilliantly played by Anthony Hopkins) laughing and dancing to frame drums and aulos with the Greeks in Corinth—caught in the act of being “all things to all people.”[iii]  I love that scene, but am under no delusion about the willingness of most churchy people to do anything of the kind.  Professional missionaries do, of course, but not the people in the pews, for the most part.  (Hell, I couldn’t even get the Episcopalians at my church to risk English Country Dancing at our parish Twelfth Night party.)  What would it mean if we did that stuff?

OK—I’m not going to labor the point by detailing all my petty encounters with Gospel-tinted bullheadedness.  (The train wreck of my two years in the pre-ordination process merits a whole post to itself, if not a whole book, if not to be consigned to merciful oblivion.)  Anyone who’s ever run athwart churchy peoples’ determination to insulate themselves from the unfamiliar knows exactly what I mean here. I’m sure that when God said “Behold, I do a new thing” to the ancient Hebrews, many of them said, “But we’ve never done it that way before!”

Measured and Found Wanting

As an undergrad I showed an art-song I had composed to one of the faculty members.  A setting of a comic poem by Rudyard Kipling, it had a light touch but, I thought, a reasonably sophisticated approach.  And a catchy tune.  “Well,” he said after I’d played and sung it for him, “Stephen Sondheim has written less intellectual things than that.” 

He dismissed my piece by comparing it favorably to Stephen Sondheim.

Some years later in graduate school, my composition teacher’s hard-nosed wife summed up a choral piece of mine with a grudging, “Well, I’d rather listen to that than John Rutter.”  Thanks; that means a lot.  Maybe you’d prefer it to a gingivectomy as well?

I came of age during the last gasp of the twelve-tone era; my instructors were at pains to dismiss the music of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass as so much wifty ephemera.  Looking back, I think of them as the Classical Music is Very Serious Business Generation.  And for a long time, I bought in to the fiction that it was very important that all my music be as intellectually rigorous as possible—that music is only worthwhile if most people do not understand it.  I still vividly remember the visceral intensity of my relief in the world-changing moment when I realized that God was not going to judge me on the gravitas of every note I write--that writing simple music was not the moral equivalent of pissing in the well. “Some of us tend to think that what we do and say and decide and write are cosmically important things,” wrote Anne Lamott. “But they’re not.”[iv]  My music doesn’t mean anything!  Praise God!

But Saint Peter is not the most stringent gatekeeper out there.  I once showed some choral scores to a Very Important Choir Director in an Episcopal parish (my own at the time.)  Glancing at them, he nodded and said, “I’ll bet people ooh’d and aah’d over these when they were premiered.”  Well, yes, actually, they did, I rejoined.  Nodding again, he said—and I am not making this up—“Fortunately, I’m in a position not to have to care about that sort of thing.”

Some weeks later the choir performed a piece by a well-known contemporary composer that exhibited many of the same musical characteristics the director had objected to in my work.  When I pointed this out, he replied that the composer in question was entitled to a performance because he is famous, and it wasn’t his job to make me famous, too.  Looking back, I wonder what on earth kept me beating my head against the wall for as long as I did. 

If only I had known at the time that the rejection didn’t mean anything at all about me.  It meant plenty about him, and the fact that the music programs of the Episcopal Church are chock-full of people like him means plenty, too.  And all it meant about my work was that, while good, it wasn’t transcendently fantastic enough to overcome the fact that I hadn’t gone to the right schools and cultivated the right people.  But about me it meant nothing at all.  Because I didn’t realize that, I made myself and a lot of people around me miserable for years.

During graduate school, I applied for a composer residency with three houses of worship.  After all the participating consortia had reviewed my materials, one of them called me in for an interview, which went very well. So I was disappointed, though not shocked, when I was not chosen for the residency; after all, there were other qualified applicants.  In the interest of turning a rejection into a learning opportunity, I contacted the staff member at the composers’ forum that administered the program to ask where I had gone wrong.  The staffer startled me by babbling incoherently about “demographics” and “variables” is a highly stressed-out way.  Having learned nothing of value to apply to my next application, I then contacted one of the participating choir directors.  Though less panicky, she too hemmed and hawed in obvious discomfort.  “It wasn’t you,” she said cryptically, finally admitting that I had been passed over because the chosen composer was a woman.  From what I could gather, this was her third attempt at one of these residencies, and the forum wanted to avoid the appearance of gender discrimination.  “Now that you know that, what are you going to do?” she asked.

I suppose I ought to have done everything—hired a lawyer and made them make it up to me—or nothing.  In the best case scenario, the first option would have resulted in my being handed a thrown-together project whose point people had been pressured into it and which was destined to painful failure.  The second would have spared me and everyone else the cataract of painful drops that attended the vitriolic grousing I actually did, the relation of which would fill up a large and breathtakingly boring memoir.

But here’s the point:  about the forum, the incident meant only that they cared more about social engineering than about music, which everybody knew anyway; about my work, it meant once again that it was good enough to be desirable, but not to sweep all other considerations aside.  Had I only known that it didn’t mean anything at all about me, I could have avoided bringing scalding pain on myself and others.  But I didn’t.  To me, the fact of my talent meant that I had a calling and a right to fulfill it, and that they were thwarting me and it was an outrage.  Exhausting, isn’t it?  I could have walked away and been much happier.

And yet, like some femme fatale, the musical world in which I was trained knew just how long it could hold out on me before trailing some tantalizing hint across my path to keep me hooked.  The Vice-President of a prestigious publishing house once told me, “Your stuff is better than ninety per cent of what comes across my desk, but I can’t use it.”  What does a creative person do with that?  Give up and allow music you know is good, that you poured yourself into, lie unheard?  Or stay hooked, and keep trying, and trying, and trying forever?  When do we show the devil-we-know the door?

(Of course, I realize that the truth is far worse than this:  the academic music world wasn’t stringing me along—in fact, it doesn’t even know I exist.  My own brain has projected the stringing-along fantasy in self-defense, finding cruelty more endurable than indifference.)


I have a friend who grew up in the church—who majored in church music, in fact—and turned her back on it when her three-year-old niece died.  What could I say to her?  In the years since she told me about it, I have said nothing.  I don’t how to make what I want to say—that whatever meaning there is in her niece’s death resides, not in the event itself, but in the responses to it of the people who loved her—leap the synapse that exists between one who has suffered such a thing and one who has not. Perhaps it ought not to be leapt. I also don’t know what she was taught to believe about such things; if anyone were to tell me to accept that my child’s death was part of a divine plan, I might well walk away, too.

We want to find meaning in things.  When Sri Ramakrishna was dying of throat cancer, his devotees tried to make sense of his illness, some by believing that he had willed it on himself to bring his devotees together, some believing that the Divine Mother had caused it for reasons of her own. 
But the young rationalists, led by Narendra [later known to the world as Swami Vivekananda] refused to ascribe a supernatural cause to a natural phenomenon.  They believed that the Master’s body, a material thing, was subject, like all other material things, to physical laws.[v]
I love Vivekananda’s steady clear-sightedness.  It takes courage to stop looking for meaning in events and take on instead the task of bestowing meaning by the way we live in the face of them.  His stern pursuance of reason, and impatience with what he called “superstition” and “beings above the clouds” make a bracing tonic for anyone caught in the God Has a Plan for Your Life trap.
We have desires, and we call them promptings; abilities, and we call them vocations; we parse them, and call it discernment. We make choices, and navigate our way through their consequences. Things happen to us, and they do not have meaning in themselves--we endow them with meaning by our responses to them.  In a Catholic church in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the celebrant announced that a beloved former priest of the parish, who was dying of cancer, was “offering up” his suffering for that community.  Never having heard of such a thing outside of Irish literature, I was stunned when I realized what it really meant:  by voluntarily joining his suffering with Jesus’, the priest was refusing to be a victim of his circumstances, turning instead a thing that had happened to him into a freely-offered instrument of redemption.  Love, as Evelyn Underhill put it, makes all the difference between an execution and a martyrdom. 

The Devil trembles when human beings know “that horrors may be in store for (them,) and are praying for the virtues wherewith to meet them.”[vi]  Things may happen to us--even fatal things—but spiritual death is not visited upon us; we bring it upon ourselves.
Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”[vii]
Phillip, the semi-autobiographical protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage, met a dissipated and largely unpublished poet in Paris named Cronshaw, who gave Phillip a remnant of a Persian carpet.  The carpet, Cronshaw told him, held in it the answer to the meaning of life.  Phillip kept the remnant for many years, through titanic struggles, repeated failures and almost relentless suffering as he tried to find what the world called “success” in life.  One day, long after the carpet fragment had been lost, Phillip realized, with the abruptness of revelation, the truth that had eluded him for so many years:  life does not have any meaning.
His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing…(T)hat was why Cronshaw, he imagined, had given him the Persian rug. As the weaver elaborated his pattern for no end but the pleasure of his aesthetic sense, so might a man live his life…Out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, his thoughts, he might make a design, regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful…In the vast warp of life (a river arising from no spring and flowing endlessly to no sea), with the background to his fancies that there was no meaning and that nothing was important, a man might get a personal satisfaction in selecting the various strands that worked out the pattern. There was one pattern, the most obvious, perfect, and beautiful, in which a man was born, grew to manhood, married, produced children, toiled for his bread, and died; but there were others, intricate and wonderful, in which happiness did not enter and in which success was not attempted; and in them might be discovered a more troubling grace…His life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength as he realised that it might be measured by something else. Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them, as all the other details of his life came in, to the elaboration of the design.[viii]
Whatever meaning, whatever beauty there is in life resides in our living of it, and not in the events of life themselves. Sloppy biblical interpretation often involves eisegesis, the “reading in” of meaning to the text.  I have spent most of my days doing a similar thing:  reading meaning into life.  But meaning is not in life any more than a pattern is in the threads; we must weave our carpets for ourselves.

[i] Crafton, Barbara, Jesus Wept:  When Faith and Depression Meet. Jossey-Bass, 2009.
[ii] 1 Corinthians 1:20
[iii]1 Corinthians 9:22
[iv] LaMott, Anne.  Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor, 1995. (115)
[v] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna:  Abridged Edition.  Translated by Swami Nikhilananda.  Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1988. (68)
[vi] Lewis, C. S.  The Screwtape Letters
[vii] Luke 13: 4-5
[viii] Maugham, Somerset, Of Human Bondage.